Talk to strangers

It was a while back that I first read someplace about Kierkegaard’s perceived idler reputation.

George Pattison writes that “Kierkegaard himself regarded these walks as integral to his literary persona: giving the world the impression that he was a mere idler, while writing books that would change the world.” But this doesn’t feel quite right to me. Ronald F. Marshall describes Kierkegaard’s habit differently:

Kierkegaard walked the streets chatting as he went in order to do more than get his exercise and put his mind at rest. He was trying to “renounce” himself by becoming so familiar that no one would expect him to be a profound thinker and give his publications the benefit of the doubt. No, he wanted to come off as “a street-corner loafer, an idler,” so that if his ideas were to catch on they would do so on their own…

I thought of Kierkegaard this morning in Hell’s Kitchen when I was getting my morning coffee. Most of us won’t have ideas or books that change the world, but I wonder how many of us might change our lives if we made it a point to talk to strangers.

We raise children “not to talk to strangers,” but we forget to tell them as they get older that most success in life and most of the spontaneous happiness in everyday life—it turns out—comes from talking to strangers.

And I don’t mean exchanging a few pleasant words with the person at the register. If we only exchange pleasantries with people we’re dealing with economically, we’re not cultivating ourselves as social creatures.


Rebelling against the respectable

After Patrick Deneen’s tweet and yesterday’s post I wanted to follow on by revisiting something I bookmarked a few years ago:

“I’m one of nature’s Protestants. I should never have been brought up as a Catholic. I think that nowadays the Catholic Church is not an institution for respectable people.” —Hillary Mantel

Catherine Pepinster’s perspective:

I think she’s unwittingly come up with the best line possible for a new marketing campaign: “The Catholic church – not an institution for respectable people.” It reminds me of a priest a few years ago who told me that a young woman came to him who’d got pregnant and been thrown out by her parents. He told her story to one of his parishioners, saying he didn’t think the girl could cope on her own in a flat but wasn’t sure what to do to help. Simple, said the parishioner, she comes to live with me. And it makes me think of another priest I know who was trying to help some asylum seekers living in lousy accommodation, and in the end decided they might as well move in with him. Or the young kids living on the street, often with drug problems, who have been helped by charities such as The Passage and the Cardinal Hume Centre. None of these people are exactly respectable – with complicated, chaotic lives – but Catholics and their institutions have tried to do their bit and have welcomed them in.

And Rod Dreher:

I am not a Catholic, but I certainly hope to be thought of as a member of a church that inspires sneers and hatred by cultured despisers like Hilary Mantel and The Respectable People. Given the way of the world these days, if you are a Christian and aren’t in some way hated by The Respectable People, you are doing something wrong.

If everyone in a supposedly diverse culture thinks and acts the same way, it ain’t really all that diverse.


Not to flatter, but to rebel

No doubt, theology will make our presence and our witness singularly unseasonable in the opinion of those whose only thought is to flatter the world; but unseasonable does not mean inappropriate. In times as tragic as the present, what seems most unseasonable may well be what is most urgent.

—Louis Bouyer

This was in my Twitter stream from Patrick Deneen last week and I favorited it to revisit later.

Faith isn’t a social decoration. It’s the personal and metaphysical basis for a way of living (of being) that informs how a person participates with the larger world.

Some pretend to debate about America being founded as a “Christian nation.” Obviously it wasn’t founded as a theocracy—as a nation literally ruled by clerics. Nonetheless it was founded by overwhelming Christian people, and to suppose that Christian principles don’t infuse the bones of our nation or its moral and ethical instincts is… foolish.

America was created to be a refuge for believing peoples who happened to be living in places that sought to enforce a different orthodoxy. This is obvious with even the smallest sliver of history: Pennsylvania was founded as a holy experiment. Maryland was named for Mary. These aren’t the sort of things that closet secularists would do.

What Americans did in creating the space for tolerance of faith is only so palatable with the distance of time.

