A friend tells the story of a time he was seriously injured and ended up in the hospital. He was bedridden for a long time and was going to have to work very hard just to walk again. At one point, his doctors cleared him to try to move around. But they were concerned he might overdo it, or hurt himself. They gave him a pushbutton and said: “Use this to call someone if you want to try to walk.”
My friend is a grandparent, and the grandchild was learning to walk. My friend thought about the pushbutton and instructions he had been given, and compared his own situation to that of his grandchild — nothing was going to stop the child from learning to walk, and nor were his parents hovering over him to “support” him in this natural human endeavor.
The story came to mind when I read about recent research exploring a new concept, “civic deserts,” especially in rural America. The concept refers to “places characterized by a dearth of opportunities for civic and political learning and engagement, and without institutions that typically provide opportunities like youth programming, culture and arts organizations and religious congregations.”
Underlying this concept, citizens are seen to need opportunities to learn and engage politically . . . which leads to a need for (often institution-delivered) programming. Such opportunities and programs are important and more are needed.
But there is another way to look at the kind of politics that takes place on a neighborhood, local level. This kind of politics is already happening, as people recognize shared problems and act. In thinking about improving the way politics in some local place functions, we might ask this question: How is it that people come to see themselves and act as citizens? It is the citizens doing the acting here. And about the worthy programs, we might ask to what extent such “opportunities” foster the insight in people that I am a citizen. (By “citizen,” of course, I do not mean “someone with documents,” but instead “someone who recognizes their shared role in solving local problems.”)
Of course, it stands to reason that if there are more such opportunities around, people in a community (youth and others) may potentially be more likely to act as citizens. But existence of such programs does not guarantee it, nor are such programs required. Many of the communities in whom one can see a robust community politics might in fact end up on the “desert” list.
I think of the difference between my bedridden friend, awaiting the delivery of “walking services.” What if he ignored the button, and got up and walked? That is what he did. “No one was going to stop me from walking,” he told me.
This, then, would be a study of citizenship: What spurs people to get up and start walking — and how is it that people come to see all the ways they already are and have been doing so all along?
Some of my friends may have heard me refer to “machinebrain” and “gardenbrain” in conversation over the past few months.
This idea is taken from Eric Liu and Nick Hanauer’s The Gardens of Democracy, in which they argue that a new way of thinking about social systems needs to be developed. Liu and Hanauer contrast a mechanistic “machinebrain” way of thinking with an organic “gardenbrain” way of thinking.
I have found the idea to be helpful to me in understanding and sorting the mindsets of people with whom I am talking. I also discuss this in another piece about “the apparatus.”
A “machinebrain”-oriented person will often talk about tools, processes, and techniques, and they will often see deliberative politics in these terms. A “gardenbrain” person sees things as emergent, growing.
While there are important benefits to each way of seeing things, the latter is more in line with an “ecological” view of community politics. I have found it very hard to convey my understanding of politics to people who have a “machinebrain” outlook. The terms I use become assimilated. “Yes, I get it. I do that too!” they may say, but it is clear we are talking about different things. They think I am talking about process. The frequency with which I encounter “machinebrain” is sometimes surprising to me. I mentally seek out “gardenbrain” people, because I feel like we have the most in common intellectually, at least when it comes to talking about politics.
As I reflect, however, I have come to believe that the “gardenbrain” perspective is also not quite apt. It still assumes that the whole thing can be managed somehow.
Here is how Liu and Hanauer describe the two mindsets:
“Machinebrain sees the world and democracy as a series of mechanisms-clocks and gears, perpetual motion machines, balances and counterbalances. Machinebrain requires you to conceive of the economy as perfectly efficient and automatically self-correcting. Machinebrain presuppose stability and predictability, and only grudgingly admits the need for correction. Even the word commonly used for such correction- “regulation”- is mechanical in origin and regrettable connotation.
“Gardenbrain sees the world and democracy as an entwined set of ecosystems-sinks and sources of trust and social capital, webs of economic growth, networks of behavioral contagion. Gardenbrain forces you to conceive of the economy as man-made and effective only if well-constructed and well cared-for. Gardenbrain presupposes instability and unpredictability, and thus expects a continuous need for seeding, feeding, and weeding ever-changing systems. To be a gardener is not to let nature take its course; it is to tend. It is to accept responsibility for nurturing the good growth and killing the bad. Tending and regulating thus signify the same work, but tending frames the work as presumptively necessary and beneficial rather than as something to be suffered.
“Machinebrain treats people as cogs: votes to be collected by political machines; consumes to be manipulated by marketing machines; employees to be plugged into industrial machines. It is a static mindset of control and fixity, and is the basis of most of our inherited institutions, from schools to corporations to prisons.
