How America Could Be Better in 10 Simple Steps

balloons, hot airPersonally, I’m not complaining about 2012. I published a book and one of my short stories was selected for the first transgender anthology in the US, and I’ve spent all kinds of wonderful moments with my baby, who is fast approaching the Defiant Toddler Years. 2012 was really pretty great for me, in that my candidate won another term as President, there are three more states with marriage equality on the board, and I got to go to some great cities, meet impressive people, run into Angela Davis and Alice Walker (sorry my stroller bag was in your way!), and read my writing to more than 500 people. But for many other reasons 2012 has been a terrible awful tragic year, and I lived through the trials, too. We all listened to that drawn-out, nasty election, filled with one sour sound bite after another, we saw the return of voting laws designed to stifle the electorate, and we watched a relentless attack on reproductive rights. The last two years have been nasty, with self-described conservatives vying for the attention of the most extreme right-wing ideals, their comments filling up the 24-hour news stations like a frothy volcano in a science experiment gone wildly wrong (which I suppose isn’t far from what their comments were). It’s hard to be inundated with incendiary rhetoric and news of the awful and still think we live in a great place. Forget best. We’re not the best country, we arguably never were, and I really don’t know why my fellow Americans keep insisting on this exceptionalism concept. But maybe if we can put our folly aside, we could carve out a renewed sense of community and “we’re in it together”ness that we sorely need these days. Here are 10 simple things we could do:

1. Turn off the pointed, partisan “news” shows—Most of us know that FoxNews isn’t either fair nor balanced, but MSNBC isn’t, either. It may feel good listening to talking heads from “your side” telling you what you want to hear, but it’s often inaccurate, and the skewed perspective only reinforces an “us/them” mentality that keeps us too distanced to listen to each other. I hate to use the word “old-fashioned” when talking about media outlets, but the old-fashioned, “objective” news rooms who fact-check every statement provides better reporting and has not set up its business model on the idea of partisanship. Who are these news outlets? That’s up to each of us to identify, frankly, because managements shift and reporters move around, but AP and UPI reporting are pretty steady, NPR has a mandate to be objective, and there are many foreign news organizations who are not beholden to US interests and so they tell it like it is. But please, shut off the Rush Limbaugh and the Chris Matthews. Go for a walk or something.

2. Meet your neighbors—We lead busy lives, and we’re often overscheduled, it’s true. But not even knowing our neighbors’ names can contribute to a sense of isolation. Not only could we learn some new stories, or borrow and lend sugar in a pinch, but friendly neighbors begets friendly communities. Knowing that your upstairs neighbor just lost his grandfather may make you not want to throttle him when it sounds like he’s bowling elephants at 10PM. I once helped an older lady who lived two doors down from me in DC—a half cord of wood had been dumped on her front lawn, so I split it and stacked it for her, and then I was the king of the neighborhood for two months, as people would see me and say hello and smile. I’m not suggesting everyone go and do hard labor, but put yourselves out there and get to know the folks in your midst, even if they’re different from you or not people you think you’d normally talk to. That tattooed guy working on his bike in the garage may still appreciate a sincere hello. I think.

3. Volunteer—Again, I get it with the busy. But there are many great nonprofit organizations around who would love even one or two hours of your time a month. Prep a meal for a homeless shelter. Handle the phones at the humane society. Join a highway cleanup effort, be a docent at a local museum, candy stripe at a hospital, something. You could meet lots of great new people, learn something interesting, and put yourself a little outside your comfort zone. Which is a good thing. Plus you can help out a charitable cause that probably needs all the support it can get.

4. Take a road trip—Instead of (or in addition to) saving up for a long-distance vacation, consider a shorter 4-day trip somewhere in your region where you’ve never before traveled. Maybe to a national park, or three states away to a botanical garden, or to some countryside where you can check out the local shops. Then instead of staying at a chain hotel find a bed and breakfast where you can bunk up. Talk to the shop owners who know the area and the quieter attractions. Listen to the stories from the other travelers you meet, swap experiences. You may find some fascinating connections! (I’m totally serious.)

