Tuesday, October 30, 2007

On social capital, and other things percolating

So I just finished Robert Putnam's "Bowling Alone: The collapse and revival of American community." DAMN, I say. Of all the books I've read the past couple of years on consumption, peak oil, etc. etc., this one hit me hardest. Right here, where I can feel it. I KNOW I can act here and I have to.

Lack of social capital is my problem. When I hear friends saying they don't want to join a group or volunteer because of the potentially "annoying" people they might meet, that's my problem. When I hear someone saying that they don't ride the bus because too many random people talk to them ... that's my problem, too, in more ways than one.

I don't like talking to strangers. Here in The City, you never know what one will say. Will it be a come-on? (When I moved here I was 23, and leaving work late at night, some guy in his 50s asked me if I'd like to get a room. Really? Really?) Will it be someone drunk or high or psychotic? Will it be begging?

Mostly, it will be begging. The homeless and down-and-out contingent here is huge. And sometimes the group that seems even bigger is the canvassers. CalPERS, Greenpeace, Ron Paul. Good for the world, bad for my sense of personal space. Bad for my (in)ability to say no and only to avoid. You wouldn't believe the contortions of time and space I've gone through to avoid a Greenpeace canvasser asking cheerfully, slightly aggressively, for a minute of my time to help save the world. This, although I've happily donated to Greenpeace in the past!

It's all part of the same puzzle. No social capital. No trust that those Greenpeacers won't a) stalk me; b) insult me; c) hate my guts for the rest of their lives if I don't give to their cause right now. No trust in my own ability to cheerfully say "Not today, thanks." What that means to me is "I've already donated to an environmental organization/I've donated my time to a local cause/I'm researching the best use of my money/I promise to vote Democrat." What I'm afraid they hear is "I don't give a shit about the environment. Leave me alone, you dirty hippies." Can you see why I'd rather go through a parking garage and invent a cell phone conversation that's not actually happening to avoid THAT kind of judgment?

No social capital. No trust. No ability to DEAL with people that may or may not want something. No training in how to do that. Just wrap yourself in your bubble and hope they stay far away.

Well, that's been my MO for the last howevermany years. That's got to end now. I can't work for change, I can't be the change I want to see in this world, if I'm afraid of other people. And when I say afraid, I don't mean for my safety. I mean for my precious comfort zone, so carefully cultivated.

Nothing works -- no social change works -- without a community holding it up. I cannot contribute to revitalizing, even keeping on life support, a concept of community without talking to other people in it ... or at least listening ... or at the very least not hiding from them!

I will not be afraid of strangers. The only thing I'm going to fight is the instinct in myself to fear what's different.


Small print update: I'm four? three? days into a little bit of Internet deprivation. I'm not sure whether it's affecting my to-do list but it's clearing the extra-social fog in my brain a little bit. I need a lot more doing and a whole lot less reporting about what I'm doing. Often I've spent more time writing up a recap of an event than I spent at the thing. Or conversation, or dinner with friends or whatever.

PS Two, I'm afraid that since so many things seem so clear to me now, I'm setting myself up for a good fall on the heels of hubris. My mom says just because I'm trying to make positive change doesn't mean the universe is going to punish me. I think, without saying too much personally, that's quite a progressive statement. A lot of people would like to see those who try to improve themselves, and their world, go down at the sword for their crime of "self-righteousness" or possibly "hypocrisy." Or "making other people feel guilty about how they're spending their time." Apparently these are worse crimes, in some opinions, than wastefulness, ignorance and apathy. Luckily my family doesn't see it that way ...

PS Three, I can't decide whether I'm going to try to write a novel for National Novel Writing Month: 50,000 words in 30 days. If I wrote it it would be about peak oil and a town trying to get through it. I have my plot and my characters; the only thing I don't have is the willingness to devote several hours each day of the month of November to it. Well, we'll see. It's a fun thing to do (especially the community aspect of it), it would give voice to a lot of these post-peak-oil survivalist scenarios bumping around in my head, and it would be fun to tell people that I wrote a novel in a month. Of course, I've already done it twice, with poor results each time. So we'll see what shakes down.

Speaking of which, there was just a rather midsized earthquake here, felt most definitely in The City and the house of tk specifically. This reminds me I need to write here about NERT training. Our final two classes are Thursday and Friday nights. On Friday night we graduate after we review our take-home test and play out a disaster scenario. I'm trying to remember as much as I can that's not in the textbook to post here, and hope to get to it this weekend before I forget everything.

Monday, October 29, 2007

On the New Solution

In the last couple of weeks it's become very clear to me what the "next step" in Getting Things Done terminology is.

