A civics lesson

When I first bought my apartment in New York, some fifteen years ago, I volunteered to sit on the board of the condo building. I figured it would be a good way to meet the people who lived in the other 149 apartments, get a handle on what was important to our little community, and maybe, just maybe, make the building a better place.

I served for ten years, several of them as president, and there was some meeting of neighbors and improving of community. Mostly, though, there was tsuris.

In all that time, nobody ever took me aside and told me how great it was that the building was running so smoothly. I never heard satisfaction that the common areas were so clean, the elevators so reliable, the storage units so commodious. What people noticed – what people everywhere always notice – were the problems.

I heard about it when the washing machines were broken, when the doorman wasn’t helpful, when (yes) the exit signs of our newly installed emergency lighting system were unattractive. What really opened the floodgates, though, was the new contract with the cable TV provider, which specified that users of broadband (most of the residents) got lower rates, but bare-bones customers paid about $10 more per month. We were so besieged by aggrieved television watchers that I starting taking the stairs to avoid elevator confrontations. It was grim.

Kevin and I are having a different experience out here in the sticks. We’ve joined several local organizations, including the Barnstable Association for Recreational Shellfishing, the Cape Cod Organic Gardeners, the Barnstable County Beekeeping Association, and the Indian Ponds Association. Not only does no one call us to complain about the quahog harvest or colony collapse disorder, we’ve discovered, in our community-mindedness, that there’s something in it for us!

Through the Organic Gardeners, we met Al and Christl, who have been the other half of some of the best trades we’ve made. In return for clams, smoked bluefish, oysters, and eggs, they’ve given us asparagus, strawberries, raspberry brandy, winter squash, rhubarb, various plants, and tomato seedlings that became the source of the best BLTs ever.

Through the Beekeepers, we met Claire and Paul, who have paid housecalls on our beehives to help us figure out what’s going on inside them. They also encourage – encourage! – us to ask questions via e-mail, which they always answer promptly and thoroughly. We bring them the occasional dozen eggs, but that’s just a token.

And then there’s Bob, who serves with me on the board of the Indian Ponds Association. Bob, besides being a really nice guy dedicated to maintaining the health of the three lakes that constitute the Indian Ponds, is a commercial fisherman. I can summarize the advantage of knowing a commercial fisherman in one word: bycatch!

At this time of year, Bob fishes for squid, and he comes home with the sea creatures who had the bad luck to get in the way. A few weeks ago, he gave me a John Dory and a tilefish, neither of which I had cooked before, and both of which were lovely and fresh. All he got in return was gratitude and an e-mail telling him how I cooked them and how good they were.

Then, yesterday, I got an e-mail from Bob. This was it, in its entirety:

Fluke? Weakfish? Tilefish?

Now don’t you wish someone sent e-mails like that to you? “Yes please,” was what I said, and I just picked up a bag with three kinds of fish, filleted and iced down. In return, all I’ve offered up is the promise of oak logs on which to grow mushrooms, from trees we’ll be cutting down in the spring.

So there you have it. I’ve become a big fan of community engagement because I come out ahead. Civic booty!

Sounds all wrong, but I don’t think that, at bottom, it’s selflessness that builds community. In a sense, we’re all in it to make the place we live the kind of place we want to live in. Individual interaction – a produce trade, a beehive housecall, a drive-by fish pick-up – is the unit of community. Enough of them, and pretty soon nobody’s bowling alone.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate bowling alone – if you bowl the way I do, you see its advantages. But I think life is fuller and more interesting if you’re connected to your neighbors by what you have in common. Just as long as it’s not the cable bill.

10 people are having a conversation about “A civics lesson

  1. That post really ‘spoke to my condition’ as Quakers say. Being involved in Transition, we’re trying to do exactly the sort of thing that you guys achieve out there on the Cape — trading skills and ‘stuff’, being a community. I’m envious that in your way of life, it comes about so organically.
    And yikes, serving on the condo board for ten years sounds like my worst nightmare.

  2. What an interesting post. Lee and I have been joining different things so we can make new friends and get more involved in our community. It’s been fun and rewarding to us but not in the exchange of products sort of way. We are also trying to get involved in volunteering for a few things so we shall see where that takes us. I’m excited

  3. This post is further proof that Adam Smith was right then, and remains right now in some important ways. Something the post made me think of, in addition to the “forced reading torture” of the Wealth of Nations in B school, is the idea of ripples on water. Debbie and I have never lived in a NYC apartment building, or Cape Cod, etc. You have probably never lived on a small holding farm in Kentucky. Yet, despite the differences in our lives and histories, as well as the distance between us, I am very much affected by what happens to my e-friends on Cape Cod, and they are sinmilarly affected by what happens out here. When we act locally in ways that we should be proud of, we have impacts globally, just like the ripples. When I read things like this, I get motivation and inspiration from it, as well as a sense of community among those, like us, trying to accomplish similar things in similar ways with differences in the settings and resources available. Thank you for helping keep the problems in perspective. Mr. Smith (I hope I am paraphrasing this correctly) said that by acting in our own self-interest, we in fact serve the best interests of our nation and society as a whole. I believe that is more true when we act wisely in our own self-interests. I’m glad I’m not the only one.

