Thursday, June 18, 2009

Kindergarten lessons

Pet peeves. We all have them. And we all love to gripe about them. I have my own pet peeves, of course. Things like irrigation systems running when it's raining out. Neighbors that have loud, all-night parties in their yards all weekend, keeping everyone else awake. Drivers who can't seem to stay in their own lanes, whether because of alcohol, cell phones or just being in a hurry. Litterbugs. Co-workers that leave dirty dishes in the office kitchen sink. People that use power tools early on a Sunday morning. People who take things that don't belong to them.

One thing all these noxious behaviors have in common is selfishness. Selfishness is a base instinct that people are supposed to overcome in the process of maturing from childhood to adulthood. The ability to put others' needs before one's own is a grown-up characteristic. But there are plenty of people out there all too willing to put themselves first, ahead of everyone and anything else -- the essence of immaturity and, I think, at the very heart of what's wrong with humanity.

It doesn't have to be that way.

In his insightful essay, published in 1988, Robert Fulghum explained how everything we really need to know we learned in kindergarten: "Share everything. Play fair. Don't hit people. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don't take things that aren't yours. Say you're sorry when you hurt somebody. Wash your hands before you eat. Flush. Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you. Live a balanced life -- learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some. Take a nap every afternoon. When you go out in the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands and stick together."

These very basic rules are words to live by. "Everything you need to know is in there somewhere," Mr. Fulghum wrote. "The Golden Rule and love and basic sanitation. Ecology and politics and equality and sane living."

If people -- and businesses and governments -- lived by the principles they learned in kindergarten, think what a better world this would be.


Another long-held pet peeve of mine (though it seems larger than the term "pet peeve" would imply) involves government "leaders" who are so wrapped up in the games of politics, they lose sight of the mission of government. Call it selfishness on steroids. We can find examples of this wherever we look, at every level of government.

It's easy for officials to fall into this trap. I know what I'm talking about. As a Town Board member, I sometimes did it myself. The game can too easily become more important than the mission -- especially when partisan politics are at play.

The paralysis in Albany right now is a great example. For years, Democrats froze out Republicans in the Assembly and Republicans froze out Democrats in the Senate. To be a member of the minority party in either chamber amounted to essentially assuming a role of complete irrelevance. (This probably explains a lot about Gov. David Paterson, a longtime Democratic senator.)

With the slim Democratic majority in place in the Senate following last year's election, Senate Republicans, for the first time in almost two generations, got a taste of what it's like being in the minority. And areas outside of NYC got a taste of what it's like having all the shots, in both houses, called by NYC Democrats. For Senate Republicans, as well as suburban and rural New Yorkers of all political stripes, this was a bitter pill to swallow. Look no further than this year's budget for an example of what I'm talking about.

"Control" of the Senate is still undecided. With one of the Democratic defectors, Hiram Monserrate, flip-flopping back into the Democratic camp this week -- Sen. Ken LaValle told me Tuesday that Monserrate "folded his tent because he was intimidated by Al Sharpton," who threatened to stage a march on Albany -- the Senate is deadlocked 31 to 31. With no lieutenant governor to break the tie, with the judicial branch apparently unwilling to jump into the internal affairs of the legislature, and with an executive for whom exercising leadership seems to be outside his political comfort zone, Albany's paralysis is not likely to be cured any time soon. That's too bad for the rest of us.

Our legislators ought to pull out a copy of Robert Fulghum's essay and learn to play nice in the sandbox. Share. Play fair. Don't hit. Put things back where you found them. Clean up your own mess. Don't take things that aren't yours. Then they can have some cookies and milk and take a nice nap.

We'd all be better off for it.