My adult life has coincided with my Internet-using life. I got on when I was 18 and had left home. I have been connected ever since with no breaks except maybe a week on vacation, and even then I've always been able to get some connection.

At the same time, I've nearly always been disorganised, overwhelmed, and perpetually behind, while having my carefully arranged Internet life in meticulous order.

I can tell you which of my "invisible friends" on LiveJournal are dating each other, where they're working and which physical ailments they're battling. I can tell you which friends on text BBSes, which is where I started at age 18, are feuding, as well as their kids' names and ages, and often I can tell someone where a certain user is likely to be at any given moment. This is even if I've never met the person. This is very useful in a lot of cases to other people. "Where's so and so? I bet tk knows. What's going on with so and so's relationship? tk is sure to know that."

It's useful for other people, and it's useful for the part of me that likes escapism and avoiding stuff in my real life, but it's not useful FOR ME anymore, and I'm seeing that very clearly now.

I can tell you all that stuff about my Internet social life, while my obligations and chores and to-do lists pile up and I wonder, "Where's all my time going?"

And I don't want to be that person anymore. And I'm not going to be.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

On church

... Church? Me, write about church? This is the least likely thing that's probably happened in this blog so far. I was raised with no religion -- my parents were atheists for all practical purposes. My dad is "culturally Jewish" but nobody in his family has actually believed in the religion end of it for three generations. My mom was raised generally Christian and didn't buy it, and her grandparents, who were raising her, didn't force her to go to church after a certain age. My mom did sometimes start getting into Buddhism or Mary-worship or Taoism, but she never tried to pass the interest on to me. I basically had no spirituality at all (except for six months in the 11th grade when I tried to be a Taoist as well, and a month in college when I decided to try Judaism out. Neither one took). This has never bothered me.

What other people seem to get out of religion, I'm satisfied either not getting or getting somewhere else. The faith that everything will be OK and that people are generally good, I just was born with. The need of someone "higher" to turn to when things go really sideways ... I like philosophy for that, but also, nothing has gone so wrong that I've been compelled to pray about it, so I'm lucky that way. The awe of this beautiful planet, however it got here -- got it, but I don't see any creator behind it. I chalk it up to the miracle of science.

So, no church, no religion. Last night my husband (also agnostic) asked me if I'd like to be Unitarians. I said I didn't even think I had enough spirituality for that. He laughed but it's true. I'm about as secular as you can get.

But lately -- in the past month or so -- I've had this urge out of nowhere to join a church here in The City.

Go figure, huh?

When I realized this I blinked at myself. What? A CHURCH? Then I had to start figuring out why.

Of course, it all starts and ends with my own personal Bible -- the Little House books. I should have known.

When they're 40 miles from anywhere, or it's a day trip into town, the Ingallses kept Sunday sacred in their own way but without going to church. But when they got to where they could all travel to a town easily, one of the first things they did was join the church. Specifically in Little Town on the Prairie, the church was the center of the new town. The church put on sociables for the women to get a break from housework and come have some adult conversation; the church was the recipient of or the benefactor to other towns on the frontier (Christmas barrels, donations); the church put on the holiday suppers. Of course, church was where you saw everyone you may not see the rest of the week. Say you have a person who lives ten miles out, and they're busy -- they have a bunch of kids maybe, or a lot of animals or land to take care of or even a busy office job. Year after year, you see that person at church -- and they're in your extended tribe.

If church wasn't the community, church definitely facilitated the community. And church was where all the action -- the activism, the improvement, the charity -- took place.

Last night my husband and I came to the conclusion that when this country became non-church-centered, no institution stepped in to take its place: to take care of the needy, to give the people a place to meet and share in something common. You had a civic-minded institution in the church, so people didn't need the government and kind of looked down on the government or didn't trust it. Now, the government (town halls, city council) may be the only institution that could take the place of the church, but while we don't trust the church, we also don't trust the government. So we're adrift.

The church in the prairie idiom, of course, is something I can't aspire to right now. The main reason is that those towns were conservative socially and that was the end of the story. If you had to wrestle with a possible un-belief, you'd better not tell anyone or it would get around that you were a heathen (see Laura not wanting to go to revival meetings but even her best friends begging her to). In general, you just WERE a Christian, no ifs, ands, or buts.

I kind of think that the spirituality was secondary in the prairie church -- at least to some people. If I had been raised in one church and it was a good community and a bunch of decent people, I don't think I would leave it if I decided I didn't believe in God, Jesus or the Bible. I think the church was a conduit for community.

