Monthly Archives: January 2015

Questions for Murakami

With all the snow, I nearly forgot that Haruki Murakami, who is arguably my favorite living author, is currently receiving questions through a special website, Murakami-san no Tokoro (Mr. Murakami’s Place).

I first ran across Murakami’s writing nearly 15 years ago when I read Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World for a Japanese literature class. I was intrigued just by the title and, while I often regret that I haven’t gone back to re-read it, it remains one of my favorite works to this day.

His genre is metaphysical fiction.

His characters wonder through life, listening to jazz, talking with cats, and hollowly searching for connection in an isolated world. Some are moved to search for meaning while others are resigned to knowing there is none.

His stories remind me of Vonnegut, though his style is quite different.

When I saw that he was accepting questions from the public, I rather thought I ought to submit something.

I’m not one to get star-struck – I generally disdain contact with celebrities who are unlikely to remember my existence – but this is, perhaps, too rare an opportunity to pass up.

But then, of course, there’s the question of just what to ask him. I’d like to go back and re-read Hard-Boiled Wonderland, to re-read Kafka on the Shore, or to re-read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Perhaps those pages would inspire the perfect question to ask.

And while I’d like to re-read those books someday, I’ll likely not re-read them today. So, I suppose instead I’ll just ask the question that all his books see to answer:

Why live in a meaningless world?

And this question isn’t merely one of being – I mean live here in its finest sense.

Why seek agency and autonomy, why live life to the fullest – and how do you live life to the fullest in a world that is ultimately, tragically, beautifully, meaningless?

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Trusting Young People

Not long ago, there was a story on the news about parents being investigated after their children, 10 and 6, were found walking to the park on their own.

A few weeks after that, someone told me how folks in their neighborhood complained about teens “hanging out” downtown. A complaint I’ve heard more than a few times in my own communities.

Those teens were probably up to no good, older neighbors seemed to think. With their loud talking and lack of important business.

These stories seem some how connected.

I do not nor have I ever had children, so I certainly don’t intend to tell people how to raise their own. Besides, each child has their own quirks and personalities, and I rather suspect there’s not a single style of parenting that works for them all.

But I often wonder if we – collectively, as society – ought to put more trust in our young people.

I have no children, but I’ve had the pleasure of learning from many young people. And I humbly hope they have learned something from me.

It may not be my responsibility to raise them, but it is our collective responsibility to welcome them, to engage them, to support them.

But apparently, teens hanging out can’t be trusted because they act like teens. Perhaps the kids going to the park can be trusted, but the world around them is so dangerous that we should fear letting them in it.

We’re so accustomed to thinking of kids as lesser beings that such a protective instinct seems natural. And perhaps it is, to some degree – I imagine if I did have children I would feel quite strongly that children need to be protected from some things.

But I’d never stand for a law saying that adult women couldn’t go out alone after dark – even if it was for their own protection. Such paternalism – inappropriate in most situations – is still appropriate in the situation from which it gets its name: pater, after all, is the Latin word for father.

And, again, perhaps paternalism of children is appropriate. I don’t imagine we’d want to simply unleash the world upon our kids – or worse yet, to unleash our kids upon the world. But the dangers of paternalism in other situations is enough to give me pause.

I suppose what I ask is this – that we collectively try to trust young people more, or at the very least, we look deeply at the roots of our concern.

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Snow Removal in the Good Society

I spent about three hours shoveling today, which gave me plenty of time to think about how communities deal with the complex task of snow removal.

The city I live in is among the best in the area when it comes to snow removal, and yet I find myself continually looking at the ineffeciencies and wondering if there isn’t some better solution.

Perhaps I am just a New England curmudgeon, but here are a few of the things that drive me crazy:

As a home owner, I am conceptually fine with it being my responsibility to clear the public way (sidewalk) abutting my house. This is standard in many area communities and just seems like good citizenship: yes, we must all work together to keep public areas publicly accessible.

But even agreeing to that thesis, the logistics make this process break down.

First, people are expected to clear their sidewalks a minimum of 42 inches wide, per ADA requirements. I would agree that accessibility is important – it’s terrible how difficult we make it for people in wheelchairs, or even with strollers, to get around. But the challenge is that many of our sidewalks aren’t even 42 inches wide. I’m not sure it’s even physically possible to clear 42 inches wide – where would we put the snow?

This could lead to an interesting debate about our individual and collective responsibility to ensure a welcoming and accessible environment for all, but it also leads to a more practical challenge:

Everyone has a different idea of what it means to clear the side walk.

I try to go for about 2 shovel widths – somewhere between 24-30 inches. Some people stick with just one shovel width (12 inches), and, of course, some people just don’t shovel at all.

