Thursday, December 24, 2009

I don't say Merry Christmas

I don't typically say "Merry Christmas." I'm not a practicing Christian and don't feel compelled to celebrate the birth of Christ.

Happy Holidays seems a little too politically correct, and has a connotation of chicken shit, so I avoid that too.

Festivus, I think, is almost appropriate, because who doesn't use time with family to air out their grievances and participate in the feats of strength...namely surviving time with the family.

Solstice, seems most appropriate for me. It's the shortest day of the year, both a beginning and an end. It reminds us that life is a cycle and that we often get multiple opportunities to get things right.

I think if I had a choice my winter holiday of choice would be called Soltice Share. It would be a celebration of everything that has been and everything that is before us. We would celebrate by giving the best of ourselves to those around us, and the whole point would be to contribute to the benefit of others so they can do the same in turn.

Yeah, that's what it would be.

But, alas it is not that yet. I will however concede that this year is different. Our rampant consumerism has finally caught up with us, and many seem reluctant to touch the hair of the dog this season as we collectively suffer the hangover. Shoppers seem to be going about their deeds without frenzy. I also noticed today, that there is a sense of good will going around. I repeatedly heard "excuse me," and "let me let you through," as I shopped today. In fact everywhere I went complete strangers engaged in friendly chit-chat as we waited in line. There was definitely a sense of relief, as though everyone was happy to shed the expectation of consumer gluttony.

"It's because we're all in the same boat." my husband said when I mentioned it to him. Funny how misfortune can bring out hints of compassion. It's as though we are finally ready to embrace who we are, as opposed to the commercialized over-hyped version of what we should be.

So what does one say to friends and neighbors during the winter celebratory season? How about "Comfort and Joy!" If it's good enough for the Merry Gentlemen, it's good enough for us all.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Lead us not

In a recent article, Derek Gordon provides a recap of internet evolution for 2009. He talks about the meteoric rise of Facebook, the advent of Twitter, and how these methods have integrated with the use of mobile technology. For those of us who are more than just passive users of these innovations, this is not really news. In fact middle school students understand the impact of being able to use such tools for validation.

But what Mr. Gordon wrote next caused me to take pause.
" and information aggregation sites like Daylife, that intuit relationships based on the search queries you provide to deliver both the content you want and suggestions for associated content are already changing the ways we look for information and entertainment on the Web."
I know this has been happening a while, but I can't help but fear being led by the nose through the power of suggestion, to a place of depraved homogeneity. Yes we make the choice to click, but how easy would it be to be led to a place we really didn't intend to go? (Yes I realize the irony of this as these words are placed right beside my GoogleAd, and thanks for the click)

This brings to mind early images imprinted in Catechism as we learned the phrase, "Lead us not into temptation." As seven-year-olds, we were just taught the words, not what they meant. But, somehow I knew, the request was to stay away from a very bad place. In my mind that place was dark, scary and cold. And I knew being led there would not be favorable.

As much as the internet connects us with friends, community and family, I can't help but see that there are still dark, cold places there too. And as our activity, our interactions, and our curiosity are harvested, processed and used to create a path of breadcrumbs for us to follow, I can't help but worry that malevolent intentions could be at play. One could argue that the algorithms used to create that trail are indifferent, after all they are just based on numbers which are neither good nor evil.

But even the idea of being led to a place is disturbing. Visions of sheep come to mind, ever trusting of their shepherd until they are led to slaughter. Makes me wonder if we are placing too much trust in suggested avenues on the web. Thus my atheist ways are cast aside as I remember those words, "lead us not..."

I feel they will still serve me well.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Gift giving beyond the holidays

Once again the holiday season has encroached upon us. But despite the smell of a fresh Christmas tree in the lobby of the building I work in, bells ringing above red kettles on street corners and an increasing number of twinkling lights in my neighborhood, I am yet to feel merry. The truth is I loath the holidays. I don't like to decorate, hate shopping, and still have no idea what figgy pudding is. I also don't like senseless gift giving. This is the practice that brought us The Clapper and the Barrack Obama Chia Pet.

Don't get me wrong. It's not that I don't like to give, I'd just much rather give meaningful gifts, year round, and when they are unexpected. I suppose in some ways this attitude can be blamed on my time at Burning Man. As I've mentioned before, it's a gift giving society. When we encounter someone that needs something we can give, we do. And we think ahead. Every time I go into Wallgreen's to buy a $1.99 beanie cap, I buy two, so I can give one away. I do the same thing when I get a roll to eat on my way to work in the morning.

Random acts of kindness and giving gifts should not be something we do once a year. Furthermore celebrating such a beautiful thing by giving meaningless crap to those who don't need it is a disgrace to the practice. So please, give gifts that matter. Give gifts with meaning. Give gifts to those who need them, and give gifts year round. We don't need fat guys in red suits to remind us to do this.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

California Dreamin' Thanksgiving

I had lunch with a friend today at a diner in San Francisco's Union Square. It was a welcoming and warm California fall day. One could feel the expectation of the name brand merchants for the rush that will come on Black Friday. Windows were dressed, and displays meticulously arranged. In the middle of the square stood a holiday tree, stories high, still surrounded by cherry pickers used to decorate it with lights and colorful bulbs.

And as it is written in which Gospel I can't remember, the poor are always with us. Many now have feline companions. I imagine it must be quite comforting to hold something soft and warm.

I tend to be the type that doesn't lower my gaze or look away when asked for a contribution. If I can give, I do. If I can't, I at least offer a sincere smile to acknowledge the request. And sometimes, I get the rare opportunity to jump in and give the right thing at the right time.

On my way back from lunch, I was waiting at an intersection when I heard an auditable "No!" It was a yell of unexpected loss. When I looked up I saw a man mourning the loss of a sandwich he had just scored, but dropped in the intersection. It had fallen apart, its individual components of bread, turkey cheese and lettuce scattered in the crosswalk across the street from me. I quickly grabbed for my wallet, wanting to replace his loss with a dollar or two, but as I reached him, I suddenly realized, in my hand was a nicely boxed untouched half of a Ruben sandwich with Fries. And just as he looked up from his loss for empathy I was able to offer it to him.

"Really?" he asked?

"Yeah," I said.

"When one door closes another one opens," he said. "Thank you so much."

I just smiled and continued on my way thankful for the opportunity to be able to give the right thing at the right time. Heading back to work, I passed by the temporary ice rink set up in the square, and contemplated the California dream I live in.

Friday, November 20, 2009

What's Happening

On November 19th Twitter changed it's inherent question from "What are you doing," to "What's happening?" This was in response to how users engage with each other and the larger tweeting community. As stated in their recent blog entry

"...people are witnessing accidents, organizing events, sharing links, breaking news, reporting stuff their dad says, and so much more."

This is a major turning point for social networking and how it is used. And the fact that we use these tools as more than a way to track down old friends, broadcast our activities or engage in make believe wars is acknowledged in this change.

Think about it for a moment. It went from "What are you doing?" to "What's happening?" In that one change, this social media outlet suddenly acknowledged that the internet doesn't have to be an altar of narcissistic self indulgence. It's a way we share our experiences, our surroundings and our perspectives.

