Friday, November 30, 2012

Good Fences Make Good Fences

Good fences make good neighbors.
—17th century proverb

                                    ...I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows. 
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out, 
And to whom I was like to give offense. 
Something there is that doesn't love a wall, 
That wants it down.'
 —"Mending Wall," Robert Frost

I've lived in cities most of my life. I enjoy city life very much: the diversity of human experience on display, the range of entertainments and intellectual engagements available, having many friends a short train ride away—I find these and other advantages endlessly appealing. There are disadvantages, too: dealing with strangers whose behavior can be unpredictable, a deep separation from nature, difficulty seeing the stars at night. Normally, though, I take these in stride, and I rarely think about them, apart from occasions when I meet with an unreasonable person on a bus or suddenly miss the sound and smell of wind in the trees.

Lately, the big drawback to city living on my mind is the lack of connection I feel to my neighbors. I don't know their names, I see them very rarely, and when I do, I feel guilty for not taking the time to try to get to know them. Trouble is, when you live in a city, there are too many people: not enough time to get to know everyone, not to mention the feeling that people who are too friendly, too familiar, out in public, may be after something more mercenary than simple friendship.

I could get to know my neighbors if I really tried, no doubt. My shyness and laziness are the main obstacles. Occasionally, though, there have been bigger barriers to my knowing a neighbor.

I once lived on the second floor of an apartment building in Hyde Park, Chicago, with three roommates. Our red brick building was old and a bit shabby, but because our apartment was roomy and not un-conveniently located, we generally enjoyed living there. Throughout the years I lived there, various folk came and went in the neighboring apartments, and while at times they could be noisy or otherwise slightly bothersome, as a building we typically got along fine.

One year, though, a family moved into the apartment below us, who we found harder to understand and live with. It consisted of a middle-aged woman and her teenaged son, with regular visits from what I assumed to be the woman's boyfriend. They kicked things off poorly by installing a camera at the front of the house to monitor who was at the door; this made us uncomfortable (who wants to be recorded at home by their neighbor?) and we questioned what sort of person needed such a camera in our relatively safe area. They later added such annoyances as smoking weed in the room beneath my friend's bedroom—forcing him to deal with the smell, which he loathed—and blasting loud music at odd hours, in addition to, interestingly, horror movies turned way, way up. Needless to say, we grew to resent these people.

Which led to an interesting time one night when the woman downstairs came to our door and knocked on it vigorously. It was very rare for residents of the building to knock on each other's doors, so it was always with a bit of trepidation that such a knock was answered. Occasionally, we'd just wait quietly and hope the knocker would go away, as it was rarely anyone with good news. In this case, we could not do so. She knew we were there: she hollered as much through the door before any of us answered.

The woman's complaint was that we had been stomping around our apartment and we needed to stop, because she had to sleep. A less gracious group of people might have replied that her family had been smoking weed and playing loud music and they needed to stop, because we had to live above them. Instead, we insisted, truthfully, that no one had been stomping around and that the floors creaked a lot when we walked because the building was old. She accused us of lying and insisted she was right.

This established a pattern for the coming months. We would live our lives relatively quietly apart from, yes, walking around in our apartment. And our neighbor would come up to our house, bang on the door, and tell us off. Later, she added the charge that we were throwing water on the bathroom floor and it was coming through her ceiling, and when we insisted we were doing no such thing, but that there was likely a problem with the pipes that she should call the landlord about, she accused us of lying and insisted she was right.

In retrospect, I have always wished that I could have solved—or at least addressed—this problem with a little courage, inviting this woman to sit down with me and get to know me, to understand that I was a kind person who had no wish to make her unhappy, that she was simply mistaking me and my roommates for callous, unthinking people. I still sometimes mentally run through the conversation we could have had, never really able to imagine her response, but always a little afraid that talking would have helped nothing. I'm more afraid, though, that it would have helped a great deal, and that I missed a chance to reach out to someone different from me, to establish a connection with a neighbor.

One night, we overheard a loud, sustained argument between the woman and her boyfriend, which, from the sound of things, not only involved vehement accusation, shouting, and bickering, but but also throwing things crashingly around the apartment, and perhaps worse. We called the police, who came and settled things down, we assume, though we didn't know any details. What we did know was that our neighbor stopped complaining to us.

