Videos for a rainy day

I may have written before about my painfully short internet attention span, but it has reared its ugly head again today in the form of intriguing-sounding yet disconcertingly long (to my internet monkey-mind at least) videos.  However, the likelihood of actually watching them during that hour after-work-before-bed is much higher if I share them somewhere in cyberland.  Today’s lucky audience are my few and far between blog readers, so without further adieu…

The Comedy Queen that is Tina Fey


A Likely Depressing but Nonetheless Worthwhile Historical Look at Russian Criminals

Thanks to Brain Pickings for continually unearthing cultural gems.


Words to live by: Anton Chekhov

“The sun only rises once a day, so take hold of what’s left of your life and save it.”
-Anton Chekhov in Whiskey River (thanks to the Parabola newsletter)

Best reminder to be present and mindful ever.  And even if you can’t see the sun (as is the case in the Twin Cities today), it’s still shining somewhere.

Knowing Who is Here ::a public brainstorm::

I’d like to try an experiment.  I’m going to call it a public brainstorm, and tag it as such for future reference.  So often I have ideas that I get excited about, let roll around in my head, and once in a while jot down on paper via scraps in the office or one journal or the other, but I rarely share them in any public way that would encourage accountability.  So here’s the first; I would appreciate any comments, criticisms, brilliant ideas for follow through, or public brainstorms on your own blog linked in a comment here.

Now to the subject of the title.  Data frustrates me.  Numbers and measurements certainly have their place, particularly to establish importance or relevance on the scale of a country or continent.  But when it comes to the neighborhood organizing level (and my line of work), statistical data leaves me not only cold, but bored and unmotivated.  While census information may tell the viewer of the income, education level, and racial breakdown of a particular neighborhood, it and similar purely quantitative studies lack one essential aspect of what makes a neighborhood vital and vibrant: stories.  Thus I return to my collegiate honors thesis (a phenomenological study of student activism) and the haven of qualitative information for a community organizing brainstorm on how to collect, connect, share and persuade with the colorful stories I am certain exist in my workplace neighborhood.

I should first explain that there are two exciting community building movements of sorts occurring in the ‘hood that up until my brainstorm this morning were entirely distinct projects, both in practice and in the minds of the participants.  The first I am only peripherally involved in, though it was the original impetus for my desire for qualitative research and creation.  This is the establishment of a Creative Enterprise Zone in the neighborhood, a place both material and abstract that will foster artists, artisans, and other creative entrepreneurs in the neighborhood.  The recently formed steering committee for this project is releasing their action document at a celebration event next week, which will hopefully blossom into enthusiasm and support across the neighborhood.  The biggest obstacle to this project, however, is not knowing who is here (ie. what artists and artisans are presently working in the n’hood) and what they want/need.  Several strategies for ‘outing’ these creative types have been suggested, usually orbiting around a quantitative (and sometimes web-based) survey, which I think is the wrong strategy entirely, or at the very least is merely a piece of a larger puzzle, but I’ll get to that.

The second movement is hope and action for a neighborhood Transition Town, spearheaded by our very own Energy Resilience Group (ERG).  Though they like to spend quite a bit of (and I would venture to say, sometimes excessive amount of) time thinking and discussing before taking action, ERG recently passed a resolution through the board of the community council supporting a community-based inventory and action plan to move toward becoming a full-fledged Transition Town.  For those of you who haven’t heard from me or read in past posts, the basic gist of Transition Towns is relocalization of everything to create more resilient communities and prepare for the inevitable effects of climate change and peak oil.  Serious stuff indeed, and inevitable too, which is why I’m excited that the neighborhoods in which I live and work have groups to discuss and implement the Transition Town ideas and action plans.

So, in summary: the Creative Enterprise Zone movement is too qualitative and the Energy Resilience Group is too methodical.  What can both connect and usher the two movements along?  Stories.  Stories elicited and shared in a way that is compelling to local residents, business owners, and other community members, as well as to politicians and grants organizations.  This is where my qualitative-research-based brainstorm comes in, inspired by the stories in Spark: How Creativity Works and the interviews and structure of the International News Station program Studio 360.

