Come to rest

As long as I’ve had a relationship with Chicago, the city has been throwing up variants on the CowParade. The first such “parade” wasn’t actually in Chicago, but it was almost certainly the first place that you saw it. If you’ve somehow escaped exposure, the phenomenon centers on a series of fiberglass cow sculptures that are decorated by local artists, celebrities, companies, nonprofits, etc.

The cow concept has been replicated in a few dozen cities worldwide since Richie Daley brought it to America in 1999. Meanwhile, the city keeps finding new variations on the theme. When I lived there, downtown was decorated with variations on Mickey Mouse for a season. I wryly noted at the time that while Disney was eager to keep Mickey out of the public domain, they were happy to make him into public art.

Even more controversial was the 2001 iteration, “Suite Home Chicago.” While I never saw the installations personally, apparently they consisted of pieces of furniture painted in various Windy City themes. Not long after they went up, an activist group “repurposed” the furniture by building shacks on top of the pieces and inviting the homeless to take shelter in them. Signs painted on the sides of the buildings mockingly labeled them “Daley Village,” alerted citizens to the burgeoning crisis in housing, and (later) protested the war in Afghanistan. The incident surely ought to form a sidebar in the Bush Era chapter of some future scholar’s history of public art in America.

Yet controversy did not slake the city’s appetite for CowParade sequels. Nor did changes in administration, presidential or mayoral. So this summer, Michigan Avenue is lined with replicas of seats from Wrigley Field. Artists and community groups have been invited to illustrate them with moments from the stadium’s past 100 years. Walking north on a recent visit, I wondered what exactly Chicago’s citizens made of the public tributes to the installation of the center field scoreboard, Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game, or the brief life of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.

It was my southbound walk that yielded the answer. Chicagoans were appreciating the Wrigley seats in a way they had never appreciated public art before.

They were sitting on it.

My eyes were first drawn to a lanky brunette in an oversized hat who had planted herself legs crossed, arms folded in one of the seats. She looked out at the city like she owned it — maybe one day she will. Other sitters were less monumental. I saw an old woman take a breather while her husband struggled with a map. She glared at him through it, her eyes asking him why he had brought her to such a place. A couple whose veins indicated a shared history of heroin use were asking for money to feed their kids. I gave them a dollar like the Good Lord suggests.

Up and down the street, the people were just sitting. Not taking ironic selfies or studying their favorite moment of Cubs history or even contemplating a form of avant grade protest. Just sitting, seeing, being.

I thought of the Spanish Steps, or Trafalgar Square, or the hills of Kigali, or any number of places I’d seen in other nations where I had seen people sitting thus and then wondered, “Where is this in my country?” It’s hard to find a truer answer than Starbucks — it’s where I sit half the time. Yet despite any number of green mermaid embassies available on the Magnificent Mile, people chose to sit in the bleachers instead.

Perhaps chairs on a street are like highways. Perhaps they have that strange quality where, simply by existing, they are filled with users, and the demand they satisfy remains a mysterious, inexhaustible denominator. A kind of spontaneous generation of 21st-century urbanism.

But it seems just as likely that the butts in chairs throughout downtown signify a pent-up need for seats among the tourists and locals alike. A place to rest.

It made me wonder if when I pondered similar places abroad, I gave too much credit to design. Sitting was never the Spanish Steps’ first intent, and no one can take credit for the restful hills of Rwanda except God and the people presently upon them. Maybe public places to stop and sit cannot truly be created by a willful urbanism. Maybe they only really work when the city comes to rest.

As is the fate of all things in the “City on the Make,” the Wrigley seats will eventually go up for auction (proceeds to charity, of course). But what if the people didn’t let them? What if they kept insistently sitting, demanding the city give them a place to rest as passively and as determinedly as God demanded the world give Him the Sabbath? What if they let their sweat eventually wipe away the painted memories and remake the seats as slightly awkward and malformed furniture for slightly awkward and malformed Midwesterners (myself proudly numbered among them)?