“Gardenbrain sees people as interdependent creators of dynamic world: our emotions affect each other; our personal choices cascade into public patterns, which can be shaped but rarely controlled. It is a dynamic mindset of influence and evolution, of direction without control, and is the basis of our future.
“Machinebrain allows you to rationalize atomized selfishness and a neglect of larger problems. It accepts social ills like poverty, environmental degradation, and ignorance as the inevitable outcome of an efficient marketplace. It is fatalistic and reductionist, treating change as an unnecessary and risky deviation from the norm.
“Gardenbrain recognizes such social ills and the shape of our society as the byproduct of man-made arrangements. It is evolutionary and holistic, treating change as the norm, essential and full of opportunity. It leads you to acknowledge that human societies thrive only through active gardening.”
In their understanding of “gardenbrain,” the gardener is still in charge. She or he must work organically, with the natural inclinations of the elements of the garden — but she or he is still the gardener. They are tending.
I would say I see community as broader than that. It is not a garden, but a forest. Larger than any one gardener is likely to affect singlehandedly.
I am beginning to think of this approach as “forestbrain.” And I think of the relationship that someone might have to such a forest as akin to how a ranger thinks of her or his role. In a forest, there are some built areas (a fire ring at a campsite), and there may be some areas that need tending (a denuded meadow being brought back) — but the overall thing is larger than any of these individual efforts. It is an inherently open system that reacts dynamically and on which people may act not so much from outside but from within.
Over a period of more than 40 years, Newman purchased five log cabins, carefully taking each one apart, moving them to his property and meticulously putting them back together again.
Not only is he interested in capturing and preserving the life of colonists on the frontier of Tennessee, Newman said he wants to share a message with today’s youth.
“I want to show young people the skills and the hard work that it took the early settlers to build their house, to build their home,” Newman said. “I took those logs down, moved them in here and put them back up. That’s hard work! But that’s nothing compared to what those pioneers had to live with. I think young people need to know a little bit about that, if they can. This land was built on hard work.”
The default is to think of “schools” as being in charge of schooling students. (In fact we even call them “learners.”) If instead we think of “education of youth,” and not “schooling,” as a multifaceted and community-wide challenge, that will necessarily involve a wide array of actors, then possibilities open up. You will then look for solutions that involve more than just institutions (“schools”) and professionals (“educators” and administrators) and that are likely to involve complementary actions. Hawk Creek is one such part of a community response to the challenge.
Note that Newman is doing this thing because he is interested, but he is importantly connecting with others in the community and he sees it as an educational resource. The people of Cleveland, TN have an educational resource now that they did not have. Institutions called “schools” can now imagine new ways to, potentially, “teach” history.
In my household, November 18 is referred to as “You People Day.” We celebrate it.
Here is how it came about. My stepfather is an attorney. A long time ago, he was working at a mid-size firm. He and a few of the partners and associates decided they wanted to strike off on their own and start their own firm. The day came when they had to announce their intentions to the founder. He exploded and went on a diatribe that my stepfather describes in epic terms.
“I don’t know what you people are thinking. You people are betraying me. You people are going to fail utterly and you people will come crawling back.” The exact words are lost in the mists of time, but two things remain: The sentiment, which was clear, and the repeated use of that phrase, “you people.”
I know that today the phrase has a negative set of connotations that invoke race and ethnicity. It was not meant that way, but it wasmeant derisively and critically.
My stepfather’s new firm thrived and prospered. They came to know the day they decided to set up shop as “You People Day” as an ironic point of pride.
Knowing this background made it possible for me, many years later in 2003, to take action on a dream I have had since my youth. I quit my job and struck out on my own. November 18 was the day my arrangements were finalized.
I did not have a detailed plan and it was risky. But my little enterprise thrived well enough that I held up my end when it came to supporting our family. And with some pride I came to think of November 18 as “You People Day.”
Almost ten years after my own You People Day, I went back into the organizational world and took a traditional job. I love my position and it affords me the opportunity to do important work on a platform that I did not have otherwise.
But I admit I miss the sense of self-satisfaction I got from being an independent worker, foraging for my own sustenance and thriving in my own way.
And so, even though I am no longer an independent worker, I celebrate You People Day.
Yesterday I posted a brief message on Facebook. “Strongly considering deleting all social media apps in order to limit distracting use. Thoughts?” This generated some conversation and I thought I would update my friends. As I began to write a new post, it became lengthy so I thought I would put it here.
Firstly, I realize that my original note was a little unclear. I am not considering deleting my Facebook account entirely. I tried that once. It lasted a week. The connections I have and can maintain through Facebook are too important to me to abandon — and I found that they do not simply continue through other means. There is something that Facebook adds to my life that does not come from other things. Something important: wide-ranging social connection.
