The cheeriest man alive?

I'm sorry I never got a chance to meet cartoonist and children's author William Steig, who died earlier this month. This country could use more people like him.

I'm not saying our collective artistic talent is in decline. This is a personality issue. Although Mr. Steig's work often had gloomy undertones, his wife claims he was "the most cheerful man alive." In a recent New York Times column, Jeanne Steig also said her husband had a way of turning chance encounters with everyday people into moments of spontaneous enjoyment.

One example she recounted was when Steig asked a taxi driver in New York if the skyscraper they were passing was the Empire State Building, and the driver happily replied with many details of the city. "Bill was born in the Bronx," Mrs. Steig explained. "He just figured the driver would be pleased to have something to say."

In my opinion, this anecdote should be incorporated immediately into the curriculum of every school in all 50 states. It combines the pursuit of knowledge with the spirit of good citizenship. It also describes an aspect of my own daily behavior that I've been diligently refining for years.

I may be a loner and a maverick - and I stay away from online chat rooms - but I am not a recluse. My goal each day is to engage the world by communicating directly with the inhabitants who share it with me. I don't fear the idea of having a conversation with someone standing behind me in the supermarket checkout line.

What does bother me is how often cultural institutions encourage Americans to think about one another in terms of distinct groups that are pursuing their own particular goals and interests. Politicians focus on voting blocs. Businesses seek out target audiences. Our fascination with polling and marketing make the country seem like a giant riverbed composed of separate demographic layers.

Too often, this kind of thinking leads us to prejudge each other.

Years ago, I visited a friend and asked about some of his neighbors. His response made me shudder. "We've never talked to them," he said matter-of-factly. "They don't look like people we'd care to know."

I don't expect to form a lasting emotional bond with everyone who passes through my personal vicinity, but if they look friendly, it doesn't seem unreasonable to say hello and possibly exchange a few sentences. How can you find out what's behind a door if you never reach out and try to open it?

If Steig's wife was correct, and he was, in fact, the most cheerful man alive, his passing means the title is now open. I'm ready to battle for it. And I would like to believe there are a huge number of challengers around the country waiting to take me on.

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