I like to think that she understood, eventually, that we were just people trying to live, and that her family's activity was just as audible and bothersome to us as ours was to her. I suspect, though, that she just saw us as people who could not be reasoned with, who would rather call the police than involve themselves with their neighbor's life in any way. I think that, to her, we were not neighbors, but enemies.

The saying quoted at the top of the page is supposed to mean something like, "to keep on good terms with your neighbors, keep your life from interfering with theirs in unwanted ways." Robert Frost questions this idea in his poem; I wonder with him if our impulse to "mend fences" in this way may keep us from knowing each other at all, may make us miss opportunities for deeper connections with people. Indeed, I've often found that the fences are the only neighbors I have.

Photo sources:
Phtoto 1:
Photo 2: Google Maps

Friday, November 16, 2012

A Thanksgiving Day Tradition

Sleighbells in the air,
Beauty everywhere,
Yuletide by the fireside,
And joyful memories there
—"Christmas Time is Here," Vince Guaraldi Trio

Thanksgiving in my family growing up was a bit different from how it generally seems to work. We didn't always have relatives over, and often didn't make a big meal and eat it together. The only consistent Thanksgiving tradition my family had was putting up the Christmas tree.

Let me explain: my parents are ministers. Thanksgiving is the start of the busiest season of the year for many people, none more so than those in non-profit work. Thanksgiving Day was, for my parents, usually a time to feed people who couldn't get a big meal on their own. That left us kids at home by ourselves most Thanksgivings.

Just about every day between Thanksgiving and Christmas growing up was full of activity for my parents, and often equally full for us kids: counting donation money at the police station and sorting toys at the donation center were frequent and, in my view, unwelcome additions to our schedule during this period each year. So Thanksgiving was the last day available for putting up the tree.

We had a seriously gigantic metal-and-plastic tree. It took about a day for us to set up and decorate properly. We would break it out of its box (increasingly worn out over the years, and often inhabited over the course of the day by the cat, who loved the feel of the scratchy branches), first assembling the huge center pole and placing it in the stand, then sorting the branches out into their various lengths with a color-coded chart, always having to remember which layers were missing one branch (who can say how they were lost?). We'd put the branches on row by row, and, once finished, open our ludicrous treasure chest of ornaments.

Our Christmas tree was an eccentric place. We had little time for color-coordinated bulbs and tinsel; what we had was much better: a combination of odds-and-ends ornaments picked up over the years as gifts, donations to the church, and what-have-you, and an array of homemade ornaments, many of them created in classrooms or of our own accord when we were small. The latter category included a series of polaroids of each child framed in construction paper in 1996, a wreath I made from pretzels and green paper (which since has lost at least one pretzel), some hideously child-painted figurines, various reindeer in classic arts-and-crafts syle (composed primarily of googly eyes and brown pipe cleaner), and some geometric paper figures I constructed on my free time sometime in the 90s. Truly, it was a prodigious and excellent collection, and it made for a great tree.

Unfortunately, the old tree is gone. I miss it. My family will not be together for Thanksgiving this year. And this tree-putting-up is a tradition that I have yet to replace with anything else, so I feel a little twinge of sadness every year at Thanksgiving. The pain diminishes a little each year, though, and I hope one day to start my own little rituals around the holidays with a new family.

Friday, November 9, 2012

How to Reddit

Part of a series on Stuff You Might Not Know About.

Troublesome waters, much blacker than night,
Are hiding from view the harbor's bright light.

"Troubled Waters," Iris DeMent

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked me to explain the appeal of Reddit to him. (Reddit, if you're not familiar, is a place to get news, links, discussion, and opinions from other people on the internet. Folks can submit links or topics for discussion, and other folks can vote those topics up or down and respond to them in comments sections on each one.) From the outside, it can look a lot like everything that's bad about the internet.

In the first place, everyone on Reddit is anonymous unless they choose to be otherwise; internet anonymity tends to bring out the worst in people, and Reddit is no exception: there's plenty of bile, casual misogyny, and even racism to be found in the comments section of popular items. And perhaps even worse, it is a breeding ground for vapidity in the way of many internet hubs, generating captioned cat pictures, all manner of silly nonsense videos, and the like. As I write, the front page of the website has, in order of popularity, (1) A picture of a toddler stealing candy, (2) a picture of a woman in an orange dress jumping really high, (3) a link to a somewhat interesting-sounding Wikipedia article, (4) a picture of something weird that claims to be from a Japanese vending machine, and (5) yes, a captioned picture of a cat.