For those not familiar with Studio 360 (I wasn’t before reading Spark), host Kurt Anderson interviews various artists, from Kevin Bacon to Yo Yo Ma, on their craft and creativity. Spark is a compilation of essays distilled from those interviews and organized into various themes on how one finds and retains creativity.  These essays are brilliant not only in their insight into the minds of some of the most interesting creators of our era, but also in their simple authenticity.  The artists talk about what they love, why they do it, and what keeps them coming back, and sometimes even how they see their work existing in the larger creative sphere of present day culture.

I want to replicate the wonderful experiment that was and is Studio 360, because I am certain that we have similarly passionate artists and artisans in our own community that would be just as enthusiastic in sharing their story of their art and their lives.  But maybe instead of a radio show the product of similar interviews is a series of videos (we have filmmakers) or a zine (we have printmakers and bookbinders), or at the very least a monthly column in our wonderful local newspaper (that is actually read by a majority of the residents, mind you).  These interviews would not only highlight artists for the sake of inventorying the local Creative Enterprises, but would build a foundation of local creation and production that would be the basic of a community Transition Town.  Any movement must be built beginning with what already exists, and we are lucky enough to have an abundance of creative and intelligent individuals and enterprises in our community.  Now all we have to do is collect and share their stories to show everyone else what we can and will do.

What needs to happen to make my brainstorm reality?  I need to find people to interview, and come up with basic interview questions and/or interest-peaking conversation topics. I probably need someone to help me conduct the interviews as I am only at the Community Council for 23 hours a week.  I need to decide on a way to record said interviews, whether it is video (in which case I would need to find a videographer, preferably within the community) or print.  And, arguably most importantly, I need an audience for the end product that will sign on to creating the Creative Enterprise Zone and Transition Town community that the interviewees envision.  This audience must include community members, but need not be limited to people who live and work in the neighborhood.  In fact, it should be the City, likely the County, and possibly the state.  Heck, let’s send it on to the country while we’re at it, assuming there’s a venue to do so.

So there you have it, my first public brainstorm.  It harkens back to the Dreams Accountability Collaborative in a way, though this particular idea is work related and much more concrete than many of my dreams.  Now it’s up to me to follow up on my vision, and you, dear bloggers and internet browsers of the world, to give your feedback and share public brainstorms of your own.  The virtual podium is yours.

Words to Live By: Hope is the thing with feathers

In the often overwhelming a-lot-ness that is life, I can always, always, always be brought back to the joy of the present moment by birds.  Though I wasn’t able to get my own photos of them while bicycling, here are a couple of highlights from my bird sightings this past weekend on my retreat to Belle Plaine with Benjamin.

Prairie Oaks Institute (the wonderful retreat center that hosted our weekend) has built several bluebird houses to rejuvenate the local population of this marvelous songbird.

I’m not quite as adept at identifying water birds or birds of prey, but I was 90% sure we witnessed a great blue heron taking flight just north of the Minnesota River crossing.  What a majestic creature, even when it is struggling against a mighty cross wind.

And, for your reading pleasure and inspiration because it is so very charming, the title poem by Emily Dickinson:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I’ve heard it in the chilliest land
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Challenging vs. Taxing

I’ve been busy lately.  And by lately, I mean for the last few months.  Too busy for my own good, I think.  The abundant activity of the Minnesotan summer has begun, both of my jobs have their own ‘adventures’, and don’t even get me started on negotiating the last weeks of wedding planning while still trying to be true to my wedding mission statement.  However, despite being waist-deep in to-do lists and stress, I’m discovering I don’t feel challenged by most of what life is throwing at me these days.  I feel taxed.  And the cavernous gap between the two is essential, and was described perfectly by the message from a member of the Quaker meeting Ben and I attended this past Sunday.

“The activities of our lives can be divided into four quadrants,” began this Friend’s testimony, “that which is important and urgent, that which is neither important nor urgent, that which is urgent but not important, and that which is important but not particularly urgent.  The first two are relatively easy to identify: your child getting hurt is both urgent and important, and dusting that decorative shelf in the dining room is neither important nor urgent.  It’s the final two categories that are difficult to discern.”  This friend went on to explain how she spends so much time doing the urgent but not important, ie. laundry, while often unintentionally neglecting the important but not urgent aspects of life, ie. building relationships; I do much the same thing, and am guessing that many others do as well.