But the variation is important, because it’s not just an issue of compliance vs. non-compliance. We’re all (not) complying differently, which makes for irregular paths.

As a pedestrian, I find this frustrating.

To complicate matters, sidewalk shoveling and street clearing are two tasks which don’t go together very well. Yesterday shoveling was all about keeping up with the storm, but today was clean up – which essentially meant doing the same work over and over again.

Before I went to bed last night, I shoveled the walk, cleared the curb cut on the corner, and cleared around the fire hydrant.

Then when I got up this morning, I shoveled the walk, cleared the curb cut on the corner, and cleared around the fire hydrant.

After lunch time I went out, shoveled the walk, cleared the curb cut on the corner, and cleared around the fire hydrant.

And it didn’t snow at all today.

Most of the work today was just from undoing the sidewalk impact of the snow plows. Every time they come by they plow in the corner, they plow in the fire hydrant, and their plowed snow causes avalanches into the cleared parts of the sidewalk.

I’m like the Sisyphus of snow removal.

I have this dream world where the city has some sort of sidewalk-clearing device that can clear the sidewalks – a full 42 inches! – as easily as plows clear the streets.

As much as I enjoy this dream, though, I know it’s impossible. For one thing, my city already spends $650,000 annually on snow removal, so we’d need to find the money to double or perhaps triple that amount. Assuming we found the funding, there’d still be the challenge of where to put the snow.

And finally, there’s the challenge that smaller sidewalks would invariably get worse service than main sidewalks – just as main streets get plowed more frequently than side streets. That doesn’t entirely seem fair.

Perhaps we need to rethink the entire way we think of transportation and snow removal – reorient ourselves to pedestrian-driven designs and forgo vehicle-centric approaches.

Or perhaps tomorrow morning I should just shovel the walk, clear the curb cut on the corner, and clear around the fire hydrant.

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Snow Day

Growing up in California, I never had snow days. For the most part, seeing snow involved “going to the snow” – a quaint expression describing a trip to the mountains.

But when I hear the phrase “snow day” I still imagine that little-kid thrill of a free day with no rules. It sounds like it ought to be a whole day of no school and all play!

But somehow it never seems to work out that way.

In my experience, a snow day really consists of trying to get a full days worth of work done in a chilly house with no land line, punctuated by breaks of freezing manual labor.

I actually kind of enjoy shoveling – it’s rather rhythmic and meditative in its own way – but it doesn’t seem to mix well with work. I come back in, sit at my makeshift desk, and stare blankly at the screen as I try to write something coherent.

There was no play time. No relaxing reading or binge watching anything.

I actually did get a lot done today, but…man, am I tired.

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Save the Date for Frontiers of Democracy 2015

Frontiers of Democracy, an annual conference focused on questions of civic studies and civil society, will take place in Boston on June 25-27!

You can go ahead and register for this gathering here.

Frontiers of Democracy is truly one of the highlights of my year. It brings together a unique blend of practioners and scholars; people from different backgrounds and fields of study, all coming from different perspectives, but looking for ways to collaborate on solutions.

There are some good arguments and some deep disagreements, but – as you might expect from people dedicated to re-emphasizing individual agency in civil society – the attendees at Frontiers are downright neighborly. They’re the kind of people who will want to get to know you and hear your ideas – for no other reason than their confidence that every person’s perspective adds value.

I’ve met some of the smartest, thoughtful, and dedicated people I know at Frontiers, and it really is a marvelous time.

Hosted by the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service – where I work – the framing for this year’s Frontiers is described on the website as follows:

While powerful forces work against justice and civil society around the world, committed and innovative people strive to understand and improve citizens’ engagement with government, with community, and with each other. Every year, Frontiers of Democracy convenes some of these practitioners and scholars for organized discussions and informal interactions. Topics include deliberative democracy, civil and human rights, social justice, community organizing and development, civic learning and political engagement, the role of higher education in democracy, Civic Studies, media reform and citizen media production, civic technology, civic environmentalism, and common pool resource management. Devoted to new issues and innovative solutions, this conference is truly at the frontiers of democracy.

For those with more time to dedicate to this topic, Frontiers of Democracy culminates the Summer Institute of Civic Studies, a two-week seminar that is currently accepting applicants.

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Legal Observers

I recently had the pleasure of going to a Legal Observer training by the National Lawyer’s Guild.

And what, you might ask, is a Legal Observer?

As the National Lawyer’s Guild describes:

The Legal Observer® program is part of a comprehensive system of legal support designed to enable people to express their political views as fully as possible without unconstitutional disruption or interference by the police and with the fewest possible consequences from the criminal justice system.

What’s particularly interesting is that Legal Observers are trained and directed by Guild attorneys, who often have established attorney-client relationships with activist organizations, or are in litigation challenging police tactics at mass assemblies.