What's happening? Twitter has just validated the power of Community 2.0.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Disposing Disposable bags

Years ago, as an undergrad, I wrote a rather lengthy paper about the merits of disposing of disposable bags. The research for this paper yielded all kinds of fun facts that I routinely reiterated to friends, family, colleagues and cohorts alike. Things like, plastic shopping bags are called the national flower of South Africa because they are so abundant, and are "harvested" and woven into more durable shopping bags that are then sold at markets. Or how in one South American Country, I think it was Argentina, so many plastic bags accumulated in the sewer system that the underground drainage became clogged thus causing an unnatural natural disaster.

Several years later some progress has been made. Many stores now sell reusable shopping bags and even give a store credit to those who use them. But plastic continues to be a problem. Today it flew right in front of me, or at least tried to.

I came across this bird on my way to work. At first I thought maybe the bag was just attached to its foot, but then I saw that the bag was tangled inside its wing. For a moment I contemplated trying to capture it to untangle the wing, but decided I didn't want to risk injuring the bird further, or allowing the bird to injure me. So I did what I could. I took this picture as a reminder to us all that the plastic we use has to end up somewhere. And sometimes, this is where it ends up.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Affording Quality of Life

We can’t afford health care. At least that’s what the right side of the isle will argue in the U.S. Senate. It’s too costly, it will run up a deficit, it will kill our economy.

Wait a minute. It costs too much to provide health care? What is too much? Is it more than we as a nation spend on fast food? (over $110 billion) Or how about what we spend on going to the movies or buying DVD's ($10.8 Billion) What about video games? Does health care cost more than the amount spent on gaming systems and the elaborate escapist games that are no doubt played by kids and adults alike when they stay home sick? ($11.8 Billion)

I pose these questions because it occurred to me that if we truly can't afford health care, maybe we aren't as rich a country as we think we are. If providing health care will wreck our economy, and thus our ability to buy the things that make us feel rich, isn't that some sort of ruse? Is the ability to have the latest smart-phone-video-recording-mp3-playing-gadget that also makes julienne fries really more important than say preventing chronic conditions that will decrease the "genuine quality of life," and ultimately cost more money to treat?

Now, I want to make a distinction here about the difference between quality of life and standard of living. I think of these closely related concepts in terms of internal and external. Quality of life comes from our internal perspective that others cannot experience. These are our senses, what we see, what we hear, how we feel. Nobody else can experience these things for us. If we are in pain, it is our own pain. The same can be said of fatigue, muscle and body aches, and emotional stress or anguish.

Standard of living on the other hand, I believe is determined by the external. These are the things that outwardly comfort us such as clothes, housing, amenities and diversions. And as it happens, our standard of living has the ability to effect our quality of life. If our standard of living is depreciated, so is our quality of life.

Health care, I believe is a component of our standard of living. Access to adequate preventative care curbs illnesses before they become chronic conditions, which can increase quality of life.

So, when the argument is made that we cannot afford health care for everyone, what we really mean is that we can't afford the standard of living of every other industrialized nation, which will directly impact our quality of life. And if we are living at a lower standard than all the other industrialized nations, how rich are we really?

Are we fooling ourselves with diversions and materialism? Do gadgets and things really give us anything other than a false sense of security?

Or is that just a false sense of superiority?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Doing math for a civilized commute

It’s one day after the Bay Bridge has reopened and life for most commuters is seemingly back to normal. Fortune was on my side during this latest commuting calamity. I was able to work from home through most of it, and took a mid morning ferry on the one day I had to be in the City. Getting into the City that day was uneventful, save having just a little difficulty finding parking. Getting back, was crowded, but, despite a capacity crowd on the boat, I still managed to get my regular seat near a power outlet so I could work.

I may be one of the few who will openly admit that those of us who ride the ferry are snobs about it. There’s a reason for it, that I’ll get into later, but it might not be the reason you think.

Those of us who take the ferry kind of know each other. We know who always works, who likes to talk, and who sleeps, and we seat ourselves accordingly. There are also certain etiquettes and protocols on the ferry. For instance, if you are at a working table, one where laptops are out, it’s not considered to be a place for conversation. Eating is fine, but don’t be gross, and clean up after yourself. Loud talking in the morning is frowned upon, as is cackling laughter at just about any time. Although we do imbibe here, it’s not a bar. And to that note, if you imbibe too much, the fact that you are on a boat isn’t going to mask that you are swaying as you walk. You just think it does.

On day two of the bridge closure, on the 4:30 boat home, it was easy to tell who was a regular and who wasn’t. The two women who sat at my table for instance, didn’t realize that they didn’t have to sneak quick bites out of their food until I laid out a loaf of Acme olive bread and offered them some. There was also confusion for some about where the line begins for the snack bar. And a few still hadn’t figured out where the head was.

But some of the strangers seemed to enjoy the novelty of a boat ride home, and maybe even considered making a change in their regular mode of transportation to and from San Francisco. And this gets to the reason why we who ride the ferry are so smug about it: its a better way to get there. We simply know this to be true, and nobody can tell us otherwise. Even if you discount the bar, power outlets, wi-fi on the Intintoli, and clean bathrooms, there's still the issue of money. Seriously. Do the math.

A monthly ferry pass is $290. Were I to drive, I would easily use a tank of gas per week, which is about $48. Add in bridge toll for two bridges every day and that’s another $40. Next add parking, which at best in SF is $10 a day, that’s another $50. If you’re honest with your insurance company, your premiums will likely increase about $250 or more per year which comes out to $4.80 a week. Plus maintenance on your vehicle will likely double, consider around $1000+ a year for that which is conservatively another $19.23 a week. Add it all up and your weekly commute for those who drive is $74.03 per week or $310.93 per month.

Ok, so it’s only a savings of about $20 a month, and I probably spend that in one week on drinks while on board, but it still just feels better, calmer, happier to sit back and watch the water go by. And when we come into dock at the Port of San Francisco looking up at the cars crawling across the Bay Bridge, it’s hard not to think that it is the only civilized way to commute.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Evolving Internet

How is the internet like the Wizard of Oz?

Because, "My people come and go here so quickly!"

Well said Dorothy.

I got my first personal computer in 1997. It was a Gateway. I was never more excited to receive a cow printed box. Up to that point all the computers I worked on were owned by an employer, a friend or some other entity. I was well versed enough to own my own computer, but it still felt a little like the first time I drove by myself after I got a license.

Within hours of unpacking it, I was connected to the World Wide Web, and off I went into a new age of technology and communication. It wasn't long before I was looking at porn, conversing with friends via email and participating in chat rooms. I actually "met" a lot of cool people in some of those chat rooms. And before long, I had my own chat room, that was intended for "intelligent talk about politics and philosophy." It was fun while it lasted.

Since then, my activities online have evolved with the environment itself. I use Craigslist to find work, I watch television programs and listen to my favorite radio shows at my own convenience, I blog to share my ideas and perspective and I participate in social networks to broadcast things of interest. It seemed, if only for a moment, that the internet and it's tools had achieved an apex of sorts.

But the internet has a tendency to change, and change it does. Facebook for example, has recently changed it's page so that when you log on you have to update your News Feed in order to get information about what your friends are up to. It use to be that you logged on and at a quick glance could see who was spending way too much time on Mafia Wars. But now you log on, look and think, "nothing has happened since I logged on last?" And then remember you remember that you have to click something to see what your friends are up to.