As a form of protest, it wouldn’t be as clever as “Daley Village.” It wouldn’t be as vocal as Occupy or as urgent as letting immigrants seek shelter in a church. It’s no ’68, I grant you, but in its own way, perhaps rest could be just as radical.

Photo stolen from the Trib

No discards

acmeOn the path I usually take to the USC School of Social Work’s offices at the AT&T Building in LA, I pass by the storefront of Acme Display on Olive Street. They make mannequins, apparently.

Each time I pass, I see plastic models of women and children, often in a state of undress, piled together inside the windows. It sounds comical, but in actuality it’s a little distressing, a feeling of waste and excess dredged up by the disregard of the human form.

Yet this morning, while passing the fleshy miscellany, I thought, “Why is this the thing that bothers me?”

In the same part of LA, one can see the true discards, real men and women who society has forgotten, left on the streets to beg or rot or die or drink themselves into a stupor. Why didn’t that give me pause?

As many folks now know, in 2014-2015 my colleagues and I will serve as Innovators in Residence at the USC School of Social Work. There are plenty of reasons why it’s a natural fit. We’ve spent years figuring out how organizations can do more good in the world. And each one of us, in various ways, feels compelled by conscience or character or Christ to serve the poor, the sick, the weak. Those are reasons enough to propel our mission, our search for ways to increase social work’s impact by partnering with its most prominent school.

Yet thinking about those real and artificial discards made me see one more reason why we’re here.

If there’s anything I’ve learned by participating in dozens of Insight Labs, it’s that it takes all kinds to save a world. We don’t just need leaders or followers, innovators or implementers, creatives or quants — we need types of people we could never anticipate. This suggests that if we have any shot of building a decent world, we may well need everybody.

As heaps of encyclicals and sermons have said, in a just society we don’t exclude anyone. But what I hadn’t seen until now was that including everybody may also be the only way to get there. Until we readmit the discards, we won’t be playing with a full deck.

I’ll admit I don’t know how to do that. I’m not sure anyone does, even saints. But among all the kinds of people I’ve met in my travels, social workers are the ones who most consistently try.

We often talk about social workers helping people who can’t help themselves. But if I’m right, if we need everyone’s brains to build a better world, then we should also think of these folks as our most capable recruiters.

We need what the discards think and dream and know. We probably needed it for generations before I was born and will need it long after I die. But for the moment I’ll be looking for it in the best place I know, at the corner of 12th and Olive.

Wink wink, nudge nudge

I normally try to never complain about TSA officers or any other government employee, particularly those who are charged with keeping us safe. But something happened this morning that really bothered me.

There was an unusually long security line at my home airport, KCI, where the much-loved (and soon to be retired) drive-up design usually guarantees easy boarding. There were a few changes to the usual procedure: passengers passed by a dog, and some were having their hands swiped for some reason. And just as with most flights I’ve taken in the past year or so, certain passengers were being randomly assigned “pre-check” status to test the new system that the TSA is developing.

None of this annoys me any more than any other piece of security theater, even if it personally inconveniences me. It’s not my place to guess what officers need to screen for, and even changing the security routine at random can help deter criminals. As for pre-check, I don’t know anything about it, but I don’t mind the randomized “upgrades” — as the healthcare.gov debacle showed us, changes to the “program” of government ought to be prototyped.

As it became clear that the length of the line was getting out of hand, however, the officers started to change things up in a way that bugged me. A jaunty-looking fellow opened up a new line, then, waving his hand over a whole section of us who had already had our boarding passes scanned, said, “All of you are pre-check passengers now” and directed us over to a line where less severe rules would prevail.

I knew this was one of the situations in life where I was going to be the stinker. After my bags had gone through, I tapped the officer on the shoulder and said, “I’m sorry sir, but we weren’t actually in the pre-check line.” I could feel the eyes of my fellow passengers marking me as a traitor. But then the guy gave me a wink and a smile and said, “Oh yes you were.”

