Sunday, December 29, 2019

Art is What You Make (of it)

What do a banana taped to a wall and snowshoe tracks in a mountain landscape have in common? Both qualify as art, or not, depending on your point of view. Debating the definition of art is a useful and important exercise, if only within our own individual minds. It informs our personal and collective aesthetic, and our morality.

© abcnews.go.com and Maurizio Cattelan

The wall-mounted banana by Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan might have made the news just for the $120,000 price tag it commanded, but the ingestion of the piece is what got the attention of the media. Evidently, the man who tore the duct tape off and consumed the fruit, David Datuna, is himself a performance artist who claimed that his act of eating it was itself a form of art. Here, it would appear that art is a matter of convenience, publicity, and questionable ethics. Is art for the sake of fame and/or notoriety really art?

Meanwhile, in mountain landscapes around the globe, Simon Beck creates stunning, large scale patterns by tromping across the snow in snowshoes. He gains inspiration at least in part from the intricate designs of snowflakes themselves. He will be coming here to Colorado in January to no doubt make something magnificent. Beck has also done similar work in sandscapes.

The personal choices of the artist, and the range of interpretations among the audience, make art the most universal expression of freedom that there is.

Both the banana and the snow tracks are ephemeral. Fruit spoils, tracks are quickly obliterated. One thread I read in social media asserted that Beck’s work was not art because it “has no meaning.” I found myself boiling at that remark, but was not sure why. I started writing….

”Wow. One could ask what is the meaning of a sandcastle, a snowman, an ice sculpture, a decorated cake, or any other ephemeral piece of art. If anything, I think this is astonishing precisely BECAUSE of the labor involved knowing the results could be gone in the next hour. The message? Appreciate the NOW, that is all we have."

This goes to the root of what makes art such a volatile subject. Art is whatever you make of it, but the intent of the artist is key. Art can be used as a weapon, as a way to empower or a way to oppress. Art can be propaganda or it can be a tool of social change for the better. Art can be whimsical or profound, humorous or gut-wrenching. The audience decides whether to elevate works to an iconic level or deem them worthy of the trash bin, but there will always be dissenting voices. The personal choices of the artist, and the range of interpretations among the audience, make art the most universal expression of freedom that there is.

It may be telling that I am personally much more likely to hold contempt for those offering derogatory opinions and comments about a given work than I am for artists who I still may not celebrate as genius or buffoon. You have the right to create something and call it art, but then again you do have the right to your point of view as an onlooker. What sparked your outburst of praise or condemnation, though? That is what I want to know. You were moved, but why? Honest conversation should be valued more than it is, and is itself a form of artistry we should all aspire to.

I was living in Cincinnati at the time that Robert Mapplethorpe’s posthumous “The Perfect Moment” came to the Contemporary Arts Center in 1990. Controversy surrounded the sexual and homosexual images in the exhibit, and protests and a trial ensued. I felt it was my civic duty to patronize the exhibit, regardless of whether I agreed with all aspects of it. Yes, there were photographs that made me uncomfortable, but many more that made me laugh, or simply gawk at the jaw-dropping beauty of orchids and the human figure. Besides, exposing yourself to discomfort is underrated. It tends to cultivate empathy. There is no doubt in my mind that Mapplethorpe fully embraced, and celebrated, everything that makes us human, from an appreciation of the natural world to our sexual proclivities. There was zero malice to be found in his intent.

What is your own threshold for “art?” Does it hinge on the degree of effort exercised in executing the piece? What about the degree of effort you put into making your interpretation? Do you scoff and move on? How do you express your appreciation? Is it by assigning an arbitrary monetary value to it at auction? Do you leave flattering comments in the guest book at the gallery? There is an art to evaluating art, wouldn’t you say?

Monday, November 25, 2019

The Innocents and the Bigots

Recent experiences in social media have led me to the conclusion that we tend toward a very narrow window in assessing each other’s intentions, treating all communication as black and white, good guys and bad guys. We all have our blind spots, and/or are emotionally damaged. In fact, emotional damage has a profound effect on how we perceive the world, other people, other belief systems, and how we see ourselves. Inflicting more damage, even if unintentionally, does nothing to improve matters.

My interactions with diverse individuals and social categories of our population reveals that unless I am a clone of that particular person or an individual within that category, I probably have no place commenting on their circumstance or struggles. Attempting to embrace and validate their experience becomes an exercise in futility or worse if I take the conversation public. I then have no control over the input of others.

One of the unfortunate consequences of having a social network that spans the socio-economic-political-religious spectrum is that you are going to be called out as a bigot if you “protect” anyone else perceived as a bigot by those with differing experiences and views. The assumption is that everyone is already cemented in their views and not open to any additional information. We assume they know full well they are misogynistic, racist, homophobic, transphobic, God-denying haters, and not that they are simply uninformed or uneducated. They must be professional trolls.

There is a difference between an annihilist who desires to obliterate everything and everyone “different,” and someone who is simply comfortable with their own identity but uncomfortable with the new normal or having difficulty comprehending the territory. There is no way we can possibly put ourselves into the minds and bodies of others if we are not ourselves Black, homosexual, transgendered, or otherwise a “minority.”

It is my belief that there are many innocent people being labelled as bigots simply because they lack full understanding of the issues at hand. If you do not know where the mines are, you are eventually going to step on one. If you do not recognize the triggers, you will pull one at some point. When someone talks about “dog whistles” to the bigot camp, it may be that you do not hear yourself blowing one. The wrong intent is assumed. Groups that are trying to assert their long-suppressed rights, who are understandably angry at being marginalized and abused, if not murdered, begin to interpret every attempt at understanding, or every question pertaining to the historical “norm” as somehow a threat to be met with hostility, assigned to the domain of true bigots.

Me? I am the product of an overprotective mother, and an angry father on alternate weekends. It has taken me decades to undo the damage and I am still not a finished product. The truth is that we have no idea what anyone’s personal history is, what horrific experiences or sheltered lifestyles have shaped their views. It is impossible to know this unless they fully disclose personal information that they may feel leaves them vulnerable to ridicule and persecution themselves.

This blog is where I often articulate publicly the struggles I am having privately, in my own head, striving to be a more understanding, humble, and loving human being. Others choose to do that through social media where they make posts, or comment on the posts of others. Increasingly this is asking for abuse rather than clarification, understanding and patience. Boom! You are an instant a$$hole if you use the wrong words or admit your current frustrations or misunderstandings. Zero leeway, no empathy, nothing positive.

God forbid that you defend the wrong person, too. You are then a bigot for defending a bigot, guilt by association. Whatever happened to assuming the best about people, or at least having an open mind? Your experience with a person may be drastically different than mine. I am likely to keep both of you as friends until it is demonstrated by repeated behavior that you are not worthy of my emotional and intellectual investment. I can decide for myself who to keep in my circle, and I reserve the right to recall people I have kicked out, if they agree I am worth having back in theirs.

Perhaps that is our common ground, then, that we are all flawed; and all too eager to turn others into villains to advance our cause, make ourselves feel better, morally superior, and justified in our values and beliefs. That is a terrible way to receive validation, at someone else’s expense. We can do better. We can start by admitting we are incomplete, utter amateurs in the interpretation of the experiences of others. We can listen more, not reserve judgment but abandon it completely for tolerance, if not acceptance.

Can we hate bigotry without categorizing any one individual based on one conversation or comment thread? The scientific method demands reproducible results. We might apply that to our relationships. One bad event? Maybe the benefit of the doubt is in order. Repeated instances that reflect bad character? Now you have cause to re-evaluate the relationship. Each of us has a different threshold, and a single violent action should immediately end further interaction, but there is a fine line between cautious optimism and giving up on someone as a lost cause.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Surviving Holiday Dread

Early this morning we turned our clocks back for reasons that no longer seem applicable, but many of us are about to return to behaviors and states of mind that no longer serve us so that we can survive the season of politics and holidays. How else are we supposed to cope with expectations of civility that are seldom fulfilled? Not everyone has the luxury of escape from familial responsibilities and work obligations, and we really should execute our duty of voting....but can we endure without permanent brain damage?

