Lead, follow, or get the $@#& out of my way already. (learning the zen of discourtesy)

I know it’s said that nobody walks in LA (or alternatively, only nobodies walk in LA). If that were true I’d probably be a great deal happier given that one of the main things that irks me about living in LA is how oblivious people seem to be to other people. This is true, too, when people are enclosed in their little plastic, glass, and metal boxes, but for some reason it doesn’t bother me much then. On foot, though, it drives me crazy, leaves me seething.

I went to college in Madison, WI, which has a huge pedestrian population. It is, however, also very orderly. In fact, as a sophomore I wrote an argument for anarchy in my political theory class that basically made the case that centralized government wasn’t really necessary because social norms (and their accompanying societal sanctions) could achieve the same ends. I cited as examples the orderly progression of students up and down Bascom Hill (which has two main sidewalks and is incredibly crowded but mostly avoids pandemonium because on both sidewalks there’s two streams of students who avoid colliding by keeping right) and dorm elevator behavior (don’t you dare take the elevator to the 3rd floor unless you’re crippled or sick to the point of near death). The point was less that these were important examples than it was that these were totally self-organizing example. It was sort of a silly, simplistic political argument, but for a 19 year old who was absolutely NOT an anarchist, I think I made a reasonably solid case, particularly given that this class was my first experience in arguing for things I didn’t actually have an emotional attachment to. I have since realized, however, that the argument worked only because I was a sophomore at UW. Had I been a UCLA sophomore I couldn’t have possibly argued that self-organization leads to outcomes nearly as orderly as rules imposed from the outside, no way, no how.

I really do love a lot of things about LA but I spend a lot of time out in public grumbling to myself “why don’t these people get out of the way. One could argue that this is merely the shock of moving from a small midwestern city to a large over-crowded metropolis. And I’m sure that to some extent that is an explanation. However, in Madison I lived in the extremely dense downtown area and I’d hazard a guess that my daily experiences there actually brought me into the presence of way more people than my daily life in LA does. Even Target on the weekend can’t really hold a candle to the UW campus between classes. The truth is I think the difference is cultural. I think people in LA simply don’t pay attention. I think many people here think they’re entitled to walk through life without taking into account other people’s needs. In short, I think people here are RUDE! And it annoys me. A lot.

Take for instance one morning last week when I walked into the office kitchen to rinse out my coffee cup in the sink. The kitchen was crowded with a group of people waiting for the conference room to open up. Our kitchen has a large table in the middle and to get to the sink requires walking around the table. A woman was standing at the table directly in front of the sink. “Excuse me,” I said. Rather than scooting down the empty table far enough that I could stand fully in front of the sink, she shifted slightly to her right. “Oh well, at least I can now reach the handle on the faucet” I sighed to myself and set to washing my cup, while leaning slightly to actually be holding my cup over the sink (and then leaning more dramatically to reach the pile of paper towels to dry it). Then I turned to leave, only to discover that another woman had filed in behind the table such that my way out was completely blocked. Fortunately the table is just far enough from the wall that two people can pass comfortably. That is, they can if one of them makes an effort not to be standing directly in the middle of the available space. I walked toward the woman. “Excuse me” I said as I reached the point where I had to pass her. And she responded by swaying ever so slightly forward. She did not move her feet to step forward so I could pass. She did not step around the end of the table so that I could pass without even having to turn sideways to do so. Simply put, she did not get out of the way. I squeezed behind her as best I could, thinking the whole time “really? really you feel so entitled that you cannot bother to step forward six inches to make someone else’s life easier?” One might argue that she was so engrossed in her conversation that she did not hear my “excuse me.” I would respond to that by pointing out that a) being so absorbed in your own stuff that you don’t notice your effect on other people is itself rude, rude, rude* and b) she did respond, ever so slightly, to my entreaty, just not by getting out of my way.

(* yes, of course, I also find myself frequently in situations where I have lost track of my surroundings and accidentally put myself in the way. It’s an unavoidable thing in a crowded world. The difference, though, is that I realize it when the other person gets within excusing distance, at which point I apologize and I MOVE)

If this were an isolated sort of incident I would not make sweeping indictments about the courtesy levels of my fellow Angelenos. However, the days I work in the office, I walk about four blocks from where I park my car to the office. That’s 4 blocks, twice per day, 3 days per week (plus a walking to lunch on days when I don’t bring my own or go to the burrito place half a block away). The sidewalks in Westwood are wide but have many trees. This means that practically speaking much of the sidewalk is only two people wide. As result I find myself frequently stepping aside when I get to tree because I am being approached by people walking two abreast who show no sign of dropping back to single file so that I can pass without being knocked aside into the break in the sidewalk where the tree is. Never is this met with an “excuse me,” a “thank you,” or even a simple smile. It is as if it is perfectly natural to people that I would stop walking, and step aside to accommodate their passage. I can forgive this for tired mamas wrangling strollers and toddlers. But hear me, self-absorbed twenty-somethings walking with friends: you do not get a pass. You are simply being rude.

