Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Possibilities: What if People Cleaned Up After Themselves?

Today’s paper ran a story about a new park opening in downtown Los Angeles – the first open space made available to residents since the late 19th century. While the article was very upbeat about this, my first reaction had me wondering how long it would take before the park became dirty, vandalized, and dangerous. The local residents interviewed for the story seemed happy about the park and called it a refuge and a place to run and play.

But how long before the lavatory doors are ripped off their sparkling new hinges and sold for scrap or taken to the nearest recycling center and exchanged for cash? How long before broken sprinkler heads shoot water in every direction except the new grass that depends upon the irrigation to stay alive? How long before picnic tables and building surfaces are covered by gang graffiti and turf wars erupt over the coveted open space?

Call me a cynic but these were my thoughts as I read the article and shook my head reading the sound bites offered by the city’s politicians who stopped by to take credit for the 10.5 acre site. I had to ponder – who is going to take care of the litter? Who is going to weed the planters of soda cans and clean up after the numerous family picnics that will descend upon these grounds while the weather is still warm? Will those families take care of the city-provided restrooms and teach their children to do likewise? One look at any public restroom in any public place and the outlook is not good. It never ceases to amaze me how many women have difficulty getting dirty paper towels INTO the provided receptacle. And what is it about cleaning up after yourself when you use a toilet? Does anybody in their right mind honestly think somebody else wants to be confronted with your private mess? Or is the anonymity of the whole thing the perfect camouflage for our most basic instincts?

People are notoriously unwilling to clean up after themselves. A visit to any discount store will illustrate that reality. Clothing, shoes, and other store merchandise is often picked up, examined, and then discarded – on the floor, thrown across shelves, and under displays. At some point an apathetic clerk will come along to replace the jumbled items, but it is a Sisyphian task. These minimum wage earning individuals do nothing their entire shifts but clean up after people who are perfectly capable of cleaning up after themselves.

Carts are abandoned in parking lots because many people are too lazy to return them to the store. How long, really, does it take to bring a cart to the parking lot area designed for carts? Entire companies are in business to retrieve carts from people who think nothing of removing them from parking lots altogether.

And litter? It is ubiquitous. Any neighborhood walk will reveal trash that didn’t make it to the trash can or was hurled from a passing car. School grounds are full of trash that blows out of poorly-designed receptacles. Parks and other recreation areas are strewn with the remains of some family’s good time.

I often wonder at the loss of productivity we as a society experience because people are rarely taught to clean up after themselves. What if retail store clerks did not have to spend time picking up and replacing items tossed aside by lazy customers? Would it be possible for “customer service” to make a comeback? How about teaching school children to clean up playground litter – would a respect for the environment and the world around them be encouraged? How about just an old-fashioned sense of responsibility for the world around them?

With regularity, I have my students clean up common areas in the school. I am regarded as eccentric for doing this. Many teachers and most school children walk by the campus litter regularly. Bending over and picking it up is a possibility that rarely enters the repertoire of possible actions. It is amazing and it is sad. In Japan, school children actually clean up their own schools. In America, the classified workers unions and middle class parents would go ballistic at such a suggestion. But think of the possibilities: If school children cleaned up after themselves, classified employees charged with those thankless tasks would be free to work on other neglected areas of the school, things they cannot do because school children think nothing of creating messes and then skipping away from them.

What if park-goers actually cleaned up after picnics and parties and made sure their children put trash in the wastebaskets? Would a message be sent to criminals that this place is valued, cared for, and inappropriate for graffiti and other acts of vandalism? What kind of respect for humanity might be engendered in that instance?

I had a neighbor once who swept his sidewalk and driveway every weekend. He also scooped up all the debris that collected in the gutter in front of his house. I have to wonder – what if everybody did that? What if the city-financed street sweeper crew could actually work on other, more public areas and keep them pristine and attractive? Would people then be less likely to hurl beer cans out of their cars?

It is utopian, my view of a world populated by responsible people. The idea that people could actually clean up after themselves – such an idealistic concept.

I wish the people of downtown L.A. good luck with their park and an abundance of trash cans.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Hiding the Bones: Another Dog Tail

Today, I gave each dog a meaty bone.

Duke’s was heavier than he is but he solved the problem by dragging it to just the right spot and then putting his paw on it for stability while he went to work. He was busy for a long time and I am not sure where the remains are located. The chewing and gnawing and paw-steadying wore him out – he’s asleep on the chair.

Augie took his meaty bone under the table and made quick work of removing the meat and marrow. He’s outside on the patio “digesting.” He’s placed the bone on the grass, in the sun, for proper “drying.”

Seamus, however, is beside himself. After working on what was probably the biggest bone in the package, he took it upstairs. There was much thumping and bumping as he relocated the laundry basket, the trash can, my shoes, the sheets on the bed, and my pillows, in search of the “perfect” spot for hiding. Dog compels the brown dog to bury the bones and the questionable meaty parts he is saving for later. But what he lacks is the understanding that 2-story houses built on concrete foundations lack the necessary components for appropriate burying of bones.

Upstairs, laundry is dragged all over the room. My pillows are off the bed, the stack of books on the floor are now a pile, and several shoes are in the bathroom. Standing amid this disarray is Seamus, with the bone in his mouth, looking perplexed and agitated. Hanging off the bone is a rather brownish piece of meat that has to be harboring bacteria that is rapidly multiplying while the poor dog looks for adequate storage.

He eventually settled on my bed and began what sounded like an expedition to China. Then he plopped down on the bunched bedclothes and expelled a very angst-laden canine sigh.

Somewhere in between my blanket and top sheet is my dog’s prized possession. On top, is Seamus – sleeping a righteous sleep and dreaming big doggy dreams.

It’s time to change the bed anyway.