What Does Democracy Look Like? Ride the Subway.

I ride the Washington, D.C., Metro trains essentially every business day of the year and have found it to be, quite possibly, the most democratic place in the country.

I have been riding for over two decades, and I have seen much that goes on, or is likely to happen, on this subway system. Like any public transportation, it has both good features and bad. But the one thing that is most remarkable is that it even happens at all.

The Metro carries between 600,000 and 700,000 passengers every day on average, and there are all kinds of riders. There are the rich and the poor. There are blacks, whites, Latinos, and Asians. There are women and men. There are managers and laborers. There are the young and the old, the athletic and the disabled. There are Christians and Muslims and Hindus and Jews.

All of us each day enter crowded train cars together. We sit or stand next to each other. We sometimes talk but often are silent, minding our own business.

This is normal. But certain types of people would have us believe that this is simply impossible, that there is no way a stable civil society could be maintained that is made up of such diversity. That the only outcome from putting a Muslim and a Jew, or white people and black people–or whichever antagonistic combination you prefer–in a confined space is bloodshed.

Here is the remarkable thing about the Metro: nobody is forcing themselves upon someone else. Nobody is claiming their opinions are correct and that everyone else is wrong. Nobody is trying to kill one another, or injure, or harass. Yes, there are some beggars and hustlers, some thieves and the occasional person who is either drunk, stoned, or in serious need of a shower. But mostly, every day of the year, we get along.

Security is gained by numbers. Everyone behaves better when there are numerous witnesses. Why? Because we all more or less know how to behave in public–I truly believe this. And not just large numbers of people who look like you or believe as you do. Diversity is its own strength. It is only when we are alone or in a crew of too many like-minded individuals that the trouble begins.

As Metro riders, we accept that each person is on the train for a reason and has somewhere they need to be. Deep down, despite our differences, we accept each other’s essential humanity, that everyone has a mother and/or father who is missing them, or has a spouse they kissed goodbye that morning, or children they are looking forward to seeing when they get home. They have work to do, people to meet. lives to live.

In this time when America feels more divided then I can remember in my lifetime, I take comfort from my rides on the Metro. I take comfort from our demonstrated ability to not give in to our negativity, think outside ourselves, and get along. It is an example of an America that finds strength in diversity. It is an example of what America can aim to be in the coming new year.

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Maybe I Am Smarter Than NPR

It was once pointed out to me that, more often than not, things that seem like a great idea but never really become popular are probably just not very good ideas.

This is counter to the school of thought that there are All These Great Ideas out there that Nobody is paying attention to, but would Really Change Things As We Know Them if we would just embrace them. I have been a victim of this way of thinking on many occasions, so I know how seductive it can be.

So I have this idea for solving the ongoing problem of uncivil online conversations. This is a real and growing problem.giphy

The problem is so bad that NPR announced last month that they were discontinuing their online comment system for their news stories. This is despite the fact that Scott Montgomery, managing editor for digital news, has said that they “believe strongly in the value of audience conversations about the news and our work.” This is in spite of eight years of trying to make it work. This is in spite of saying they wanted a “forum for infinite conversations.”

And they finally threw in the towel. According to Ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen, they got “overwhelmed” using staff efforts to keep the conversations free of spam and trolls. They upped their game in 2011 and again in 2012, “trying to find a workable solution.”

But they seem to have never considered one potentially workable solution. As I have discussed before, the biggest problem with online comments is that they are anonymous and free of charge. One way to fix that is to charge money for the privilege of leaving a comment. It would provide revenue and encourage more thoughtful discussion.

NPR–like most news organizations–is operating under the perception that online comments must be free, or not exist at all. Why they have not considered a compromise option is a mystery to me.

In real life, the exchange of money serves many purposes. One of them is as a gauge of how much you really want something. Do you value it highly? You pay more money. Don’t care? You look for cheap or free.

This is basic economics.

When people leave nasty, uncivil comments on news sites, it is because they have nothing at stake. So it seems obvious that NPR and other news services would find a way for their readers to care more about the things they say.

Make them put their money where their mouths–or keyboards–are.

But maybe this just isn’t a good idea.

