Why nothing works.
Part 1: Let’s save the park!
An outbreak of community activism has turned into a crash seminar in why absolutely nothing gets done in America any more.
I’ve become involved with a group trying to keep a large, “unactivated” chunk of San Francisco’s McLaren Park from being strip-mined into a disc golf course. I have doubts as to how successful the group will be – read on to see why – but the cause is just and true: McLaren Park is an oasis of wildness in a densely urban environment, the last bit of city land untouched by developers, planners, and others who consider unbulldozed real estate “wasted”.
Disc golf, for those not in the know (and I sure wasn’t), is one of those fake sports made up by bored post-pubescent males. Expensive frisbees, edges honed and hardened like an axehead, are thrown from coffin-sized chunks of concrete called “tees” at chain-link baskets on five foot poles called “holes”. Put 18 tees and holes together and you have a “course” consuming dozens of acres. Add beer and bongs to the discs whizzing by at 50 mph and you can clear a park of trees, picnickers, birds, meadows, hikers and dogs in no time. The city allowed a course in Golden Gate Park a few years ago. Today the area looks like an active Marine Corps training ground.
Park aficionados are very upset with this plan and not just for the obvious reasons. The decision to install the course was taken by the Grand Poo-Bahs of S.F.’s Recreation and Parks Department (affectionately known as “Wreck-Park”) without notifying anybody who actually uses the park – a big no-no here on the Left Coast, especially in this city.
No one knows exactly how a 35 acre disc golf course was slated for the last bit of undeveloped – uh, “unactivated” – land in San Francisco. Rumor has it that somebody in the local disc golf fraternity is BFF with a Wreck-Park Poo-bah. Another says it’s a ploy to get the existing disc golf course out of the Jewel in the Crown, Golden Gate Park, with a bait-and-switch. And a third theorizes it’s a plot to privatize all the city’s parks so bureaucrats don’t have to pay for gardeners, gardeners taking money away from planning and paper-pushing. Likely all these rumors contain a sneeze of truth. A good conspiracy theorist keeps an open mind.
Whatever the how, so great was the outrage in the McLaren ‘hood when plans for the course were discovered that people actually started talking to their neighbors, something not done in America since the 1950s. Before long phone numbers and eMail addresses were exchanged, petitions circulated, and Lo! a dozen warriors came forward and formed a committee to defend the park’s honor from rapacious bureaucrats and hurling frat boys.
I’ve come to love McLaren Park. There’s a wild feel to it; McLaren isn’t groomed to Disney standards like Golden Gate Park is. When I can’t get out of the city because of my various ailments I go there, squint my eyes and pretend I’m in the Sierra foothills. Drive the main road, Mansell, at night and you actually need headlights to see, something utterly unnecessary anywhere else in the city. And, a dear friend is one of the group’s first warriors. So I got involved.
Most of us in the group are nature lovers, bird watchers, dog walkers, fans of open spaces, people anxious to get some space between ourselves and city congestion. In other words, more or less normal, reasonable people.
The other four, to the unending misery of the reasonable eight, belong to a mutant human subspecies you might call homo sapiens activus ego-gargantus.
You likely have one of these mutants in your neighborhood, maybe even in your family. They go to meetings. They sit on boards. They are connected. And you are not. You can’t have a conversation with a gargantus, only attend a monologue about the people they know (and you don’t), the causes they are crucial to (and you’re not), and the many truths and rays of light they bring to the world (as if!). They are supremely skilled at inflating their own importance while underscoring how useless your own life is. Even when you agree with them on some issue, Homo sapiens activus ego-gargantuses are serious pains in the ass.
Shortly after forming the group, we twelve achieved the single act of unity we have managed in four months: we linked arms, chanted Kumbaya and jumped as one onto a speedboat to Hell.
The nature lovers get along fine. We discuss something, decide to do it, agree to disagree when necessary, do what we agreed to do, and help each other. We smile when we see each other and pat shoulders when we part.
Ego-gargantuses on the other hand display a visceral hyperesthesia to points of view not their own – especially the POVs of other gargantuses. Combine this trait with their need to clump together so they can speak their secret code and their compulsion to one-up each other, and the mutants are in constant conflict. Think of Cro-magnons with spiral notebooks and iPhones.
What do the four gargantuses Actually do? Well, they process; they love to process. And they plot. And they argue, argue, argue. For example they’ll argue over which aide to which official should be allowed to hear their opinions, which phrases should be used on the aide, and whether the aide should be contacted by eMail, fax, a letter or a phone call. When that’s settled they re-argue the original argument about whether contact should be made at all even though that was supposedly worked out in biblical-length threads of eMail debate.
Their favorite argument is about how to process. Lifetimes have been lost listening to their preaching and screeching about the virtue of consensus, the evils of hierarchy, appropriate gender speaking orders, voting thresholds and non-judgmental rules of order. As you no doubt will guess, these arguments about how to process never get within missile range of any kind of conclusion.
Gargantuses have an interesting way of ending meetings. As a the evening drags on and they tire of having their brilliance imputed, gargantuses start calling each other vile names. “Fuck you” may have lost its power to sting in our world but call someone a “blood-sucking parasite” and you can still twist the knife. Voices get louder and invective gets meaner until eventually one or two of them storm out in a belching smog of curses, shattering the meeting into bloody, though welcome, shards.
If anybody protests this behavior – which is as predictable as the Groundhog Day movie – the mutants execute a rare closing of ranks. We non-activists are reminded of our naivety – ego-gargantuses love telling others how naive they are – and are scolded for “not understanding how things work.” Occasionally the scolding is so demeaning and goes on for so long one of the reasonables walks out, though to us this is seen as a shame, not a triumph.
We were definitely naive about one thing. Gargantuses are really good at grabbing power. Power is more important to them than food or sex. They are so subtle at taking things over it took us a while to see what they were doing. If just one of them was so hell-bent on being king or queen, then fine; we could probably live with it. Unfortunately yet again, their genetic “me – me – me!” view of reality prevents them from seeing the obvious.
So certain is each ego-garantus that she or he is the guiding light of the group, the process, the tactics, and of course us worker-bees, it is unnecessary in their mind to even discuss the issue. So they are shocked, just shocked! when they find out the three other mutants have come to the exact same conclusion about their place in the pecking order.
And so our speedboat ran ashore on Hell’s banks and we have accomplished almost nothing since.
Meet the gang of four: Kissinger! Medea! Spartacus! and Rasputin!