That's what we don't have anymore. If churches and entire religions weren't so full of abuses and repression, maybe more people would still be interested to go just for the neighborly aspect of things. But they are, so you have to be really committed to the spirituality of a church to put up with the kind of things you might encounter -- judgmental authorities, political maneuvering, money grubbing, desperation. Nobody I know is willing to do that. The community of the church is not worth the trouble.

And I know, personally, it would be wrong-hearted of me to join a church to hook onto the communal aspect of it. Something wouldn't be right about that: not that I would go to hell or that the other parishioners would know I was a "fake," but that regardless of its benefits, a church is still primarily an avenue of worship, worship of a higher power. If you don't believe in that kind of thing and aren't interested in cultivating that belief, it seems kind of hollow to go to a place, ignore the elephant in the living room, and avail yourself of the charity, community and leadership.

So what's next? What has the potential to bring a town or neighborhood or group of people together that isn't focused on everyone being similar (having similar interests, the same skin color, the same money, the same background)? Groups based on similarity are often comfortable but not terribly dynamic. What, in the secular world, can fill the role of the old-time churches?

Town hall meetings are a possibility. We trust the government ever less, even when Democrats are in power, even when grassroots activism has been shown to work. We're cynical over the government and we don't want to put our energy into it. This is what I hear from more people than I can say, old and young. We live in a corrupt system, they say, and while we don't have to work against it, we also don't have to work with it. (The same goes for the churches, by the way.) So while we're not working with it, we're also not working with anything. We're adrift.

Clans and extended families are good for survival and support. But those are smaller, even, than I'm thinking is necessary. Your tribe is your inner circle, but you still need an outer circle around that, where the town should be.

Neighborhood associations are based on socioeconomic similarity; but if you could get a neighborhood association that would work outside its own neighborhood, reaching out to people NOT in the club, you might have the potential to do some real good and some honest community building.

Unions, school groups, charity/volunteer groups ... all good, with limited potential. There's a reason most activism takes place on college campuses: actually two reasons -- the first one is that there's a context for what you're doing. You see the people you're canvassing with or whatever in your math class. You trust them because you see them in front of your face every few days, so you're more inclined to get into something a little more deep with them. The second reason is that there's leadership. If you join a campus activist society, or a high school one -- you know that someone there is in charge who won't send you off to get killed.

If you decide to undertake charity on your own, you can't TRUST your own instincts as much as you can with a church/campus/even governmental leader. You don't know whether you should talk to that homeless guy on the street because he hasn't been vetted as someone who will or won't stab you. So you have to leave him alone. If you're part of an organization, with a leader, dealing with this kind of thing, you have more backup. That's something else a church provides that nothing else has really stepped into the place of.

So, a lot of possibilities, not a lot of answers. I need to start thinking of community activism and building in a different light -- or decide that God really is the answer -- which I don't see happening. I also have to realize that alone, I can't have as much of an effect as if I were part of a group, all working toward the same basic goal. We are so isolated nowadays that even thinking of being in a group gives us the willies -- who will be there? Will they be old, sick, irritating? Will it be more fun, rewarding, easier to stay home? This way of thinking has to go. I'm not in college anymore and don't have a calendar of clubs in front of me to cherry-pick from. I can't be a passive observer while I watch people unable to deal with their communities because of fear or lack of leadership. It's the point in my life where I have to maybe think of being PART of the leadership, or at least of the movement.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

On the parents

For weeks I've been wanting, inspired by Casaubon's Book of course, to write about something very hard, and very big. It doesn't seem that way now, but it will be. I've had to talk to to my husband about it and figure out whether we're on the same page. It turns out that, for the most part, we are.

The fact of the matter is unless something catastrophic and sudden happens, we're going to end up having to take one of our parents in. Between us we have four parents (and two steps) -- all still living, primarily thriving. My parents aren't even at 60 yet. With me at 30 it suddenly seems like my parents and I are in the same age group: Adults.

But the fact remains they're 30 years older than I am, and my husband's parents are 30 years older-plus than he is. At some point they're going to get infirm and have to have some help.

I'm the only child, and my dad isn't remarried. For him, I AM the help. For my mom, she's in a little better position because she's married to a guy younger than she is. But he leads a high-risk life -- drives for a living, and rides motorcycles for a hobby. They both smoke. My dad smoked for more than 30 years. Whether my stepdad manages to keep himself safe or not, the odds are good, just on my side, that my husband and I are going to end up with one of my parents when we're all older.

And I have had to get my head around this.

