Monday, August 22, 2016

...ten years later, it's a 100! And other stuff.

Public Art on the Rose Kennedy Greenway, Downtown Boston
I feel like I've reached this point huffing and puffing, having made my commitment to the long haul and put in my two cents' (calories? bytes?) worth at irregular intervals. When I started, the idea was to hone a discipline of writing, something, anything, and maybe find a critical audience for it. My stats show that in no year did I reach my desired target of one post a week. The past week has made up for it somewhat, I guess. So I'm patting myself on the back (stretch, stretch) for reaching my one-hundredth blog post.

Now that I have marked that milestone I guess I can get on with the actual act of writing the wisdom gained in the spaces of my everyday--yes?

My friend and I sit here with our cooling cups of coffee, touched by the breeze of a late Massachusetts summer morning, inquiring after each other's quality of sleep and the recurrent ache in our bones; we come to the gentle realization that we have grown into old women. Happily so. And think, hey, maybe that's a matter for cross-cultural reflection. (And I park that idea for another post)

But to the point of this particular blogpost, which has been brewing in my head for the past few days and has not quite come to a boil, but might do so in the act of writing, muddling through it with words. How our experience of civic life is defined by our expectations (as is everything, you might say).

"That jackhammer is enough to drive anyone nuts," says my friend, referring to the drilling in the street, which is being re-paved ahead of the winter. She has created a long resume of complaining about excessive noise in the neighborhood--leaf blowers, teenagers bouncing balls late at night, dump trucks backing up early in the morning, even police sirens zooming past in a crime-less street. The noise for me only punctuates a silence that is deeper than any I have at home. 

"People shout across the train car at each other, it's just so noisy in there," she remarks, as we board (what seems to me) a sleek orange tube. Where I come from, loud conversation is all around us on the streets, the buses, the trains, from the person on his cell phone sitting next to us...and this doesn't seem any different.

"They need to re-pave these roads," she say, as the car bumps over a series of minute potholes at a curve. Apart from the few well maintained major roadways in my own hometown of Hyderabad, we are used to bumping along in our cars, over gaping craters and foot-high speed breakers, and the American roads seem like a dream on smooth wheels.

But all that is old hat. Every visitor to the United States from a less privileged country, with a less committed public infrastructure sector, would remark on some of these things. What struck me really was the sense that I had grown used to all the imperfections, so much so that they were not things to complain about--or perhaps more correctly, our expectations of civic amenities--roads, transport, etc.--and of civic life--public behavior--are so low. We are not surprised by people honking on the road or speaking loudly on their cell phones or to each other on the street, and we hold our annoyance in check, most of the time. We grumble our way through our messy roads and rude crowds and tell ourselves that this is just the way things are (or do not even remark upon it). We expect policemen to be mean-tempered and find it pleasantly remarkable when we meet one who smiles and responds helpfully. We expect the traffic to be heedless of pedestrians and are almost afraid to accept the politeness of a motorist who slows down for us. We expect roads to be poorly maintained and congratulate the municipality that does a good job of keeping them in shape--as if that is not just their job they are doing.

Of course, our low expectations are a coping mechanism. How else can we get through the day? Our tolerance for inefficiency, rudeness and just plain discomfort makes it possible for us to continue with our work and our lives without constantly feeling set upon. Besides, the fact that there are so many people who do not even have the very basics keeps us keep perspective. So we rationalize to ourselves--how can we complain about roads that are difficult to drive on when to even have a vehicle to drive is a huge privilege? How can we complain about noise when for so many the noise is their only shield against the screaming inside their heads? And so on.

How do we then balance the need to cope (and therefore tolerate on an everyday basis) with the huge shortfall in civic amenities and civic standards, and the need to push for better public services and spaces? How do we demand without losing our ability to manage with what we have? To keep in mind the possible and the desirable without remaining agile enough to jump over those cracks and potholes?

So as my friend and I finish our coffee and I look at the incredibly blue sky of the opening day, I listen to her grumbles and respond with a smile, and hope that somehow, we can find a way to be exacting without losing perspective. In everything we do.

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