Continue reading “Lead, follow, or get the $@#& out of my way already. (learning the zen of discourtesy)”

Unburying the muse

Lately I have been reading more. I also watch more TV than I previously ever have in my life thanks to hulu. On some level I feel a bit guilty for this but on another I am delighted when I actually get passing references made to popular shows. I also mostly watch TV while doing something else (eating, copying and pasting numbers into tables, sewing, crocheting) so I don’t feel that the time is wasted. But I am even more delighted to be reading again regularly. Lately I have been pulled deeply in Sharyn McCrumb’s novels. And reading her descriptions of the mountains of Tennessee and the people of the small town she sets the Ballad novels in leaves me filled with a certain longing. In part it is a longing for that life, for knowing the names of the people around you, knowing their histories. I recognize that as the idealized myth of the small town. There is always a line between the insiders and the outsiders. And there are things about small towns that plan and simply suck, even if you are local, even if you hate cities. I think McCrumb does a good job of capturing some of the distinctions between insider and outsider, and some of the ambiguities of small places. But she does an even better job, I think, of capturing why even an outsider might stay. And I will admit that her characters leave me reminiscent for certain people from my youth. And the books dredge up some of my own ambivalence about having left rural WI. As much as I spent years of my adolescence wishing I were anywhere else, I recognize why my parents, outsiders still after nearly 30 years there, stay. And sometimes, I find myself auditioning fantasies of returning (or moving somewhere else similarly scenic and sparse where I would have to learn the social order from scratch; which I practically would anyway if I returned to Cazenovia).

More than that, though, I find myself longing to write. I find myself trying to imagine putting together a story that would grip readers. I find myself sinking into that feeling that there is a poem at the tip of my pen waiting to be born. But, despite this, I fail to bring pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). I bought a notebook for poetry and a journal. Both are still nearly empty. I reopened an old poetry project. I copied and pasted a few lines, moved a few things, wrote a draft of a poem that I think fits into the series. But ultimately I have done almost nothing to reclaim the reality of writing. It has been some 10 years since I thought of myself really deeply and primarily as “poet.” Now if you asked me to describe myself I don’t think it would even make the list. I feel the need to change that but I’m not sure how. I don’t think I will ever publish novels. But I would like to at least write poems. I would at least like to again feel that words are friends welcome to drop into my home at their slightest whim.

Perhaps to that end I will try to organize my old poetry that I like into an online collection (as it used to be on previous iterations of my web spaces). Perhaps I will succeed in writing here more, as I keep telling myself I should. At the least I will continue to read and to long for words, with the hope that by inviting myself into their homes I will open the door for things to flow the other way. And I’ll stick that poetry notebook back in my purse where it belongs. Maybe I’ll even fold it open for a few minutes with pen in hand first, just to see what happens.

A little political desperation perhaps?

I talked with my parents last week and my mother shared something that amused me.  I still sometimes get mail at their place and she goes through and throws out the credit card offers and piles the remaining newsletters and such for me to look at when I come to visit.  Apparently I recently got not one, but two, pieces of mail from the McCain campaign asking me to register to vote absentee.  Given that I’ve lived in LA for seven years and immediately jumped through all the hoops to be declared a resident for tuition purposes after a year of living here, the notion of voting absentee in Wisconsin is quite comical.  But the part that I find really perplexing is the fact that I was never registered to vote at that address.  I always elected to wait in endless lines to vote in Madison rather than voting absentee in Richland County.  My mother said she looked me up and I’m apparently still listed in the Wisconsin voter rolls at my last Madison address (which is interesting given that I didn’t know you could even do that, wonders of the internet I guess).  This almost certainly means that my name and address was pulled from DMV records since my drivers license always used my parents’ place as my address (UW records would be another possibility, except my current mail receipt seems to suggest that when my loans went into repayment last year all the other various mail-sending departments got my address update too).  Now I can sort of understand if I haven’t been purged from the voter rolls since I wouldn’t imagine there’d be much communication across state lines about voter registration.  But really you’d think that after seven years the DMV would have figured out that I don’t live in Wisconsin anymore.  Of course I think the responsibility of being registered to vote in two places would be overwhelming for me anyway.  I still haven’t worked through all the smaller races on the California ballot.