This very well could be the pitfall of Facebook, then the end of yet another online fad. Ten years from now Facebook could like chat rooms are to us now: a seemingly meaningful way to spend time, but not something one ever admits to in public. When I posted these sentiments on my Facebook a friend replied,

"It's already so boring compared to a few months ago. I was never on my space but people say fb is way more fun and that's why ms died out, wonder what's next?"-(SBM)

Good question. What is next? But I think it also goes to the question of social networking and why we do it. Is it that we have all become busy bodies wanting to be in each others business, or do we genuinely care about what our "friends" have to say online? I use the italics here because I was recently reminded that some people don't really understand the subtle difference between social network friends and friends in real life. Here's a quick clue: friends in real life are the ones I complain to when I have cramps.

Personally I use social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to share interesting things I come across, help friends promote projects, and as a place to emit general snarkiness. It's useful, amusing, and a great way to start conversations about things that matter (to me). So I truly hope that this network of networks where my Twitter feed updates on my Facebook, and I share this blog by using both networks so I can share the multiple links I place in my blogs to direct folks to other things online, won't change too much.

But I can't help but think that there's a model of Chaos Theory brewing in all this. Every year it seems the internet has less of a resemblance to a frayed knot and more to the fiber optic cable that brings this ability now via wi-fi to my bedroom as I type these words on a laptop.

What is next? I've gotta wonder.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Flu Shots

I think I got my first flu shot when I was in the Army. As the member of a medical unit, our commander ordered everyone who wasn’t allergic to eggs, to get one. It seemed reasonable enough at the time. When you’re stacked four to a room in the barracks, you become very cognizant of contagion. So after three years of such conditioning it always seemed to be a given: after October 15th the uniform is sleeves down and a small band aide on the spot where you got your shot. I continued the precaution after I left the medical unit, and into civilian life. It just became a given. The one year I skipped it, caught the flu, and was on my back for almost 3 weeks, so suffice it to say, I learned my lesson.

This year, Flu Season has finally gained magna status in the news cycle. The H1N1 strain has caught our attention. To date, as many as 5000 people have succumbed to this infection, and it seems that children are the most vulnerable among us. It’s actually not uncommon for people to die of Flu, but normally it’s the elderly or those who were somehow weakened to begin with who fall victim to the viral killer.
Although the cynical side of me would say, “yeah sure, it’s only a problem when cute people die,” the reality is that we may very well have a pandemic on our hands. So, go ahead and pass over that hand sanitizer.

On October 24th, the President made if official. The 2009 Flu season is officially a National Emergency. This move was apparently to ensure that communities could get any support needed from the feds if things start to get out of hand. I have to admit. It had the desired effect. Monday morning I took my kids to our health care provider for their shot. We arrived forty minutes early, only to line up behind approximately 50 who had gotten there before us. Many were like me, the parents of school-aged children, a disproportionate amount of which wore uniforms or some other indicator of private school. This made me wonder if private schools were making the flu shot a requirement, or if this observation was more indicative of which families have access to health care. By the time a friendly young medical assistant started handing out clipboards with questionnaires, the number of people waiting had increased two fold.

As my children grew more and more anxious over thoughts of needles, I answered basic medical questions about allergies, age, medical conditions and pregnancy status. The latter was a resounding no on all three questionnaires. And then the line began to move towards the temporary tents set up in the hospital’s parking garage. Nurses in brightly patterned scrubs checked paperwork and medical cards, placed indicative stickers on paperwork and pointed patients in the towards the tents, adults on the right, families on the left.

At this point my kids are mock debating over who should go first. “Well you’re the first-born,” my younger one says. “But I put my brother’s welfare ahead of my own,” the older one replies. The nurse actually seemed amused. It turned out I was asked to go first, to show the kids how it’s done.

But before I did, I actually got questioned, “Why do you need the H1N1?”

“Um…because I have kids,” I answered. “Plus I commute on public transit!” I quickly added. That seemed to be the right answer, because I was promptly poked with two needles.

The 14-year-old was next. He immediately started talking rapidly to stall. “How much do I really need this?” He asked.

“Well,” I said. “You can get a flu shot or I can describe sexually transmitted diseases to you again.” With that his sleeve immediately went up. When it was over, he said he didn’t even feel it.

The 11-year-old mimicked his brother by stalling, but I knew better. Of the two, it’s the younger one that has the high pain threshold. A quick poke and a staccato “YOUCH!” later and we were done.

Leaving the tent, I was relieved that neither the process nor the immunizations were particularly painful, and I took note at how lucky our family is to be able to prepare for such things. And although the line was now easily 200 people long, I didn’t doubt that most of those waiting would have the same feeling when they were done as well.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Blogging and Community Dialogue in Real Life

Thanks to the current era of communication and technology, blogs, social networking and websites have created new facets of what we call community. And although this often takes place in the ether world, more and more, online communities are meeting up in person to talk about the ways they communicate and how to enhance the messages that are shared.

Blogger Beast is such an event that I'm currently blogging from in Oakland. This meet up/workshop/camp is part of the programming of the Public Media Collaborative (PMC) a collection of folks and projects that focus on community based journalism and media projects. I first became associated with this group about 9 months ago. Everyone involved is interested in discovering new ways to to use the internet as a soapbox or megaphone.

It seems that in many ways the internet and the self-publish culture that it cultivates has produced an entire nation of people anxious to articulate. After generations of participating in passive communication propagated by radio and television, we have embraced this new medium in which we are no longer required to simply be docile receivers. We are now in fact creators of words, pictures, videos and our own stories. The previously squelched repertory tradition of tales and legends have been revived with a click of the share button. There are quite literally millions of blogs, hundreds if not thousands of blogging tools and seemingly no end to blogging subjects. Who knew we had so much to say? But, this begs the question: What are we really saying, and does it make a difference?

Apparently it does. More and more journalism outlets look to the "non-traditional" blogosphere for source material. In fact some blogging sites have become news outlets themselves. Huffington Post comes to mind and so does a new sight that some peers at PMC launched this week, . This project is a new media hybrid hyper-local news site that also includes community resources and organizations, and links to other community blogs. It's intended to be a jumping off point for all things Oakland.

The difference between and traditional news sites is that embraces the whole community real and online by linking it's readers to brick and mortar community organizations as well as online commentary written by those on the ground. They also produce top notch news content written by seasoned journalists many of whom were discharged by print publications that clearly value profit over quality of content.

Yes, this is a site created by friends, but even if it weren't I would still consider the model they have created to be cohesive, elegant and cognoscente of the era we live in: a new hybrid of the ether and empirical world. I believe it will be the new trend in community dialogue. It's at least one of the reasons 100+ bloggers show up on a Saturday to meet each other in real life.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Thoughts that take me back to the playa

At some point you realize that your all grown up and in the midst of life. I had that realization as I made my way through former classmates at our 20 year class reunion. Despite my perceived unpopularity, many more people remembered me than I anticipated. And recounting life since high school wasn't quite as traumatic as I thought it would be. Some actually knew what I'd been up to. They read the bio I sent in. And the curious asked, "What's Burning Man like?"