Was It Something I Said?

We broke up by email.

“Dear band friends,” it said. “I emailed Mike yesterday to let him know that I was planning on leaving the band and that I thought we should disband. We talked it over today and we are in agreement — while we may individually (and collectively) continue to play music in various configurations, the band is no more.  –Brad”

bassman

Me – the bass player – going for it at one of our better gigs.

I was okay with it at first. There had been some signs that foretold our demise. Our drummer had quit and we were struggling to find our sound without her. We needed to either a) locate a new drummer or b) figure out a new configuration to play our songs with what we had. So, it wasn’t much of a surprise that it just wasn’t going to work out.

But then, about six months later, I found out that, with a new band name, Mike was playing again with our singer. A few months after that, Brad had joined them and they played an outdoor gig nearby.

That meant that, besides the drummer who quit, the band was back together. Except without me.

I won’t say that it didn’t sting. Because it did. And it still does.

At the outset, the break up seemed unremarkable. I’d been with the band for four years, and Mike and Brad had been playing together for about six. We’d performed a respectable number of paying gigs and recorded a CD. But these kinds of things have a life cycle, and time was beginning to take its toll. The drummer quitting was the final straw, and while we tried to limp along for a couple of months, it wasn’t working and we knew it.

At least, that’s what I thought. But now Brad, Mike, and the singer are playing together again, so there clearly is no tension or grudge held there. The drummer quit. Of all of us, I’m the only member who

  • was not consulted on the break up,
  • did not leave voluntarily, and
  • was not asked to rejoin.

I think they’re trying to tell me something.

But what? I gave all I had to give to the band. My bass playing was only getting better. I provided valuable suggestions on riffs and arrangements that were readily adopted. I supplied back-up vocals and percussion. I showed up to all the gigs. What did I do that merits being exiled? Was it something I said?

Sure, if I wanted to be blunt, I could ask. But I’ve only had a few conversations with Brad over the past year, and none with Mike. It’s not like I’ve had the opportunity to easily bring up the topic. And I don’t think it would go over well if I showed up unannounced, demanding an explanation. That would just make me look crazy.

Besides, actions speak louder than words. The message is loud and clear.

The new band will be performing in the next couple weeks. They have a different guy playing bass. They didn’t even extend me the courtesy of a personal note.

Helping Hands

Near my home, there is an intersection of two busy roads where people beg for money. I drive through at least weekly. It is a rotating cast of characters. You have the disabled veteran, or the older guy who has “lost it all,” or the woman with the multiple kids she must feed. I can’t tell if they’re drawn there because it’s a particularly lucrative spot, or if panhandling has now reached the suburbs and intersections are the new street corner.

Only occasionally do I give some money. But I am always moved. I just don’t know how best to respond.

Sometimes what’s needed is a helping hand. Sometimes what’s needed is a hand to hold.

Often, it’s hard to tell, at any given moment, which is needed more.
Helping hands

Last July, a friend of mine lost her partner to cancer. They’d been together only a few years, and both were married before. Essentially, she had stopped communicating during the last month of his life, and in the months following. I struggled to discern whether she needed help, and if so, what kind? What was the right help to offer?

Recently, a couple I know who are the parents of one of my son’s friends were struck by a car while crossing the street. When I first heard, my reaction was to be a part of their support network. But as each day led to the next, and the struggles of my own life claimed my attention, their need became less pressing. They have mostly recovered now, and I didn’t even stop by their house. Was that the best thing to do?

Twelve years ago, my life derailed when my wife suffered a ruptured aneurysm while carrying our second child. I’ve written about this before, so I won’t repeat the details. With hindsight, though, I can see that during her recovery, I was facing  grief, traumatic stress, the normal demands of raising small children and earning a living, and serving as my wife’s primary care-giver, all mixed together. My needs changed constantly, even several times a day. I could never, while immersed in it, say with any certainty whether I needed a helping hand or a hand to hold. Honestly, at times it was probably both simultaneously, while at other times neither. Often, when people asked if there was anything they could do, I couldn’t say because I just didn’t know.
sadness

What is the “right” response? How can anyone tell what another person needs, and when they need it?

