Do We Understand Proximity? Not Even Close!

Smart people sometimes create their own confusion. We use metaphors to better understand the world, but then sometimes the metaphor overshadows the literal. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about proximity, prompted in part by Barbara Mossberg’s lovely letter to the editor last month.

If you missed it, Mossberg’s brief letter rhapsodized poetically about the sound of a train whistle. It marks the passing of time, the industry of others, the ability to get things done. Without naming names, she argued that a railroad “quiet zone” through downtown Eugene might sound good to many, but something would be lost.

If only the train whistle could be far away for everyone and nearby for no one.

My office for four years was a block from the train tracks. When a train rumbled through, you could feel it. If the horn was blaring, you couldn’t hear yourself think, much less think about what you were hearing.

Somewhere between that office and Mossberg’s home, there’s a dotted line. It’s different for every person, but it’s a line nevertheless. On one side of the line, the sound is pleasing. On the other side, it’s a nuisance.

I’m not choosing sides on the quiet zone issue and I don’t believe Mossberg meant to either. I’m pointing out only that the issue has two sides, that the sides are quite dissimilar, and that distance sometimes changes something into something else.

Not very long ago, we gave special stature to those who were immediately and directly impacted by an issue. A tall building could be stopped if a neighbor’s garden would get less sun. A corner bar could lose its license if too many residents nearby complained. A street would get widened only if affected property owners agreed to the improvement.

We gave that healthy dynamic a name: Not In My Back Yard. Once it became an acronym — NIMBY — it began to take on a life of its own. Here’s where the literal got overwhelmed by the metaphor.

When NIMBY expressed the views of those who had a “BY” connected to the issue, it was self-limiting. There are only a certain number of “back yards” connected to a train whistle or a corner bar or a tall building. We gave those affected a larger voice because we acknowledged their lesser number.

The train whistle is far away for many, but the teeth-rattling din is a stronger sensation for the few. That’s an important distinction and part of a healthy debate.

But now NIMBY has become a world view. Everything — and everyone — is connected, so that special stature can be claimed by anyone who connects a certain set of dots. Watershed purity, a pleasing skyline, taxpayer-funded addiction treatment, emergency vehicle response times — once everyone can claim that special status, the status ceases being special.

Retired architecture professor Dan Herbert told me once, “NIMBY has been replaced with BANANA — Build Almost Nothing Anywhere Near Anyone.” Like the train whistle, we want everything close, but not too close. It’s not hard to understand that’s not possible for everyone all the time, which is why compromises must be made.

Living together is complicated, so it’s important not to get confused. Because sometimes it’s not the garden squash that might die.

Lane County is confronting a possible measles epidemic, due in part by parents who have refused to vaccinate themselves or their children. It’s not hard to find like-minded parents on the Internet, sharing concerns and conspiracies that make a parent feel strongly about their choice. We “feel close” to those in the chat room who agree with us, but the measles virus doesn’t understand or abide by the metaphor.

Taking that infected child to the mall endangers infants who are too young to be vaccinated or to join Internet chat rooms. No harm comes to anyone when a Facebook video “goes viral.” Not so when a literal virus comes in literal contact with someone who is literally close.

We love to talk about all the ways our world is shrinking. Let’s occasionally remind ourselves that there are certain ways in which that’s not true and never will be.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs