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Observations: Trouble on the horizon?

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image It feels like trouble is always on the horizon these days. Mitch Traphagen Photo

Is there anyone among us who joyously skips through life without care or concern?


I took the long, curving entrance ramp to the Crosstown Expressway at nearly double the recommended speed. The road rose, then leveled out as it merged onto the freeway, revealing the skyline of downtown Tampa and miles of empty pavement. To the west of the skyscrapers was a line of towering, dark thunderclouds, hugging the coast. Trouble on the horizon, perhaps, but I knew they weren’t coming for me.

It seems life always has trouble on the horizon. Is there anyone among us who joyously skips through life without care or concern? We live in a time of economic and political uncertainty; and tornadoes and extreme weather have destroyed lives and even cities.

We have everything, it would seem. Flat-screen, high-definition televisions, 24/7 access to the world’s information and knowledge at our fingertips via the web, Blackberries, iPhones and Androids that mean we are never really alone. Our friends, families, and even the remote African villages are available to us at the mere touch of the tiny smartphones most of us keep on our belts. Yet it seems that more and more, people are unhappy; more and more we feel alone and alienated in this changing world.

Of course, there is good reason for some of that. It’s certainly hard to be happy if you can’t find a job. It’s hard to be joyous in receiving a foreclosure notice. But the vast majority of people do have jobs. Even in Florida, the majority of people are not underwater on their mortgages (Albeit a slim majority. According to Realtytrac, 48 percent of Florida homes are worth less than their mortgages). For everyone lucky enough to have a job and a home, perhaps the thunder, lightning and hail appear so close that we are all heading for the metaphorical basements in our minds (because, of course, none of us in Florida actually have basements in our homes). Perhaps the trouble on the horizon is close enough to smell the ozone from lightning bolts, giving us all a bunker mentality.

In many respects, the sunshine, beaches and palm trees in Florida mask the dark clouds that linger. While many, if not most, elected officials are hardworking, honest and decent people; it seems the collective mind of Florida government is occasionally dysfunctional at best and borderline insane at worst. There are so many scandals that the public scarcely seems to notice them anymore. Paying attention to it all and, more so, trying to affect change, would appear to be a life-consuming mission akin to tilting at windmills. And through it all it seems that nobody is pulling for us anymore, regardless of who “us” is. Republican or Democrat, it doesn’t seem to matter. There have always been news stories coming out of Tallahassee that make Florida fiction writers green with envy. You just can’t make that stuff up.

Along with its beaches, state parks are Florida’s crown jewels, and the envy of much of the nation. Should we bulldoze them to build expensive golf courses and hotels that are not answerable to local governments? The public said no, but that it was an idea at all is…well, strange. Neither golf courses nor hotels are on state’s endangered list, and few of the existing establishments would be likely to welcome the state-endorsed competition with open arms. Many are struggling just to keep the doors open.

How about water quality and corporate taxes? Do these things matter? The former is a tough line to walk because we are supposed to be free to do as we choose; and we are supposed to have rights. The line at which our rights begin to infringe upon another person’s rights, however, is often masked and diluted by little things such as the ground soil above the Florida Aquifer (one of the world’s crown jewels, by the way). As a property owner, you should be able to build a towering shrine to your long-deceased dachshund for all anyone should care. You have rights. But if you also build a toxic waste dump beneath the giant wiener dog shrine that leaks into my drinking water, well then we have a problem.

As for the latter, I’ve worked for a few of America’s largest corporations. They are not evil. While a corporation might be considered asocial as an entity, it is in practice anything but. They employ people, they do give back to society and without them we would be in a world of hurt, assuming you like living indoors and eating regularly, at least. They just want to make money and they are legally obligated to do so. And that being said, while I’ve never worked for a corporation that actually liked taxes, I’ve never encountered one that seemed to worry all that much about them, either.

A case in point is the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area, a region with some of America’s highest taxes, that is home to 17 Fortune 500 companies. The Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metropolitan area, of similar size and with some of America’s lowest taxes, is home to only three. Could it be that corporate titans are less worried about paying taxes than they are about wiener dog shrines that hide toxic waste dumps that leak into the ground water that eventually ends up in the corporate water cooler? Could it be that corporate titans, like most people, simply like the idea of a state park, with trees and wildlife, as a refuge from the demands of empire building in urban jungles? It could be. Who knows? I’m not a corporate titan. But I have lived in both cities and I chose Tampa. I think the potential is here in this beautiful place, much of it is simply unrealized as of yet. The answers aren’t always as simple as they may seem and straw men are easy scapegoats.

I’m also not a politician, for which I am extremely happy, because while it seems the public increasingly sees them as crazy, greedy and out-of-touch, surely from their perspective they are looking out at a pitchfork-toting mob that has gone insane, demanding (occasionally with threats to life and limb) that they be everything to everyone with absolutely no compromise tolerated. Think about it, if that wouldn’t drive the average person (or elected official) crazy, nothing would.

Somehow we have to find a way to put down the pitchforks, cut off the anger and look beyond the hyperbole. We have to figure out how to worry less and do more, not just for ourselves but also for others. Maybe you can smell the ozone as the lightning bolt of a foreclosure notice strikes your neighbor—you may not be able to help them, but you can listen. You can have empathy. We can climb out of our mental bunkers and see some sunshine, and maybe even smile. Just showing up and caring a little bit is half the battle.

There was no real danger or recklessness in taking the entrance ramp curve faster than the recommended speed because I didn’t really exceed the posted speed limit, well not by much anyway. The gleaming city was beautiful against the backdrop of the towering dark clouds. Trouble may have been on the horizon, but I was OK with speeding towards it because it really wasn’t coming for me or for you. After all, who wants to live in a bunker? Outside, we can speed towards our problems, tackle them, and make things right. Or, at least, righter. The city is amazing, see it for yourself and stand in awe, marveling at how much society has accomplished in just a few generations. A few dark clouds won’t stop that. Besides, we need the rain.

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