Pigeons, shallow benches, and asthma

I grew up with terrible asthma. Asthma is a vicious cycle where inflammation causes one’s body to produce mucus, some of which drips into one’s lungs, which then in turn cause more inflammation that produces more mucus, etc. The symptoms are a lot of coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. The prognosis is incurable, though it can be managed.

As a kid, my bouts of asthma were so bad that they sent me to the hospital a couple times. All I remember from these occasions was gagging in pain as I acutely realized that there was only one thing I needed to live, air, and I wasn’t getting enough of it. Then I would black out, waking up in a hospital bed.

Naturally, I developed an antipathy towards sports. Anything that taxed my weak respiratory system was out of the question. I also couldn’t stand being outside because pollen allergies would often trigger an asthma attack. The world seemed to be full of threats that only my body could detect.

The cycle of asthma felt inescapable. I remember looking for something inside of me that I could never quite catch. I coveted the sense of normalcy embodied in other kids at school and on TV, free to navigate the world unburdened. I thought that if I could find a way to break this asthmatic cycle inside of myself, my body, I could finally be free to be me.

My asthma subsided in 1996; my family had moved into a freshly built house in an outer edge suburban subdivision of Atlanta. My condition improved once we were no longer living in a low rent apartment brimming with allergens.

By climbing onto the next rung of the middle class ladder, our reward as a family was just a little bit more respect and my reward was being able to breathe. I believed in a childish way that I could work my way out of my own asthma.

A couple years ago, I started having asthma attacks again. The great British comedian Spike Milligan once described his manic depression as a hunch in his back, always there, always a part of you.

Having an asthma attack felt like meeting an old friend again. I felt helpless and even a bit relieved. You wouldn’t turn an old friend away from your front door would you?

Nevertheless, this time I was certain that I could discipline myself and my environment into something clean, safe, and healthy. I’ve done everything from dusting, vacuuming regularly, running an air filter, checking for mold, placing pillows and mattress in special hypoallergenic sleeves.

I felt like Hausmann let loose on Paris, studiously planning the transformation of the medieval city of my body and environment into a true metropolis with tidy french gardens, wide boulevards, and geometrically precise public squares.

But there is always folly in this approach. Next time you’re in the middle of a city, pick a spot downtown and make a survey of which buildings around you were designed to prevent birds from perching on them.

Sometime around the 1980s, I think, particularly wealthy developers and their architects started to design buildings that pigeons couldn’t befoul with their presence or their excrement. They’re often very smooth, with sloped edges that birds can’t rest their claws on.

Looking around a city, you’ll also notice that there is no shortage of places birds can hang out. It’s not like these smooth bird-less buildings are hurting the birds. Pigeons, seagulls, and sparrows can fly and roost nearly anywhere.

It’s more like these smooth buildings are a discourtesy to the birds, denying them a place to sit because we don’t want to deal with their visual detritus settling in on our world.

It just seems a bit rude to the birds I suppose.

Moreso, the design philosophy behind making buildings that birds can’t sit on has also given us benches people can’t lie down on and other instruments of torture masquerading as public facilities. They are smooth and flat with carefully placed spikes, and I’ll admit, not a single speck of shit on them most of the time. Yet these cases of hostile architecture are cruel, designed so that those who are homeless can’t seek respite on them.

There’s a belief in this design that the homeless, like pigeons, are a pollutant, and that by denying them a place to rest, they’ll leave. Alas, we don’t even need to look beyond the progressive Bay Area and the gleaming high-tech utopia of San Francisco to realize that "foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head." As noted in the San Francisco Chronicle, the city is full of benches that fold up at night, spikes in planter boxes, and even boulders placed on potential tent sites. By smoothing over the appearance of the city, its citizens and planners have merely buried the rot under a thin veneer.

Despite my childhood belief in personal perfectibility, I’ve also long distrusted smoothness and flatness. To borrow some terminology from mathematician Irving Segal, smooth and flat things are unstable, because their curvature, in mathematical terms, is exactly zero. Any slight deviation from zero, no matter how infinitesimal, would make it curved, and therefore no longer smooth and flat. Two things curved to different magnitudes are still curved. No curved thing can ever be flat though.

What this means is that a smooth and flat surface can’t gracefully transition into a surface that’s curved without breaking the quality of flatness. It’s like dividing a number by another really small infinitesimal number versus dividing by zero. The former just gives you another number, the latter gives you infinity. In smoothness and flatness I’ve always seen a brittle non-resiliency that would be unreliable and untrustworthy under any strain or pressure.

Immanuel Kant reminds us that out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing could ever be made. But if you can’t make something straight, you could at least break it down into pieces and rebuild it to be straighter, faster, and more efficient right? Take light for example. As every schoolchild knows, if you pass a beam of white light through a prism, out the other side will emerge a rainbow of colors. This is because a prism’s crystalline substance refracts the light like an angled column of soldiers trudging in lockstep across a muddy field. Thanks Newton.

So shouldn’t it be possible to break things down, perfect each molecule, and recombine them into something that inherits perfection from its parts. Theoretically, yes, but did you know that each of these colors can also be refracted into a spectrum too? And that depending on which country you’re in the colors that come out are different? Or that Newton didn’t care much for this experiment, or really most of physics.

Newton was obsessed with the state of his soul and the nature of the afterlife and how to interpret Scripture, so much so that scholars have yet to work through his incredibly prodigious output on the topic of devils, how many angels can fit on the head of a pin, and the like. Newton worked on math and physics because he thought that the application of reason ad infinitum could reveal God’s truth.

Alas, when you take apart a gothic cathedral, study its parts, and throw all the parts back together again, you don’t ever get a gothic cathedral again. You just get a pile of rocks.

As far as my asthma goes, I’m doing a lot better now. I take preventative medication to keep it under control. I’ve domesticated my condition without vanquishing it.

What has surprised me about keeping my asthma under control is that I miss the feeling that my body is reacting to something real and urgent. While I might have brought myself to a state of normalcy, I still can’t shake the feeling that this normal is deeply wrong.

We adopted a cat last year, and she fortunately hasn’t affected my ongoing tenuous truce with my environment. We recently discovered, however, that she has asthma too. Like father, like son.