"Amazing." Was my typical response. Explaining what it's like on the playa to those who have only vaguely heard of it was invigorating. "It's a festival of self expression," I would say. "We have a gift economy, there's no selling or buying of anything, our ethos is radical self reliance, radical self expression, and leave no trace." My favorite part is when I tell people I take my kids. The disbelief is palpable, and I can see the inner struggle people have in deciding whether or not this ia a good thing. I do my best to assure them it is.

But this year was my kid-free burn. Despite that, I still maintained many of my mit-kinder behaviors. On the day of the Burn I went to visit the Temple. If there is any place on the playa that's sacred, the temple is that place...and we burn that too. The temple is always beautiful, always emotional and always a safe place to cry. People bring their remembrances of lost love ones, of lost ideals, and lost causes. Many write messages on the temple itself to the dearly departed, or sometimes to the not so dearly departed. Sometimes people take things there that they want to let go. I heard one woman nailed her wedding dress to the temple this year to symbolize the freedom gained in a rather messy divorce.

I stayed at the temple a while, but needed someplace else to hang so I could eat lunch. It didn't feel right to lay out my spread there. So, I got on my bike and headed aimlessly onto the playa following a recently made road that obviously led somewhere. What it lead to was this art installation made up of cardboard mailing tubes that stuck out at all angles. Within the piece was an area with carpets and cushions...the perfect chill spot.

As I sat eating my lunch of nuts, dried fruit, wasa bread and carrots, others came in and joined me. We talked about our day, our lives, the temple and the playa. The overall consensus was that it was a very mellow year and that this was preferable. I got more playa hugs and after a while headed out to see more art.

When I got back to camp I decided to take a nap. I knew from experience that to make it to the burn I would need some rest. It was a heavy sleep in my warm van and the only cover I had was the sound of houling wind creating scattered white outs all over the playa.

When I finally forced myself to get up the wind was at full strength and the playa was in white out. I dressed and supplied myself appropriately, and headed out on foot this time, having had enough of trying to ride my bike on what was now very loose powdery playa. Walking through the white out, I sensed a shared expectation that this was the night we burn the man. People were bustling all over the city, putting on their finest regalia, make up, and glow lights. This was it. This was the night we came here for.

The dust was thick from the relentless wind. I decided to head to Earth Guardians to sit it out. Besides they always had good intellegence on when the man would burn. Earth Guardians are on the playa to educate the city about their impact as we celebrate. They encourage people to pick up MOOP, and make as little of a foot print as possible. And most importantly to Leave No Trace when we leave.

I found my friend Lokie in their bar and sat down to wait with the others. Every year it seems, the same thing happens. There is a horrendous dust storm on Saturday before the burn, and rumors circulate on whether or not the man will burn. He always does. Those of us who know this sit among friends in a sheltered place and imbibe.

As soon as the wind stops everyone heads towards the man. I hesitate. Waiting for the man to Burn can seem eternal, and tiring. I tend to stay back from the crowd so I have a better view. Once I do head out toward the man I avoid the throngs of revelers and instead find a spot where I can sit leaned up against an art piece. My view is great, and I am left to my thoughts as I wait.

My thoughts recount the week, the month, and the year since the last time I sat waiting for this symbol of what I haven't decided to make it's fantastic demise. So much has happened since then, I think. Deep in thought I only scarcely acknowledge others who come by and nod in acknowledgment.

Finally my thoughts are interrupted as the fireworks begin shooting off around the man. The crowd roars and I sit back to watch the show. Fireworks shoot off from behind the man, from his arms and into the dark sky above. Everyone is cheering, but I just sit back and observe and try to take well timed pictures. Then, seemingly out of know where there's a giant explosion. When the ball of fire clears, the man stands before us on fire. Now we wait has his demise is fueled by a light breeze. Every time another piece of the man falls to what I imagine is a growing pile of charred wood below him, the crowd cheers. This man, is exceptionally resilient. It's a good 45 minutes before his torso falls and all that's left of him are a strange triangle that were once his legs.

As the crowd begins to disperse to celebrate, I move closer in. I want to get close enough to feel the warmth of the fire. I manage to get all the way up to the barrier and look pensively at the fire that slowly eats away at the reason we all came. When I've had my fill of thought I turn and head directly to Jazz Cafe, where I stay with great comfort listening to musicians covered in dust play to their heart's content.

Monday, September 14, 2009


There's always a lot to do in Black Rock City. When you enter the City, typically you receive a book of "planned events" for the week. If I were actually talking right now, I would have totally used air quotes. There's something called Playa time, which means it happens when it happens, but generally after it was supposed to happen.

Friday evening was a great exercise in Playa Time. Apparently there was a scheduled "launch" of the Rocket. So, as Burners, we dutifully flocked to the perimeter set about the Rocket and waited with great anticipation. We listened to an art car's sound system calling for Major Thom...we sat, we stood, and then, after about an hour and a half, we left. There was another event to go wait for. The second event was inside one of the Domes towards the edge of the city.

The Domes are typically home of raves to the nth degree. The thumpa-thumpa is intoxicating enough (for me) but not for the multiples of those who experience the Playa in an altered state. Yes, this year I learned the term E-tard, referring to those who take so much E, that their eyes dilate to a point that they look like Anime characters and all they can do is laugh and react to the music. I don't envy the experience. I like my state of mind just as it is.

The music in the dome we ended up in was actually very interesting, as was the crowd. It was a techno version of what seemed to be Eastern European folk songs. Ravers were dancing happily around me, some without inhibition, some completely within their own worlds, and some oblivious to those around them. They wore variations of what seemed like gypsy/tribal garb, many with faces painted and props of indiscriminate nature. We were there to see a circus act, which, was operating on playa time as well.

The act we were there to see was actually quite exquisite. It combined an aerialist act, with fire dancing and various other erotic components. Although there was still more to see there, after a couple of hours, I was at stimulation overload. I needed a mellower place to be, a place without chemically induced euphoria. I parted from my friends with the intent to go to Jazz Cafe, but when I stepped out of the dome, I realized we were in the middle of a dust storm. And not just a dust storm but a white out. Despite the wind I got on my bike and headed the direction of Jazz Cafe, but after a couple of close calls with pedestrians, decided to dismount and just walk. I made it as far as the Man, when I decided pushing my bike into a wall of dust wasn't the thing to do. So I called it a night and headed back to my van instead. After walking across the playa, in a white out, I finally came to my block only to find another rave, just two camps down from my own, and almost every art car on the Playa seemed to be in attendance. The music was awesome and the crowd was inviting, but I was tired, and retreated to my van just the same, where I sprayed myself down with a vinegar solution and wiped the alkali based dust from skin. I fell asleep to the thumpa-thumpa of art cars and raves, and only woke up when the music stopped sometime just before sunrise.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Friday Part 2 Barbie Death Camp & "Joe"

Friday the temperature continued to rise. By the time I made it back to my camp the temperature was well into the 90's and climbing. I grabbed my water bottle and joined my campmates under the shade structure.

