Bowling with other people

I'm reading Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. It's one of those books that I periodically refer to in conversation without having properly read (I've only skimmed, poked around). And since lately I've been referring to it more and more as I think about the pervasive loss of community and how to rebuild it, I figured it was time to actually read it. The guy is a Harvard professor and lives near where I grew up in Massachusetts. He talks examines the factors that contributed to "the erosion of social capital" and in an initiative to encourage civic participation called Better Together at the Kennedy School of Government he makes some good suggestions for reversing the trend. I wanted to direct you to this list of his 150 THINGS YOU CAN DO TO BUILD SOCIAL CAPITAL. Here are a few of my favorites:

7. Start a front-yard/community garden
51. Eat breakfast at a local gathering spot on Saturdays
55. Host a block party or a holiday open house  
66. Say "thanks" to public servants – police, firefighters, town clerk…
75. Volunteer at the library
79. Ask neighbors for help and reciprocate
93. Assist with or create your town or neighborhood's newsletter
102. Cut back on television
109. Pick it up even if you didn’t drop it
113. Hire young people for odd jobs
134. Help kids on your street construct a lemonade stand***

I especially love #101 "Greet people". This sounds like a point that would be made in Life for Dummies. It's kinda obvious, yet not as common as you might think. I myself am always greeting people. But the return hit rate is so low. The number of people who in return scowl, ignore, grunt, groan, push by or glare is just infuriating. And if you think it's a city thing, it's not at all. It's actually much worse in the suburbs or country where people are often really skeptical of strangers. The worst is on the playground when you smile at someone's kid. The kid runs to his or her parent and the parent looks at you with total distrust, like, Why are you smiling? What are you trying to sell? Are you planing an abduction? Is this a trap?

Just today at a playground in the suburbs of Boston Wally tried to join 5 or 6 different kids and all refused to say hello and ran off or ignored him. Then the same happened with the grownups (he just kept trying again and again). At one point he was trying to engage a whole family in playing on a fire truck. It was this morose, dour group of four, it's not like they were even laughing or talking to each other. But anyway, I did feel like maybe he was a little bit close--having a different concept of personal space because of growing up in NY--but they just flat out ignored him. the parents made suggestions to the kids about heading off to different parts of the playground. "Why don't you go on the slide?" "Why don't you go on the swings?" while Wally stood there asking if anyone wanted to help with a rescue.

So anyway, greeting people is a nice way to start with rebuilding social capital and getting out of an isolationist, distrusting mindset. Lots of people won't greet you back, (they may even scatter off to the remote parts of the playground), but the important part is you are friendly. I have to admit I am so tempted to start scowling at certain neighbors (Alex refers to them generally as "mugs"). It's just like -- I give up! I don't want to say "Hi" and smile and be met with your mug. But who wants to give them so much power? Smile anyway, like "build anyway" in the poem always wrongly attributed to Mother Theresa.

Speaking of civic engagement -- this afternoon we are off to The Lion's Club Fair. I haven't been to it probably since senior year of high school.The Lion's Club is one of those really old-fashioned civic groups. Unlike many of the ones Putnam talks about, it seems to still be going strong, with 1.35 million members worldwide. These sorts of things always had an antiquated sort of feel to them. I remember a few high school dances held at the old Maynard Elks Club with its wood-paneled rooms, a musty carpet. I was probably quick to dismiss them, to see them as a dying breed--which they were. Now I am more interested. 

As Robert Putnam writes "In the end, however, institutional reform will not work--indeed it will not happen--unless you and I, along with our fellow citizens, resolve to become reconnected with our friends and neighbors. Henry Ward Beecher's advice a century ago to 'multiply picnics' is not entirely ridiculous today. We should do this, ironically, not because it will be good for America--though it will be--but because it will be good for us."

Maybe I'll see you out there at the Lion's Club Fair. We can play skee ball together. I will recognize you by the fact that you don't scowl.

**All taken from Better Together, is an initiative of the Saguaro Seminar on Civic Engagement in America at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.


  1. I so love that you do greet people, and I know you do it with grace and kindness. Are you exaggerating the funny looks people give you? How could anyone think ill of you, mommy/intellectual that you are? But I'm biased of course. I think we should start a project called Community 101 and focus on that 101st thing on the list. It's something I don't do nearly as much as I want to. You mention the "personal space" of NYC being different, and it corresponds to that personal space of early childhood. So wonderful, that our little ones think nothing of standing close to strangers and simply staring at them. Or saying hi. Or proposing a rescue. What beautiful innocence (and all so finite, so we try to hold onto it, and don't think on it too long or we will experience the pain of losing it).

  2. Thanks for saying that. I don't know if I do with grace and kindness or more out of a social awkwardness. I am probably exaggerating the funny looks...although lots of them are confirmed by Alex (does he count as giving valid data?) Community 101 is an awesome name...Let's do it. I do love how these little kids walk right up to people and ask them what their name is. Wally chased after someone at a lake recently asking where they lived and saying he lives in NYC. That was all it took and we hung out with the mom and her two kids, and then their friends (three more kids! Wally was thrilled) for another hour or so before we had to leave.

    Yes ! The pain of losing true...and kinda a little bit what I'm talking about in today's post. You are always so understanding k.b.e. Thank you.


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