In the book How Can I Help? Stories and Reflections on Service, authors Ram Dass and Paul Gorman say that while it natural to want to help, compassion is not without complication.

“We needn’t go deep beneath the surface before we encounter our ambivalence,” they write. “We note the interplay of generosity and resistance, self-sacrifice and self-protectiveness…. There are clearly many ways in which we hesitate to reach out or we get confused when we try.”

In spite of the complete mystery of it, sometimes people do do the right thing. That December, when it all began to unravel for me, my wife’s former employer brought us a Christmas tree. I could not have said at the time that I needed it, but I deeply believe now that it was exactly the right thing for us.
Holding Hands

Contrary to what many may think, the helping transaction requires something from each party—both the helper and the helped are giving and getting. I was very bitter and angry when I was in need of help. I probably asked for less than I needed, and was less gracious than I could have been.

In contrast, I see a cheerful gratitude in the couple recovering from the car accident. They feel lucky to be alive, which says so much about their approach to the event.

What had I to offer them? Maybe very little. Should I have done something? Probably.

Action is required, and compassion, and luck. “On this path we will stumble, fall, and often look and feel a little foolish,” say Dass and Gorman. But in the end, we’ve done what we could, and we “trust the rest to God, to Nature, to the Universe.”

My Facebook Experiment

A few years ago, I joined Facebook. Reluctantly.

The members of the band I was in at the time thought that social media was a good way to publicize our gigs. Everyone else in the band was already on Facebook, and I thought it would give the wrong impression if the bassist were the only one who was not. Up until that point, I didn’t see the value of it. Facebook

So I joined. But I had one condition.

I felt that if I had to be on Facebook–if it wasn’t my idea–then I would do it on my terms. And my terms were these: with a few exceptions, I would not initiate friending anyone; I would wait for them to friend me.

I thought it would look phony if, after having dismissed social media, I suddenly joined and started friending everyone I could think of. Also, and more importantly, I wanted to gauge the level of other’s interest in being connected to me. One way to do that was to wait and see.

And you know what? Very few people have friended me. The usual suspects have–I could have predicted with 95 percent confidence the small number of individuals who would friend me–but a surprising number have not. For example, there are some people with whom my wife is barely acquainted–but who I have known for years–who have friended her, but not me.

I have to wonder what that means. Does that say something about me, or about them?

I would like to blame Facebook’s automated “find your friends” feature, which mines your address book and friends everyone whom you may have, at some point in your life, listed an email address for.

But, more likely, it is that I have some fundamental misunderstanding of the rules of social media, because they are essentially the same rules that govern social interaction in general. It has something to do with how attractive you are, how talkative you are, and how comfortable you are with the medium. Things like intelligence and humor do not come across well on Facebook.

And if that feels like high school, it’s because…well…it is like high school. In a recent article in New York magazine, writer Jennifer Senior points out that research indicates that all our social skills–the ability to pick up on cues or fail to do so–we learn as adolescents. Quoting work by Gabriella Conti, she says ” ‘Adolescent popularity,…it’s about interpersonal relations. High school is when you learn how to master social relationships—and to understand how, basically, to play the game. ” Or don’t.”

Underlying all of this is being able to effectively interact with people and make yourself interesting to others. This is a skill that is, for the most part, independent of media, although Facebook does amplify the extent to which one has mastered it, thus requiring the refinement of one’s social toolkit to avoid being annoying.

I’ve heard people say how connected they feel on Facebook, but these are people who were already connected in the real world. For me, Facebook has not upped my feeling of connection. Rather, it is one more avenue of communication that I suck at. Most days, instead of updating my status with some inane personal detail, I find myself thinking, “Why bother?” and “Who cares?”

The bottom line is that social media is little different from any other social situation. Those who understand the rules are rewarded, and those for whom the rules remain mysterious are marginalized or even penalized. I know of a number of people who’ve tried Facebook but have since deactivated their accounts. “It just didn’t work for me,” one guy told me.

I continue to use Facebook on occasion. Often I go more than a week without even logging in. Sometimes I wonder why I use it at all.