    • Greg — I think the crux of that matter is how we define our self-interest. I think it’s in my interest to have connections with my neighbors, and to foster a sense of community, but not everyone believes that. There are reasonable people who think community is overrated, or even unnecessary, and who think differently about what self-interest is.

      While I find the life we’re leading here interesting and satisfying, I don’t have an ideological commitment to it. I don’t think there is any standard by which I can say it’s *better* than, say, living in a condo in Manhattan. I know that sets me a bit apart from others who work hard to procure their own food, many of whom feel strongly about self-sufficiency, or about the primacy of the experience, or about the provenance of what they feed themselves and their children.

      At bottom, I guess I see what I’m doing, and the connections I forge because of it, as small. It’ll never have the impact of air travel or container shipping or Facebook — things that really do shape our society. But those small things — like having a conversation with a smallholder in Kentucky — are of value to me, and are part of what makes this life interesting and satisfying.

      (The Dory, I sauteed in butter with lemon and capers. The tilefish, a firmer fish, I made into a stew.)

      • Sounds delicious, both ways. Fresh fish envy! I agree with you that what works for me, or you, or anyone else, may not work for everybody. That is what makes this world so interesting on a day to day basis. I, too, get a lot of satisfaction and personal sense of well-being (Maybe just a sense of Being?) from what I am doing most of the time. Most people I know would call it ‘small’ because the invcome isn’t what I made before, and the work is far more physical than accounting was, but I am far happier doing this than I would be doing accounting (or anything else) at this point in my life. I am very much convinced that the world I live in is a better place because other accountants are still working as accountants, surgeons still cut, etc. I am not one of these Pohl Pot, we all go back to the first century or bust types. I think the world works best when all are engaged in doing whatever it is they should be doing right then. I just happen to be here, doing this. That’s where I am right now. I cannot change the past, I may not make it to the future, I just have right now to work with. I might go back to what I was doing, or I may go on to something very different later. Or I may just stay here, time will tell. I just keep trying to do the next right thing. I am grateful for the blessings I receive and try my hardest to bless others when possible. I thnk you are pretty much the same and I agree with Jen. You must have a credit balance in the Karmic ledger.

  4. Tamar,

    I see three distinct differences between the condo experience, and your current organization interactions.

    First – the condo experience was an administrative role. Your current involvement is with essentially service organizations. Most of the people in your current organizations want to accomplish something, make a change or preserve and operate something. With the condo, there was an understanding that the building would keep standing, and payments come due, whatever the board did. At the condo, you played partly role of tax collector, and partly advisor to the ‘ruler’ (the condo association charter).

    Second – the services at the condo were somewhat like social services in the greater community and in the nation. TV, lighting, aesthetics – these are all aspects of social services, and the complaints you got are from people living within ‘the system’. Today, on the other hand, most of your colleagues are involved as if it were a hobby, or a craft guild – they love their work, cherish their involvement, and delight in sharing the beauty in their lives. Thus the beekeeping visit is a chance to get the bees the best possible care (by assuring that you know all you should).

    The sharing of the fish, now, that is another aspect. You are living a life exposed to nature. There is always a bit of risk that you won’t be able to make ends meet – there are injuries, bad weather, illnesses of workers and of the harvested species – and disasters. The sharing is fairly common among small farmers, and often small communities – where people share to assure each remains ready and capable to lend a hand, when needed. Come flood, fire, accident, etc., such a community pitches in to protect each.

    Helping out is a very endearing – and demanding – life style.

  5. Brad — Certainly, the condo was different, but maybe not as different as all that. I’ve always thought that one of the key criteria of “community” is that it has to include people you don’t like very much (otherwise it’s just your circle of friends), and every community has its share of bickering, whining, and infighting. And while people who own condos on the Upper West Side aren’t fundamentally different from people who keep bees on Cape Cod, having a real interest in common is more useful than simple proximity in forging community connections.

    In the last snowstorm, two of my neighbors, both of whom knew Kevin was away and I was home alone, came by to make sure I could get the truck up the driveway. But Kevin can tell you stories from the last NY blackout (I was out of town) that were just as neighborly.

    And you’re right about the difference — that the life we live here offers up many more situations in which helping out is called for. Endearing is a very good word for it.

  6. Living in a small rural community among people I don’t know very well, I’m always pleasantly surprised when a neighbor saves me an article because she thought I might like it, or another offers to shut in our chickens because he knows we haven’t had a day away in awhile, or someone cutting logs does a few extra for us just because.

    However, I avoid the monthy village meetings like the plague, where all the worst aspects of small rural village life come to the fore after festering since the previous month’s meeting. Bonfires, building projects, and countryside recreation cause petty feuds that can linger for generations. I’ve never been able to reconcile what seems like opposing human motivations: to help vs to hinder. Familiarity in close quarters breeding contempt I guess, whether it’s a condo or a community.

    Ten years on the condo board?!? You must be in credit with Karma.

  7. Tamar, I love this post! It made me chuckle. I love the life I live now, and I totally get that you do as well. I hope you enjoy every second of not hearing about the cable.

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