Like any major city in the U.S., Detroit has its share of expressways with multi-level interchanges that take traffic in many directions. The pillared, sloping cement roadways rise above and below each other at gentle, winding angles, like a ribbon used in a bow. The cement walled lanes are banked like a NASCAR track, designed to hold cars in place as they glide into the sweeping, clover leaf-shaped corners. It’s safe to assume that most of us have driven through these interchanges at one time or another and think nothing of the incredible infrastructure beneath our four wheels.
On a recent bike ride, I passed under I-94 near the I-75 interchange on a street I have ridden on many times in the past. But this particular morning, I noticed a bunch of fresh graffiti art on the concrete expressway support walls and decided to check it out. I made my way up the embankment and rode under the expressway overpass to the graffiti gallery. Once there, I was awed not only by the colorful graffiti, but by the vast highway, load bearing support system. It was incredible.
The cement pillars were massive in size, and in some cases, they soared 20’ to 30’ feet straight up to the bottom of the expressway roadbeds they supported. There were rows of them; all uniform in size, evenly spaced, and they seemed to stretch forever, reminding me of soldiers standing at attention. The steel supports that straddled the pillars looked as if they could withstand an earthquake. The thick cement road sections were placed with precision and, most likely, haven’t moved a quarter of an inch since they were positioned on the huge pillars many years ago.
Exploring further beneath the sprawling concrete freeway system, I was amazed by the myriad layers of expressway roads and the supporting infrastructure. The gentle flowing curvature of the connecting highways, ramps and safety walls blend seamlessly into each other, like a well-designed stage set. What an engineering feat!
While poking around under the concrete ribbons of the viaducts, I could hear the steady, low hum of vehicles all around me. It was a relaxing, calming sound, similar to that of buzzing insects on a late summer night.
“The Razor’s Edge” by W. Somerset Maugham
I had never read anything by W. Somerset Maugham. This book, by far, is one of the best I’ve read in quite some time. The story dives head on into man’s constant struggle of conformity in a materialistic world, versus the courage it takes to following one’s inner self in order to achieve an enhanced life of enlightenment and fulfillment.
The story is set during WWI and the ensuing years, spanning the Great Depression and beyond. The narrative revolves around Larry Darrell, a war veteran, who has given up the bourgeois life of privilege to pursue inner happiness and strength. His fiancée, Isabel Bradley, chose wealth and social standing over his love, and her choice had far-reaching consequences throughout her life.
Maugham’s exquisite, sharp, writing skills visually captures the shallow life of society’s upper echelon. Through his rich, formal writing style, he presents highly descriptive scenes and social commentary on wealthy families and friends living in London, Paris and the Riviera. It’s a world where gatherings are defined by who sits where, who’s wearing what and the lineage of a certain porcelain plate on which Pâté de foie gras is being served.
He contrasts that with the adventures of Larry, a truth-seeking, and self-described loafer who travels widely after returning home from the war, in search of life’s meaning. His worldly travels takes him through the backbreaking work of coal mines, farms and other labor intensive jobs, to the far east where he studies years at an ashram, the home of a Hindu Saint. There he is introduced to the three pillars of the Hindu trilogy: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, changing his life forever.
This book introduced me to one of the best literary characters I’ve come across in a long, long time, Elliott Templeton. Templeton is Isabel’s wealthy uncle. He’s a classic, American expatriate snob that has lived the charmed life (in his mind) to the bitter end, even though his place in society has waned more than he’s realized. Maugham captures the haughtiness and superficiality of Templeton as he journeys from middle to old age, as a garrulous, opinionated, tragic character that is full of life. Through Templeton, I believe Maugham has presented us with a great psychological character study of what drives people, and at the same time how life in a materialistic world can take over our spirit, trapping us in a non-fulfilling lifestyle of boredom and superficiality.
There is a lot in this book, but “The Razor’s Edge” really has a simple message. It asks us to look at how we lead our lives and question ourselves. Do we follow the masses or seek inner fulfillment? These questions are ones that mankind has dealt with forever.