My friend knew this, and he wanted to know if there is any reason to ignore all of these obvious flaws and go to Reddit anyway. My answer: emphatically yes. 

Reddit is also a place to discover people having insightful debates on meaningful issues, and to engage with them yourself. It is a place to see things others have created, and get insightful feedback on creations of your own. You can find communities of people interested in practically every subject, many of them pulsing with commentary, content, and life. Reddit, if you know where to look and what to do, is an extremely valuable, and even beautiful, corner of the internet.


If I've piqued your interest, and you want to start using Reddit, I'm going to tell you how to do it. Before I do that, I need to briefly explain the mechanics of Reddit, and how it can be a hive of vapidity and a beacon of hope for insight on the internet at the same time.

Reddit is composed of communities of people, some large, some small, some active, some dead, but all created by people around a common interest or theme, be it politics, religion, images, knowledge, or anything, really. These communities are called subreddits.

Reddit, when you first go there, looks like this:

That's the frontpage. It's where everything that gets lots of attention (or "upvotes") from Redditors goes. It's also the most likely to be full of drivel, and it's where most ignorant commenters go to be ignorant.

The front page is a compilation of the most popular material from the most popular subreddits. In order to get away from the bad stuff and start finding the good stuff, you need to get away from the front page and find less crowded, more interesting subreddits. That's the key to having a good time on Reddit.

Here's a step-by-step guide to how to have an excellent Reddit experience:

  • Go to Create a username and password for yourself.
  • Unsubscribe from the default subreddits. 
    • These are listed along the top of the page: pics, funny, politics, and so forth. 
    • (You can keep some of them if you like: r/IAmA is interesting, as people with interesting personal history and celebrities come there to be interviewed by the Reddit community; r/askscience is also pretty cool, in my opinion, as is r/TIL (Today I Learned). In my opinion, though, there are better places to explore in most of the content areas covered by those subreddits.) 
    • To unsubscribe, click on the name of the subreddit, and hit the red "unsubscribe" button on the right once you're in the subreddit. 
  • Find some subreddits you're interested in and subscribe. 
    • There are several ways to do this. One way is to click on the default subreddits with subjects you're interested in (r/worldnews, e.g.) and look along the right-hand side for related subreddits. Subreddits will have a number of subscribers listed next to the "subcribe" button; if the number is over million, you should probably go elsewhere. Same if the number is under 100: those subreddits aren't full enough to have meaningful levels of activity. 
    • Another way is to look over the list of the 250 most popular subreddits, which you can find here (on the left hand side of the page) along with some other interesting Reddit data, and start clicking on ones that interest you. (Don't click on red links in that list if you know what's good for you. Also, note that, strangely, subjects with an ordinary word [e.g, "history" or "earth"] plus the word "porn" actually refers to interesting pictures of that subject to ogle, offensive though this naming scheme may be to some. Lastly, note that r/trees is about marijuana, not trees. I don't know why.)
    • Finally, you can use the Reddit search bar to look for subjects that interest you and see what subreddits turn up.
  • You're now set to Reddit! Any time you log in, your frontpage will display the most popular links from the subreddits you're subscribed to.

  • If you want to use Reddit on a regular basis as a place to get information and engage with communities of people, you can make your experience more enjoyable and smoother by adding the Reddit Enhancement Suite to your browser; it works for Safari, Firefox, Chrome, and Opera. It has a bunch of great things to make browsing, commenting, and general Reddit use easier, and when you install it, it will tell you all about them. I recommend it.
  • Once you're subscribed to different subreddits, you'll notice that there are some specifically built to invite people to create and engage in discussions. So pick some and add your voice! Note that it's considered polite to upvote people's comments that you think add to the discussion, and to reserve downvotes for comments that are out of place or destructive, not for things you happen to disagree with.
  • You can submit links yourself by clicking the "Sumbit a Link" button on the frontpage. Once you've done so, try to come up with an engaging title (if it's an article, pull a very brief but interesting snippet of text if you can) so that people will pay attention. Lots of great stuff gets passed over on Reddit because the submitters don't take a moment or two to try to hook people. Then, choose a subreddit to submit it to; the page should provide suggestions.
I hope you consider taking a look at Reddit. It's a unique place in my experience, and it rewards investigation immensely.

Here are the subreddits I'm currently subscribed to, if you're interested:

Here are some others I've discovered recently:
Needlessly Specific Subreddits:
r/thesuperbowl (not what you would think)