vol. 5, #11,
MUST BE FIFTY WAYS TO FIX OUR COUNTRY
John F. Kennedy Jr. was every bit as much a believer as his father in the greatness of America, every bit as much an idealist who believed we could take control and make things better. One of his magazine's projects was interviewing 250 Americans -- artists, politicians, writers, rap singers, activists, young people -- to ask them how we could improve things. The result was the George book, 250 Ways To Make America Better.
It's an interesting and hopeful book. In some ways it's naive, because the large institutional changes some people recommend, like banning PAC money and soft money, require the consent of the very people who benefit from the current system, and as Jim Hightower points out, "The water won't ever clear up till we get the hogs out of the creek."
But there are things we can do as individuals that could go far to clean up the soul pollution that fogs our social relations these days. Sara Paretsky suggests we should stop tossing our garbage on the ground for lesser folk to deal with, because there are no lesser folk -- we all matter. In fact several contributors say respect for all other people is the single most important mental change we need to make -- E. Lynn Harris even suggests making Aretha's "Respect" our national anthem. John Perry Barlow says "America will improve when we quit telling our children to fear strangers" -- America, the Gated, is not going to make it. Barbara Ehrenreich suggests we treat all children "as gifted and interesting people who are temporarily trapped in small and incompetent bodies." Steve Tisch says "We need to be a Gumpier America. Listen to Mom. Love someone unconditionally...talk to a few more strangers while we are waiting for the bus."
I like the idea of that Gumpier, front-porch sort of America. Here are some things I thought of that might help get us there:
- Do fewer chores and spend the time you save with your kids, your friends, or the man or woman in your life. As a sign in my sister's kitchen proclaims, your house really only needs to be "clean enough to be healthy, dirty enough to be happy."
- Treat the people who wait on you as people, not functions. Chat them up. If you go someplace often enough that they automatically start fixing your latte with skim milk when they see you coming, you should at least know their names.
- Be civil. Better yet, be kind. Say please and thank you, and compliment people on work well done. Assume people are well-intentioned. When you disagree on a matter important enough to fight over, do it politely: "I'm wondering if you considered..." or "Do you think we could maybe arrive at that goal with a different means?"
- Eat dinner together and chat about your day.
- Listen to what your kids say; listen extra hard to what they don't quite say.
- Give kids lots of free unstructured time. Don't drive them everywhere, don't schedule endless lessons and activities, don't protect them right out of their chance to explore their world and their own possibilities.
- Turn off the TV. Read out loud, play games, play frisbee, bake cookies together. You'll learn as much about each other over Monopoly as in many of your serious discussions.
- Understand that nobody is a done deal -- you and everyone around you can grow and become something better.
- When you screw up, admit it, apologize, and do everything you can to fix it.
- Daydream every day. Choose your favorite daydream, figure out how you can get from here to there, get your ass in gear and start doing it. If you really mean what that bumper sticker on your car says, and you'd really "Rather Be Fishing," rearrange your life so that you ARE fishing.
- Volunteer. Mentor a child, or work for downtown redevelopment or gather food for the hungry or read to bored old people in nursing homes. Have your kids volunteer with you. Give them a chance to make a difference in their community.
- Let your kids see how you work out difficult situations. Show them how you think through problems and resolve conflicts.
- Don't patronize businesses that use mechanical switchboards. Insist on your right to speak to a person, not a machine.
- Buy from the people around you. The neighborhood druggist can't compete with WalMart's prices, but he pays local taxes, subsidizes a little league team, works with your kids in Junior Achievement. He'll stay when WalMart picks up and leaves -- unless you let his business die.
- Understand that private acts can have public consequences. If when we burn leaves, someone with asthma can't breathe, or if a hog factory on our land fouls other people's wells, we need to make some adjustments. Because sure as shooting, if we don't deal voluntarily with the public results of our actions, government will.
- Vote. Or better, give money and your time to someone who's running, to give them a chance against the big money running our politics. Better yet, run for office yourself. Speak out, not just about what's wrong, but about what could and should be done instead.
- Stop bitching about taxes and start demanding that they be spent on the right things. We have too many schools with leaking roofs, broken windows, and dirty crowded halls, too many dams and bridges that are dangerously undermaintained, too many public hospitals and emergency rooms that are closing for lack of funds. We don't have anywhere near enough bike paths and parks and community gardens. Put your money into kids and flowers and clean air and water.
- Reward good teachers and drum the bad ones out. Insist that schools be safe, clean, and well-lit, full of books and adults who care about and pay attention to our kids. Insist that schools stop tracking and start expecting every single child to master subjects and skills.
Those are just some little things we could do as individuals, any of which might make our lives just a little less raw and nasty. I'm sure you could suggest others (and if you do, I'll print them).
Of course we can't solve large societal problems caused by an out of control global economy by simple self-improvement. But once we've mastered some ways of talking with each other and working together, larger social change just might be possible. We might act together, refusing en masse to vote for corrupt servants of privilege, refusing en masse to buy the products of companies that cheat their workers and care nothing about their customers. Just because we start small doesn't mean it won't have a large impact. Like the old nursery rhyme pointed out, leg over leg, the dog did eventually get to Dover.
Oh, yes. If anybody could invent a device to signal us one minute before the cookies start to burn, that would be nice, too.
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NOTE: My thinking is always a work in progress. You could mentally insert all my columns in between these two sentences: "This is something I've been thinking about," and "Does this make any sense to you?" I welcome your thoughts. Please send your comments about these columns to: marylaine at netexpress.net. Since I've written a lot of these, some of them many years ago, help me out by telling me which column you're referring to.
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