© Purestock Getty Images via verywellmind.com

The weather is against us, too, a physical cold that amplifies our emotional distress, and adds to the difficulties of negotiating the season in terms of travel and personal safety. We bundle up and take precautions driving, but traffic jams, crowded airports, and delayed flights make the horse-drawn carriages of yesteryear seem like a downright viable alternative if not romantic and nostalgic. We have put our extended families and in-laws at more than arm's length for a reason, and now this is the price we pay for the one or two times each year we choose to acknowledge them in person.

Congratulations to you if you have a truly loving and supportive family, a dream job, are comfortably affluent, with no addictions, and are in perfect physical and mental health. Most of us are not so fortunate, and while we have no animosity towards those doing better, we wish that you had a better understanding of our realities. We wish you had more empathy.

Were it up to me, we might be holding elections in the summer, by mail, so that politics were not so near the top of our thoughts, fueling dinner table diatribes during Thanksgiving and Christmas. Alas, they are this Tuesday, and if we must get ourselves to a polling place we have to figure out how to do so between the hours of our employment, the kids' scholastic programs, and a myriad of other chores and errands. The physical process of voting is daunting, and we haven't had time to research the issues and candidates. All of this adds to the guilt we already feel about failing in our civic engagement, and reminds us of grandpa who is stuck in a reactionary mindset that has no room for a changing social landscape. Surely you will come to blows the next time you see each other.

Depending on the outcome of the elections, we are either seeing a glimmer of hope, or plunging further into despair as the holidays fast approach. What a perfect storm, eh? Speaking of which, there is probably a Nor'easter on the way, just for good measure. Now we are reaching for another cocktail, another cigarette, or both, or something worse. We are no longer looking forward to the "vacation" to see the family, and are quite possibly fantasizing about alternative plans for Vegas or the Caribbean, minus any relatives at all, including our spouse and children. This is normal, if not unfortunate. Fantasies of fleeing are fine and healthy, it is carrying them out that is damaging. Know the difference.

What you may need to do is make a preemptive strike against depression and anxiety via a twelve-step group, a psychologist, or a supportive group in your church. Daily life is not kind to societal outcasts, and this time of year is harder still. Christians in particular would do well to remember that and at least ease off the rhetoric a bit. Compassion has to come without the strings of conversion attached to it. Seek first to understand, strive to accept rather than tolerate.

We will still likely have to deal with people who push our buttons, though, so what do we do? Avoidance is underrated if it means removing yourself from toxic situations and toxic people. You should have zero tolerance for physical, emotional, or financial abuse. Get away, stay away, or insist that your family share meals and time with another family, or at a public gathering. The "neutral field" approach can be highly effective at disarming what would otherwise be a volatile circumstance. We are all on our best behavior among people we feel we need to impress, or uphold an already high opinion they have for us.

Separate your personal objections to religion and politics from friends and family who might hold opposing positions. Good people are well worth your time, love, and investment, and good people come from all segments of the socio-economic-religious-political-ethnic spectra. Cultivating empathy should be the primary goal in our relationships with others. Listening is always good. Keeping your opinions to yourself sometimes helps, but do politely articulate your own perspectives if you need reminding of your own self-worth. I am a firm believer in the idea that stating your values, your truths, out loud, does wonders for self-esteem and confidence....as long as you are being honest, and keep an open yet critical mind.

Ask others to be honest in their assessment of the origins of their stance on any given hot topic. It is obviously personal to them, so why is that? Assure them there is no shame in being forthright, and defend them from ridicule if that is the unfortunate turn a discussion takes. You can disagree without bullying.

Good luck to you in the coming months. We wish you peace and prosperity, sincerely, and relief from whatever burdens you carry. Please share your skills, tips, and tricks for making it through the holidays with minimal pain. We are all ears.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Conversation # 1

"At the heart of it, all men long to be irresponsible."

"Really? Really??!!

"Sure."

"Why would you not want to be the best mature person you could be?"

"Maturity has little to do with it, though immaturity is what keeps me young. Irresponsibility is the hallmark of youth, and it is all about hanging on to youth."

"So you're having a midlife crisis."

(smiles) "I have had a perpetual midlife crisis then. It's chronic." (laughs).

"That's funny to you?"

"If I don't laugh, I'll cry. I'd love to start over. Completely. Have an actual family instead of just parents, you know? An intact, loving family, but where then is the struggle for the artist in me? Let's get back to the point, though. Maybe I long to be irresponsible because I want to complete my childhood. It ended rather abruptly. My mom used to tell me that when I was ten years old I put away my toys and told her I needed to make something out of my life. Ten years old for Christ's sake."

"I'm sorry."

(Shakes head)"Don't be. I don't want pity."

"So let's talk about all men, then, like you started with. Are you basing your assessment that they all long to be irresponsible on just your own experience?"

"It isn't evident, glaringly obvious to you that men are like that?"

"I don't know, I've met plenty of men who are kind and responsible. Men with a steady job, who show up to dates, on time, even open the door for me...."

"Oh, you believe in chivalry?" (chuckles) "I've got news for you. We hold the door so we can watch your ass go through."

(Appalled, mouth open in shocked silence)

"Yeah, I know you like to think that you can give men at least a little credit, but just don't. Maybe your gay male friends. It isn't even about sex, it's about lust, because we're also timid and fearful of intimacy. The psychologists have that right. Why do you think porn is so popular? It keeps women at arm's length. We don't have to answer for our inadequacies, physical or emotional."

"Wow."

"We also don't want to be responsible for your happiness. Hell, we don't want to be responsible for our own happiness. We're always looking for other people, other situations, other locations, and material goods to make us happy. God forbid we should do any self-work so we can be happy independent of anything, or anyone, else."(smiles)

"How can you be so cynical? No, no, how can you be so okay with that, if you believe it?"

"Who says that I am? Laughing or crying again. When you think about men's motivations in biological terms, all the shit makes sense. Keeping up appearances. Showing off. We have raised the lek to a theatre stage. We hoard material goods like a male bower bird, all to get our genes into the next generation."

"You said it wasn't about sex."

"True. I guess maybe it is if you really are a stud. Maybe a lavish lifestyle, and climbing the corporate ladder are substitutes for guys who can't get it up. Maybe women have that right."

"Well, gee, thanks for giving us a little credit." (rolls eyes sideways)

"You're welcome."

"So, if my man leaves me for a younger woman, it isn't about sex?"

"Nope. It's back to youth again. She symbolizes youth, freedom, confidence, everything men aspire to."

(Skeptical tongue in cheek) "I see."

"No, really. At some point in a man's marriage, his spouse becomes a symbol of confinement rather than freedom. It could be that in the process of trying to make her happy he has sacrificed his own plans and goals for security, for his wife's cooking, her income, her mere presence in his otherwise lonely life. That's always the trade-off, isn't it: freedom or security."

(Shakes head slowly)"You've got this all figured out, haven't you?"

"Hell no. If I did, I wouldn't be sitting here with you. I value your honest appraisal. Truly, I do."

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Farewells and Goodbyes

This has been a hard week emotionally. I just returned from a memorial service where I said a permanent goodbye to a sixteen year-old student and friend who I knew for all too short a duration. Earlier in the week I said a (hopefully) temporary farewell to another young lady I have grown fond of and learned so much from. The grief and sadness is a little easier the older I get because I have learned to accept the choices of others, even when that means I am deprived of their regular company.

‑--------------------
Myself, Kaya, and Heidi

Kaya came to one of the Mile High Bug Club events at Cheyenne Mountain State Park about three years ago. She got my attention immediately because she had driven down from beyond the Denver area just to hang out with a bunch of "bug nerds" and look at moths and other insects drawn to the blacklights during the night.