At Burning Man, one of the things you must learn is to know your limits. Once the heat of the day sets in, it's best to find some shade and stay there. Failure to do so, will likely result in heat exhaustion, ruining the rest of your day and evening. Sitting around doing nothing can be infuriating at place like Burning Man. There is so much to do and see. It's easy to come down with a case of FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out). As I sat with new friends, listening to their stories from earlier in the week, I couldn't help but want to get back out there. Finally after a couple of hours, I relented and headed to one of my regular hangouts, Barbie Death Camp.

Barbie Death Camp is something everyone should see. Every year Hundreds of Barbies are set up into a concentration camp type march into a full sized oven, and otherwise sacrificed at Barbie Death Camp. I've seen women bring their childhood Barbie Dolls to add to the spectacle. It's both funny and sick at the same time. But that's not the only reason I go there. Barbie Death Camp is also a wine bistro, and always has shade and comfortable couches. And for some reason I always end up there just before Critical Tits, a 1000+ woman strong topless bike ride through Black Rock City.

One of the best things about Barbie Death Camp is the people you meet there. This year I met a guy who turned out to be an Iraq Vet. I'll just call him "Joe," I don't know if I even caught his real name. He seemed sweet but damaged in a way that was undeniable, both physically and mentally. But he smiled with a joy I recognized that only comes from being on the Playa.

He told me that after his time in Iraq, he was a worthless human being. He said he was hateful, and full of anger, and cruel...and then he came to Burning Man. "I'd never seen anything like this before," Joe told me. "People just create, and respect and love here. I know I could go down any street here and tell someone I love them for being a person, and they'll believe me."

His words made me want to cry. We talked a long time. He told me things he probably shouldn't have, but he knew I served in the military too, and trusted me. When we parted, we hugged a good Playa hug each of us glad to have met the other.

Day 2 on the Playa

A week ago, Friday, I was there. I realized that I still had 3 full days on my beloved Playa.

Despite a late rise, I attempted to continue with my normal Playa routine. Normally, I’m up with the sun. I make coffee, head to Center Camp to check email and hang out for a while. But when I rose that Friday, the sun was already several fingers high, and the inside of the van was heating up.

I got up, dressed, took care of the necessities of sunscreen, goggles, and water and headed out. My first task was to find the original camp I was supposed to be with, but I had no luck, so I headed to Center Camp. When I got there I realized it was already well past 9AM. The wifi I was told was sketchy at best. I chose not to believe my source and made the attempt anyway. No luck. It was at this point that I realized this isn’t my typical kind of Burn. My typical obligations and routines didn’t seem to apply.

While at Playa Info, I collected some safe sex kits to redistribute, and headed to Center Camp proper. As usual, Center Camp was filled with meditation, yoga, random performance, the ball of pooh, contemplation and conversation. After circling a couple of times I chose a place to sit and share my morning meal of Wasa bread, dried fruit and salmon. The person I sat near was about my age, and also a mother of boys. We sat and talked about our lives as parents and some of the challenges of raising boys. After a while a third woman joined us and contributed her thoughts to our conversation. Her naivety about raising children was almost charming. After listening for a while she concluded, that maybe pro-creation wasn’t for her. I handed her a safe sex kit.

After Center Camp I stopped to visit my sister at her camp, Hot Monkey Sox where I was treated to a proper breakfast of bacon and eggs. There, I caught up with friends, but didn’t stay too long. It was moving toward the heat of the day, and I didn’t want to get stuck there so I headed back to my own hood by way of the open Playa to look at some of the art in daylight.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

On the Playa - Part 2

As we roll into Black Rock City, we quickly figure out the best way to deposit everyone in the right spot. Finding people on the Playa can be almost impossible, but this is the possible burn. As we drive on the outer rim, Mia spots her camps bus almost immediately. We quickly turn in, deposit her and her things, bid her well and seek out the next camp...mine.

I'm supposed to camp with Camp Radom, but the address my friend gave me is not the same as what is on the map. I go with what's on the map. After a bit of searching we find it, Camp Random and Unncessary, except they haven't heard of my friend. "Hmmm...well," I say, "I guess I should go look for them in the first spot they said they'd be at."

"Or you can just stay here," a lovely faced woman tells me. "It's called 'Camp Random,' come be our random camper." I thought about it, and decided it wasn't a bad idea. So I pull in and get a hug from new friends who offer food and drink. Amy wastes no time getting her stuff together on her bike. She's late for a meeting at Fire Conclave, which manages the actual burning of the man. She gives me a quick hug and she's off.

A lot is happening. I have to make camp and get geared up for the Playa, but I also want to go see the Billion Bunny March as they take control of the Man. I decide to do the latter first while I still have some light. I use my bike racks and a tarp to make a lean to on the side of the van. This allows me a space to put my bike and shower. Then, inside the van, I pull out the back seat making a bed, and stow things in sensible places. Out of one bag I pull out pieces of a torn sheet that I use as make shift curtains so I have privacy. Then, finally, I'm ready to don my Playa pack with everything I would need for a quick journey out. I get on my bike, put on a glow light, head lamp, and bandanna to use as a face mask in case of dust, and I'm off.

First, I stop at Kidsville to let my sister know I arrived. She's not there, so I leave word. Next, I stop at Center Camp. I walk in to the usual mayhem of drum circles and random performance, and look around for a place to chill for a moment. I sit beside an older gentleman, who seemed to be looking for company. "Well I need to go pay my respects to the Man" I tell him. "Mind some company he asks?" "No not at all I say." It turns out our bikes are literally parked right next to each other.

After a brief stop at "Fire Idol" which is a fire dancing version of American Idol on the Playa, we head to the Man. As we approach I see the giant floating eyes looking out at me just below the Man, and I realize I forgot my camera in the van! Argh!

I spent a good amount of time at the Man, and then rode along one half of the esplanade which offered the "spank-o-matic," an amazing dance troupe party, and a rave in one of the giant domes. Then I headed across the Playa again, and saw art cars, and exhibits of all kinds. I finally ended up at my default position which is Jazz Cafe, back in Center Camp, and just in time to see the naked saxophonist. He was actually quite good. It was then, that I realized that I'd already been up since 5:30AM, and it was going on 2AM, so I headed back to my van, which was ready for me to curl up on my Hello Kitty pillow. In one night, I had seen more of the Playa than I had in just about all the other years combined. I fell asleep listening to the thumpa-thumpa of a rave spot just two camps down. It felt so good to be home.

Day 1 There & Back

Day 1 (Getting) THERE

I couldn’t sleep because I was so excited. I am going to Burning Man. It’s really true.

The day started like any other. I got my son up, made sure he had breakfast and a lunch and got him off to school, except this time the van was full of supplies for the Playa.

“Bring me back some stuff!” He says when he gets out. I smile, and tell him to be good.

A couple of hours later, I’m on the road with my riders heading toward the Playa. My riders are Amy, a 13-year Burner with serious art construction cred, and Mia a college girl newbie with aspirations to work in Community Arts. She marvels at us, as Amy and I giggle our way up Interstate 80, singing along with the playlist made especially for this journey. After a couple of brief stops, we finally turn off at mile marker 43 in Nevada just east of Reno.

Amy turns and tells Mia, “this is where the real journey begins.”

“She’s right” I agree.

“What do you mean?” Mia asks.

“You’ll see.” I say.