To Louis Bouyer’s point, it’s useful to understand that in any given time the public expression of believers and the public speech that believers of any faith articulate and the institutions they build and defend will sometimes seem “unseasonable.” And yet providing the space and the toleration of the speech and institutions and essential role in the public square of believers is at the core of a free society.

To be a Christian, for instance, is in some sense always to be a rebel. And rebels will always be the circles that society tries to square.


Self-paced learning

One of the best things the internet lets us do is automate work.

An example of this is email newsletters services like MailChimp. With MailChimp’s “Automation” feature, anyone can create a list (say, “Rotary Club”) and then write a series of emails that are automatically delivered to a subscriber. New to Rotary Club? You’ll receive a Welcome note from the local president. And maybe the club has created a series of emails you’ll receive sporadically over your first few months of membership explaining the mission, history, and activities to encourage participation.

All these mundane but important things in the past required enormous time, energy, but basically clerical activity to oversee.

Learning is the same way. For most but the most classical institutions, the process of education is repetitive. And in a world that presently values standardization, exams, etc., much of the process can be self-paced by the student.

But that’s not the world yet. We’re still living in a pre-internet, pre-automation world wherein we take an educator, ask her to draw up her curriculum, and then allot her some number of students. Some will be fast learners, and others slow. Yet everyone is led along the same path in terms of timing and instruction.

We’ve automated lots of the process of work. Self-paced learning should be the next step.


Public transportation

It’ll be three years this fall since I sold my car. Living in cities since then, I’ve been able to get by comfortably initially with Zipcar, and more recently with a combination of Uber, subway, and frankly walking.

For traveling between most frequently visited cities like New York, Philadelphia, Washington, and State College it’s Megabus, NJ Transit, SEPTA, etc.

I hope to never own a car again, though if I do it’s my goal to make it a Tesla.

The experiences of the past few years have shaped by perspective somewhat on transportation infrastructure. I’ve always been in favor of improving what we call “public transportation,” but recently I’ve been thinking about how odd that term is.

When you look around at the landscape, look at the physical footprint of a rail line or underground subway or trolley or whatever. Compare that to the interstate highway system and roads in general. Which system occupies the greatest amount of physical space and indeed shapes our civic experience of our communities most definitively? Definitely our roads.

Our use of these things through “private transportation” like personal cars or even public buses is fundamentally more “public” in its impact than a subway because these things change our cultural and physical environments.

The public/private distinction doesn’t make any sense, basically. We need new words that accurately reflect the cost/impact/value of our transportation systems.


Complete streets

So Indego launched in Philadelphia this week, as I wrote about earlier. Indego and SEPTA Key, launching later this year, both work to modernize the transportation system.

In the meantime, Ariel Ben-Amos’s Citified piece is helpful for rethinking our approach to public infrastructure. The key point is that we should be thinking about “streets” in a more sophisticated way than asphalt strips for cars/buses. Ariel’s concept adopts the “shared streets” model or “complete streets:”

Today, its not enough to have a street, communities want “Complete Streets.” Complete Streets may sound like planner jargon, but its meaning is pretty simple: streets should serve all modes of transportation, they should be safe for travellers no matter how they choose to get about. Complete Streets, be they complete by virtue of a bumpout or a bike lane, have been shown in study after study to be safer and to reduce speeding.

Complete Streets that include pedestrian amenities such as parklets or pedestrian plazas are known to support small businesses and enliven commercial corridors.

Arterial city streets should have separated and protected lanes for bikes buffered by parking spaces, driving lanes, and ideally separated trolley lanes allowing for express service. To my way of thinking, that’s the ideal scenario.

I get the antipathy some have for bikeshare boosters. Obviously bike sharing and better biking infrastructure isn’t going to radically advance the city if approached in a vacuum.

But I think bikeshare is useful as a proxy for better civic development. It’s the foot in the door for more comprehensive thinking about community.