As we got to talking, I learned that she, too, is an only child, with divorced parents, and eclectic interests. The more I got to know her over the years the more in awe I became of her intellect, adventurous spirit, and easy-going nature. She will be on to a new job now, in a far-off city, but I look forward to staying connected, and seeing her again someday should we agree on a place to seek new and fascinating insects.

It occurs to me that while I have genuine affection for Kaya, she embodies qualities I wish I had when I was her age: confidence, mostly, but an even richer analytical mind, a fearless approach to new experiences, trust in others, endless curiosity, and a sense of freedom. Yes, that romantic notion of just going wherever your heart and soul take you. Dream on, live fully, my friend.

‑--------------------
My late friend Erin

I met Erin Starkey, her brother Brad, and their mother in August of 2012 when we both turned out for a gathering of entomologists and insect photographers at a research station in southern Arizona. Imagine the surprise and delight to learn that we all lived in Colorado Springs. We got together again a handful of times, once for Erin's birthday if I recall correctly, and I shared books and insect specimens with her. I saw her last on my own birthday, last January.

Little did I know that she was equally enamored with all animal life, rabbits especially, and was a volunteer with our local Humane Society. I had no idea she was also artistically inclined, with a talent for songwriting, acting and directing, drawing, even animation. She was incredibly empathetic to the poverty-stricken, volunteering at shelters and soup-kitchens.

Unfortunately, I also did not know that she suffered from mental illness, and the spirit-sapping lows that come with that. On September 5, the heaviness got too much to bear and she took her life.

‑--------------------

She wasn't wanting to leave us, of course, she was attempting to leave herself. At least that part of herself that conjured demons of emotional misery, dominating every part of her psyche. As if that dimension of your soul could be shed like a snakeskin, killed with the equivalent of a silver bullet....but it always takes everything else down with it. Some people try and wash that part of their mind away by drinking. Others smoke, snort, shoot up, or otherwise exorcise one dragon with another. Some people try and outrun their own ominous shadow by literally running away.

The empty, unsatisfying, and self-destructive remedies abound, all of them equally useless, a mere temporary fix that might get you to tomorrow, but still leave you with no future visible to you on your horizon. You have choices only in what Devils to bargain with, what form of suffering is the least painful.

"You could choose to be happy if you wanted to..."

No, that is not how depression works. That is not how anxiety works. That is not how obsessive-compulsive works. That's not how any of this works. As long as you insist that it is "all in your mind," or imply that one has control over their state of mind, you are doing a horrible disservice to those cursed with mental illness. Stop being so damn condescending and free your own mind to contemplate the possibility that others can be "wired" differently than you, you healthy, sunshiny son-of-a-....

Listen, we all have our deficits, our ills, our weaknesses, our genetic uniqueness. I guarantee that you know people with mental illness whether you are cognizant or not. The manifestation of madness is not always what we have been taught that it is. Your job is not to assume, not to dismiss, not to pity, not to stigmatize, but merely empathize.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

What Constitutes Suffering?

I argued in a previous post about suicide that no person should be obligated to endure suffering for the sake of other people, except in cases where there are dependent children or elderly family members involved. What I left out of that discussion was a definition of "suffering." Today, there appears to be a great deal of individual and collective suffering, so what does that mean for you?

© BBC.COM

To clarify, I am not seeking a legal definition as it applies to litigation and damage-seeking monetary compensation. That may be part of the problem, actually. Societies with a capitalist economy want to assign concrete dollar values to everything, whether appropriate or not. We have come to measure all aspects of our lives in financial terms. That may create more suffering than it solves. It certainly adds unnecessary stress.

Is suffering like pornography, you "know it when you see it?" Maybe you know it when you feel it. There is certainly the pain of physical suffering, what detainees in camps along our southern U.S. border are faced with during their confinement, what the victims of natural disasters experience during and after catastrophic events, and of course the wounds of war, terrorism, and other acts of violence. Any physical trauma is likely to generate suffering of varying degree and duration.

There is also the unrelenting mental anguish during and after violence, the stress of anticipating the next episode of abuse at the hands of your domestic partner, the constant threat of harassment or violence if you are a woman, a person of color, a member of the LGBTQ community, or a practitioner of Islam, Judaism, or some other persecuted religion....the list of potential victims of suffering is almost limitless.

I would contend that suffering does not begin and end with these scenarios. Suffering extends to those who are empathetic to the abused, the oppressed, the undervalued, underprivileged, and poverty-stricken. People with White Privilege choose whether to be empathetic or not, recognizing that they, too, suffer as long as other humans do.

Suffering from empathy goes even farther. Many in our world are empathetic not just to other members of Homo sapiens, but to other species. I myself derive great joy from knowing that there are other organisms occupying our planet, leading fascinating lives and contributing directly and indirectly to the health of humanity in both the biological and emotional sense. Depriving caring people of other species through direct extinction, climate change, and habitat destruction is no less a crime than homicide.

Each of us has a different threshold at which suffering begins, and it is wrong to evaluate the suffering of others based on our own personal standard of what we consider to be suffering. Our American society is still far too entrenched in the mentality of machismo and stoicism when it comes to pain of any kind. "Suck it up," we like to say. Such condescending and dismissive rhetoric, and behavior, will unravel our civilization if it is not properly balanced with empathy.

In these troubling times it is tempting to withdraw, and indeed countless souls abandon Facebook and Twitter and other online communities daily to avoid facing a continuous onslaught of bad news and worse news. Turning a blind eye does not make reality better, however, and also deprives one of the latest positive news from friends, validation of one's own sensitivity, and, of course, humorous memes about pets. Seriously, we need to laugh more than ever.

Perhaps your challenge, like mine, is to not return to negative personal behavior patterns that you once used to cope with mental and social anxiety, fear, and depression. Remind yourself that those are expensive and wasteful exercises, both financially and physically. We need to be at our best and sharpest, and be engaged with the world for as long and intensely as we can tolerate, which is much more than we think we can. This is not the time to run away, turn to substances legal or illicit, or check out altogether.

Most importantly, we need to remind each other that, political and religious differences aside, we recognize our humanity and the need to work collectively. No politician, no corporate leader, no single individual has all the answers. It is us who will succeed or fail in protecting each other and the Earth regardless of what happens in Congress, the Oval Office, the next international summit. Make wise choices beyond the ballot, in your preferences in the marketplace, in how you treat others and how you treat yourself. You deserve positive things, tangible and intangible. We all do. To paraphrase Timothy Leary, we won't get any of those benefits if we tune out, turn on, or drop out. Stay alive, stay connected, heap praise on the worthy, reward true excellence, and think critically. That is how you end suffering.

Sunday, August 18, 2019

(Almost) Remembering Woodstock

Please understand that I was only eight years old when this most celebrated of American concerts took place in rural New York state. That is why I barely remember it, not because I was there, dropping acid....Can art be the answer to civil unrest? That is one question worth thinking about today on the 50th anniversary of Woodstock.

© Belcourt.org

I sometimes lament that I was not "of age" back in the days of the Vietnam War protests, the beginnings of the environmental movement, and other great shifts in our society. Yes, I recognize that Woodstock is either highly romanticized, or vilified for the grossly unsanitary conditions and rampant drug use, pubic sex, etc. Somewhere in the middle lies the truth, and without interviewing every single spectator and participant it is unlikely we will ever get the full, accurate picture.

In the absence of social media, Woodstock represents a truly profound event, one born out of alternative print and radio media, word-of-mouth, and a longing for validation of one's anti-establishment sentiments. The commitment to attending must have been staggering in view of social and logistical obstacles. It may be the shining pinnacle of rock-and-roll music, too, validating the genre as a tool for culture change, encouraging collaborations, and energizing youth. To say that the concert set the stage for a generational metamorphosis might be an understatement....or an overstatement.