5. Go to the library—If your library card is silently mouldering away in your wallet, let it breathe air again and use it. Don’t have a library card? Go get one at your local library. Then get two books and challenge yourself to read them before they’re due. Or check out a CD of something you’ve never heard before—a symphony, or opera, or a different musical genre. Learn the names of the librarians who work there, and when you drop off your two books (don’t just go to the drop box in the parking lot or on the side of the building), ask them for a recommendation for your next read. Because librarians are terrific, ravenous readers, and they always have a recommendation to give when asked.

6. Listen—Seek out different points of view from yours. When someone offers an opinion with which you disagree, don’t jump to calling them out, but ask them how they arrived at that opinion. If your opinion or take on the facts can only exist in a bubble with like-minded people, maybe it’s got some issues with validity. Learn to talk to other people without getting personal or self-righteous (we may think we’re free from that, but isn’t it something we can continue to work on?) and in being able to walk away from a discussion as friends. And remember, listening means not talking.

7. Do something outside—Garden, take walks, take a friend out to lunch, go window shopping, clean the gutters. Break your routine of home-work-home or whatever your routine looks like. Be open to new experiences and to working with your hands. Fix a broken bicycle, set up a comfortable patio area, take stock of all the parks in walking distance from your apartment and bring a book to read or a frisbee to throw with a friend. All of these things help us release endorphin, which balances our mood, but they also get us away from excessive time spent on the Internet and its endless reinforcement of dichotomies.

8. Pay it forward—Buy the person in line behind you their espresso drink, and you’ll improve their entire morning. When you hold open a door for someone, give them a smile, too, and if they don’t seem thankful, presume they’re having a particularly bad day. Other folks’ grumpiness need not become your own. I know the advice to support alternate giving has been around at least as long as author Heinlein’s work, but it never really gets old to do something nice for another among us. As a native East Coaster, I will always find time for my cynicism and skepticism, so I push myself to be thoughtful and make random acts of kindness a conscious process. I’m sure many people from the East Coast don’t have this deficiency, but I do, so I work on it. I’m a believer.

9. Attend a community meeting—Find out who the people are who have gotten involved in local politics. Is the library struggling? Are kids in overcrowded schools? Does the entire street system need an overhaul? Why leave these large issues to a few people to handle? Get involved in a way that you can manage, and work to improve your own environment. There are plenty of people with no children who grouse about paying taxes to support the local schools, but they’re missing the point that we need our next generation to grow up with resources. (Millions of school-age kids don’t get breakfast at home and are seriously under-nourished, and studies show that this leads to dire consequences for their future success.) Putting off infrastructure projects now results in much higher costs down the road, so bringing issues to light and putting pressure on local officials to find solutions in the near term benefits everyone. Get involved in the stresses on your community and figure out how you can help make positive change. Note: Criticizing what has or hasn’t happened thus far without working to solve the issue at hand is not positive change.

10. Stop calling everything a war—It’s all too easy to sensationalize clashes in popular culture with “war” as a metaphor: the “war” on Christmas, the “war” on marriage, etc. Not only are these “wars” often an overstatement, but they’re an unfair characterization of what is really a difference of opinion or values. It also flies in the face of the very real war in which we’re still engaged, over in Afghanistan, now the longest war we’ve ever had. If we insist on using the metaphor of war for every discussion of civil rights or belief system, we should not be surprised when years later, we’re still full of doubt about each other’s intentions and attitudes. Warmongering, domestic or foreign, helps nobody and fosters embedded systems of anger.

I look forward to 2013. At the very least, it’s not an election year. And it’ll be a year when there are no more memes about Mayans and the end of the world, and that’s a great year in my book.

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Categories: ponderings, Pop Culture, Uncategorized

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