Sunday, September 20, 2009

Density Shock

I took a course in college called Demography, which is the science of human population. This course taught me many useful things like 1) China has a whole bunch of people; 2) entire neighborhoods called “population cohorts” move from the “rustbelt” to the “sunbelt” (presumably so  they can play more golf); and 3) that my parents wanted me to be a part of a quasi-political movement called The Baby Boom so that I wouldn’t have to rely on social security when I got old.

But Demography taught me a few things that weren’t quite so useful, like how to implement a complicated mathematical formula to determine something called “population density.” To put it in layman’s terms, population density is a measurement of the number of people in a particular area of geography. As you may know, we live in a rural area so I only counted (including our own) four houses within our particular square mile. If each of those other houses contains three people, then the total population in our square mile of land would be 16. Are you still with me?

Sixteen persons per square mile is what we demographers (people who’ve taken Demography) call a “sparse” population. So as someone from a sparsely populated part of the world, you can imagine my wonder last week when I traveled on a business trip to one of the most densely populated cities in Cook County, Illinois—Chicago. Some neighborhoods in Chicago approach densities of almost 50,000 persons per square mile. And these people are actually live people, not just people who are "registered voters."

There are a lot of differences between densely and sparsely populated areas—like transportation. In sparsely populated areas, we drive gas guzzling SUVs 20-30 miles to pick up a pizza. But in Chicago, people take public transportation to the pizza place. They then eat the pizza there and when they’re finished take public transportation back home. Because there are only 16 persons per square mile in our area, we don’t have public transportation—unless you count hayrides.

Public transportation in Chicago is operated under the auspices of the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA). Older readers will recognize the Chicago Transit Authority as a band from the ‘70s and ‘80s who had such hits as Saturday in the Park. After legal action was threatened by the City of Chicago over use of that name, however, the band broke up and decided to try its hand at running busses and elevated trains.

The crown jewel of the CTA is the “L,” which is the elevated train system you’ve seen in shows like E.R. or movies like The Fugitive. I was a little apprehensive before riding the “L,” but found it to be very safe and welcoming, offering no apparent signs of guns, knives, or one-armed men (although a guy who looked eerily like Tommy Lee Jones was looking at me kind of funny).

Another stark contrast between sparsely and densely populated areas is the heights of buildings. My meetings were on the 80th floor of the Aon Center, which is the 3rd tallest building in Chicago and at one time among the tallest in the world. Floors 68-80 of the Aon Center have their own set of elevators—six in fact. Here in the country the only elevators we have contain grain, and the country skyline is usually limited to a handful of silos, wireless towers, and treehouses. So for a guy who lives in the country a meeting on the 80th Floor of a building seems pretty cool. That is until the elevator doors shut and you’re all alone hurtling into space in a capsule smaller than the lunar module.

When I finally got off the elevator and arrived at the 80th floor meeting room I made the mistake of walking over to the window to take a look at the mass of urbanization beneath me. The view was truly breathtaking, but suddenly I realized all that separated me from the concrete nearly ¼ mile below were six tiny elevator shafts which by this time surely did not house functioning elevators. As the room became smaller, a flurry of questions ran through my mind—had this building been inspected during construction? If the building suddenly toppled toward the Lake, would I die at impact or would I live only to drown? I finally regained my composure and entertained more rational thoughts like “Is Tommy Lee Jones still following me?”

Hopefully the study of population densities will bring us closer together as inhabitants of red states, blue states, and Florida. And if these studies do not bring us closer together, let's find common ground in understanding the cardinal rule of Demography—there’s a whole bunch of people in China.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Lost Dog: Does Not Answer to "Pablo"

We have five dogs at our house, which according to the Cass County, Missouri Zoning Ordinance classifies our family as bona fide idiots. I decided to research this issue because I had heard that many counties define a residential structure with over five “domesticated” animals as a “kennel.” In our part of the world, a kennel is code for “puppy mill,” which is double-secret code for “redneck-criminal-Michael Vick-lovin’-lowlife.” And even in a state that only recently repealed cockfighting, no one wants to be identified with the Philadelphia Eagles.

But as it turns out, in Cass County you can have as many dogs as you like, but unfortunately you must like the dogs you have. I was forced to wonder about the five dog threshold when a large Great Pyrenees showed up on our property a few weeks ago. For the sake of brevity, and to ensure you don’t further question our already suspect judgment, I won’t go into how we accumulated even four dogs in the first place. Suffice it to say that we succumbed to a series of tears, pleas, and paternity suits and our lives subsequently spiraled out of control. So enter the Great Pyrenees, who despite our best efforts refused to go home. After his arrival I called the pound, our veterinarian, a local dog groomer and scoured the newspaper for “Lost Dog” ads. These efforts turned up no leads on a missing Great Pyrenees. This writing represents our first effort to “go public” in our attempt to get rid of h—I mean find his rightful owner.

You see, dogs come and go out here in the country, but unfortunately around our house they mostly come and stay. I think they see the lavish smorgasbord of dog food which is dumped across the sidewalk each morning (or if not each morning at least whenever we think about it). This spread is often accompanied by some sort of table scrap and the result is something that resembles a Carnival Cruise Line buffet. This may not be that impressive if you’re a suburban dog, but out here it signals the end of treeing squirrels and chasing rabbits for sustenance. It also signals the unlikelihood that you will get shot doing any of the above. You see dogs are attracted to our place because it resembles a canine Club Med. As a dog around our house, you are not expected to do any work to speak of. You’re really not even expected to move or wake up if a band of robbers comes around. The next thing we’ll be doing is buying them robes and lining them up for spa treatments.

Usually these dog visits run their course but not so with our Great Pyrenees friend that my oldest son eventually named “Pablo.” We’re not really sure why my son named him Pablo. So far as I can tell, my son doesn’t have strong convictions on the immigration issue. I hope this doesn’t sound prejudiced, but Pablo doesn’t really look like he would come from south of the border. He looks more like a polar bear, and accordingly like he might have come from a cold climate—maybe Alaska or Scandinavia or Des Moines. Perhaps he should have been named Nome or Duluth or Al Franken.

But Pablo he is and the name has stuck. Pablo himself doesn’t get it though. He stares blankly at us when we call him and bid him to come to his concrete buffet. He blinks, wags his tail a bit, and offers a slight smile when we say “here Pablo.” When we persist in calling him by his new name he turns his head and looks around, seemingly wondering when this Pablo fellow is going to emerge from the dense underbrush. He thinks he’s caught in some sort of dog version of “To Tell the Truth.” TV Announcer:Will the real Pablo the Pyrenees please play dead?”

We’ll persist in our efforts to find Pablo’s rightful owner, primarily because during this global economic meltdown I can’t start buying Frontline in 55 gallon drums. In the meantime we’ll be relieved that we won’t be the target of any zoning investigation. And, we’ll rest easy knowing that we could add 5, 10, or 27 more dogs without the threat of alerting Al Franken.

And if you promise not to tell anyone, I may just choose Michael Vick in the upcoming NFL fantasy draft