Wednesday, April 25, 2007

How One Thing Leads to Another

This piece of artwork went through a considerable metamorphosis from its early beginning, illustrated in my April 9 post. I seem to be launched on a new series of paintings, and am feeling good about making art once again.

It is easier to explain why I stopped making art for six months, than to explain why I started again. I stopped because of the commercialism and superficiality of the whole art-making enterprise, because of the difficulty of finding audiences who actually take the time to look at one's work, and because art-making seemed fundamentally less important compared to the other things one could do, such as respond in a communitarian fashion to the big issues of the day: global warming, violence, and public health.

I stopped making art for long enough to remember that doing good is a lot trickier than it looks. People don't respond to pious lectures about what they ought to do, they don't do things that the times seem logically to demand, such as conserve energy, carpool, and start managing their land according to the principles of permaculture. Moreover, the community of do-gooders, the 150 people in town who can be counted to show up at the same music events, fundraisers, and lectures--are too pressured for time to engage deeply and collectively with the issues. My need for community and depth around sustainability is unmet.

What really made artmaking possible again was an appreciation of the gift aspect of art. I remembered that the process of making art was a gift to me. We all have our critiques of how society is. It is healing and affirming for the creator of art, to use artistic forms and media to visualize and bring into existence a version what beauty and wholeness could look like.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Giraffes sighted in Minnesota

Four African giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis) were recently sighted in southeastern Minnesota this Saturday, surely a sign that the planetary ecosystems are profoundly out of whack. There is much speculation about how the creatures, native to tropical zones, wandered onto a local university campus.

One theory is that the creatures are not actually true giraffes, but are a local mutation of the burgeoning white tailed deer population, a close relative to the giraffe. Vince Gray, a local biologist, suggested that a small band of Odocoileus virginianus (white tailed deer) mutated through natural selection to have much longer necks than normal. He theorized that deer populations have grown so huge that the low lying shrubs and trees normally consumed by the voracious mammals have all but disappeared, leading to mass starvation in some districts, and favoring those creatures whose necks allow them to find more food within reach.

Another more laughable theory, offered by environmental extremists, is that increases in planetary temperatures drove the animals to a more temperate climate, as is available in southeastern Minnesota, the region's "banana belt". Observors were unable to explain how the furry ungulates showed up in Minnesota, but Odin Skukrud, retired Marine Corps officer, speculated that Greenpeace orchestrated the kidnapping of the giraffes and their subsequent release in Minnesota in order to further the vast media-entertainment-environmental conspiracy of global warming.

A more practical concern aroused by the giraffe's visit was the damage a few of them could wreak on the university landscape. Giraffes eat 140 pounds of leaves and twigs per day, and the potential destruction to an urban forest is a matter of concern. Darrell Hedges, landscape supervisor at the University, was frantically looking for a trailer large enough to pick up and transport the four animals to an area where the effects of their tree-top browsing would be less pernicious.

Myra Earnest, member of a local pagan meditation group, said the visit from the giraffes was "a good sign." A giraffe's heart is about two feet long and weighs 25 pounds, making this the biggest hearted mammal in existence. Earnest said "the giraffes were lured to Minnesota through the power of attraction to the many good hearted people living in this area of the state." Her group planned a celebratory ritual which included the construction of a sculptural "Green Man" out of buckthorn bushes. She said the Green Man would then be thrown into the Mississippi River. Her group planned to seek a location for a permanent, year-round giraffe refuge/ritual center.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

What to listen to?

I've been engaged in multiple house projects, and also working on a painting, so my head has not been in blog-land. That doesn't mean I've weaned myself from the internet, however. These activities involve physical and manual labor, but not necessarily mental fire-power, so I've been wearing my Sennheiser wireless headset, while I walk all over the house listening to internet radio. It's a great product, by the way. Our house has an open floor plan, and I can listen to whatever I want without disturbing my spouse.

In between painting, I scan some favorite aggregator sites to find good things to listen to. Here's my top ten list of listening sites, one costs subscription $$ and the others are totally free.

1. Public Radio Fan. This is a directory of public radio sites from around the world; you can find out what is playing in music or non-music right now. I have become particularly addicted to Dig Radio in Australia, an eclectic radio station that has introduced me to some new musicians I like. I just ordered a CD by Joanna Newsome, for example, that seems very interesting.