As we turn in Wadsworth onto the road that takes us to Gerlach the landscape is suddenly a beautiful pastiche of browns, tans and sage against a very blue sky. We take our time on this road. Not only are the speed limits strictly enforced, but this is where the most accidents occur. People get so excited to be on that road that leads to our destination, that they forget themselves and perhaps what’s safe or, they aren’t that conscious about it to begin with.

The road is two lanes, narrow, long and mostly straight. It’s agonizing. We want to be there so badly, but I force myself to drive a sensible speed, partially because I have the responsibility of passengers and partially because I couldn’t afford the two front tires my mechanic recommended.

We pass by an impossibly blue lake, familiar rock formations, and land that to me feels enchanted. It’s tribal land. I recognize that we are visitors, passing through and do everything I can to do so with respect and care.

At this point, my lack of foresight has deprived us of music. I realize I forgot the iPod charger. All we can do now is look at the road before us, and anticipate. To pass the time we tell our best Playa tales. Amy’s are great. She tells how her friends came to the Playa in a cab once from Reno after rolling their car. The fare was something like $200. My tales aren’t nearly as interesting. I just talk about how excited I am to be on my first kid-free Burn. “I’ve never gone with absolutely no responsibility to anyone else,” I say. “Monday, I was daydreaming about being able to do this one day, and today, (Thursday) it’s true.”

We have to make one more, brief stop before we get to Gerlach and then to the Playa. I have to see my Indian Taco lady, whose stand I have stopped at every year. She sees me jump out of my van and waves through the window at me.

“Where are the babies?” she asks.

“Grandma’s” I grin back.

After a very brief moment of confusion, she smiles back at me. “Good for you!” She says.

I only buy a 7up, and promise to stop by on the way out. We really want to get there.

Amy and I begin groaning at the road, that appears to be never ending. “Just after that ridge.” We say. “No that one.” The drive is much harder in daylight. At least at night you can see the glow of lights ahead. We keep hoping for the towns of Empire and Gerlach to appear. The giddiness and anticipation is almost unbearable when they finally do.

That’s it!” Amy says. “That’s where we are going.” Mia looks confused. “I thought it would be bigger.” She says. “No honey, that’s just the portal, if you will.” I clarify. “You’ll see.”

We pass through Empire and it’s sole store, and then Gerlach, which now offers some sort of Playa supply flea market. We wave at the locals, who smile and wave back, and finally, make the last turn before we get there.

“That’s where we’re going.” I explain to Mia as Amy frantically tries to find BMIR on the radio. We are driving beside an expanse of pale, flat nothingness. “That’s the Playa,” I say.

Thirteen miles later we turn onto the Playa itself. Amy and I cheer as we do. There is almost no line to get in, and I could easily drop my riders and go, but I decide to wait for them at Will Call so I can drive them in too.

There are a few people outside the gate holding signs, pleading for tickets. Some people just can’t stay away and come on hope. Before long, Amy and Mia both have their tickets and we are admitted in.

“Welcome home!” is what the greeters always say. We get out, and hug our greeters like long lost friends with good Playa Hugs that always feel real and sincere. Mia still looks confused. “Do you know them?” she asks. “No. This is just home.” I say.

BACK Day 1

I woke up tired and somewhat disoriented. My desert metabolism is confused, as is my inner routine. Instead of thinking about finding shoes to go to the port-o-jon I force myself up to make sure Nolan got up for school. The default world came crashing in on me last night as I realized that the van really needs those tires now. Plus with the distraction of unloading and cleaning, I hadn’t noticed we got new neighbors just a couple of doors down. We’ve already had a shooting, my 19-year-old tells me. “Great.” I say. It’s then that I notice there are cars lined up and down the street and no fewer than 50 kids in their yard, making all kinds of ruckus. This morning I realize why. Instead of cars outside the house, it’s limos, and everyone is wearing black. They had a shooting all right. And it was just three doors down. Nolan gets picked up for school, and I sleep a little longer. My body just does not want to cooperate in this environment. Finally when I do get up, everything feels foreign, and almost heavy.

My inner routine is off. Instead of goggles, facemask, sunscreen and water, I struggle to find keys, cell phone, wallet and ferry pass. It takes me forever to get out of the house, so I can limp my poor van to the mechanic for new tires. After dropping it off, I walk to the ferry terminal and observe how different the sound is. No joy, no frivolity, no laughter no thumpa-thumpa coming from insane art cars. If there is any music at all, it’s a more oppressive, bow-chick-bow of gangsta-rap. The walk to the ferry feels so much different than my morning treks on the Playa. The only song I really hear along the way are the high pitch moans of red-winged black birds that have taken residence in front of the ferry building, where I go to wait for my boat that will take me to work.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Playa Magic Exists

Playa Magic Exists

Some years are better than others. Some years everything works out as I expect it to. Milestones are marked. We do the things that we normally do, and enjoy them.

This year, or rather this summer wasn’t quite like that. Our family routine was disrupted by other requirements and financial restraints. It just seemed to be one thing after another. Work requirements trumped family outings, family responsibilities overtook leisure, and then, last week, my clutch went out on my VW Beetle. Through it all though, for the most part, I stayed upbeat. I guess somehow I knew something else was out there for me.

On the years we don’t go to the Playa, we always watch for Burners heading that way on the freeway. They are easy to spot, with cars that look like they were packed by the Beverly Hillbillies, piled high with PVC and bikes, lots of bikes. And the passengers in these vehicles invariably wear blissful smiles. Am I romanticizing? Yeah a bit. It’s what happens when you really miss something. So, all day Sunday, every time we saw a car packed to the rim with equipment and bikes, we yelled, “Burners!” and laughed a little.

I stayed up till midnight Sunday to mark the time when we traditionally roll onto the playa, and Monday morning went to the Burning Man website to look at the Gerlach webcam, watching the vehicles go by. Before long I was looking at the pictures coming back, and commented how much I appreciated the images, and how if the Universe were to drop $500 in my lap this week I would definitely go.

Then, the impossible happened.

Someone who saw my comment sent me a message offering me a free, gifted ticket.

When I read the message, I gasped like I never had before. Could it really be true? I couldn’t even speak it when my co-worker asked me what happened. I just motioned her to come look at my monitor.

“No Way!” She said.

I was still speechless. Then I started laughing as I was filled with unexpected joy.

“Oh my god! Is this real?” I said.

There was a phone number in the email, which I called after a few moments of composing myself. The gentleman on the other end was sincere, and just wanted the ticket to go to “a good home.” I don’t know what I said, except a lot of “thank you so much!”

Although I hadn’t planned on going to the playa, I did have a fantasy of going on my own this year, just once.

For us, Burning Man is always a family affair, that takes months of planning and days of staging. We are always uber-prepared. When you go with kids, it can’t be grab a duffel bag, some water and try to survive the week on a can of Pringles and a bag of granola. The shortest amount of time I’ve taken to get ready is three weeks.

But this time is different. It’s just me. No tent, no kitchen to set up, no meals to plan. Somehow everything fell into place. I inexplicably bought nuts, dried fruit, and ready made couscous this last weekend. I only had to pick up some smoked salmon, wasa bread and protein bars. Then I went to the dollar store and picked up baby wipes, glow lights, and a few other basics that I didn’t have on hand. As a matter of circumstance, the weekend before, we had just gone through our playa boxes to find equipment for friends who were going, so everything was readily accessible.