The urgent but not important tasks are our to-do lists.  They are what suck our energy, what consume our time, what make us feel like we’re accomplishing something when really we aren’t attending to the deep desires and fears of our selves.  So much of my time as of late has been spent on the urgent but not important, the taxing unending series of details that demand my attention.  I would even argue that most of the wedding planning would fit into this category, because while being married and celebrating with friends and family is important, the details that make up the event are not.  Same with my work as a community organizer; bringing people together and sharing ideas and making change is important, but ordering the right amount of cookies and having every possible flyer copied for every person is not.  These urgent but not important tasks keep us busy but do not bear fruit in the long term.  They are not rejuvenating, they are depleting.  They are taxing.

The important but not urgent is the opposite entirely.  It is maintaining friendships over time.  It is reading and conversing and engaging on the issues and ideas of the world.  It is creating something for the sake of creation.  And it is so easy to let go by the wayside for the sake of the urgent but not important.  Attending to the important is challenging, especially when there is no action list to work from, when the future is an abstract vision.  But it is so so essential, because that which is challenging rather than taxing may require our energy in the present, but it will rejuvenate us in the long term, will create a better life and world for ourselves and others.

For now I must attend to my commitments.  I must finish wedding preparations and make good on my responsibilities to my job.  But in time I will move my activities and focus to the challenging rather than taxing, the important rather than the urgent.

What urgent but not important tasks hijack your time?  What important but not urgent aspect of life might you be neglecting?  How can you attend to the latter in the coming weeks and months and move your energy to the challenging rather than taxing?


How I Became a Bonafide Treehugger (and Other Musings on My Sustainability Journey), Part I

The origins of my propensity toward ‘being green’ should fairly be placed firmly in the lap of my parents.  Though I should really begin by saying that I REALLY DON’T LIKE a lot of the language around caring for and acting in tandem with the planet, it’s ecosystems, and its many beings.  Phrases like ‘steward of the earth’ are sufficiently paternalistic to turn my stomach, while the use of ‘being green’ in present society assumes that environmentalism is the other, ie. the human base state is a thoughtless, selfish existence, while I would argue that acting in a synergistic way with the planet is in fact much more deeply rooted in the human way of being.  But more on that later.

My parents were a certain caliber of environmentalist far before it was a common suburban thing to do.  I grew up eating wheat bread and actual vegetables and fruit with every meal- the plastic components of a Lunchable have never passed my lips- including and especially at school lunches.  No chocolate milk, no soda (until my brother was old enough to demand it, but such is the bane of being the first child), no sugary cereal.  While several friends of mine rebelled against similar dietary upbringings by becoming some of the most unhealthy eaters I know, I enjoyed or at least tolerated the regiment enough to take it on as my own upon reaching adulthood.

In addition to having healthy, whole food in the house, my parents bought Seventh Generation recycled toilet paper and cleaning products for everything that couldn’t be cleaned with just vinegar, baking soda, or Borax.  At the time all Seventh Generation meant to seven year old me was a fantastically comfortable, worn in t-shirt that apparently came free with a product at some point.  As I aged, however, and learned the history behind the Seventh Generation name, I was happily surprised by the progressive tendencies of my parents in the me-era that was the late 80s and early 90s ::this is where you give yourself a pat on the back for success in parenting, Mom::

My parents went on to purchase a Community Supported Agriculture share at the only farm anywhere near us in suburban Chicagoland, as well as wind power from the moment it became available on the energy bill.  They’re on their second hybrid Civic, and have installed a pair of sweet dual flush toilets, in spite of the fact that such a retrofit will never save money, only natural resources.  Though there are still many large limitations on my parents’ environmentalism while they still live in the suburbs (most particularly the dependence on a personal vehicle as pretty much the only viable form of transportation), they provided a fertile ground for a treehugger to grow.  And grow I did, into the fervent activism of high school that all started with becoming a vegetarian.


