On Dog Poop and the Human Condition

Spaniards in Brunete, a small, middle-class suburb of Madrid, are fed up with their dog poop riddled parks and sidewalks. So the mayor of the town decided to send the dog poop back to dog owners. I kid you not. Read the full story here

As explained in the New York Times:

Volunteers were enlisted to watch for negligent dog owners and then to approach their dogs to pet them. After a few flattering remarks about the beauty of said dog, they asked what breed it was. Then they asked the dog’s name. Back at City Hall, where more than 500 residents have their pets registered, that was enough information to get to an address.

Mayoral money quote, “It’s your dog, it’s your dog poop. We are just returning it to you.” The Times reports that:

The dog owners got their packages — white boxes bearing the seal of this town and labeled “lost and found” — within hours. Signing for the curious parcels, they must have been intrigued, though surely unsuspecting. . . .Delivering 147 boxes of the real stuff seems to have produced a . . . lasting effect in this town of about 10,000 residents. The mayor guesses a 70 percent improvement even now, several months after the two-week campaign.

Brunete’s Mayor deserves points for creativity and boldness, but I’ll be surprised if their parks and sidewalks are much improved next August. In part because dog owners have already stopped giving up their dog’s names, but more importantly, because it’s very difficult to teach old dogs (the masters that is) new tricks. As one commenter of the NYT article wrote, “Personal responsibility only works for people with a conscience. For the rest, it takes shame, videotape and public humiliation, all of it well deserved.” I disagree with the second sentence which I’ll return to shortly. First a related anecdote.

A few years ago I was enjoying a hard earned lunch at the Crystal Mountain turnoff late into RAMROD (Ride Around Mount Rainier in One Day). While trying to recover for the final push, I was admiring a fellow cyclist also in his late 40’s/early 50’s—his bike, cycling kit, and obvious fitness. My book cover assessment. . . badass. Then he opened a Cliff Bar, ate it, and TOSSED the wrapper on the f#*king ground.

Stunned, I wondered, what kind of person litters? That’s why God created jersey pockets and trash cans. There’s tons of evidence on the side of our roads that lots of people litter, but we hardly ever see them. This was up close and semi-personal. It’s bad enough in an urban environment, but we were smack dap in the middle of some of God’s finest handiwork. Somehow I suppressed my instincts to open a can of whup ass on my lycra-clad compatriot.

If it’s not built-in, and I don’t believe it is, how do people develop a conscience and learn to take personal responsibility for maintaining their part of the public square—whether a park, a sidewalk, or a natural setting? It’s modeled for them at a young age by a constellation of caring adults—older sibs, parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, youth leaders. For the vast majority of peeps, the first ten to fifteen years of life tells the story.

Shame, videotape and public humiliation will not inspire meaningful change over time. If I’ve learned one thing as a life-long educator it’s that encouragement and positive feedback are far more motivating than shame and public humiliation.

Which makes me wonder, what if Spaniards and you and I used the postal service to acknowledge selfless acts of personal responsibility? What form might those types of notes, letters, or packages take? Here’s just one of many examples that come to mind. A friend who lives on a nearby lake is always inviting our family to enjoy their primo community dock. When we take advantage of her generosity, she often barbecues dinner—hamburgers, salmon burgers, veggie burgers, chicken. Typically, we bring a salad or some fruit, but there’s a clear imbalance. I should go “reverse dog poop” and send her (or drop of rather) a package of frozen burger patties as a token of appreciation along with a note of thanks.

Granted, she doesn’t need that recognition, because generosity is integral to who she is. It was probably a part of her nature at age ten or fifteen, but everyone appreciates being appreciated. Let’s spare the postal service any more dog poop and watch for random acts of responsibility, thank the person or people involved, and create positive momentum in the public square.

Feeding the Spirit. . . Slowly

Most days I’m bullish, in a two-thirds kinda way, on our future. But about a third of accelerating modernization worries me. For example, young people gravitate almost exclusively to high speed, visual media that leaves the future of non-visual slow mo media like National Public Radio extremely vulnerable.

This was painfully apparent the other day while I was listening to NPR while driving through downtown Bend, Oregon. I learned that the “Talk of the Nation” call in program was going off the air after 21 years. Something about a $7m debt. Next, as I drove back to Sunriver, I listened to a riveting, seemingly unbelievable (it was April 1st) story about a Portland State University student who got caught in a gruesome, downward sex trafficking spiral.

And I thought it was an exotic, mostly Southeast Asian story. I needed educating and was schooled by a memorable story that stuck with me the way powerful journalism does. Journalism that educates, pricks your conscience, and tugs at your emotions.

Youtube videos are often funny diversions from day-to-day life, but few rise to the level of powerful journalism.

I had to listen to the same station for twenty minutes and use my imagination to envision the young women’s harrowing story. Devalued attributes in today’s social media landscape.

I’m a frugal fool meaning my money saving strategies are sometimes irrational. So I identify closely with my friend who likes the Washington Post. I sent him a link to a recent article that described the Post’s new pay wall. He quickly fired back, “It will never work, I’ll just read the minimum number of articles and then turn to other news sites.”

But when it comes to the potential of our journalism to challenge our intellect, hold our public officials accountable, and sometimes even nourish our spirit, we get what we pay for.

I can’t help but wonder, no make that worry, about what happens to 21st Century media when young people are unwilling or unable to paint pictures for twenty minutes and their parents refuse to contribute to the salaries of the skilled men and women who excel at telling our stories.