2. New Dimensions Radio. We pay $9.95 a month for a listening club membership to this service, whose purpose is "to deliver life-affirming, socially and spiritually relevant information, practical knowledge and perennial wisdom through the voices and visions of those who are asking new questions and are looking at the world in positive and inspiring ways." When we first joined the club we spent hours listening to some of the best minds in the world, including David Bohm, Krishnamurti, Natalie Goldberg, A.H. Almaas, Larry Dossey, and on and on. Their offerings in the area of spirituality are extremely strong.

3. Global Public Media. This service features readable and listenable article on a "post-carbon world, " aggregating radio programs such as Canada's "Deconstructing Dinner," and covering a wide range of sustainability topics. Great place to learn about peak oil.

4. On Point Radio. This is public affairs programming on a broad range of topics, including the current news, science, arts and culture, and much more. Well organized and accessible radio archives.

5. Speaking of Faith: A program on religion, ethics and ideas, with host Krista Tippett. Her most recent interview of evangelical Christian Richard Cizik explodes conventional ideas of what evangelical Christians think. This program is the cure for stereotypical thinking about the major religions.

6. TED Talks. TED stands for technology, entertainment and design, and it features some of the big thinkers featured at the annual TED conference in California. Most of the presentations are short, maximum 1/2 hour, and video is provided, but I usually find it easy to listen without attending to the video. Most thought-provoking recent experience on TED was listening to Bjorn Lomborg explain which of the major world problems should be tackled first.

7. The Infinite Mind. Exploring topics like, Place, Laughter, and Bullying, among a host of others. Programs are available for free for a limited period after their first broadcast, but after awhile you may have to purchase to listen.

8. Learn Out Loud. Hundreds of audio and video broadcasts; politics, history, religion and spirituality are some of the best represented topic areas.

9. A-Infos Radio Project. This site aggregates offerings from a host of independent radio programs, a lot of them left of center. The quality of the shows is very mixed, and it can take a long time for the requested radio program to boot up, but this is a great place to search for info on obscure topics.

10. Democracy Now. I have to confess I have only listened to a couple of recent programs, but I invariably find host Amy Goodman well-informed and provocative. I plan to spend some more time here in the future. If you think the mainstream media is missing a lot of important information about the world, you are right. Listen to what's falling beneath the cracks here.

What are your favorite internet radio sources? I'm always looking for new finds. If I have any complaint about the current state of internet radio, it is that is strength is in breadth, not depth. If you have a topic you'd like to explore deeply, you still need books and other print media. For example, I'm looking for extensive information on permaculture, and a host of introductory programs are available but there is very little that lends itself to my practical "what's next?" focus.

Friday, April 13, 2007

In praise of carpooling

I get a little discouraged from time to time that fuzzy green minded activists give so little thought to the real potentials of carpooling, as a way to save time, money, help the planet, and get to where you need to go. About a year ago I put a rideshare board up at the local natural foods store, and although there were a few people who used the board, 99.9% of the population never looked at it and never gave it any thought. In the basis of more than 20 person surveys, I have found that liberals and conservatives alike are reluctant to carpool.

I posted a card on the board that said the following: "Older lady in Hertown, Wisconsin periodically needs rides to Ourtown. Time and dates flexible, " including my name and contact information. It goes without saying that there is no bus, train or plane service between Hertown and Ourtown. And the older lady is quite sprightly but nervous about driving 185 miles across the state. She is sensible about this. One man saw my card and responded to it, saying that indeed he periodically made trips between Ourtown and Hertown and would be willing to help out. It finally worked out that I was able to take advantage of his offer. I understood that he was planning on leaving Ourtown on Thursday, and could drop me in Hertown. I was planning on returning with my husband, who had a related trip planned to visit elderly relatives, so this was a one-way carpool.

Steve and I talked on the telephone several times, and then exchanged emails so we could work out the details of the carpool. We must have both decided we could trust one another, because the way the carpool worked was this: Steve's son came to my house with the car and the dog. I dropped Steve's son off in Ourtown, and headed for LaCrosse in his car (with trusting dog observing it all in the back seat), where Steve works. We planned to meet at 3:30 in a parking lot near his place of work. For about 15 minutes I was worried that something had gone wrong with our arrangement, when I didn't see Steve. What I didn't realize was that he was going to arrive on roller blades--instead I was looking for a driver to drop him off. We eventually found each other in the large parking lot and headed for Hertown, a 3 hour drive away.

We found lots of talk about, but what I was most interested in was the socio-demographic background of someone who was willing to go to great efforts to carpool. The two of us must share a certain number of traits in common. So, following my conversation with Steve, I discovered where to look for enthusiastic carpoolers: people who are involved in mentoring children (we both are); people who are thrifty; people who are sociable; people who place a high value on civic responsibility; people who value the simple life; people who are practical problem solvers; people who have had enough good experiences in Midwestern small towns to be basically trusting of strangers; people who are physically active.

I paid Steve $20 to cover some of his gas costs, and gave him a bag of homemade scones. I hope this was sufficient payback for him. One thing we never did was agree on what I would contribute beforehand. But things appeared to have turned out well.

Our civic celebration of Earth Day is coming up soon. I hope to continue my carpooling advocacy by surveying people about their attitudes toward carpooling, in the hopes of learning the formula that will make people accept this practical solution to so many transportation issues. I am perfectly willing to develop a reputation as a carpooling fanatic, even though I all too often drive around by myself.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Art: product or gift?

I visited family over Easter, and while I was there, I went shopping, not because I needed anything, but I thought I would be interested in the novelty of stores that we don't have in our town.

I visited a major label store with employees who were gifted at chatting with customers. I rapidly discerned that I didn't need the green slacks that were on sale, so I sat in a chair to wait while my mother tried on hers. Stacked next to a display of marked down purses were 4 hand-painted canvases, all by an artist named Parker, featuring decorative floral patterns. Like the clothing in the back of the store, all four canvases were 70% Off The Original Price, once $142, now $42. What a bargain! I could hardly resist, but I did. Seeing these paintings gave me the clearest possible example of art as a product, something that has always been difficult for me.

Here's the dilemma of my creative process: my art-making skills are a gift. When I say that, I'm not claiming that I am a genius, but just that the process of making a painting is a gift to me, and the result is a gift for some people, but clearly not all. The problem is, I often feel uncomfortable about showing my work to others. I regard my work as a gift, but most viewers regard it as a product, and I can't stand having it assessed as a product. There is something about turning a painting into a commodity that feels horrible to me. And I felt a little horrible when I saw those canvases in the store, stacked neatly, marked down, firmly in the commodity category.

I wandered up to the store entry-way and a cheery employee asked me whether I had found anything. I confessed that I hadn't, but that my problem was, I didn't really need anything. She backed away with an awkward smile--the stores depend on people who keep shopping, whether they need anything or not.

As I watched the hordes of women bringing their purchases to the busy cash registers, I thought about all these people eager to give a gift to themselves--buying something, forking over their capital for a little emotional lift. But shopping is a dysfunctional form of gifting; its satisfactions are transitory and for the most part it tends to be wasteful and unnecessary. Jonathan Porritt, "environmental guru" and advisor to the U.K. government, says that our shopping is killing the planet, and we need to shop much less.

Perhaps what is needed is to start becoming aware of the function of the products that we buy: are they necessary commodities, like food or shelter, or are they gifts--an expression of gratitude? We are drowning in our piles of goods, transitory and shallow products that we don't need, that are no gift to ourselves and others. What is needed is a more imaginative way at looking at the gifts of our time and labor. I am re-reading a book that examines the role of creative works like art and poetry in a commodified society. It's called The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property, by Lewis Hyde. Like the just-begun painting at the top of today's thoughts, this book is helping me begin to re-imagine my work and my life as a gift, an expression of beauty and gratitude that has the potential of contributing to sustainability.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Mapping a positive future

I spent some time today constructing a map for myself. Mapping is a wonderful process for anyone who periodically feels unclear about things. I was introduced to the Mind Mapping process through The MindMap Book, by Tony Buzan. I’ve kept a journal of my thoughts and activities for the past 30 years, but Mind Mapping helped me overcome the weaknesses of the linear thinking that prevails in most journal writing. I learned that the structure of our cognitive, sense-making process is radiant, that is, radiating out from multiple nodes and centers. The kind of writing I am doing here is linear, and its plodding, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other format makes it difficult to see the connections between different ideas. Mapping allows us to tap into insights from multiple directions.