I imagine that upon arrival in that farm field, many were overwhelmed to find so many others, from far-flung points of origin, sharing their anxiety over the war, pollution, and other pressing problems. It took mobilization to get people there, and the event itself was an engine that catalyzed further action. It was both an opportunity to relax, take a breath, celebrate life, and also comprehend the magnitude of the issues before our country.

It had to be a comfort and relief to be surrounded by those of like mind, with a unity of purpose. Where are those opportunities today? The answer in this digital age is that they are mostly virtual. Those who attend marches and other public demonstrations and protests are proxies for a vastly larger village. Not everyone can afford an airline ticket (or even a bus ticket) to Washington, DC to participate in person. Some, perhaps many, fear that they would be met with hostile opposition from those who violently endorse continued racism, the proliferation of personal weapons of mass destruction, and other issues that continue to erode the fabric of our society.

Would it help to have a new version of Woodstock (not a lame reunion event) today? Is art the answer to our divide? Few performers, I wager, would take the risk that those musicians of the late 1960s did. Record producers were "the establishment," and in many ways still are. They answer to wealthy investors like any other corporation, and you rock that boat at the risk of being blacklisted. Furthermore, there are few high profile voices today that carry enough impact. Pink and Lady Gaga carry the torch for the disenfranchised, but at a deeply personal level, the level of intimate relationships be they familial or otherwise. They express lyrically an intolerance for abusive relationships, not the abuse of entire races, immigrants, and other categories of humanity. Where are the likes of Joni Mitchell?

The view from here, behind my computer monitor and keyboard, is one of utter frustration. Our inertia has us isolated physically, connected virtually, and strung out in terms of the issues that captivate us. It is an overwhelming prospect to muster the energy to break out of normal routines, to risk shaming, insults, loss of friendships, and exile in pursuit of what we know is right and just. The thing is, we don't consider the prospect of what the audience at Woodstock must have embraced: a new community, shared experiences, renewed energy, and personal validation. Peace out.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Of Science and Reverance

Last night I stumbled upon the documentary Inventing Tomorrow, directed by Laura Nix, on our local PBS (Public Broadcasting System) here in Colorado Springs. One of the things that struck me about these young women and men was how much they are motivated by reverence for nature and human history. I found the cultures these students live in to be a welcome, but stark, contrast to the culture and society American children are raised in. Science has informed their emotional attachment to nature, amplified their ability to empathize, and offered them real hope for a brighter future, one they can create.

© Quotation.io

Here in the U.S., children barely connect with their elders, let alone respect them. In many other cultures, several generations reside under one roof, or live next door, or no more than a few blocks away, the better to teach their children and grandchildren well. Personal stories are a powerful source of inspiration and action when told to children. Do we relate our own experiences to our children these days, or do we fear embarrassment, or risk empowering our youth to try daring things like peace marches, or poetry? Do we invite our children to sacrifice instead of feeling entitled to material things? Most children who excel have families that go above and beyond mere support. Fathers and mothers may leave jobs or drive their child for hours to participate in activities or meet with a mentor. Sometimes entire families uproot to be in a location that is optimal for the next step in the child's path to greatness.

While the family is usually at the core of a child's developing sense of values, the community, the "village," is also important. Surrounding a child with influential people outside the familial circle further expands the child's realm of experience and knowledge. This happens routinely in non-American cultures, and it once happened here in the U.S., too, but today we are told that every adult is a stranger, a potential pedophile, rapist, scam artist, or other devious criminal. We assume the worst now, and trust no one. We fear that sending the gifted child to university prematurely will forever stunt their growth in the social sense.....

Religion should be working in concert with science to develop young minds. Science can show what is possible. Religion, ideally, creates the bedrock of reverence for creation and cautions against a completely dispassionate approach to research, especially in the biological sciences. That is not what is happening in American Christianity. Extreme conservatism has put itself at direct odds with scientific advancement, even questioning practices like immunization inoculations that have protected humanity from illness and disease for decades (centuries in some cases).

One could argue that the religious practices of indigenous peoples reflect a much greater reverence for the natural world, but Christianity has dismissed such belief systems as "paganism," seeking to convert other cultures at every possible opportunity. Missionary programs offer poverty relief, but with the strings of Jesus attached. Meanwhile, Christianity pays lip service to a reverence for creation, even when it could claim that Noah was the first wildlife conservationist. Prayer is the only action needed to save the world, while you continue your over-consumptive lifestyle.

I have personally exposed myself to both science and religion, and found that science creates a greater reverence for the natural world. It does at times demand a detachment from your (research) subject that I find distasteful, sometimes outright wrong, but it is generally a far less judgmental community, and getting better by the day. It does not retreat into outdated doctrines that have proved toxic to scientific progress, impeded the advancement of women, and suppressed minorities. It is embracing the entire spectrum of gender identity, and continues to welcome immigrants who bring new insights, skills, strategies, and vision in meeting the challenges of the future.

In short, science is what religion should be. Go ahead and pray, it cannot hurt, but please stop wasting energy attacking science. The two should complement each other, not antagonize one another. Practice restraint in your lifestyle, be conservative in your carbon footprint, and joyful in your celebration of all things wild and free. Feed your curiosity, fascination, and sense of wonder. Support your local science fair, as well as the vacation Bible school bake sale.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

Chasing Money

At this particular moment in time, I am secure enough in the fiscal sense that I do not need to chase projects for the money. That has not always been the case, and it will surely be a fleeting sense of relief. The welcome respite gives me pause in another way, more restless and disturbing than gratifying. It calls into question the idea that money should be a motivator, that everything be framed in the sense of income and expenditures.

© BayAreaDigitalSolutions.com

The constant implication in our lives is that we have a responsibility to earn an income, a responsibility to spend it and invest it to keep the economy going, and that taxation is the villain that keeps us from fully realizing our financial potential. Those directives come from those already wealthy, who attained their power by hoarding money. We think that money is the matrix that holds our lives together, and we need to free our minds of that foolish belief.

We think that money is the matrix that holds our lives together, and we need to free our minds of that foolish belief.

The only currency of any relevance and importance is energy. Some may equate energy with love, or some other emotion or notion, but what I am talking about is metabolic energy. That is the currency of living ecosystems, and it flows freely among all organisms. There is minimal banking of metabolic energy. Plant tubers might be one example. Bears putting on fat for the winter is another. These situations are the minority, though. Energy usually passes quickly through the food web.

Economies can be viewed as redundant and inefficient ecosystems in which every niche is filled by only one species: Homo sapiens. Energy flow is disrupted as some individuals hoard money instead of releasing it to continue flowing to other niches. Nature is strict in its demand that energy flow.

Perhaps the worst aspect of money is that it has allowed us to assign arbitrary value to everything. "Precious" metals and stones are precious only because we say they are. There is a fine line between priceless and worthless. Arguably, they are two sides of the same coin. The lives of other species are priceless until we decide that the monetary value of the land they occupy can be increased by developing a shopping center....and we arbitrarily decided what the land was worth to begin with.

Money limits our creativity because we think only in terms of how we will benefit financially. We dismiss important endeavors before they get off the ground because [whining] "that's too costly," or "we can't make any money doing that." A cost-benefit analysis too often destroys potentially great achievements.

Money also actively encourages the invention of unnecessary products and services. The marketplace is full of disposable goods, mass-produced decorative objects, and all manner of substances passing themselves off as food and drink that are destructive to our individual and collective health. We are all children in the face of advertising, so easily convinced that we cannot live without a given item. Money fuels the conflict that filmmaker Ken Burns describes as the "I want versus we need."

Money allows us to judge one another not by the content of our character, but by the sum of our bank accounts, to paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Wealthism should be as repulsive as racism, but instead we collectively aspire to be financially excessive. More importantly, we want to exclude others from our sense of entitlement and privilege. We want a very tangible expression of our success, but ironically define success by tangible expression. We never arrive in this scenario. It is the treadmill of status, nothing more. It is a process that erodes society instead of elevating it.