I won't quote Sharon at length at you. You've probably read the post -- but the salient bits go like this. We, people in my age group, are scared to death of the idea of ever co-housing with someone who isn't our partner or our child. This used to be a pretty common practice, but the gods of marketing and "lifestyle" have said we deserve, we NEED, our privacy and our space -- above all, our privacy. Even from our siblings or their kids. Even from the people who lived with US, sheltering us for 18 years of our lives.

I have felt this way. I've thought, There's no way, absolutely no way I can live with one of my parents. Noway, nohow. One of us won't make it out alive, to say nothing of my marriage. I had been dreading having to tell them they can't come, and explaining why.

Now I can't explain it even to myself. It's a culture of isolation, a culture of selfishness I've grown up in, that makes the idea of my parents (or just one parent) moving in so terrifying. I even get along with my parents. They aren't psycho, they aren't abusive. They have their quirks. My parents are described as characters, unusual, good hearted, and hip. They were hippies, after all -- my mom was in the first wave -- and now I can't trust them to be good living partners?

It comes down to a case of trust. It goes like this: When I was growing up my parents were overprotective. Whose weren't? I had a great time in high school. I had a social, romantic and even sex life despite the fact that I had to call home whenever I got to my destination if it was away from home; despite the fact I was held to a curfew; despite the fact that my parents didn't want me to hang around with drug dealers; and despite the overwhelming, obsessive worry that sometimes crept into their interactions with me. This last is what I haven't trusted to begone now that I'm an adult. Some of this mistrust is borne out; my parents still put on a mild display of panic if I do something they consider unwise or unsafe. I don't like it and I deal with it. When I think about them coming to live with me, I think of that. I think of my mom sitting up waiting for me to come home from a bar when I'm 45, I think of my dad insisting we don't go to a certain restaurant that he didn't like once. I think of this lasting until we -- my husband and I -- end up hoping for a quick exit, either for us or for them.

I think of the worst, and I don't trust them to be adults, and to realize that they're dealing with an adult and not a child when it comes to me. I don't give them credit for adapting, for being the decent humans that they are with brain cells to rub together. I don't know why this is. It's a matter of fear and the fear of being inconvenienced, even for your tribe.

The tribe, the roots ... these are the terms that haven't meant much to me before. I'm close with my family, as small as it is. I'm close with my inlaws, and with my extended family. I'm almost always glad to see any one of them. But I'm also glad for them to go home, so I can have my house back -- my three-bedroom house where nobody cares whether I lie in bed all Saturday reading or not.

People living with me that aren't my husband would take me out of my comfort zone. I would feel like I couldn't do the things I wanted to do, that I had to do things others wanted to do. I would have to sacrifice my personal space. My biggest fear is that I would have to sacrifice, after all these years of living independently, my autonomy. I don't trust my family to let me keep my autonomy.

It really isn't fair to them, is it? They're rational (as rational as anyone else is), yet it's a gripping fear that suddenly I would become the 14-year-old again, even as I was in the position of co-head of household and THEY were in the position of dependents. Does this happen? I don't even know. I don't really know anyone who's let their parents live with them.

That's not true, I do have a friend whose mother got severe Alzheimer's in her early 50s. She lived with our friends for a few years. She didn't even know who was there most of the time, let alone where her kids were coming and going to. I know my friend would have wished his overprotective mother back in a second. She's in a home now because she was requiring more care -- to eat, to be fed, to relieve herself -- than these two working parents with two children, including one disabled, could provide.

But they gave it an honest shot. They didn't turn the woman out for others to care for without trying to see how it worked. I don't know how many years it took off their lives to care for her, but it may have taken more off if they'd never tried.

I don't operate in too many moral absolutes. I've been accused of being too relativist. But I do truly think that it's straight-up wrong to refuse to care for an aging relative just because it wouldn't be much fun, it would be a pain in the ass, it would cramp my style. In my very small (and growing) book of ethics, that's just something I can't contemplate anymore.

Maybe it won't be an issue. I was scared to death when I sat down my husband and said: The reality is that we're likely to have to take in one of our parents. He said: You might be right. I can't remember his exact words, but they weren't "If you do that, I'm out of here." So it's a start that we're both on the same page with that, and with what's right to do by our families, even if the issue never does come up.

I don't want to be a person anymore who would put my all-encompassing comfort over the life and health of someone else, especially someone who wasn't long for this world, especially-especially someone who's an integral part of my life and always has been. And when it comes to me retaining my autonomy and not being forced into a child-role if I'm the caretaker: The fact is this -- I'm an adult and I can call my own shots now as to whether I get treated like one. They will understand that, and I have to trust that. And I have to trust myself to back up these words.