Monthly Archives: October 2014

Civic engagement civilly undertaken

The runup to Scotland’s Devolution vote last month included, on this American side of the Pond, an opportunity to witness how civic engagement “over there” could be undertaken with both interest (a voter turnout of about 84%) and social media discussion among those of different stands in which the stand, rather than the shouting power of each discussant, tended to dominate. During the same time period, the case of the peremptory retraction of a signed and sealed tenure position at the University of Illinois-Urbana erupted in what amounted to blazes of emotionally supercharged shouting in the same social media venues. The UIU event, in terms of  no emotional holds barred appeals to human tendencies other than reason, was itself relatively tame when contrasted with daily troll outbursts, putatively addressing a vast swath of concerns, on local news sites all over the US.

Civic engagement, American-style, seems to come in decibels, while, in at least one other place, civil discourse flows from and to the ear and the brain before emerging  as sound walls through the mouth. Civility has that interesting capacity to keep the argument focused on what makes the argument important, while our fractious, post-Puritanical emotional outbursts reduce whatever discourse might have been  to the byproduct of cinders heaped on the quieter, slower speaker.

Yes, post-Puritanical: thererin lies the rub. While we have spent the past 250, 75, 50, and even 10 years outgrowing the rigid demands the Puritan culture winners hardwired into our civic building, we seem to have grown an increasingly untrammeled bulge of emotion-makes-right in the muscle we put to engaging with our civic interests. Instead of building toward community, we seem bent on building away from accepting diversity in member opinion. While anger at injustice can be a good and powerful engine toward unifying for change, we don’t limit ourselves to choosing when to anger for change’s sake and when to blast for the apparent delight of outyelling others. The end result isn’t civic engagement. It’s civil distress.

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Stasis and movement

The time has come to relocate–again. For most of my life, relocation has happened with the frequency Others expect to spend attending levels of scholarship:  high school, university, graduate school–only repeated to that disappearance point on the horizon. Three years at this address, five years at that, four and then less than one at another. Sometimes the moves have been within the municipal limits of one place or another (three addresses across six years in a Boston outskirt community; three across a dozen years in a tiny city demarcating Alameda County, CA’s northern border) and, more often, between coasts (Pittsburgh to LA, for three; followed by LA to Boston; followed by Boston to LA for a year before heading north to Oakland; some years later, across North America to Nova Scotia).

As we all age, those whom I know shed any shyness about interpreting how my moves are either about them or about my personality being deficient. The very longest of time friends don’t–they have become acclimated to where they themselves are geographically and in no doubt that our relationships outlast any address at which I might be located. It’s the ones I think of as “midlife gold” who seem most concerned with identifying me as fools gold: 20 years of friendship and she leaves [again] replacing their expectation that I go along and get along. Nothing I seem able to say brings our viewpoints closer: at our age, you hit the road again and you’re a bounder, not someone to look forward to returning.

And, for me, that is the sadness: the friends who cannot imagine that I’ll return (as I have demonstrated more frequesntly than any of them).  And, given the ages my friends (and I) are getting to see and be,  maybe they know somethng (intuitively) that escapes me: that there won’t be time (for them, for me) to get back.

I’m not them and so I press on: the shore–and whatever it is that promises succor from a friend–behind me only for now, with my every expectation of flipping back, through the waves, and seeing their faces clearly again…in a couple, four years.

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25 On

At a very few minutes past five yesterday afternoon, I was tucked into a window seat at Le Petit Cochon sipping a moderate bordeau and reading an excessively slow novel. This little French cafe-cum-oyster bar is fitted rather like a pocket handkerchief between the entrance to the garage serving the apartment building above it and the blank front of an office on its same street level floor. Twenty-five years ago, the building as a whole was in final design, one of the first of nearly a dozen multistoried, faux-arts and crafts memorials to be clustered downtown.

Twenty-five years ago, at that time and in this town as well as all over the Bay Area, the Loma Prieta Earthquake shook forcefully enough to teach all present of our mortal reality. We all know where we were and what we were doing and I have not yet met anyone who remembers doing anything as seeringly important as witnessing the event itself.

In addition to my own immediate experience of those moments, I remember watching others grapple with immediacy. A coworker rushed into our workplace as we were sorting through the protocols for closing it, perhaps 15 minutes after the quake (The power was out, book stacks had spewed everywhere and there was a general lack of confidence as we saw the amount of cornice work that had dropped from the exterior of the building, framed as that exterior was becoming by clouds of black smoke from the auto tow company fire a block away). She couldn’t locate her high school freshman daughter (This was all so close and yet so far from the era of cell phones and perpetual parental access). They were rejoined within the hour, the daughter is now herself a mother, and I can readily imagine that that toddler’s grandmother still marks the date as containing the longest moments of her life.

Walking home from work–and walking seemed to many of us the only acceptable form of transit as though feeling a bus’s rocking or even a bike’s bump againt the pavement might overstimulate our just-passing cessation of inescapable ground movement–I was stopped by a stranger who screamed in my face that the Bay Bridge had fallen. He wasn’t intending any sort of personal assault on my earspace and probably didn’t even know he was well within the zone our culture dictates as personal space of another. He had simply lost his own boundaries, become detached from the certainty of up, down, beside, and among.

Passing a branch of the same system where I worked, a branch that happens to have been erected on a granite nobble of earth beneath the top soil, I saw that its lights were stil on although we had closed the library system as a whole forty minutes earlier. The granite, we discovered, had so modified the quake hyperlocally that the staff were clueless about why they should be expected to close and get themselves home or off to discover wandering family members. (Again, this happened so close to the borderline of time at which point the when web access would have offered immediate response as to why, but close on the far side of that time border). I explained the situation to the children’s librarian, herself the single mother of a five-year-old. A five-year-old who immediately became, in her mother’s eye, in need of being sought, found, and held. The child was fine, their reunion was doubtlessly fond, and–in a case of irony–the mother, who was abut 35 and appeared to be in perfect health–died suddenly a month or two later, creating an orphan that the earthquake had not.

Twenty-five years is not a long time, and it is a lifetime, and it is both stark and permeable. In our metric-shy country, we accord 25th anniversaries the same reverence that vending machines still accord quarter dollar coins. Somehow we can make sense of 25% of an even hundred. It certainly is easier to do that than to try to apprehend the seismic power that 6.9 indicates.

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