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.


Cindy said...

It may be useful to find a partner to join up with, someone you know to go to meetings for organizations, so you have help in braving the strangers (but not someone who is likely to be all "ahhh, wierd annoying strangers," because that may just reinforce your fears). You mentioned church many posts back, and while I wouldn't advocate church-going for someone who doesn't feel the need/desire, Unitarian churches are a great place to get involved with political and social issues. A couple of the guys I regularly see at the anti-war vigil here (when I go...) are highly involved in the UU church here. The first time I went to the UU church here, I thought...this not spiritual enough for me! Since then I think, you see what you want in it. Unitarians would say they are on a "spiritual journey," but as that takes many forms, I think the Sunday services come out pretty secular. or maybe just vague. I'm not sure.

I guess my point is, don't set yourself up to feel bad about your progress with strangers by going it completely alone. Maybe that IS how you should and will do things, and if so--awesome, but many times people think they have to make drastic changes without help from anyone they know, and end up feeling bad they couldn't do it. It's about community anyway, so I guess that's why I think, get someone else you know involved with you.

Rosa said...

NERT training counts, I think.

Also, are you close enough to go to one of the Totally Free Markets?

And this is where I share a totally frustrating conversation I had with my boyfriend last week.

"Honey, if my work team is on a kickball team next summer, will you join?"

"I don't know if I can run that much on my bad knee."

"I think it's mostly a hanging out drinking beer team with a little kickball."

"I'm not going to join a team that doens't even play a sport."

Aha. But, see, it's something we could do where we could take Mica along and not have to pay a babysitter. And ride our bikes to. (Though I have fond memories of running unwatched through the bowling alley while my parents were at bowling league. There was a lot of Space Invaders and fried cheese.)