Who to blame when the butler didn't do it (or band-aids on amputations)

Today’s LA Times has an article about a brewing backlash against the homeless in downtown Madison, WI. Years ago I wrote my senior thesis about the young people (my primary focus, anyway) that spent time in a small park just off State Street, the pedestrian thoroughfare that connects the University of Wisconsin campus to the capital. Shortly after finishing my thesis I interned at the YWCA’s family homeless shelter. Having had those experiences, I take somewhat more interest in news about homelessness in Madison than I do that in LA. I also feel that I’m qualified to say at least a little about what the issue looked like there in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

The article starts with a nice idyllic view of Madison, where residents knew panhandlers by name and interacted with them amicably. It contrasts that picture with a current fear of the homeless resulting from two unsolved murders in the downtown area. In both cases the victims were killed in their homes, in the middle of the day, presumably by strangers. The police have focused some of their investigation on homeless in the area. This has, apparently, included taking DNA samples. This resulted in some arrests on other charges, but no break in the murder cases. The LA Times article suggests that some of the services Madison does provide for the homeless (including some shelters downtown as well as meals) are coming under popular attack. Continue reading “Who to blame when the butler didn't do it (or band-aids on amputations)”

And now my high school has a wikipedia entry.

I’m not sure how much news coverage this is getting outside of Wisconsin. But this morning John Klang, the principal of the Weston school district, was shot by a student. Klang was ultimately taken to University Hospital in Madison and died this afternoon at 3:30. A fifteen year old student came into the school with a shotgun and a concealed handgun. A janitor got the shotgun away from him but when the student appeared to be pulling another gun out of his pocket both the janitor and the teacher who were in the hall at the time took cover. The principal confronted the student and was shot three times while struggling to disarm him (which ultimately he apparently succeeded in doing).

I graduated from Weston ten years ago. Klang wasn’t principal yet but he had been on the school board for years. His three kids were quite a bit younger than me but we were on the same school bus route, so I knew them reasonably well. I also knew the janitor who wrestled the gun away from the kid. He was a janitor when I was still a student. And he worked with my father while my father was still a janitor at the high school (a position he left when I was 14).

I’ve been reading the news coverage. I feel a detached sense of grief and horror. I haven’t been back to the school in years. I don’t keep in contact with anyone in the area except my parents. I always felt like an outsider there. And I was. My parents moved there when I was a toddler. They’re happy there and fit in well enough but they aren’t strongly tied to the community. Still it is the place where I spent almost my entire childhood (certainly all of it that I remember). So this feels tragic and shocking in precisely the way things feel tragic and shocking when they hit close to home (literally, in this case).

I am shocked because it is always shocking when tragedy strikes. But I am not shocked that it happened in rural Wisconsin. The same things happen in rural Wisconsin as anywhere else. There’s drugs. There’s violence. There are weapons. All of it is on a smaller scale because there are so many fewer people. Although I suppose it’s worth noting that per capita weapon ownership is probably highest in rural areas.

I am sad about John Klang’s death. My heart goes out to his family, to his children who are adults now but who I will always remember as the children I knew on the school bus. I have the utmost respect for the janitor who acted so quickly to try to disarm the student.

I am full of anger and grief. Of course some of that grief is related to the death itself, but most of it is grief over the way our society fails large groups of children. When I heard the news I thought of my fellow classmates at Weston when I was there. I thought of the troubled angry outcasts struggling to deal with bad family situations, failure in school, ostracization. Often all three at the same time. I thought of the students I had actually been afraid of. And I thought of the ones who were intensely lost in their own pain but nonetheless sweet souls.

I look at the pictures of the shooter. He’s just a kid. He’s 15. My senior year there were a couple of eighth graders who used to hang out in the band room during their study hall, which overlapped with my lunch hour. I knew them both well. They were sweet boys but intense and sometimes prone to deep anger. One was in foster care and had a string of discipline issues following him. The other mostly stayed out of trouble but you could see clouds of trouble in his eyes, nonetheless. I thought about the two of them this morning when I heard the news because I imagined that the shooter might not be all that different from either of them. I’ll admit I wasn’t surprised when stories this afternoon identified him as a special ed student (Weston shunts all the students with discipline problems into special ed, which I think sometimes only causes them to feel more isolated). And while I was deeply saddened, I was not surprised to find that he was a victim of child abuse.

I’ve known too many children in situations that no child should have to bear. And it breaks my heart to think about the long-lasting effects those situations have. How does a fifteen year old child reach the point where they show up at school with a shotgun and a pistol? Inevitably these sorts of incidents lead to a condemnation of the media. And I won’t argue that there is no effect of violence in movies, TV, and video games on children’s behavior. But I think those effects are utterly and completely trivial compared to the effects of physical and emotional violence in children’s day-to-day lives. Of course the questions that will be asked in the wake of this is how we can be sure that children are safe in school. Perhaps greater security in schools will be proposed. How many people will ask how we can be sure that children are safe in their homes? How many people will ask what sort of emotional support and mental health care this child had after his father was charged with felony child abuse and allowed no unsupervised visits for a year and a half?

I have read a number of comments various places that essentially come down to “what is wrong with people?” In most cases that blame seems directed toward the shooter. It’s sort of a “what is wrong with kids these days?” sentiment. And while I can understand that thought process, it’s not where my mind goes first. The first though that comes to my mind is “how did we manage to fail these children so completely?”