It started as an experiment.  Really.  I must have been in one of those bored 15 year old funks, because it was a week on a whim; I was an experimental vegetarian.  Then it stuck.  I cheated a couple of times in the first few months, for my mother’s muffaletta and a potroast made by my ordinarily kitchen disinclined brother, but by early sophomore year I was a fervently committed non-meat eater.  This was cemented by my relief after a friend gave a speech on factory farming that I didn’t eat such horribly mistreated animals.  But it didn’t stop there.  Relief turned into evangelism.  I became one of those vegetarians.  The insufferable kind.  The kind that pressure their parents and friends, the kind that are overly moralistic, the kind that turn meat eating into a crime on par with capital punishment.  This lasted pretty much through my freshman year of college, when thankfully I turned to other environmental evangelical pursuits.  But before I fly full speed into my college days, I must pay respects to the writing of Daniel Quinn and a little conference in Richmond, Indiana.

I first encountered Ishmael by Daniel Quinn through my high school sophomore year English class, but blessedly was not in the group that read it then and thus had any mystique ruined by adolescent academic analysis.  It took two more years for me to finally pick up the novel.  When I finally did, I was hooked.  Ishmael was RADICAL.  It looked far beyond the comparatively-minor-verging-on-bandaid-actions of my parents and me to question the very origins of human civilization and how we came to be in the state we’re in.

For those who haven’t had a chance to read this or one of the other novels in the trilogy by Quinn,The Story of B and My Ishmael being the other two, here’s a summary from Wikipedia (hate all you want on Wikipedia as a viable source of information- I support open source information sharing and while citing anything from Wikipedia for academic purposes is silly, it’s a marvelous way to learn basic info about almost anything):
“Ishmael is a 1992 philosophical novel by Daniel Quinn. It examines mythology, its effect on ethics, and how that relates to sustainability. The novel uses a style of Socratic dialogue to deconstruct the notion that humans are the end product, the pinnacle of biological evolution. It posits that human supremacy is a cultural myth, and asserts that modern civilization is enacting that myth.”
My single sentence summary of the novel?  Essentially Quinn posits that humanity has screwed ourselves since the Agricultural Revolution when we started trying to control the natural environment (ie. became Takers) rather than functioning as a piece of it (ie. Leavers).

As I said, I was hooked.  My high school self was on the verge of breakdown due to the stasis and apathy that was high school in suburbia, and the radical ideas of Ishmael were precisely the spark I needed to not lose hope.  Through the internet meandering that was still somewhat new in the early ’00s I discovered IshCon, an online community for discussing the ideas in Quinn’s novels and, most importantly, bringing people together for an annual conference in Richmond, Indiana.  Susan, my partner in activism and quirkiness through all the craziness of high school, and I borrowed my parents’ Civic and headed five hours East to join the conference.

Susan and I were the youngest participants by at least a couple of years, which allowed us to soak in the ideas and conversation rather than need to organize/participate/advocate as we so often had to as two of the very few activists at our 3,500 student high school.  And soak in we did.  We witnessed a remarkable coming together of two very disparate perspectives on the philosophies in Ishmael, an experience that I believe has shaped my love for connection between people and ideas ever since.  At least as far as the participants of the conference were concerned, Quinn’s ideas prompted two responses (that I am now going to oversimplify, so I hope the individuals that held these views will forgive me):

  • relearn survival skills because collapse of civilization is immanent, or
  • find a way to creatively convince the world that a dramatic societal change is essential to continued survival, because if we can teach people we just might save ourselves

These two camps had argued vigorously on the IshCon forums up until the conference, futilely attempting to convince each other that their perspective was the only one.  Within the physical space of the conference, however, and the multitude of skill shares and presentations both formal and informal, the two perspectives realized they needed each other because THE FUTURE IS UNKNOWN.  The survivalist group needed the creative teaching group to provide for them while society still existed, and the creative teaching group needed the survivalist group to, well, help them survive if collapse did indeed come to pass.  Though Susan and I were not deep enough into the culture of IshCon to personally feel this epiphany, witnessing it was enough to dramatically affect my major, activism, and vocational choices for the foreseeable future.

College sustainability to come in Part II, including my evolution into a retreat and conference junkie!