On not playing well with others: guest essay

Here's a contribution by fiction-writer and essayist Dirk van Nouhuys, a regular reader of the blog. He calls it

Cars & Freedom

Cars Mini by Stephen Bayley
The other day I was watching an American football game. A commercial came on showing a company of redcoats, that is British infantryman of the 18th century, assuming their positions to fire facing a charge. The camera shifted to the oncoming opponents. They were black pickup trucks, Dodge Rams, and driving the lead pickup truck was George Washington. Before the onslaught of streamlined and patriotic iron the redcoats fled. A resonate voiceover declared, “There are two things America has right: cars and freedom.”

A day or two later I found myself behind a Dodge Ram in traffic. It displayed three bumper stickers. One was for the NFL team I had been watching. One was an American flag in an extremely ornate setting, which suggested the label on a Budweiser bottle. The third read, “Doesn’t Play Well with Others.” For those who don’t know, this is a note stereotypically sent home from school with the report cards of surly and narcissistic children.

It seems to me that the voiceover was more wrong than right. These are two things America in important senses has wrong. First about cars: Americans have the idea that they should be an order of magnitude faster and more powerful than they need to be, and thus consume an order of magnitude more than necessary of the world’s resources and pollute the air proportionally. The American trucking industry, which after all does deliver the goods, figures 10-20 Horsepower per ton. That means that a reasonable horsepower for a private car is about 20. They run around 100 and more. Of course America is not alone in this self-destructive urge to build fast and powerful cars, it really originated in Europe, and is being embraced, sadly, all over the planet.

Freedom is a more complex issue, as we all know. What ‘freedom’ means ranges at least from childish anarchism to the idea in some theological contexts that true freedom is willing to do what God (or the state) has required one to do. But one thing that Americans consistently have wrong about freedom is that it is orthogonal to cooperation. In practice Americans often employ cooperation as a means to a sensation of freedom, for instance on the highway, where Americans report they often feel most free, yet observe an elaborate set of cooperative rules, written and unwritten, which allow them to survive in their powerful machines without killing themselves and others beyond reasonable measure. That important and self-defeating American ideal of freedom is perfectly summed up in the third bumper sticker, “Does not play well with others.”

— Dirk van Nouhuys

P. S.  Happy New Year

Olives for breakfast, rockin' in Syntagma, reading in Istanbul

καλή χρονιά!
Thanks to Susana for preparing this comprehensive (except that  she left out the part about the eastern Mediterranean breakfasts — yummy!) report on


Athens’ Syntagma Square was ablaze with festive lights. The Municipal Band, clad in bright red uniforms, was entertaining the crowd before the fireworks started at midnight on December 31st. When Geoff and I started dancing to the tune of Bill Haley’s old chestnut, Rock Around the Clock, the crowd parted, forming a circle around us. What I saw through the lens of my Flip as I turned around to record the human fence were the sad faces of lonely young men. Then I realized that they vastly outnumbered the families and few tourists. Their darker skin suggested they could be illegal immigrants entering Europe through Greece via Turkey. Just for that night, they dejectedly filled the country’s most important civic space. 

We would start the new year in Santorini, before going on to Istanbul. It was bereft of tourists, and very few restaurants were open, just like tourism-based villages on the Spanish coast near us, so we got to peacefully enjoy the beautiful view from our little hotel at the edge of the volcano’s caldera and the fast disappearing wine-producing landscape on the island’s east side. By the time 2010 ended, we had spent several days traveling to Mycenae, Nafplion, Epidaurus, Delphi and Meteora, using Athens as the base. Although it has about the same population as Madrid (3 million), Athens felt more provincial, its old center in Plaka retaining the flavor of the smaller town in the Acropolis’ shadow.

Unlike Istanbul, where the physical layers of history are commingled, in Athens every fragment of a ruin within the city, however small, is isolated and identified, making me think about Victor Hugo’s archdeacon’s famous phrase: “The book will kill the edifice”, meaning that the printed word would kill architecture. Clearly, Greek ruins are an example of the opposite. Were it not for the endless printed words about Greek mythology, history and the romantic experience of ruins before the advent of mass tourism, we would not be able to summon up a resonant experience from the forlorn reconstructed column barely erect on the ground littered by smaller stones waiting to be identified. The Acropolis was an exception, not only because the masterful spatial sequence followed by the Panathenaic procession to the Parthenon can still be retraced, but also because site and building collaborate into a powerful experience where perception and knowledge are indissolubly entwined. 

Bernard Tschumi Architects
The new Acropolis Museum, which provides all the services of a modern institution, uses the dimensions of the Parthenon to form a core around which replicas of the Elgin marbles are displayed. But, whereas the Parthenon is angled on its site so that visitors immediately see both length and breadth, the museum is a structure with heavy-handed proportions and a rigidly frontal, axial composition. Then as a gesture to acknowledge the three-dimensionality of the original, the museum’s upper floor is simply cranked to correspond to the Parthenon’s siting on the Acropolis, but with no spatial or visual connection to the levels below, making the gesture awkward rather than elegant. 

The significance of place and natural landscape was reinforced at the other major archeological sites we visited, including Meteora, where six medieval monasteries continue to be occupied atop impossible rock formations of very difficult access. Some of them preserve the woven baskets used to raise people and supplies to the top, while others have modernized, using service elevator platforms to supplement the hundreds of steps carved on the rock. The monks hire staff to deal with the visitors in their monasteries, while the nuns do the dirty work themselves. Geoff was delighted to find the Archangel Michael, who causes the janissary Mehmet to have an identity crisis in his A Gift to the Sultan, depicted in one of the churches’ Byzantine frescoes, which are mostly devoted to scenes of gruesome martyrdom.

In Istanbul we were comfortably ensconced in a huge Teşvikiye apartment loaned by a dear friend. This was a good place to come back to after hours of walking in the rain and record cold weather, and to be able to imagine what if would be like to live in this extraordinary city. Geoff already had a mild flu when he presented A Gift for the Sultan to a literary circle of university alumnae. Most of them had already read the book in a pdf version Geoff had sent to the event’s organizer. It was a very pleasant and rewarding evening, with intelligent, probing questions – and a man who identified himself as a writer and translator who will try to interest his publishers in Geoff’s book. When we returned to Madrid via Athens we both had runny noses, sore throats, and happy hearts.