He was just being Midwestern nice, I’m sure. But the whole experience stuck in my craw.

We’re all used to government treating us as captive consumers instead of citizens. That may be an inevitable aspect of the way all of us relate to each other in a world where we frequently interact with other human beings as customers or service providers, patrons or clients (though fewer and fewer people seem to have any idea of the duties connected to any of those social roles). I think people are smart enough to interact with their government as a consumer in one moment and a citizen in the next, knowing that there is something more sacred about the voting booth than the line at the DMV.

But this man’s wink was something different. It suggested that I was enjoying some sort of special privilege by opting out of the project of our collective security. And it reminded me of any number of instances in which loopholes in law or the enforcement of law are presented as some kind of reward, from various refunds in the tax code to exemptions from gambling laws that will allegedly benefit education. Government does not just relate to us as consumers, but consumers who need to be “nudged.”

I’ll admit that I haven’t read the book to which this word refers. But I often hear the term used to refer to the repertoire of psychology and design tricks that can subtly change human behavior. That companies do this doesn’t bother me — the constant manipulation of desire is just part of the late capitalist game. And I don’t think it’s an entirely illegitimate option for government either — there are any number of interactions between government and its citizens where we all must choose some sort of default, opt-in or opt-out.

But when exemptions from the law (and ultimately, the project of the common good) are presented as rewards or treats, I don’t think we should be surprised that the ideal of the common good is increasingly difficult to invoke in our public discourse. In such a world, making the claim that we all ought to follow the same rules doesn’t just inconvenience our neighbors — it takes away their privilege or spoils their party. I think this is a concern no matter what your political ideals, because once we lose the “muscle memory” of talking about the rules we all should follow, it becomes more difficult to revise the law in either a conservative or progressive direction. The common good becomes a series of “got mines” held by crony citizens who can’t even see themselves in each other (much less those charged with enforcing the law).

That may be a lot to read into a wink at the airport. But when it happened, I thought back to the dog and the swipes and officers doing the pat-downs. When people complain about these personnel (or police officers or public school teachers or federal bureaucrats) I am usually the first to say, “Calm down, they’re doing their job.” Yet when that job includes a wink and a nudge, it becomes that much more difficult to defend.

Good grief

Yesterday while I was mowing the lawn and listening to one of the more melancholy songs in the Townes Van Zandt oeuvre, it hit me: today was going to be one of those inevitable days of suck.

I hadn’t had one in a while. In the (nearly) three years since Mom died, the anniversary and birthday and the holidays had gone round and come round, had begun to regenerate with their own rituals. But as fate would have it, I was out of the country for Mother’s Day in 2012 and 2013. Despite encountering bits and pieces of the run-up (which seems to start around St. Patrick’s Day) I had not experienced the actual mental checklist of the day and the concomitant graying of each box with grief. No present, no card, no call, no Mom.

In our prosperous society where we rarely encounter death, we tend to think of grief as a process with an end, a gauntlet that must be overcome. But even from the day of Mom’s death, I think that I began to understand the set of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual responses I group as “grief” as an ally. When I talk to friends who have had to encounter death, I pass on advice that was given to me: trust yourself, trust your body. Because there is something in us that is ready to reckon with death’s disruption to the natural order, if only we are ready to listen to it. When the death is as sudden or confusing as my mom’s or my brother-in-law’s, grief gradually goes from a shocking new dimension of experience to a familiar facet of the self, a way of processing the world that is comprehensible, even comfortable.