Secondly, the above paragraph makes something else clear that I had not meant to be vague about. I am talking about Facebook here. I don’t really struggle with other social media platforms. Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn are not the same kinds of sirens that Facebook is. I know others differ but for me that’s the case.
But I do struggle with not letting Facebook use overtake other productive pursuits and push them out. Note that I am counting Facebook as a productive thing for me to be doing. Yes I waste time on it, but overall it is a value-add. I just need to find a good way to keep it in perspective.
So, to be clear, my thought was that if I delete the app from my phone, and only use Facebook on a computer, then this might help me keep my online work in balance. However, there was something about that solution that seemed unsatisfactory to me, which was why I was merely “considering” it and didn’t just do it.
In the first place, if my worry is that I may be pushing out productive pursuits, for instance writing, research, and other business correspondence — why would I require that the machine I use for Facebook be the same one I use for those other things? It’s kind of bonkers when you look at it like that. In the second place, using Facebook on my phone is precisely the use case that makes the most sense if what I value in the network is easy, friction-free and wide-ranging light connections with people. I can dip in and out in odd moments, when I have some spare attention, wherever that happens to be. That’s actually one would imagine one should use Facebook.
In the conversation that followed my note, a potential halfway-measure arose: turning off all notifications for the Facebook app. (I use iOS so this would be in Settings=>Notifications and I would just disable all notifications.) This way, the app would be available to me on my phone, but every time I look at the screen I would not be greeted by some little red number (a “badge”) inviting me to open the app and mess around with it. I would have to make a decision to open the app and check it to see what had happened since I last had looked.
I tried this yesterday. For about a third of the day, this seemed to be working well. I checked the app occasionally, but not incessantly. And then I got distracted by other activities and I forgot about Facebook entirely for most of the rest of the day. And then, later at night, I opened up the app.
And that was when the problem became apparent. I had something like 20 notifications of people interacting with various things I had posted. I do not feel that I need to see, read, or even know about every post that every friend of mine makes, but I do feel it is inconsiderate not to read what they comment when it is on something that I myself originally posted. So I feel duty bound to look at all of these notifications, at least enough to feel I know what they are. Even when the notification is as innocuous as “Joe liked your post,” I feel like I ought to know which post. That’s what friends do, right? Pay attention to one another when interacting?
Some time ago I became an Inbox Zero person. I keep nothing in my email Inbox. Everything has been processed and either archived, noted for later action, or dealt with. What I learned about that is that the very best way to stay on top of your email inbox is to deal with it constantly and immediately. This is contrary to some productivity hackers who say just check email once per day or whatever. I find that when I do that, I am greeted with 100+ emails at once that I have to slog through. But, if I constantly handle email throughout the day, the energy expenditure is minimal. Random emails from random people? Scan enough to know it’s unimportant, and delete. Informational cc: lines? Scan and archive. Notes from my boss? Look at what is needed, figure out what I need to do, dash off a “got it” response, write down the to-do, archive. I find that it is easy and beneficial to handle all these tasks in the moment, rather than batched. In fact, doing all that in a batched way is a nightmare and results in Inbox 100+ instead of Inbox Zero — at least, that is my experience.
The same with Facebook. Yesterday’s experiment made me realize that it is useful and actually easier for me to just deal with Facebook a bit at a time, as and when notifications come in. I make them unobtrusive (so I do not have any alerts or banners, and certainly no sounds, on my app — just little badges) and they serve as reminders.
So I am back to Square One with my Facebook app. I’ve turned on my notifications again.
Which means I still have my original problem: balance among my online pusuits. But at least I now know of two potential solutions that don’t work, at least not for me.
Today I happened to play an old playlist while I took a run. In the mix, a song came on that took me back and sent me on a reverie. I thought I’d share it.
Some years ago I was in a band called The West End along with my good friends and neighbors Monique DeFrees (drums), Mike Shawn (keys and vox), and Matthew Taylor (bass). I played guitar and sang. Later, another good friend, Kate Gordon joined and improved our vocals immensely. We played about 2/3 covers and 1/3 originals — it was the originals that kept me in the game because I loved writing and performing new songs. I saw them as similar to blog posts or essays.
(Most people don’t go out to see original live music except by established bands so we had to also play covers that people recognized. We made them our own, but it still was never as fun as for me playing our own music.)
Eventually, we saved enough money by playing gigs to pay for recording studio time, a producer, and CD duplication — and we had ourselves an album! It was called This Ride Could Be My Last.
The song that came on my playlist was from that album. I hadn’t listened in a while. You know what? It holds up.