We can no longer afford (and I use that word deliberately) to allow ourselves to be conditioned to believe that money is a limiting or freeing element of our society. What is priceless? Empathy. Respect. Honesty. Patience. Persistence. Volunteerism. Be examples of those things. Add to that list, because it will get you thinking about what is truly value-able. Meanwhile, I challenge you to imagine a world without money. What would it look like? Could we operate more justly and more efficiently without it?

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Observing World Population Day

Today is World Population Day. What does that mean to you? What is the intention of this observance; and is it possible to reflect dispassionately but critically on what it means to have so many human beings on planet Earth?

© AskIdeas.com

It turns out that the United Nations established World Population Day in 1989, two years after the estimated landmark human population of seven billion was reached. I dare say it has remained well under the radar of the average U.S. citizen, in part because so much polarization surrounds anything to do with issues affecting population. Were it not for CBS Sunday Morning last Sunday, I would not have known this day existed, let alone that it was occurring this week.

The current UN Secretary General summarizes this year's key points in this statement: "The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is the world’s blueprint for a better future for all on a healthy planet. On World Population Day, we recognize that this mission is closely interrelated with demographic trends including population growth, ageing, migration and urbanization." Ok, first I have heard about the 2030 Agenda, too.

When many Americans hear the term "population," they internally add the word "control." Visions of a dystopian society in which the government dictates who can and cannot have children immediately clouds our vision. We even have previous historical examples, the latest being China's experiment with human reproductive....directives, shall we say. Perhaps no freedom is as valued in the U.S. as the freedom to have a family. We have fertility clinics for those facing physical impediments to reproduction. Our entire capitalist economy is based on the assumption that you will bear children that will consume goods and services throughout their lives. Certain religions place procreation at the center of their belief systems, too often with various warped results ensuing. Infringing on reproductive freedoms, or even suggesting that continued population growth is not necessarily a good thing, is met with instant and severe hostility.

Young American women face extreme social pressure to have children, this onslaught coming mostly from other women. It is a very real phenomenon that, like population, is seldom discussed. Meanwhile, economists, business leaders, and politicians whine about a labor shortage should birthrates continue to fall in the Western World. These same men fail to acknowledge that they readily outsource labor as it is, automate jobs where they can, and often refuse to grant paid maternity leave, pay a living wage, or offer health insurance.

We may struggle with these social issues, but other nations suffer poverty, in part because their populations may exceed the carrying capacity of their geographic boundaries, but also due to civil war, diseases afflicting their citizens, and myriad other factors. As much as the "developed world" lives in denial of its overly-consumptive per-capita lifestyle, it runs away at warp speed from suggesting that population is some other country's problem. Consequently, nobody talks about it, let alone takes action.

It is high time we make human population a regular topic of conversation, debate, whatever you want to call the dialogue. We must begin by having mutual respect for each other's personal decisions as far as child-bearing is concerned. Then we can go on to find agreeable standards for collective conduct and personal responsibility. It goes back to trust, that most fragile of human attributes, so endangered in our fearful society today. We have to trust the judgment of others as to what courses of action are appropriate for them given circumstances of physical and mental health, finances, spiritual subscriptions, and other factors which may be peculiar to that individual alone.

The old saying that it "takes a village to raise a child" has truth behind it, despite the cliché we consider that statement to be. The village is a global one, now. The world is watching. The universe is asking you to be kind, loving, and gentle to your fellow man. We are capable of making this work, but it takes work.

Thursday, July 4, 2019

The Fizzling of the Fourth of July

I have never felt less like celebrating July Fourth. The nation is a mere shadow of its former self, and it has little to do with this current presidential administration, though the White House and Congress aren't helping much. The problem is our collective lifestyle, our beliefs, and our attitudes. Frankly, we do not deserve a big party.

The official name for the holiday is Independence Day, and the fact of the matter is we have never been more dependent in our daily lives. Facebook goes down and you would think it is the apocalypse. Drop your smart phone and your digital life is over. No big deal, but we forget we are flesh and blood, heart and soul. We cannot separate our real lives from the electronic facsimile. Our avatar is who we are now. Pay no attention to the man standing physically before you.

Meanwhile, we have failed to learn skills that should be universal: cooking, basic home repairs, mending and altering clothing, balancing your checkbook, gardening. If the grid fails, if one of the four corporations responsible for food distribution goes bankrupt, we will be panic-stricken. Sheer mayhem will ensue. How is that independence, self-reliance, or even behaving reasonably, when you have abdicated your personal responsibilities and allowed yourself to become dependent on others to fill all of your needs?

At the same time we are willingly relinquishing control of our lives, we are at an all time low in our trust of other people. Businesses are out to scam us, the government is taxing us into oblivion, and criminals of one kind or another are lurking everywhere. The church is full of pedophiles, and we don't think much better of the Boy Scouts, and other historically trustworthy organizations we used to send our kids to. We have become isolated and overly dependent at the same time. Products, from guns to alcohol, and services are offered as the only solutions to our problems, when our problems stem from our paranoid minds and our lifestyle choices. You are agreeing with me because you do not see your own lifestyle choices as destructive.

Convenience is king now, and we will happily ignore all kinds of unethical business practices if it means we can get candy on the cheap, whenever we want it. Our coping skills are addictions, available twenty-four seven at the corner Walmart, or online with one keystroke. We are prisoners of our choices, unable to see healthier alternatives. We would rather Facetime than be face-to-face with each other, truly present in the moment. It is more convenient to press a key, flip a switch, turn a machine on, ask Alexa.

We are all guilty, to differing degrees, but to paint ourselves as superior to others is just another facet of the same diamond of destructive indulgence. We are nothing if not self-righteous, and we go to great lengths to reinforce it. Is my blogging a way of stroking my own ego? I would like to think not, but I should be acutely aware of the potential. We are asleep too much of the time, too preoccupied, oblivious, dismissive, willfully ignorant. Our culture is pulsive: impulsive, compulsive, repulsive.

We talk much about the kind of world we want for future generations, but I suspect that our founding fathers would barely recognize the United States. Do we not owe as much to previous generations as those yet to be born? Some strides have been great, but we have replaced slavery with alternative forms of racism and oppression including mass incarceration of "minorities," voter suppression, and all manner of discriminatory practices in all our human institutions. Our patriarchy still barely tolerates women.

We are not locked into our current patterns of behavior, as individuals nor as a society. We are no longer purely instinctual animals, though we are animals. The thing that sets us apart from other creatures is our ability to change our minds, and with that our actions. The devil we know is the devil that will kill us unless we take that leap of faith into the "what if" of good deeds, and the substitution of experience for the material goods we cling to presently. Don't wait, don't follow, but lead by example.

The fireworks will still go off tonight, the band will play on, and too many of us will wave our flags mindlessly. Fine. Tomorrow, once the party is over, make a point to give your life meaning. Weed the garden of your heart and soul.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

In Praise of "Weeds"

You have been sold a bill of goods if you believe that all "weeds" are created equal. Weeds is in quotation marks because the majority of what we call weeds are simply native wildflowers and grasses that volunteer themselves in our carefully orchestrated urban and suburban landscapes. Allow me to explain.

A primrose sprouts defiantly from a sidewalk crack

We create villains to open opportunities for the invention and marketing of products and services to kill them. Meanwhile, the actual villains are exotic plants propagated by the nursery and landscaping industries, which then escape cultivation to wreak havoc on natural ecosystems. Everybody in the business sector wins, but you are out of pocket for a good deal of expense, and natural habitats are abused or at least compromised, in the process.

Lawn services and weed killers should be trending down by now

This is not a conspiracy as much as it is a marketing strategy that has gone so far as to encourage legislation of local municipal ordinances that may explicitly prohibit homeowners from allowing their property to revert to any semblance of a natural ecosystem. Ostensibly, these "nuisance laws" were created in an effort to ensure public health and safety, seeking to eliminate refuges of "vermin," pests, pathogens, and excessive pollen, and mitigate fire risks. The stereotypical weed ordinance is one which prohibits grasses or brushy vegetation to exceed a specified height. The junk vehicle discovered while mowing the lawn is a running joke.