Global Freshman Academy

I’ve been following Coursera and EdX since they launched, and EdX so far seems like the more aggressive and innovative. Coursera is approaching online learning as a for-profit, and EdX as a not-for-profit. The latest example of EdX’s approach is the launch of Global Freshman Academy in partnership with Arizona State.

The problem with MOOCs and these platforms has been that you’re not typically completing accredited coursework. Coursera has been trying to rectify this through its Specializations concept, basically like taking classes for a minor where you complete a few specific courses, a capstone project, and are recognized with a certificate. But that certificate’s recognized value isn’t obvious.

EdX’s Global Freshman Academy, on the other hand, is partnering with Arizona State to try something different:

Arizona State University plans to offer a freshman year of college to anyone in the world with an internet connection – no application required.

Even better? You only pay if you pass. …

The program will offer 12 online courses and students will only owe tuition – $200 per credit – if they get a passing grade. Students will be able to complete courses on their own time, so everyone from people with day jobs to high school students looking to get an early start on their degrees could enroll.

Global Freshman Academy will mean that a student at Archbishop Wood, my high school alma mater, could take his freshman year’s worth of ~30 credits over the course of his junior and senior years of high school. And the cost for that first year of college would be about $1,000 less than his senior year high school tuition.

If this works and grows, it’s a major leap forward for more equitable access to education.



After years of planning bike share in Philadelphia arrives today. Indego is its sponsored name.

Like Citibike in New York or Capital Bikeshare in Washington, Indego offers one-time or membership pricing, but with an additional cash payment option that should make the bikes somewhat more accessible to more residents than they are in other cities.

At $15/month, Indego is significantly more expensive than Washington’s $75/year or even New York’s recently hiked $150/year. And like Philadelphia itself, I think “Indego” is somewhat cumbersome to say.

But these are relatively minor criticisms, and I think the story here is that Philadelphia is building out its already comprehensive transit network in a smart way that’s informed by the successes of its peers.

When I’m in Philadelphia and need to travel farther than walking distance, it’ll now be a toss up between Uber and Indego.


What else is there?

From “Questions They Never Asked Me” in Conversations with Walker Percy:

Q: What kind of Catholic are you?
A. Bad.
Q: No. I mean are you liberal or conservative?
A: I no longer know what those words mean.
Q: Are you a dogmatic Catholic or an open-minded Catholic?
A: I don’t know what that means, either. Do you mean do I believe the dogma that the Catholic Church proposes for belief?
Q: Yes.
A: Yes.
Q: How is such a belief possible in this day and age?
A: What else is there?
Q: What do you mean, what else is there? There is humanism, atheism, agnosticism, Marxism, behaviorism, materialism, Buddhism, Muhammadanism, Sufism, astrology, occultism, theosophy.
A: That’s what I mean.


Making a habit of public writing

Earlier this year I wrote about my approach to writing in public. This post from Kathryn at Press Publish on perfectionism got me thinking about this topic again.

An habitual approach to writing doesn’t correspond to consistent value. Obviously there will be lots that either immediately or over time that will become dated or irrelevant. But I think the process is important to embrace, because it builds a useful habit. Ideally it’s a habit that contributes meaningfully to civic or family life.

I’ve talked through the idea with friends of less frequent writing that’s tighter or higher impact in some way. Basically that’s more “perfect” writing on a less regular basis. But even for great writers, I think the idea that less frequent writing might lead to higher quality, albeit rarer pieces, isn’t realistic.

And I think embedded in the very idea of “just write less and spend more time on the meaningful stuff” is a problematic way of thinking. That problematic way of thinking is the idea that anyone knows in advance what’s going to be meaningful. Great works of art can speak to someone as powerfully as a simple but elegant everyday object. An off the cuff comment or insight at a cocktail party is as likely to impact someone’s perspective as a well-crafted thesis.

“The art of writing,” writes Mary Heaton Vorse, “is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.” We can’t know in advance what will make an impact, but we can guess at the habits that might lead to making an impact. And I think making a habit of public writing is one way to make an impact.

Making a habit of sharing some of our interior life helps shape our public life.