But I wanted to share a bit about where the song came from. There are two songs on the album that relate directly to a professional project I had been working on. The songs are “Father Lou” and “They Go.”
The Project: End of Life Decisions
At the time I wrote these songs, I was embroiled in research for an issue guide I was working on for a client, the Kettering Foundation. The topic of the issue guide (a report designed to support public deliberation on a difficult topics) was the end of life. Who decides what happens at the end of life? How do we as a society want to think about the notion of assisted suicide? Euthanasia? How do we balance personal freedom with sound and fair policy? More than perhaps many such pieces of work, the topic was quite wrenching.
The first song that comes out of this period is a quick little number called “Father Lou.” It started out (in my mind) as a very slow, dirge-like tune — but my bandmates wisely told me to speed it up. Click the player below to listen:
This song came to me sort of fully-formed, and it unfolded in my mind all while I was on a run (like today’s) through a sketchy area in Memphis, Tennessee.
Part of the work we do in developing issue guides like the one I was working on is hold focus groups with ordinary people to talk about the issue at hand. We want to see how real people talk about the issue, what their chief concerns are, and how they start out thinking about the issue. Focus group houses are in all kinds of neighborhoods, some fancy and some marginal. I find myself fairly often in marginal areas because we want to get “truly ordinary” folks in our groups, not the professional types that are more easily recruited to take part in focus groups in fancy facilities (these usually cater to corporate clients).
Anyway, there I was in Memphis, and the group was later that night but it was mid-day. So I went for a run through the neighborhood. I came upon a set of city blocks where it seemed like every other driveway had a car on blocks. The other driveways also had cars in them, and it took me a while to figure out why this might seem out of place to me: It was midday and in many other neighborhoods these cars would all be at work. But here they were.
So the lines that would become the third verse popped into my head. And then the song sort of built itself as I ran.
It’s not about end of life questions, it is actually about a character I had in my head at the time — a priest who goes to a Skid Row area thinking he is going to rescue everyone there. Little does he know that people see him as a figure of fun and ridicule, and eventually they turn on him.
(At the end of this post you can read the full lyrics.)
Song as Issue Guide: “They Go.”
Another song on the album is more directly related to this end of life issue guide. The stories I heard as I listened to focus groups while working on this guide got deep into my head and rattled around. One day, while taking a stroll outside a Dayton hotel, this scenario of someone stuck alone in a hospital with a terminal illness came into my head. Somehow this mixed with an image I had of a family member who had recently had heart surgery — he complained to me in a conversation about how the nurses come and go all through the night while he tried to rest and recuperate.
These two ideas mixed together and I wrote a song about this person alone in a hospital, with a terminal illness, writing a letter to a friend. The two friends had promised one another on some drunken night to “take care of it” if either was hospitalized and incapacitated, destined for a lingering death.
So this song popped out: The chorus is based on the “coming and going” all night, while the overall theme comes directly from the thoughts running through my head as I developed a framework for public deliberation on the topic of end of life decisions.
I hope you like them.
In case you are interested (I usually want to know them), here are the lyrics for each song:
By Brad Rourke
There’s a certain part of town Where the fire trucks never run There’s nothing there to burn That would be missed by anyone There’s a sidewalk over there Behind the sheriff’s impound lot Where bedrooms are reserved By spreading cardboard out
Into this place comes a man Trying to do the best he can Sent there on a mission from the lord Save these lost sheep from the sword
He walks these crooked streets Spreading handouts all around Like everyone’s a mark And the carnival’s in town They all stick out their hands And gladly take his grace Some laugh behind his back And others in his face
How many times before he learns Watch your back or get your fingers burned Saving souls is no work for the weak You’ll catch your death just standing on the street
There’s a certain part of town Where cars stay home all day Some on blocks and others got no place To go to anyway Remember Father Lou He used to hang around down here Until we jacked him for his wallet And his body disappeared
Into this place came a man Trying to do the best he can Sent here on a mission from the lord Save us lost sheep from the sword Save us lost sheep from the sword Save us lost sheep from the sword
THEY GO By Brad Rourke
Come and see me where I’m at I wish I could pay for that You’ll have to make your own way I might not last another day
They come, they go Always at the same time They come, they go It’s how I know I’m alive
There’s nothing private in this room The lights always seem to go out too soon Right when I’m just settling down Nothing left for me but the night sounds
They come, they go Always at the same time They come, they go It’s how I know I’m alive
Hope this message reaches you And if it does you’ll know what to do Remember that night of promises Do what you said if it comes to this
They come, they go Always at the same time They come, they go It’s how I know I’m alive They come, they go I’m alone most of the time They come, they go If you hurry you’ll make it here in plenty of time