by Mary Hrovat
Visualize a purple dog, the exercise said. Imagine it in great detail; picture it approaching you in a friendly way. So I did. I thought of a spaniel: long silky ears, beautiful coat, all a nice lilac color. Pale purple whiskers. The dog was friendly but not effusive. I’m not a dog person, but I wouldn’t have minded meeting this dog. All right, now what? The exercise went on to say something along the lines of “Wonderful! If you can visualize that purple dog, can’t you imagine your own life as being full of amazing possibilities?”
At the risk of sounding curmudgeonly, no, I can’t. In fact, I was somewhat offended at the mild condescension of the exercise and the implicit suggestion that imagining a better life is helpful in and of itself. In my experience, it’s not that simple.
As I thought about why this well-meaning exercise bothered me so much, I realized that picturing the purple dog hadn’t actually been that difficult. I pictured a dog with a soft coat that I suspect could easily be dyed purple. (I wouldn’t advise anyone to dye their dog purple, but I can see how it could be done.) It would have been a bit harder to imagine a purple dog with a short oily coat, but I could see it happening by some kind of genetic engineering.
In any case, the main difference between the purple dog and an ordinary dog was cosmetic. Visualizing myself and my life differently, by contrast, often feels more like trying to imagine a dog, with a dog’s chest and throat and mouth and brain, meowing instead of barking. It’s much easier to imagine a purple dog than to imagine that my depression will vanish, after recurring for 40 years, or that I’ll find work in my city that pays enough to live on but also offers interesting mental challenges. Positive change does happen, even within constraints like mine, or worse. But how?
I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone really knows. Perhaps the best descriptions of how personal change happens are metaphorical and poetic. Rilke wrote of the future entering you slowly so that by the time it manifests itself in an outward change, it has become part of you. I think it enters through a multitude of small observations, thoughts, and experiences, some of which don’t seem that important at the time.
I also like organic imagery: seeds putting out roots in some subterranean part of my self, unseen and dimly guessed at, if perceived at all. The future can come in dreams and wishes and hopes, but for me these things need to grow in a part of me that believes they might be not just possible, but possible for me. There’s an emotional element as well as a rational element. If I want to visualize something to help me believe in a particular future, I need to make up or find my own symbols—images or words that seem believable.
Despite what the self-help books say, changing your life is not rule-driven or easily explained or taught. (I think that’s why there are so many self-help books that cover the same ground, just like there are so many cures for snoring and lower back pain.) It can be hard to plan for changes because you don’t know how your attitudes or feelings will shift with your new behavior or circumstances. Some writers say that each book teaches them how to write it, but it doesn’t teach them much about how to write the next one. Each time they’re making a road that they will use only once. I think change is like that too. You find the road as you go, guided by the results of each step.
If personal change is a bit mysterious, large-scale change can be even more opaque. It’s hard to picture a world where everyone can be sure of having food and shelter and medical care, or a world in which we respond to the climate crisis before it gets any worse than it already is. So much is invested in the status quo; so many powerful people are acting (or refraining from action) to maintain it. We can’t know for sure what can or should be done. Even in the absence of powerful people acting in bad faith, it would be difficult to coordinate the delicate process of change on the societal level. How can we do it, in our current circumstances?
Again, I don’t know, and I’m not sure anyone can say for sure, beyond stating very broad principles. I suspect that change can grow in societies as it can in individuals, by countless tiny impressions and experiences that almost imperceptibly nudge the world in a different direction. It helps when people are willing to demand better of elected officials and corporations, advocating for all of us and suggesting what’s possible.
Historian Richard White defended his consideration of counterfactuals in Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America by pointing out that history without counterfactuals doesn’t reflect the reality of a time period. He wrote that “the past once contained larger possibilities,” and the present was not inevitable. That’s a good thing to remember.
Here I’m going to focus on something that’s close to my heart and intertwined with both climate change and quality of life/social equity. It’s hard for me to imagine my city as safe for pedestrians, cyclists, and people on scooters. This past month has been particularly difficult; one young man was killed by a drunk driver while he was riding a scooter on the sidewalk; another person, walking on the sidewalk, was able to scramble out of the way in time. In addition, someone was severely injured in a multi-vehicle collision; he wasn’t even on the road but was pinned under a dump truck that crashed into his workplace.
In the last few years, five pedestrians have been killed by drivers on Bloomington streets. An employee of the hospital was killed in a parking lot. During bike month a few years ago, a cyclist was killed while he was on his way home from work. Two people were injured crossing a busy street at a badly designed intersection near my house. For every fatality or injury, I know there were countless close calls.
I used to think that we could sufficiently improve our transportation system by measures like incentivizing the use of fuel-efficient vehicles, making small adjustments to transportation infrastructure to protect pedestrians and cyclists, and enforcing speed limits. When I bought my last car in 2004, I might have chosen a hybrid, if I could have afforded it.
I still think those things are useful, especially infrastructure changes, but fuel efficiency and hybrid or electric cars increasingly seem like purple dogs to me. (So does the annual city-sponsored bike month.) Any type of enforcement, from speeding tickets to license revocation, appears to be a lost cause, and anyway what we need is fewer cars in cities, period. Car-centric urban design contributes to global warming and pollution; it negatively affects personal safety, public health, and social equity. It’s an abysmal use of urban space. We’ll be safer, healthier, and happier when we scrap our car dependence.
I feel increasingly comfortable saying that instead of talking about small ameliorative changes to the existing system. It’s good to see other cities taking brave steps into a future not dominated by cars. For example, under the leadership of Mayor Anne Hidalgo, Paris has made great progress in expanding its bicycle routes and limiting the presence of cars in parts of the city, with ambitious goals for the future. Another example is Ljubljana, which has eliminated cars in its city center. There’s been resistance to the changes in both Paris and Ljubljana, which is no surprise to anyone who’s been in a city council meeting on transportation plans that are even modestly forward-looking. But now that the changes are in place, they’re popular.
To reduce the amount of driving in Bloomington, public transport must be much more convenient, and people must feel safe and comfortable getting around by bike and on foot. More importantly, they’ll need to be able to imagine themselves not needing a car. Clearly these things won’t happen quickly. But maybe we can get there by incremental change—meaningful changes directed toward the goal of reducing the need to drive.
Bloomington has a long way to go, but it recently opened its first physically protected bike lane on a major street. When the bike lane was installed, the traffic pattern was altered so that there are no longer four-way stops at intersections with smaller streets. Even as a pedestrian, I find the street less stressful to use. In addition, this change is clearly not a purple dog, for example, a charging station for electric vehicles, or a ParkSmart-certified parking garage. (ParkSmart is similar to LEED certification; Bloomington recently built two parking garages designed to meet that standard.) The protected bike lane is geared toward reducing car dependence. I hope it will also make it a little easier for people to envision a city where they can walk or cycle safely.
I’m very cautiously hopeful that other streets will be improved along similar lines, slowly taking space away from cars and returning it to people on foot, on bikes, and on scooters. I have no idea how it will go. We may as well try.
Curbing Traffic: The Human Case for Fewer Cars in Our Lives, by Melissa Bruntlett and Chris Bruntlett
Confessions of a Recovering Engineer: Transportation for a Strong Town, by Charles L. Marohn Jr.
Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, by Peter D. Norton
You can see more of my work at MaryHrovat.com.