Home Owners Associations (HOAs) have taken this to a whole new level, with their attention to minutiae rooted in preservation and enhancement of property values. In the case of the authority my spouse and I are under with our townhouse, this has resulted in removal of some trees, replacement of juniper hedges with rock substrates, and continued embracing of water-guzzling lawns. Keeping up appearances means more to these organizations than enhancing the health of local ecosystems.

Clover is a bee magnet and fixes nitrogen: Win-win!

What we should be doing is advocating what I call "weed tolerance." Even naturalized plants have their benefits. Dandelion is among the first plant to bloom in spring, offering a vital nectar and pollen resource to butterflies, bees, and other insects when nothing else is flowering. The clover in your lawn is a bee magnet, plus the plant is fixing nitrogen so you don't need to fertilize as often, if at all.

Ok, Chinese Clematis is a genuine noxious weed

In fairness, there truly are weeds that have no place in the landscape. You can find them as state-listed noxious weeds. The United States Department of Agriculture has conveniently compiled a database of these most-wanted (maybe most-despised is a better term) plants for you to use in determining which plants you need to eliminate from your yard and garden, or avoid when shopping for plants. This is an ever-changing list as more information is gathered about the impact of each commercially available plant. It was not until recently that Bradford Pear and Butterfly Bush (Buddleja davidii) became enemies instead of friends in the landscaping community. Keep tabs on the list for more additions.

Wild rose, with more open blossoms, is friendlier to bees than cultivars are

Increasingly, more attention is being paid to providing for native pollinating insects, and supplying breeding birds with the insects necessary to raise a brood of chicks. You can search endlessly online for resource after resource, but you may wish to start with books like Bringing Nature Home, by Douglas Tallamy. Dr. Tallamy and his colleagues and students have worked tirelessly to demonstrate conclusively the differences in ecological impact between native plants and exotic plants. Native plants, including many species we currently define as "weeds," sustain far more species of insects and other wildlife, as they are already adapted to soils, precipitation, and other variables where they thrive naturally. This makes the plants hardier, better able to withstand heavy impacts from herbivores, diseases, and other agents that affect plant health.

Yellow and white composites are favorites with bees and butterflies

Want help that is even more localized and informative? Join your state's Native Plant Society. Here is a list of them in the U.S. and Canada. Also avail yourself of the Cooperative Extension Service, typically associated with your state's land grant university. There is usually at least one office in each county, located in the county seat.

The tide does appear to be turning, even with those weed ordinances. While some cities have begun relaxing their codes, other municipalities have reversed course completely, actively encouraging citizens to "go native" with revised laws and financial incentives. Use these success stories to argue your case locally for similar innovative strategies.

Don't forget about evening- and night-blooming flowers like blazingstars when landscaping

Lately I have been enjoying the weeds that have been flourishing here in Colorado Springs thanks to an exceptionally wet, cool spring. There are flowers blooming that I have never seen before now. How do I translate my appreciation for vegetative rebellion into something meaningful to those who have bought into the neat and tidy vision of the marketplace?

Penstemon growing in a vacant lot in Colorado Springs

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Is The Abortion Issue About Something Other Than The Sanctity of Human Life?

I have studiously avoided the most hot-button issue of our time, abortion and the right to choose, but I can no longer stand by silently. What I can do, finally, is refrain from a string of profanities and repeating most of the statements you have already heard. I can continue in my longstanding tradition of not sharing "memes." I can also call for honesty in the debate, if only be sharing my own sentiments. Yes, I am yet another old(er) White male, but please bear with me.

© Christian Seebauer and Look-Act.com

Ironically, it was a meme shared on Facebook by a colleague that got me believing that civil discussion might be possible. The meme began with the conventional argument that making abortion illegal won't halt abortions, but will simply make the procedure unsafe. The next panel in the meme re-hashed the idea that abortion rates drop when there is easy access to healthcare, affordable contraception, and comprehensive sex education (presumably including a long, hard discussion of "consent")....

It was the ending panel in the meme that got my attention. It asserted that if one does not endorse measures designed to prevent unwanted pregnancies, then what you are supporting is "'pro control-of-women' and you should be honest about that." Wow. It is the very last part of that sentence, that plea for honesty, that we need to take to heart. Yes, you should be honest about that, about everything.

That is the definitive, overriding problem of our time: honesty. We know some of our beliefs and selfish motivations are distasteful, so we will sacrifice the innocent, put words in the mouths of the unborn, do whatever it takes to justify our continued patterns of behavior and sustain our (outdated?) beliefs. That even extends to warped interpretations of the word of God, the Bible, and other religious documents.

I don't think there is any question that many older men, especially White men, object strenuously to any attempt by women to assert their rights, demand equality, and otherwise threaten the dominion of the patriarchy that has architected our culture and society since....well, pretty much the beginning of our civilization. This stubborn and persistent thirst for power is no doubt expressed in the creation and execution of legislation around abortion.

Why do so many women stand in support of these measures, then? Not being a female myself, I cannot pretend to answer that, nor should I. However, I do suspect that many women are uncomfortable with the idea of independence. My own mother was forced into independence when my father divorced her. It was a hard road for her in the early 1970s when divorce was not common, or at least not publicly discussed; and she had been out of the workforce for well over a decade. Re-entry at an older age was difficult, and most of her superiors in the workplace were....men. Enough said.

As near as I can tell, the other, unspoken motivation for advocating for abortion bans comes down to the desire to protect souls without sin, or with the least sin. This would go a long way to explaining why the birthmother is left out of the debate, and why there appears to be little support for child welfare, health, nutrition, housing, education, and other necessities of childhood in the sense of an earthly existence. The "defense of souls" argument would also explain why some religious conservatives do not object to the death penalty. The person has sinned, and is going to hell anyway, so why not hasten his or her arrival at that destination. Since only humans have souls, this might explain a lack of interest in the protection and conservation of non-human organisms, while still clamoring for the teaching of creationism alongside evolution.

If my assumption that "pro-life" advocates care more about the hereafter than the here-and-now is correct, let's start talking about that in an honest manner instead of going to such great lengths to disguise that core principal. If I am completely wrong, I will gladly sit back and listen to your explanation. Keep in mind, however, that I have a pretty good B.S. detector and I will call you out if I sense you are still trying to deceive me.

Mostly, I want to know what is really at the heart of all arguments, about every issue, not only abortion. Be honest and I cannot level accusations or make ridiculous assumptions, or have to guess your intentions or desires....or make blog posts like this where I am left to channel only the straws I am grasping at.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Assumptions of Guilt

A couple weeks ago I was watching CBS Sunday Morning and a story came on about the "Central Park Five." This true story is now on Netflix as the docudrama When They See Us, coming May 31. I am old enough to remember the sensationalized press coverage of the April, 1989 case, but the outcome for the unjustly accused never made the same media impact. This is how it works: Make sure the public knows that the face of violence and mayhem is Black. Let any evidence to the contrary fall through the cracks, or even be intentionally suppressed. This is the storyline of our times, in overt and subtle variations, that we must overcome.

© Medium.com

It has the capacity to be a self-fulfilling prophecy for minorities, especially African Americans. Eventually you will become angry and hostile when you are constantly faced with the assumptions of others (Whites) that you are angry and hostile. One could hardly blame any minority individual for becoming a criminal when they have been sentenced by assumption to being one already, yet that is hardly the case. Black criminals are a true minority in our society. The overwhelming majority lead honest, productive lives, and are miraculously tolerant and forgiving when they have every right not to be.

While watching the CBS segment it occurred to me to ask why there are no Black news channels. I went looking for the answer online and learned that there will be one. BNC will debut in November, 2019. There is even a countdown clock on their website. They will be broadcasting in the metropolitan areas where there are high populations of Blacks.

What is needed, though, is for White people to watch it. Caucasians need deprogramming from the constant portrayal of African Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities and immigrants as a threat. BNC also needs to be on one of the digital slices that now come free with traditional antenna reception, not something you pay for because....surprise....many minority households cannot afford cable or streaming services. Urban folks will likely have access, but rural White folks are, arguably, the ones most in need of an education in "black."

Why do we not assume the best about other cultures? We could improve our own lives a hundred-fold if we were interested and committed to learning. Black families are not "welfare queens" as much as they are grandparents, aunts, and uncles living on the same block if not in the same household, their elder experience benefiting multiple generations....We do not need to know about the next LeBron James. We need to learn about Black inventors in prime time, not on "EI" shows on Saturday mornings. We need to hear about Jerome down the street who became an Eagle Scout the other day, and Jasmine who will be giving her high school's commencement address as valedictorian. We also need to stop stereotyping names like Jerome and Jasmine.

You get the picture. None of us are immune to the ramifications of the status quo. We White folks are all guilty of perpetuating a society and culture that continually reinforces certain expectations of behavior and occupation of other ethnicities, appropriates other cultures, and repeats it in every news cycle, every piece of advertising, nearly every experience of everyday life. The problem is that we are not demanding accountability from the media, corporate, educational, and religious institutions that are doing it. We are not demanding enough of ourselves in refusing to participate. The only ones being punished, on top of being subjected to constant bigotry, are minorities. Caucasians need to stop being the spokespeople for other ethnicities and cultures. We need to listen, then change our ways. We need to fundamentally change our language to be more inclusive, then be genuinely inclusive.

I am an aging White male writing this, and rarely do I feel this awkward and ill-equipped when I put text to a Word file, let alone broadcast it on my blog. I stand ready to be educated, confront revisionist history, and help build the world I have always wanted to live in, where White Privilege is no longer a....thing. How about you?

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Book Review: Underbug Will Unravel Your Mind, in a Good Way

Lisa Margonelli's Underbug: An Obsessive Tale of Termites and Technology (2018 Scientific American, 303 pp) offers a much bigger picture than a mere glimpse inside a termite mound. The book has a story arc as great as the universe, and as small as a microbe found in a termite's gut. It represents a metamorphosis of history, science, and the mind of the author herself. Part memoir, part journey, and all science and experience, it works brilliantly.

The only holes in Underbug are the ones in the dust jacket, a clever nod to the affinity of termites for all things cellulose and lignin, or derived from it. The irony that this work about termites will inevitably be consumed by them reflects a bit of the humor in Margonelli's approach, as well as the futility of expectations in scientific inquiry.

It came as a shock to this reader that the book was something of an afterthought that emerged from a....recreational(?)....fascination with scientific endeavors that Margonelli was pursuing at her own expense, without monetary advances and publisher deadlines. Who does that? Maybe the proper question should be why don't we (writers) all do that? I dare say this might have been a completely different book if the author had started with the intention of writing it instead of putting a wild horse before an organized cart.

If your brain is wired to go off on tangents while reading, Underbug will have your mind reeling, spinning off into the existential time and time again. Anticipating a dry-as-weathered-wood treatise on termites? Then you have another think coming; and another, and another after that. All your assumptions about insects, science, and even history and culture are in for a shake-up. This is exactly what our society needs to recognize: that while we may have a desire to compartmentalize our human activities, social groups, and our personal motivations and emotions, they all have impacts far beyond our habitual perceptions. Interconnectedness, distant consequences, ambivalence, and empathy are the major themes of Underbug, not termites.

Margonelli is one of the "new" league of women non-fiction writers who is able to insert herself into the story to the correct degree, conveying humility and struggle rather than bravado and arrogance as many male writers tend to do. She manages the perfect mix of participation and detachment, cultivating a bond with readers that only gets stronger as the story progresses. She shares your skepticism, but has relentless curiosity and a tenacious commitment to doing whatever she needs to in order to elevate her knowledge and broaden her horizons.

Termites, it turns out, are a nexus of ridiculously disparate scientific disciplines, and a metaphor for human societies. They span a scale that ranges from their miniscule bodies to continental landscapes. Well, smaller than that since termites rely on intestinal microbes to digest cellulose and lignin into compounds useful to the termite. Meanwhile, the mounds of many species utterly transform ecosystems. One can argue that termite colonies and their architectural masterpieces are ecosystems.

How such a "simple" organism can achieve such overwhelming success is one of the conundrums addressed in Underbug. Our failure (so far) to scale-up the termite's "engine" to produce "grassoline" and other biofuels is a testament to the complexity of insects and the limits of science and the human mind. Also, where does one termite end and the colony begin? Which of those two is the "brain?" What constitutes a "mind?" You may be left wondering if termites have it better than we do. The attraction of instinct, after all, is freedom from morality, freedom from responsibility for our actions, because we would not be cognizant of them.

We are nothing if not collectively selfish, being animals ourselves, able to execute our desires to eliminate competition from other species for scarce resources, minimize mortality factors such as predators and pathogens, reproduce freely with greater success thanks to advances in medicine, and to enhance our lives through technology. However, as Margonelli writes:

"We need to call technology what it is -- an abstraction of power, politics, and economics. And then -- if we are going to take ideas from the termites into our human realm -- we should use them to become more human, not less."

I cannot recommend this book highly enough, as a microcosm of concepts in critical need of addressing by the world community, and mulled over with regularity by us as individuals, families, and local communities. Oh, and to explorers looking for signs of intelligent life in other galaxies? You might be looking for interstellar termites.

Saturday, May 4, 2019

Lessons From The City Nature Challenge

This year, Colorado Springs joined the ranks of those metropolitan areas participating in the fourth annual City Nature Challenge, which started in 2016 as a contest between Los Angeles and San Francisco to see which city could find the most species of wild organisms inside their municipal boundaries. Today it is a global event.

Blue Jay spotted during City Nature Challenge

Why The Nature Challenge Matters

Professional scientists cannot be everywhere at once, so "citizen scientists" are needed to help understand if animal and plant populations are healthy or declining. Unless an organism has an economic impact, positive or negative, chances are we know very little about it. We do not even know all the geographic areas certain species are found in. Your observations are critical and valuable.

Buttercup

Logistics of the City Nature Challenge

The City Nature Challenge is recorded on iNaturalist, an online platform that also has a smart phone app. Participants register on iNaturalist for free, look for their town's City Nature Challenge project, and subscribe to it. Observations of wild organisms (no people, pets, livestock, or cultivated plants, please) taken with phone or camera are then uploaded to the project. Observations are made in a four-day window, Friday through Monday. After that, you can still upload any observations made during that period, but most of that following week is devoted to identifying the animals, plants, fungi, and other living things already uploaded. City "winners" at the end of the project include most participants, most observations, and most species seen.

Black Swallowtail female

Limits and Pitfalls

At one point, the home page for iNaturalist gave the following disclaimer:

"iNaturalist had record levels of activity this week due to the City Nature Challenge, so notifications of activity such as identifications and comments are delayed. You may receive notifications out of sequence as we work through the backlog as quickly as possible. We apologize for the inconvenience and thank you for your patience."

That the website did not crash completely is a testament to its server capacity. This aspect of the City Nature Challenge seems to be in good order. Other problems remain, however.