I have had several breakthrough insights as a result of being able to make maps. In November of 2005 I was feeling oppressed and discouraged by what I had recently learned about some of the challenges our world faces, including: bird flus and other pandemics; economic meltdown caused by high debt levels; global warming; peak oil collapse; and on-going violence in the Middle East. I spent a month or so feeling depressed about it all, but then I realized that my gloom and depression served no constructive purpose. I needed to visualize some positive outcomes that represented a response to the life changing conditions that were going on. This consisted of some future-oriented statements that reflected what I would like to see happening in my own community:

1. Community Builds with a greater sharing of time & resources. People will be thrown back on the resources of other people. Those who thrive will be those with the greatest connections to community.
2. People spend more of their time creating, rather than spending. If money is in short supply, goods and services will still need to be offered and shared. As an example, if imported fruit is no longer available, people will need to garden and get creative with local food production.
3. People learn about and focus on healthy foods. Once we realize that the old industrial agriculture system is contributing to lower immunity and resilience, we will need to learn about the healthy alternatives.
4. People walk and use sustainable forms of transit to get around, resulting in healthier bodies. Too many of us are now obese, so if we use the car less, it would be a good thing. We can visualize a positive outcome of “imagining the future without cars" as peak oil pessimist James Kunstler predicts, or even much less car use.
5. People start looking at themselves as producers of something of value apart from the money economy. Economic collapse could be a great equalizer. Suddenly, the unique gifts of each person would come to the fore. We would need the community builders, the people with knowledge of plants and animals, the people with knowledge of practical health.
6. People become inventive on a local and personal level. Innovation flourishes. With the old systems breaking down, new solutions will be cobbled together, using the resources and materials at hand.
7. The creation of beauty is not limited to the specialists but becomes the province of many. The economy supporting the arts could collapse. The creation of things of beauty, art or music will be freed from its economic straight-jacket. All who wish to create will be able to do so.

This list could be dismissed as being too optimistic. However, the writers of the gloom and doom scenarios have no crystal balls. None of us know how events will unfold. My preference is to work on things will have positive effects, regardless of how events unfold. Keeping a vision like this in mind brings more resilience and power to my individual efforts to cope with whatever comes. Mind maps helped me bring it all into focus.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Real vs. virtual conversation

I finally finished the book: Conversation: A History of a Declining Art, by Stephen Miller. The last pages of the book came just after a day spent in conversation. Yesterday, I took off to visit friends in a small town where I lived for 15 years, and spent from about 10:30am to 4:30pm in continuous, almost nonstop conversation. Then, when I returned home I needed to share the gleanings of the conversation with my husband.

It was an exhausting feat for an introvert, but at the beginning of my first conversation I felt almost a giddy feeling of happiness, at being in the presence of intelligent, conversible friends. I engaged 3 different conversational groups; each friend has particular gifts that I delight in, and each conversation had a totally different quality. I felt tired, but wonderfully rewarded at the end of the day, as I returned home.

What I harvested from the book Conversation was a sense of how the nature of conversation has changed over time. Miller posits that good conversation is composed of a felicitous mix of politeness, good humor, raillery and substance. Conversation is as good a lens as any with which to view our American culture. We have a great number of people who are tuning out of real conversation with any of the myriad conversation substitutes available: Ipods, TVs, video games, cell phones, email, and blogging, for example. We also have many visible examples of unproductive or violent conversation (e.g. Jerry Springer).

In my own life, I relish the opportunities for conversation that arise in my book club, in the course of my tennis games, in our nonviolent communication group (in which conversation itself is the subject of conversation), and in our dinner club. Fortunately, I have a partner who is interested in many different topics and is willing to discuss them with me. I am thankful for the conversations that I do have. I seem to be thirsty for much more.

It is possible to learn a great deal even from the virtual conversations that one has on the internet. But I celebrate the benefits of real face-to-face conversation, which yesterday allowed me to ponder aloud some of the following topics: who is to blame in our dysfunctional agriculture system? How does an artist who thinks of her work as a gift cope with a world in which art is primarily viewed as a product? How will we baby boomers care for one another when so many of us get old together? In the world of global warming, will it be possible to grow peach trees in Minnesota? Should we fear the melt-down of society in a post peak oil world? Is there anything wrong with us when we crave solitude?

Real conversation on these topics tires and satisfies; virtual conversation leaves one hungry. I love the evidence that from time to time someone reads these words. One step at a time, however, I hope to find more and more real (flesh and blood, conversations. I'm convinced it is essential to a sustainable world.