Rebooting a happy city: reading review
The topic of how to make cities brighter places to live (also healthier and more active) has been on my mind since 2004, when I took a sponsored trip with the US State Department through three swing states in preparation for that year’s presidential election. The point of the trip was to take Canadian journalists through a few cities to meet with local people and listen to what they had to say about the issues that would shape the campaign from their perspectives. We visited Columbus and Cleveland in Ohio, Minneapolis-St.Paul in Minnesota (where I dipped my toes in the Mississippi and discovered Caribou Coffee, and also Farmer Democrats and the political traditions that shaped that particular state), then Portland in Oregon. Minnesota, by the way, was the only state, along with D.C., to vote for native-son Walter Mondale in the 1984 presidential election that Ronald Reagan won like he was the only guy running, which is kind of an interesting quirk.
Portland, though, was the true revelation for me. Its tradition of direct democracy, that saw voters handle a book as thick as the old white pages used to be (kids: just imagine a big thick book full of very thin pages with nothing but small print on them) containing all the propositions that would be on the ballot, along with who was in favour, who was against, and what their respective points were. Oregonians vote on everything. I was exhausted just thinking about it. But the image that stayed with me was Portland’s green roofs, its lively downtown, its free (at the time; they’ve changed things now) transit downtown, its absence of sales tax. It was a great two days, and it filled my head with amazing ideas, for instance that it was possible, and indeed desirable, to rip out highways and replace them with parks and bike lanes. I’ve been obsessed with getting rid of the Queensway ever since.
I don’t remember the first time I heard of Charles Montgomery, a Vancouver journalist and “urban experimentalist” but I like his style. He runs thehappycity.com and his book by the same title is a wonderful exposé of how focusing on making people happy tends to lead to better health outcomes for an entire city. The book reads easily, the language is made to be widely accessible so if you’re a normal person thinking about these things and frustrated by long commutes in a car that’s not moving at all on the freeway, you’re bound to enjoy it and gain valuable insights for the sorts of things you might push for at the next community meeting you’re planning to attend.
Jerry Colonna, on the other hand, I remember hearing about him for the first time on the Tim Ferris podcast (episode #373, aired June 11, 2019). What I liked about him was the way he went about discussing questions he frequently asks his clients about how their own actions may have contributed to creating the conditions they find themselves in and which they say they don’t like. How are you helping create the trouble you’re in? It’s a mighty uncomfortable question, but a necessary one.
So I picked up his book, Reboot: Leadership and the Art Of Growing Up, expecting to find more about this particular question. I found some, and it was interesting. He also talks a great deal about the importance of radical self-examination and having the guts to confront who you are, why you are the way you are, and in what ways this affects your behaviour to this day. I read about half the book before deciding to put it down, because after a while you get the idea and don’t require more examples illustrating the importance of this sort of questioning — even if you, personally, are not a CEO or a big-deal sort of person. Also: I’ve read many books on radical self-examination, radical self-acceptance, and sundry self-help titles over the years and it feels like at this point I don’t need chapter and verse to get the gist of the message. But if you’re new to this, and find yourself stuck in unsatisfying life patterns, you might benefit from going through the whole book.
Result: Partial success.
Michelle Obama’s Becoming came out last year to rave reviews, and indeed is it well-written. Her life is interesting, as it gives us a window into a world few of us who aren’t minority folks will ever see. I grew up white and French-speaking in an overwhelming white and French-speaking province. Then I moved to Ottawa where I began living in English, with the majority. I never stood out like Michelle Obama did as a black female student at Princeton back in the day. So that much is interesting and enlightening. But somehow I stopped reading the book anyway, because one thing about her irritates me no end: throughout her life she’s determined to prove people wrong when they tell her she can’t do something. I find this irritating because I’ve been afflicted with the same problem all my life, and I’m exhausted by it. Because it leads me to live my life for other people, not for me, as though proving I can so do something to people who dismiss me over and over again would somehow make me believe I am worth occupying my little spot in the sun. It’s a crummy way to go through life, and about a year ago I determined to stop doing it, and it’s a struggle. No, I will never achieve the status of a Michelle Obama, and I still find her life story interesting, but I put the book down after half a dozen chapters because it made me too angry about myself. That’s a sad comment on me. You should try the book anyway.