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Dear World
Planes, Trains and Automobiles

March 19, 2002
By Patricia Heartland

Dear World,

Well, it's almost spring here, and I'm really looking forward to it. I imagine many of you in the Northern Hemisphere are, too. We sure don't get much news about the seasonal change for people in the Southern Hemisphere (I suppose the fourteen-and-a-half column inches allocated for "foreign news" in most papers is already taken up with other stories,) but I hope you have a good fall and not too much drought or rain. Do any of you get pretty colors, the way we do here? We never hear about stuff like that.

The big news in our family is the colossal fight between my daughter and my son-in-law about the new car they're planning to buy. She wants an SUV, and he wants an ordinary mini-van or even a station wagon, which I'm not sure they even make any more. He claims the kids will be safer than in an SUV, and I think he's right. But I try to stay out of their "discussions." I don't like those SUVs, anyway, they're as bad as trucks to share the road with. Cut off your view of the next lane, or what's ahead of you, or whatever. And the gas they use! I just don't understand why people think they're cool.

I probably shouldn't bring up automobiles, should I? The thing is, they're so central to just about every aspect of American life and culture. You can't imagine, I'm sure. You see, back when I was very young, we still had lots of public transportation systems. You could get on a streetcar and go practically anywhere in the city. And you could get to almost any town on the train. You didn't really need a car unless you lived way out in the country, or unless you were a traveling sales person who needed to carry a lot of samples, or a doctor who had to make house calls or something like that.

But we just fell in love with cars. And we took the money and the resources that we used to spend on keeping up the trolley lines and the railroads and the subways, and we put it into interstate highways. And we changed the way we built everything. Used to be, you could walk to a market in your neighborhood just about anywhere you lived. Now we have these big sprawly suburbs where the stores are all in huge, parking lot-surrounded "strip malls," miles from most peoples' homes. And the streetcars and trolleys are gone, and the buses don't go most places, and rail travel is almost dead. We're in a pickle!

I guess why I'm explaining all this is to give you some background in why we drag our heels so much about dealing with all the pollution and environmental degradation that go with all those cars. Besides being completely dependent on them for practically every aspect of our economy, we've got nearly a hundred years of popular culture equating cars with sexiness, with personal power, with freedom, and other absurdities. It gets to you, after a while.

It's not that we don't know we have to change. I think most of us (well, a slim majority still, but certainly a majority) of us realize that change will have to happen, whether we like it or not. But there're still a lot of us fighting it. And since we didn't really come to terms with it until pretty recently, we don't exactly have a lot of practical alternatives figured out. It's going to take years, maybe generations, to work out a way to replace our complete economic dependence on the internal combustion engine. And our dependence on your oil.

I'm kind of abashed, really, to think of us self-reliant Yanks being so dependent on someone else for the juice that keeps our country going. I think a lot of us are. Maybe that's why so many of us persist in believing that if we only rip up enough of our own territory, we'll find some vast, inexhaustible supply of oil. Or at least enough to keep us from having to change our dependence on the internal combustion engine for another generation or two.

Okay, I know it's silly, but remember, a lot of us believe in UFOs, astral planes, and vortexes too. I can't explain it, I was brought up Presbyterian. If someone wants to believe that visiting a "vortex" in Arizona is going to make them happier or healthier, it's okay by me. Who knows, they may be right. But that's another letter, again.

What was I writing about? Oh, cars and oil, right. Trying to give you some idea of just how tough it is for the ordinary American to think about changing. But there are a lot of us who are working on the issue. Please be patient with us, World. I'm telling my government every chance I get that I'm willing to make some personal and economic sacrifices to create a new, more environmentally-friendly transportation infrastructure. It's just that General Motors talks a lot louder than I do. I don't know how to deal with that, but I'll keep trying to do what I can.

So far this letter has been all about me, but you all have been very busy too. I was so thrilled to hear that Saudi Arabia is nudging the peace process along over there. Please, you guys, at least listen, and think about it, please. It's gotta be better than killing each other off until there's nothing left but rubble and bunkers, huh? It hurts to watch you, it really does.

That's it for now. With spring coming, I should probably get out the rake and try to get some of the dead stuff out of the yard. If I can find the rake, that is, since somebody still hasn't gotten around to cleaning out the garage yet.

Your friend,
Patricia Hartland
American Citizen

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