In a matter of two days, I have just about everything I need, save the water, within two Rubbermaid storage bins and a milk crate. I also have two riders coming up with me to split the gas, and 3 days and 4 nights to live out what was just a daydream on Monday.

You see? Playa Magic is Real! Thank you so much Mike!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A new love...

Meet Patty. Patty is an early 70's Schwinn Hollywood Cruiser and is all original except for the grips on the handle bars. She is my found treasure from the Elks Club Rummage Sale. I got the saddle bags there also. They still had bits of hay in them. The tassels I added myself. I just don't think a bike like this is complete without them. And I'm happy to say, that Patty is now world famous. I had coffee the other day at the San Francisco Ferry Building, and when I came out, a group of tourists were taking turns taking pictures standing next to my bike.

Who'd of thought...

There's no argument that the health care debate this summer has heated tempers. Cable and online news sources continue to fuel the fire with disinformation or coverage thereof. The whole thing to me is disturbing.

I'm disturbed by the leaps and bounds conservative spin doctors have taken with their arguments. What use to be brokered through nuance has become a genuine campaign of misleading claims intended to scare the bejesus out of the uninformed.

I actually have to admire their tactics. First they convince their constituency that the only credible source of information is from them, by trademarking phrases such as Fair and Balanced. Then they spend years spewing hate-filled, and often racist speech, until it is an accepted norm. Then they introduce historically fearful words like Communist, Fascist, and Nazi, betting that the fear those labels invoke will override the lack of context in which the words are used. Next, add what one would think are normally outrageous and entirely incredulous statements, stoke fear and anger to create a collective frantic state, and then send out your scared, confused fearful masses to do your dirty work.

I find it extraordinarily ironic that they would use the term Nazi, considering this is the exact tactic that Hitler used. He took over the media message, created fear of Jews through a massive campaign of misinformation, stoked peoples anger about the reparations from World War I and then sent them out to do his dirty work.

I'm feeling quite helpless in all of this. As I saw a woman cry on television about the loss of her America it made me wonder exactly what it is she believes she is losing. And then it made me mad. She and others who share her fear deserve to not be lied to, manipulated and used by power brokers willing to do anything to win.

Who thought people could be persuaded to not want health care? It worries me and makes me what else could the misinformed be persuaded to do?

Monday, August 3, 2009

Summer Benchmarks

Every year, since I've been back in my home town, I've cobserved benchmarks of summer. Fourth of July Parade, the County Fair, a trip to the Beach Boardwalk are all usual benchmarks for our family. But this year has been a little different. We didn't do any of those things. Blame scheduling, a bad economy, or a bad mood. All of it seems to apply.

But there is one last benchmark that I won't give up, the Elks Club Rummage Sale. Every year on the first Friday in August, a hundred or more people gather behind yellow caution tape that marks off the sale area in the Elks Club parking lot. By now, I'm an old pro. I bring my own coffee, my old lady shopping cart and no less than $50 in small bills.

This is the rummage sale to end all sales. It's so big, it actually has departments: appliances, tools, sporting goods, books, toys, clothing, kitchenware, shoes, furniture, plants, luggage and knick-knacks. When the caution tape comes down there's a genuine rush in, people actually run to look for that one thing they hope to find.

Most years I look for two things: books and supplies for Burning Man. And even though I'm not going to the playa this year, I will likely head to sporting goods first to check out the bikes. I love bikes. Especially vintage Schwinn bikes, and I've found more than one there before!

After the bikes, I'll peruse the other departments until I come to the books. Usually I look for classics, books like Tom Sawyer or To Kill a Mocking Bird. These are books I generally like to have on hand to give people, especially To Kill a Mocking Bird. I also like to have extra copies of books I want my kids to read, like Animal Farm, and Of Mice and Men. This year, I will probably look for Harry Potter and the Narnia Series. Should be no-brainer.

When my money runs out I happily head towards my car, usually with cart full of gems, maybe a manual typewriter to add to my collection, a really cool vintage jacket, the odd appliance. And it's always hard to do this, because I always want to go back and find more treasures. To feel that sense of glee when I see something really cool that just days ago was another person's trash.

In this summer of downturn, it's nice to look forward to a benchmark that I know I can afford. And although I may not spend as much as I normally do, the treasure hunt will be just as fun.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Things I don't understand...

There's a number of things I don't understand. I don't understand fake boobs that look like water balloons. I don't understand why so many people wear their pants below their asses. And, I don't understand the need to wield will.

Ok, so maybe some things, I do get, like people who campaign against fur as fashion. Their will is to end the needless suffering of animals for the sake of vanity. But at what point is wielding will an imposition? And why do some have the need to wield will more than others?

Take China for instance. The Chinese government has actively campaigned to eliminate the culture of Tibetans and Uighers alike. Why? What does that really accomplish? It doesn't create a pureness for China, but an imperfect history, just as this country has a blemished history with the genocide of the indiginous cultures that were here before the land was invaded by Europeans.

It makes me wonder if maybe will is wielded as an incarnation of denial that perfection is in fact an abstract. Denying the abstract, as something that is essentially only perfect in concept, but not in the imperial world, is to deny the imperfect human condition, thus it is a denial of self.

So is this why some choose to wield will? Is it simply a manifestation of an inner rebelion to fight against what we cannot control?

Are those who wield will simply just in need of the Serinty Prayer?

Could be.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Shot across the bow? Ok you've got my attention now. Game On!


Since the election of President Barack Obama, Sarah Palin to me has been largely inconsequential. She wasn't someone I railed against. In fact any mention of her in the news, was typically met with a roll of my eyes and an exhasperated shake of my head. I was more concerned with how she portrays women in politics than anything. Her delusions of grandeur, I concluded to myself, were the product of being the inhabitant of an extraordinarily small pond. She simply didn't know any better, than to make absurd statements, and do absurd things, like spend $150,000 on herself and her family in high end department stores. And the fact that Right Wing Conservatives still flocked to her Political Action Committee (PAC), just reinforced my opinion of her ineptness.

But then she got my attention in a press release cited by, dated on the 4th of July no less, warning news outlets not to print speculations about possible Federal investigations into some of her dealings in Alaska. Yes that's right America, lets celebrate the birth of the Country and all of it's values such as Free Speech and Freedom of the Press, with a news release that says, don't say bad things about Sarah Palin.

