I find myself in these situations frequently.
I am appalled and yet strangely fascinated. We are riding in a late model Bell Jetranger helicopter, surveying one of the future wonders of the industrialized world. I hear my client talking over the headphones, explaining how his company is going to transform the 7500 acres of raw Texas prairie we are flying over into a vast complex of factories, distribution centers, research labs, homes, schools and shopping malls, all served by an international airport with a 13,000 foot runway, a 500 acre intermodal rail hub and more ten-lane highways than I can count.
The scope of the project that is being described to me is staggering. It's enough to make the alt.pave.the.earth folks salivate. The skeleton for this brave new world is already in place. An intricate network of roads and rail lines crisscross what was once some of the finest ranch land in Texas. The runway for the airport is already over 9,000 feet long. And the rail traffic on the tracks 100 feet below make the entire complex seem like the world's most elaborate Lionel train set. At this altitude it is all quite beautiful. Everything is so precise that I'm starting to believe the pitch that I'm hearing over my headphones. We fly over ranches with herds of cattle that look exactly like those plastic farm set animals you used to play with as a kid. I see children emerging from bright yellow school busses, returning to pristine "Leave It To Beaver" neighborhoods. Everyone seems to have two cars in the driveway and a pool in the backyard.
I listen to my host explain how when the development is finished, even the warehouse workers in the huge distribution centers we are currently flying over will be able to have one of these nice house with a pool out back. That everyone will have access to good schools and be able to shop till their heart's content at a humongous mall, complete with it's own theme park. This fascinating little world apparently will have no crime, no traffic jams, no bad neighborhoods and no unemployment. At this altitude it almost seems plausible.
I'm beginning to understand how the world works. Grand plans are always made from 100 feet up. At this altitude, problems simply vanish. To the governments and industrialists who do their planning from a distance, the world is not a place filled with muggings and people living in trash dumpsters; it is a place that can be re-arranged as easily as putting an electric train set around the Christmas tree. At ground level, "infrastructure" is just another word in the dictionary. At 100 feet it is a chance to play god. I look down at the beautifully precise world I am flying over and realize that these are neighborhoods not unlike my own.
From 100 feet in the air, my own neighborhood, with its small lake and network of bike trails, would look perfect too. I'm wondering what the real story is down below, as the helicopter continues to travel from one planned community to another. An aerial tour of my neighborhood would miss the many incongruous details that can only be discovered after years of walking your dog down the same streets day after day. The planners would never know about my neighbor who only takes her trash out once a year. They would never know about the quiet shoe salesman down the street who keeps a perfectly restored Rolls Royce Silver Shadow hidden away in his garage. They would never know about the older woman a few blocks away who kept her beloved German Shepard in her freezer for seven years after it died. At ground level, life has a gritty quality that the planners never see. They would never understand the drama that unfolded when two gay guys bought the house next to mine and slowly won over the initially outraged Rush Limbaugh set down the street simply by keeping their lawn looking nicer than mine.
Life is full of incongruities that simply can't be planned for. I realize now that the people who have always infuriated me with their desire to "fix things" have simply chosen a vantage point where they are no longer bothered by the details. People who council others on relationships while failing at their own are riding in helicopters. People who get cabinet level government positions while their personal finances are in disarray are riding in helicopters. Religious leaders and politicians are always riding in helicopters.
I must admit that this way of looking at the world has a certain seductive quality. Pick the right altitude and life's rough edges simply disappear. From 100 feet in the air, Dallas actually becomes livable again. My old neighborhood in Aspen looks affordable again. From just the right altitude, I imagine I could even look down over Seattle and see someone smiling at me from a small island in the Puget Sound.