Sometimes I love riding with NYC subway…

A number one train in motion

…Yeah, I know it’s a pain— especially in rush hour, at the weekends when there’s limited service, or if the guy sitting next to me is manspreading.

But there are also times of unexpected delight on the New York City subway, when a stranger makes you smile.

Friday nights are often the best time, with trains full of happy young people, heading out on dates, parties or planning to start the weekend at a bar. Their laughter and energy are infectious.

Then there are those times such as 9:30 this morning on the number 1 train heading south, when a young woman in her mid-twenties, wearing a shiny light blue cloak with a Columbia University logo, hopped on.

This was her graduation day and she could barely contain her smile.

The people sitting nearby all congratulated her. “It’s a big day— a real milestone”, one middle-aged man said, perhaps thinking of his own kids.

The young woman with long blonde hair was positively beaming. Just before she left the train at W. 116th Street, I asked about her degree. “Masters in International Relations,” she said, almost embarrassed that she was smiling so much.

Someone else nearby said: “Go make the world a better place. I think we need it.”

So, best of luck to her and all graduates who are launching new lives in this commencement season of possibilities. May they find not only work and a way to pay the bills— and the crazy high costs of student loans— but also purpose and a belief in the abundance and blessings of life.

We need their hope, energy and optimism to make the world a better place.

And sometimes we also need the subway and other public places to introduce us to the unexpected.

Richard Davies is the co-host of the news solutions show “How Do We Fix It?” and a podcasting consultant. He tries to listen to at least one new podcast each week.

Smoking Ban if You’re Under 21: the Case Against New York City’s Ban

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Save lives.  Raise the legal smoking age from 18 to 21.  Discourage young people from smoking.  Who could be opposed to that?

But there are strong arguments against the  new law approved by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  Banning 18 – 20 year olds from legally buying cigarettes really is arguably a double standard.

It’s easy to see this as another example of treating this age group as adults-on-training-wheels. They can drive a car,  vote, and go to war, but buying cigarettes or booze is verboten.

What New York is saying to its young citizens is that while it’s OK for under 21’s to protect us,  or be responsible enough to get behind the wheel, they must also be protected against themselves.

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This city is already plastered with warnings about the evils of tobacco.  Stores are prohibited from prominently displaying packs of cigarettes at the front of the counter.

Not long ago, it became illegal to smoke in city parks.  And yet many kids still smoke.

sign at the entrance to Washington Square Park - partial list

Sign at the entrance to Washington Square Park – partial list of no-no’s

The City Council voted for the new restriction by a decisive margin, 35-10. New York Mayor said  “this is an issue of whether we are going to kill people.”  Well, actually smokers tend to kill themselves, but never mind.

Bloomberg correctly pointed out that people who raise the economic argument “really ought to look in the mirror and be ashamed.”  But about the freedom argument, Mr. Mayor? And won’t this ban increase law-breaking with young people buying cigarettes illegally?

While the health argument may be a no-brainer for many well-intentioned politicians it’s almost certainly more controversial among the public at large. “It’s a dumb law,” says one post on debate.org.  “If you can fight for your country why can’t you enjoy tobacco?”

“I am in high school,” wrote another contributor.   “As a student you can see that people that want to smoke will find ways to buy or get the tobacco from.”

The arguments in favor of raising the legal smoking are well rehearsed.  New York City officials say 80% of smokers here started before they were 21.  Tobacco kills far more people than alcohal or drugs.

“Teens are likely to get cigarettes from other teens, so by raising the sales age we fully expect that we’re gonna see a decline in smoking in teenagers, which is what we want most,” says New York City’s somewhat ominously titled Commissioner of Health and Mental Hygiene, Dr. Tom Farley.

“Tobacco is a drug, and it’s a drug that kills more people that heroine, cocaine, crack, crystal meth combined,” argues Farley with considerable conviction.

As a parent I know his arguments carry weight.  And I admit that I once opposed New York’s ban on smoking in bars as a restriction that went too far.  Later I changed my mind.

But this new ban is open to complaints about a  nanny state.  Shouldn’t college-aged young adults be free to make their own mistakes?  What do you think?  If I am wrong again, Change My Mind!

all photos by Richard Davies

all photos by Richard Davies

Listen Up! It Could Change The World

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These people are listening very closely to what’s going on around them.

They have brought all of themselves to this moment.  So did I.

Listening carefully to the musical  audio sculpture by Janet Cardiff , “The Forty Part Motet“,  now being presented at The Cloisters in New York,  got me thinking about how we listen.

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What extraordinary things could be accomplished by Congress and the White House if folks simply listened to each other, and went beyond the echo chamber of their own narrow structures of belief?

What if the interviewers on Sunday morning TV, or heaven forbid, highly opinionated talk show hosts, really listened to what they were being told, and challenged their guests and callers in a way that proved that they were learning something from the experience?Wouldn’t our media landscape sound a whole lot better?

There’s a really good piece on this for journalists called The Power of Listening.  “To be a good interviewer you must learn to listen — both to others and to yourself,” writes The Poynter Institute’s Chip Scanlan.

“A lot of times we beat ourselves,” says Pat Stith,  a former investigative reporter for the Raleigh News & Observer. “We don’t listen. We don’t ask simple, direct, follow-up questions. We just talk, and we talk, and we talk.”

How right he is. How often have you heard a radio or TV interviewer move onto the next question on the list without asking a good follow-up question?

Yet when the microphone is put into the hands of amateurs the results can be miraculous. Storycorps proved that.

“In 50,000 interviews, nearly every time, people have cried in the interview,” said David Isay, the founder of the oral history project StoryCorps, which celebrated its 10th birthday last week.

“Listening Is An Act of Love” is the title of a wonderful collection of everyday stories  from one-on-one interviews that were recorded inStoryCorps kiosks set-up around the country over the past decade. 50,000 interviews have been collected so far.

Now these people were really listening to one another.

My first encounter with StoryCorps was when a good friend and neighbor, Louisa Stephens, asked me to go down to the booth at Grand Central Station.  It was one of about a hundred 50 minute Storycorps interviews Stephens has done at Storycorps with friends and family members.

Having someone sit down and listen carefully to you for that amount of time is deeply flattering. The experience can be transformative, with powerful results. (Business and political leaders, take note).

Which brings me back to Janet Cardiff at The Cloisters.  If you can, go there and wander among the 40 speakers that are arranged in an oval in a reconstructed 12th century Spanish chapel.  Each mounted speaker has the voice of an individual choir member who is performing a 16th century composition by the English composer, Thomas Tallis.

Along with many others who have been there I found the experience to be moving.  It was another simple reminder of the power of listening.

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