One of my last experiences with my mom was visiting her on the night her father, my Grandpa Cork, passed away. Cork was a daily mass-goer, whereas Mom had become a Presbyterian and then a Jew and then ended her life as a woman still trying to figure out her own Higher Power. But when Cork died she wanted to pray in a church. I happened to know that the Church of the Ascension had a chapel with a Perpetual Adoration, where the Host is attended at all times. So we went there. Mom kneeled and crossed herself and prayed and I have no idea what she said, but I thought about the Church’s teachings about the Mother of God, and how contemplating the prayers of another can only add to our own. That shared experience of grief was one of her great gifts to me, though I don’t think she ever knew it. Maybe she does now.

Today nearly all those close to me know these poses of grieving alone and grieving together, going back and forth between the two with understanding. This shared communion is one of the reasons why it is easy to transfer the spirit of Mother’s Day to others while still keeping faith with my own. I don’t know how any of this would be possible without the recognition that the response of grief exists within each of us, even if we cannot perfectly understand one another’s. Grief can be good. My sister has started an organization that even contends it can change the world. I share her hope that sometimes it can, and that sometimes it just helps us get through the day, and in between it gives us the wisdom to know the difference.

L’etat, c’est math

The-Reckoning-243x366Here’s my review of Jacob Soll’s book The Reckoning for the LA Review of Books. In some ways it’s a love letter from a failed early modern historian (me) to a prospering one (he) and an appreciation of what that discipline’s take on the world can bring to contemporary policy analysis. An excerpt:

Soll pulls off the miracle of making his history not a monolith but a mosaic. He examines financial affairs in a dozen eras with a cultural historian’s flair for fidelity, but then assembles these fragments into a whole that leaves the reader satisfied with everything except the status quo. That’s because what emerges from The Reckoning is an enormous missing concept in our debates over market and state, as well as a mandate to rearrange our thinking in response.

That concept is accountability, which one could define as the capacity for citizens to read the financial code of the public and private programs that govern their lives. As Soll’s story makes clear, it’s a capacity that requires both a financially literate public as well as institutions that can tolerate an audit.

Read the full piece here.

Sunrise, sunset

This morning I needed to time something to happen just as the sun was coming up. So I pulled up whichever weather site it is my wife has bookmarked on the computer and entered my zip code. 6:32 a.m., it said, and I thought, “Well, I’d better be ready fifteen minutes earlier just in case it’s off.”

Only later did I think about how silly that was — the site likely pulls from an almanac with hundreds of years worth of consistent empirical evidence for sunrise times, and it’s ultimately backed up by Newtonian physics, which tends not to be wrong about things like planets. If I’d really wanted to, I probably could have gotten a sunrise time down to the millisecond from NASA or several other sources.

Yet because the data came through a channel where I tend to assume everything is a well-informed guess, my own mental equation cruncher treated this as the same. It just goes to show you how much the places where we read our data matter, even when they shouldn’t.  I wonder if they had had a field for “sunrise directionality: E / W” whether I would have still thought, “Well, they’ve been wrong before.”

The grace to listen and to design

In the face of genocide, we want to say, “Never forget.”

But like too many Americans, when I encounter the commemorations of the Rwandan genocide, I hear the facts and wonder if I ever really remembered. Even as a young man, I remember reading about the atrocities in National Geographic and thinking, “This can’t be true” or “There must be some explanation.” Even when the events of 1994 are present in my mind, I lack some intuitive way of making sense of it all, of finding meaning in any of it.

But this year I do have some cause for hope. While my mind may feel like a void in response to such events, I know that that is a good place to begin the process of design. The trauma and the tragedy may make us feel as if we know nothing, but good designers try to know nothing anyway — it puts them in a better position to listen.

In the next few months I’ll be traveling to Rwanda with some of the best designers in the world as a part of UX for Good. I can only hope that everything we do will be imbued with that spirit of listening — it’s the kind of task where, no matter what your state of belief, you feel compelled to ask for supernatural help. As some of you know, there are various ways to get involved with our project — you can reach out to me if you’d like to know more.

But today I’ll only ask that you involve your soul in helping bring about the grace we’ll need to listen, learn, and remember.