A patient goes to the doctor seeking insight. Once healthy and vibrant, the patient is now struggling. Compared to others in their demographic, they are not just in less than ideal health; they're really failing to thrive. Their internal organs are operating at a fraction of their capacity, their circulatory system is failing and their skin has an unhealthy pallor to it. Both patient and doctor understand that things are not well.
The doctor asks some questions: What are you eating? How much exercise are you getting? How are your sleep habits?
It is revealed that the patient has, for decades, subsisted pretty much on junk food, a diet so loaded with sugars, starch and fat that everything they eat seems paradoxically to add weight while demanding more energy than it provides. To supplement, the patient has taken a steady diet of steroids, pain killers and amphetamines. The concept of exercise and healthy sleep is too scary to ponder.
There is some hope, though. The patient informs the doctor that they have, in addition to their usual diet and drug regime, begun to eat a carrot each day, mid-morning. In addition—and the patient is very proud of this—it is revealed to the doctor that the patient has decided to walk, six days a week, to the end of their driveway to pick up the mail instead of getting it from their car when coming and going.
“That’s a great start. Congratulations,” says the doctor.
“Thank you. I’m very proud of the daily carrot and short walk,” says the patient. “It’s important to what I want to become.”
“That’s fantastic. Are you planning to stop the junk food then?” asks the doctor. “And wean yourself off the drugs?”
“Why?” replies the patient, with a look of exasperation.
“Because that stuff is killing you! It’s the reason you feel so sick and unhealthy. The junk food sucks your energy and the drugs you take to get by are destroying your body. Together, they are the greatest barrier to you living a prosperous life,” the doctor responds, in a tone revealing more bewilderment than compassion.
The patient has a puzzled look. After a pause, the patient tells the doctor, “I really wish we could focus on the carrot and the walk.”
“Yes, of course. That was really a big move,” the doctor responds, regaining an empathetic bearing. “It took a lot of bravery to do that and I’m proud of you. Now, how do we take the carrot and the walk and build on it? How do we expand those insights to the rest of your life?”
“I’m not planning to.”
“What?” Exasperation now shifts to the doctor.
“Look, doc, I appreciate that you have a medical degree and years of practice and everything. And, of course, I’ve come to you because you’re an expert. What I’m saying,” says the patient, adopting a more authoritative tone, “is that I want you to focus on the carrot and the walk.”
This conversation has gone poorly. The doctor tries to regroup, as if the problem is simply a matter of how things have been presented. Smiling at the patient, the doctor tries to sound as sympathetic as possible.
“I agree with you on the carrot and the walk. They are fantastic steps. Let’s celebrate them.”
The patient smiles. An understanding has been reached.
The doctor is the first to meekly disturb the fragile peace. “Now, are you concerned that, if you don’t address the junk food and drugs, that the carrot and walk are not gong to matter much? You do see that the overwhelming number of things you do that hurt you are not offset by the tiny bit of stuff you do that helps, right?”
“Respectfully, doc, there are a lot of details you don’t understand.”
“I’d like you to see you switch to all carrots and walks, to not ever do junk food or drugs again. You have that capacity. You can do it, and you’d be so much better off.”
The patient gives off a deep sigh. “I respect what you’re saying, but we can have junk food and drugs and we can have a carrot and a walk. They are not mutually exclusive.”
“I think they are, especially given how bad your health is today,” says the doctor, but the battle is lost.
“We should focus on the carrot and the walk. That’s the positive message. There is no need to be negative, no need to get into your opinion on junk food and drugs. It’s complicated, and you don’t know all the details.”
When I wrote the Taco John’s piece back in 2012, it fueled a growing backlash here locally in my hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota. I had spent many years being critical of the development choices and capital investment priorities of the cities I knew best, places that were growing themselves into hardship and default. The whole Taco John’s series was, for many at the time, one bridge too many up in flames.
I remember struggling back then with finding the line. The change I saw needing to happen was so radical—so revolutionary and so distant from current practice—that it was hard to not simply beat a constant drum for how messed up things were. There were endless examples, and I had all the math I needed to back up my assertions.
Yet it was very easy for those in power—and those connected to those in power—to dismiss that drumbeat as merely the work of a crank. I was constantly accused of being negative, of having nothing positive to say. This, despite my putting forth very extensive and detailed alternatives, such as the From the Mayor’s Office series. I took the criticism very personally; it was painful.
After all, it was very clear to me, and to a growing movement of people, that our current policies and approaches are bankrupting us, threatening people and places that I love, despite the good intentions of decision-makers. It was clear that a different approach is possible: one that would cost less money and provide more benefits, including a much higher quality of life, at far less risk to our future.
And what was probably most maddening was how clear it was that the greatest obstacle to making the necessary changes was then, and remains today, the comfort level—the lack of tension and hardship—that our communities’ leadership has with the status quo approach.
I used to agonize over the criticism that I’m too negative. I tried to compensate by being overly positive. Part of me bought into the naïve notion that, if I just cheered the positive loudly enough, we’d abandon those destructive practices. Now, I think that’s silly; it will never happen that way.
I think it’s important to celebrate positives, to cheer the victories disproportionately to their size and impact. Let’s do that together, but let’s also connect those actions to the harm we’re still inflicting in other parts of our communities.
You can’t live on a steady diet of junk food and chemical stimulants and have that be okay just because you eat a carrot and take a short walk now and then. We must point that out. It is an either/or, not a situation where you can have both.
You can’t build stroads, subsidize big box stores and accept endless edge development, and have that work out for you just because you threw a block party, painted a mural and put in a temporary bike lane. The former actions are killing you, while the latter are merely first steps in a longer process towards becoming a strong town.