Essentially, Legal Observers – who don’t need to be lawyers themselves – serve as part of the legal team for activist organizations and thus have attorney-client privilege . Their role is to objectively document and observe demonstrations and, if necessary, to provide legal support to their client activists.

Additionally, as the Guild adds: The presence of Legal Observers® may serve as a deterrent to unconstitutional behavior by law enforcement during a demonstration.

Trained Observers are added to a distribution list of opportunities and are welcome to volunteer for as many or as few events as they have capacity for.

For information about upcoming trainings, contact your local Guild chapter. The Boston office can be reached at (617) 227-7335.

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Waiting

My father always told me that it’s better to be 30 minutes early than 1 minute late, so I’ve spent a significant portion of my life waiting.

Apparently, I am not alone in this – in 2012 the New York Times reported that Americans spend roughly 37 billion hours each year waiting in line.

It’s somewhat unclear, but I assume that estimate doesn’t include time waiting not in line – waiting for your child’s soccer game to finish, waiting for the meeting before yours to finish, waiting for a building to open, or waiting for the bus (which may or may not be in a line).

The Times argues that the “drudgery of unoccupied time” leads to complaints about waiting. Moving baggage carousels further from a gate, for example, reduced complaints since passengers had more occupied time walking to the carousel and less unoccupied time waiting at the carousel.

In some ways this makes sense, but in other ways I find it baffling.

Unoccupied time? What does that even mean?

Don’t get me wrong, I can get impatient with the best of them. About 4 and half hours into the flight to California I am about ready to jump out the window to get off of the plane. I get anxious when I’m running late and unfocused when I’m waiting for news.

But just waiting in general?

I don’t know. Isn’t that…kind of what life is? Finding ways to occupy unoccupied time?

Maybe I’ve just read Waiting for Godot too many times.

My father, after all, also taught me that when you arrive somewhere 30 minutes before you have anything to do there, it’s wise to bring a good book. Add snacks and water to that list and I’m good to go.

And if it’s too dark to read, that’s no big drama. After all, there’s always something interesting to think about.

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What Can be Done?

Faced with the ills of the world it is not uncommon to ask, What can be done?

This may be regret, heaved with a heavy sigh – what can be done?

Or it may be hope, seeking tactical advantage – what can be done?

Either way the question is the same. Whether the problems of the world seem utterly insurmountable or whether scrappy solutions seem effective enough, the question remains: what can be done?

The question itself is arguably disempowering – conjuring images of far-off experts or distant lands. What can be done [by those in power]? The question seems to ask.

In civic studies, we focus on an individual’s agency and on the collective power of people. Instead of asking what can be done, we ask what can we do?

What can be done by you and I? What can be done collectively by anyone seeking solutions to our most challenging problems? What steps can you and I take today, tomorrow, and ever onward to make the world better? What can we do?

The question is a daunting one. Putting the focus on ourselves puts the pressure on ourselves. What can we do?

What can I do?

I could do nothing. An option, perhaps, but a wholly dissatisfying one.

I could do something. A more promising tack, but with many questions in its wake. What something should I do? How much something is enough?

There is no solution, no easy formula, no simple way of knowing that x number of hours or y number of dollars fulfills your moral obligations to your fellow man. So still we are left with the question, what can we do?

You can try to logic your way into an answer – I shouldn’t give so much time that I burn out, I shouldn’t give more philanthropically than is sustainable. But to me those answers always feel hollow.

There is always more work to be done. There is always more I could give.

And then there are the myriad challenges for which I have no solutions. For which I have no knowledge and no real capacity to bring about positive change. Thousands are dying in Nigeria.

What can I do?

The haunting answer maybe nothing.

There are certainly things in this world which are beyond my control. I’ve no powers over life or death, over good fortune or ill. There are times when you have to let go. There are times when there is nothing to be done.

But this doesn’t have to be an icy fate. Even knowing the odds, knowing the challenges, knowing how little power we have in the face of cataclysmic challenges. Even knowing all this we can still pause and ask…

What can we do?

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Protest Strategies

Last week, protesters in Boston shut down 93 in both directions during rush hour. As they explained in their statement, they took this action to “disrupt business as usual” and protest police and state violence against Black people.

And disrupt they did.

But over the last few days, I’ve watched a fascinating debate emerge: was this the best form of action?

There are concerns about safety: at least one ambulance was diverted as a result of the action. There are concerns about precedent: do we want to be telling anyone that the dangerous act of blocking traffic is okay? There are concerns about effect: will this just make people angry, turning them off from really caring about the (important) cause?