  1. Participation. Recruiting people willing to make more than a casual effort, if that, appears to be the greatest shortcoming of the City Nature Challenge. Here in Colorado Springs, we maybe had one brief announcement on a television newscast. We had a total of 142 participants, many of them "accidental," in a city of roughly 800,000 people.
  2. Automatic suggestions for identification. iNaturalist has image recognition software that will "suggest" a species, family, order, or other level of taxonomy for the image you post. These suggestions are often wildly inaccurate and lead people to identify a North American insect as something from Africa, for example. Users should ignore this feature and instead assign the most obvious level of recognition, such as "grasshopper."
  3. Little or no crossover with other apps. One thing my wife and I noticed was a lack of birders making observations for City Nature Challenge. The avian-inclined prefer the app e-Bird. There is no excuse for not having e-Bird observations during the City Nature Challenge export automatically to iNaturalist. The technology is surely there. Likewise, other apps should be compatible with iNaturalist, at least for bioblitzes and the City Nature Challenge.
Many-lined Skink

Have a Plan of Attack

One thing I personally learned was that it would help to have a plan of attack, or at least a "plan B" if the weather is uncooperative. What can you count on for observations? Bird nests? Insect galls? Mealybugs on the houseplants? You would be surprised by the biodiversity indoors, in your basement, garage, or tool shed. Make a list to remind yourself of those places you can look, or species you know can be found reliably at a given location.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

Beyond The City Nature Challenge

If this is the first you have heard of City Nature Challenge, no worries. See if your city participated this year. No? Contact your parks department, local museum, or nature center and ask that they initiate an effort for next year. Meanwhile, you might want to make a habit of participating in other citizen science projects through iNaturalist and similar portals like Project Noah. You will make friends, learn much, and contribute positively to our understanding of planet Earth in the process. The idea that nature-watching can be a social activity is slowly catching on, and that common, widespread interest is what will ultimately protect and restore wild places.

Gilled fungi on a tree

Sunday, April 14, 2019

How Jason Ward is Making Birding "Cool"

If your stereotypical image of a birdwatcher ("birder" in today's language) is that of a solitary, stodgy old man, then you haven't met Jason Ward. Mr. Ward is almost single-handedly revolutionizing the world of birding through mini-documentaries on YouTube. In fact, his series Birds of North America With Jason Ward is less about the birds than the people who pursue them. That is exactly what wildlife conservation in general needs desperately.

© Audubon.org

Ward recognizes some fundamental realities that the generation raised on David Attenborough, Jacques Cousteau, and George Page (am I dating myself yet?) have largely ignored in current media production models. Number one, we have shorter attention spans now than we did back then. Most episodes of Birds of North America With Jason Ward are seven minutes or less. It takes a few episodes to get accustomed to the sometimes abrupt endings, but it also leaves you anxious for the next installment.

Beyond acknowledging our easily-distracted nature in the digital age, Ward understands our need to belong, to engage socially in healthy ways, interacting in person instead of relying on social media to feel a sense of connectedness. Jason is never alone in a single video. He reveals the shared passion of birders by talking to other birders, to ornithologists, to family and friends. The natural flow of each video is the direct result of this conversational approach to birding. Birders have been stereotyped, wrongly, as those people who admonish others to be quiet as if the outdoors is a library. Sure, you hear more if you are quiet, but you should have the freedom to celebrate your discoveries, even with a "lifer dance" after seeing a species new to you.

It is a difficult line to walk between reverence and exuberance, but Jason Ward nails it. He is young enough to have a contagious influence on millennials, but old enough to have respect for his elder mentors and colleagues. He recognizes the recreational aspect of birding while asserting its importance to science, personal physical health, wildlife conservation, and environmental health. Always, there is the social component to birding. The festivals. The regular group walks in Central Park. The ritual is all important. The commitment is the thing.

Any person or organization wishing to increase public participation in natural history recreation and citizen science would do well to emulate the style of Jason Ward in recruiting new blood to entomology, botany, mycology, herpetology....basically all the "ologies."

Back in my day, you engaged in "nature stuff" at risk of ridicule. A childhood friend, now deceased, played hockey and was otherwise considered a rugged and appropriately masculine young man. He swore me to secrecy before showing me his butterfly collection. Today, there is no more need to do your thing on the down-low. You can be proud of your interests and know there are others out there like you. This is a powerful new facet to nature study.

I have studiously avoided stating the obvious, that Jason Ward is a "person of color," but it would also be disrespectful to not say so. Human diversity is still sadly lacking in birding and other science-based activities, and that condition must be improved dramatically if birding is to continue to expand its ranks, and bird conservation is to truly excel in achieving its goals and fulfilling its missions. There is no place for exclusion in an endeavor built on the principal that all organisms on the planet deserve dignity, respect, celebration, and protection.

Please avail yourself of any and all opportunities to view Birds of North America With Jason Ward, online, or through your television streaming service. I guarantee your life will be enriched, your mood enhanced, and your passion for nature ignited or re-ignited in every episode. This is inspiring work with a unique and creative style perfect for meeting the challenges of wildlife conservation today.

Friday, April 5, 2019

Firing Blanks, Comic Relief, and Other News

Writers sometimes get into a funk where they churn out bad product. That has been the case for me, recently, and I have aborted or discarded my most recent attempts. Meanwhile, I am still thinking, creating, and dealing with personal matters.

© Skyword.com

When the world is full of bad news and emotional stress, I find that I become annoyed more by the little things, and take out my frustrations on matters of little importance, like television commercials. Conversely, I can be too eager to put in my two cents on something like the Mueller report, for which I have little information to be making any assertions. So there you have two posts that you will not be seeing any time soon.

The "thought cud" I am chewing on now relates to how the structure of economies mirrors that of ecosystems, and those aspects that differ between the two. Also on my mind is the notion that there is no such thing as a naturally occurring pest. That has book potential, would help inch me out of typecasting as a "bug writer," and stimulate some serious conversations about how we treat other species and each other.

On a lighter note, I have registered for another stand-up comedy workshop, this one in Colorado Springs, this summer. It has been almost twenty years since I last tried this, in Tucson. The results can be seen on YouTube:

I now have enough new material that I can pick and choose what works and what does not, and now it will come down to arranging and polishing. Comedy demands excellence in writing, so it is a great exercise for me as a writer, too. I would rather not perform it, but it is worth remembering that if you do not perform your own material, then you are not finishing the job, and it might never see the light of day otherwise. Write for someone else, and you risk that something gets lost in translation.

Income tax preparation is still staring me in the face, too, complicated by the transfer of my late father's estate into my name, the many changes for the worse in the tax code, and a relatively dismal year in earnings. Filing extensions might be my best friend this year.

The greatest recent stress should be a great joy, but it gives me angst instead. We bought a house....in Leavenworth, Kansas. Not the "big house," but I still worry that it will seem like incarceration once we move there, probably in a year or two. My wife's parents live in Leavenworth, and we want to be closer to be able to see them happily into their golden years. This I am fine with. My in-laws are wonderful people. The other factor in our decision is that housing prices in Colorado Springs are increasing exponentially. There is no way that we could afford an upgrade out of our current townhouse in the....neglected, shall we say, part of town.

© Zillow.com
Our new and future house

Leavenworth is church, prisons, and fort, pretty much in that order. Churches form the social foundation of this small town. Prisons are responsible for whatever constitutes their tourist economy. Fort Leavenworth furnishes much of the population and drives the business sector. These are three aspects of life I do not like. Religion is a human institution fraught with the same problems as business and government. Prisons symbolize the mass incarceration of minorities. While I support our troops, I rarely agree with the missions they are deployed to, and almost never with military policy and the wasteful Department of Defense budget.

© Wikipedia.org
Downtown Leavenworth, Kansas

Talk about a sense of misplaced, I fear I would feel completely alone. My wife has spearheaded the house hunt and put in the majority of work in the whole transaction process. I admire and appreciate her resourcefulness and resolve. She is not dragging me kicking and screaming through this, but more like heaving a limp body, heavy with resignation that this is going to be his destiny, like it or not. Ideally, I would rather live in southern California, or maybe one of the Mid-Atlantic states. It isn't the beaches, it is the vibrancy of people, the off-the-scale creative communities that draw my dreams there. It is the progressive nature of politics, the vastly greater appreciation of the natural world.

Now? I just finished sorting insect specimens from Miami for the Yard Futures project. Next up is....Los Angeles. Ah, what might have been.