And, of course, there are concerns about legitimacy: were the protesters just entitled white people? Did they truly have the buy in and support of Black Lives Matter? Were black people and people of color disproportionally negatively effected by being stuck in traffic? Did they lose wages? Did they lose their jobs? Did the protesters wildly misunderstand their target by calling Medford/Somerville “predominantly white, wealthy suburbs”?

These are all good questions.

There are, of course, rebuttals to all these points. One blogger, for example, argues: Boston is notorious for its traffic coming to a complete standstill on major thoroughfares. During baseball season, ambulances are routinely prevented from reaching major Boston hospitals in an efficient manner. I wonder whether the people who are attempting to discredit the #BlackLivesMatter protest also speak out against the Red Sox and their fans for blocking traffic? 

Those into history can revisit three weeks in 1981 when firefighters, police officers, and others regularly blocked rush hour traffic to protest layoffs – and there were no arrests. Like a Blue Mass Group blogger you might ask: Is it possible that there were no arrests because the police, although charged with trying to keep the roadways open, were basically in sympathy with the protesters?  Or have policies regarding when to arrest protesters changed over the years? 

These are also good questions.

Everybody has good questions, but but no one has good answers. It’s not that surprising, I suppose – if anyone had designed the “perfect protest” I’m sure we’d all have heard about it by now.

But there is no ideal protest formula, no way of know exactly what is best. Protests are messy, they’re complicated, and most of all, they are controversial.

And that is truly the crux of the matter. The debate isn’t really about how many ambulances were effected, or how this traffic compares to regular terrible traffic.

The real question is: are disruptive tactics good? Do they generate change in ways that other tactics cannot?

I don’t know the answer to that question – no one does – and it’s a great, interesting, rich topic of debate.

Personally, I tend to be conflict-avoidant: I can’t honestly say that I’m prepared to take part in any action which will lead to being arrested. But I’m not convinced that’s a good thing. Perhaps I am wise, perhaps I am a coward. I couldn’t say for sure.

But I will say this: I’m not prepared to judge anyone else for participating in the actions they think are most likely to bring about the change they want to see.

Let’s talk about strategy. Let’s talk about tactics. Let’s discuss what works and what doesn’t work, let’s debate what actions and reactions are most meaningful. But at the end of the day, yes – I stand by the Boston protesters.

I am proud they had the courage to stand up for what they believe. If only each of us could say the same.

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Irregardless

I’m going to come out with a relatively controversial opinion: I’m rather fond of the word “irregardless.”

And yes, it is a word.

Of irregardless, the Oxford English Dictionary says, “In nonstandard or humorous use: regardless.”

Merriam-Webster elaborates:

Irregardless originated in dialectal American speech in the early 20th century. Its fairly widespread use in speech called it to the attention of usage commentators as early as 1927. The most frequently repeated remark about it is that “there is no such word.” There is such a word, however. It is still used primarily in speech, although it can be found from time to time in edited prose. Its reputation has not risen over the years, and it is still a long way from general acceptance. Use regardless instead.

While, perhaps, it’s reputation has not risen over the years, irregardless has actually be in use for quite some time.

Wikipedia sites the first recorded use of irregardless as being in City Gazette & Daily Advertiser (Charleston, South Carolina). June 23, 1795, p.3, though unfortunately that paper doesn’t seem to be available online for confirmation.

But, irregardless of this history, irregardless continues to be frowned upon.

Part of the reason for this disdain is that irregardless is generally considered to be a portmanteau, a combination of irrespective and regardless.

Incidentally, portmanteau comes from a french word that used to mean suitcase and now means coat rack in French, though a portmanteau is still a suitcase in English. Portmanteau also came to mean a word created by squishing two words together when Lewis Carroll had  Humpty Dumpty – a notorious  blowhard – misuse the term in Through the Looking Glass.

While I’m not a fan of many portmanteaus (eg, amazballs), many others are quite helpful and valuable to the English language. I mean really, who doesn’t love brunch?

So if being a portmanteau is not enough to malign irregardless, perhaps a better question is to ask why we need irregardless when you could just use regardless?

That’s a good question and an area for healthy debate.

Personally, I use the two words differently, and therefore value both. Words have character, you see, and the character and cadence of words matter.

Regardless is a word of practicality. Its a good word to use when you’re talking about something reasonable and and a detail won’t effect the outcome. Regardless of the weather, we ought to go…

Irregardless, on the other hand, is a word of such flippant disregard it much better captures the trivialities that plague our modern lives. Why is their an “ir” before the “regardless”?

It’s irregardless, that’s why.

By it’s very existence, irregardless is saying, “yeah I’ve got a double negative and don’t really make sense, but irregardless, I’m a word and I mean what I mean.”

Irregardless. You’ve got to respect that.

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