The last paragraph of the letter reads,

"To the extent several websites, most notably liberal Alaska blogger Shannyn Moore, are now claiming as “fact” that Governor Palin resigned because she is “under federal investigation” for embezzlement or other criminal wrongdoing, we will be exploring legal options this week to address such defamation. This is to provide notice to Ms. Moore, and those who re-publish the defamation, such as Huffington Post, MSNBC, the New York Times and The Washington Post, that the Palins will not allow them to propagate defamatory material without answering to this in a court of law. The Alaska Constitution protects the right of free speech, while simultaneously holding those “responsible for the abuse of that right.” Alaska Constitution Art. I, Sec. 5. These falsehoods abuse the right to free speech; continuing to publish these falsehoods of criminal activity is reckless, done without any regard for the truth, and is actionable. "

So here's why I can't just shake my head at this one. First, not all bloggers are journalists. And even if bloggers are journalists, it's a blog, not an edited publication, thus, opinions are allowed. If a blogger wants to write the sky is orange, they have the right to do so, because that is an opinion. Second, bloggers' opinions and observations are sometimes used as a barometer or jumping off point for journalistic organizations. Recognizing the value in what bloggers have to say is part of the new media landscape. Does it mean that news organization should use blogs as a single source for a story? Of course not, but bloggers do have a knack for bringing things to the forfront. As a blogger, I commit myself to keeping it real, read: tell the truth, but also assume that those who read my words recognize that these are opinions. A news organization that repeats such an opinion is simply citing a source. It doesn't mean that the opinion is valid, it is a method of considering that opinion for further investigation. Third, it is the job of journalists and citizens alike to present arguments and ask very tough questions and discourse amongst themselves in considering these questions, opinions, rumors and whatnot, allowing the reader to determine the value of such things. Threatening action against those who do so, is to me, quintessentially unamerican.

So here's my opinion. I think Sarah Palin needs to realize that she stepped into a much larger pond full of people that do know better. And as for Shannyn Moore, let me know if you need to start a legal fund. I'm more than willing to donate merely out of principle.

4th of July, Then and Now

The Fourth of July has always been one of my favorite holidays. This was mostly because I was always actively involved in one sort of celebration or another.

In my home town, we have had a parade for the last 156 years. I can only remember watching the parade, maybe two or three years at most. Every other year, when at home, I was a participant, part of one contingent or another. I rode on floats, marched in bands, rollerskated in a blue sequined vest and rode my Hello Kitty bike passing out voter registration cards. Last year and the year before, I was the Executive Producer of the local Access TV coverage of the parade.

During the years I was away from home, particularly years spent in the military, my participation was far more patriotic. We shined our boots to look like glass, wore helmets and carried weapons onto a parade field where we stood as a Howitzer gun was shot off in tribute to each of the 50 states. Those field ceremonies always ended with the order, "Pass and Review," which meant we would march in formation past the presiding officer, usually a General, to a series of Sousa Marches. My favorite was always Stars and Stripes Forever, and I'll freely admit that the first time I marched in such a formation to that music, I did so with a lump in my throat.

This year was a little different. I wasn't in the parade. In fact, I didn't even attend. Instead we had a very low key barbecue at the house, with a couple of friends. We made homemade wine coolers, skewered shrimp onto bamboo sticks for the grill, and socialized. My oldest son schlepped his drum set onto the driveway where he beat to his heart's content under the shade structure we had erected. And later, after we ate, the kids played soccer on our speck of a lawn using chairs as goal posts, providing laughter to us all.

Instead of going out to see fireworks, we watched the PBS special from the National Mall, that included Barry Manalow, Aretha, the 1812 Overture (with live cannons) and of course fireworks over the nations capital to Stars and Stripes Forever. I smiled the whole time.

Why the change to a more passive celebration? Good question. I suppose that it's partially because of the work I've been doing lately around independent voices and their contribution to democracy. The work is grueling to say the least, but not since my time in the military have I been so convinced that what I do on a daily basis, really makes a meaningful difference. So maybe I'm not as inclined to make such a grandiose gesture to show my patriotism. Right now I am very lucky to do work that emphasizes the value of good journalism that is not part of the mainstream corporate media conglomerations. And, I'm quite proud to be a voice in a larger conversation that really focuses on E Pluribus Unum, and by this I mean gaining a genuine understanding of what that phrase means, specifically in public discourse.

So, yeah, it was a nice low key celebration yesterday. Mostly because today, I am focused on my real work, which goes beyond celebration to really trying to make a difference.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Nonprofit Karma

What is it about nonprofit work that keeps me coming back? It’s something that I have to ask myself periodically. Usually when I’m overworked and tired, discouraged, or low on cash. And I have to admit, I’ve suffered from all of these lately.

But working for a nonprofit organization (NPO) has its own kind of Karma, and it tends to come around quicker than other things that go around. Huh? What I mean is that the Karmic cycle is much quicker and far more frequent in the nonprofit world.

I wish I could say, that no good deed goes unnoticed, but that wouldn’t be true. What I can say though is that things have a way of happening, not by magic but by design, one could even say intelligent design, because everything we do is thought over and planned out, hopefully with great rigor. Often, things work brilliantly, but not without challenge, and perhaps that’s what keeps me coming back: the challenge. And working for a NPO is a hellava challenge. It's not for the weak of spirit or mind.

Like problem solving? Then this is the job for you! This is creative thinking at its best. Sometimes solving the problems is simple. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time of course, but that leaves out a lot of detail. Working in this field forces you to think strategically, and in steps, at all times, in every task. How does this break down? How can I make this easier, more efficient, more effective and fun all at the same time? We think like this all the time, and although it can be exhausting, it is in fact fun to push your mind and intellect to its limit. Some people do triathlons, I work in nonprofit. It’s that kind of limit pushing.

I was reminded of a lot of this on Saturday while attending the Craigslist Foundation Nonprofit Boot Camp. I attended what I think was the first such events in 2006. It was an interesting concept. Around 1500 like-minded individuals came together to learn how to do what they do much better. This year, the event was on the campus of UC Berkeley. I noticed a bit of a change in the constituency. Although beginners are still one of the largest contingents at the camp, there were a lot more veterans, such as myself attending too. The workshops were both helpful and validating as they reinforced and honed practices I use on a regular basis, and I learned a few new ones as well. Plus, I love the swag. I finally picked up the letter opener I've been looking for, got a mouse pad from PayPal, and the ever essential computer screen sweeper, plus a tote bag and t-shirt of course.

It's nice to be reminded why we do what we do from so many different perspectives. So here are some of the highlights from my notes.

From Arianna Huffington of

“If you think you’re too small to be effective, you’ve never been in bed with a mosquito.”

“Volunteering should just be something we’s like a muscle, the more we use it the stronger it gets.”

“It’s not about how much we give but what kind of need we resolve.”
From Kay Sprinkle Grace, nonprofit funding consultant,

“Who ever introduced the term whatever into our vernacular was preparing us for very interesting times.”

It’s not your organization that matters, it’s your mission.

“If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always be what you’ve always been.”

In nonprofit, we either ease human suffering or advance human potential.

Grow leadership at every level.

People give because your organization meets needs, not because you have needs.


From Shirley Sagawa & Deb Jospin, Authors of The Charismatic Organization

Put the right people in the right job and nurture them. Share power responsibility and build a strong community because people want to make a difference and want to belong to a community.

Have a vision and mission that can be articulated and repeated with passion.

Have Data Driven Decision Making…know what your trying to achieve by expressing clear outcomes, setting measurable goals, creating a roadmap and showing results.

Create Can Do Culture: be vibrant, positive and inclusive

Create compelling communication. Tell good stories, and encourage everyone in your organization to tell their stories as well. People do this work for a reason. Letting people know that reason is a good way to get them to support you.



This is a new website designed as an extra curricular project by engineers at Google. The website is open source and offers a customizable search engine for volunteer opportunities, and is usable in a number of popular platforms as a wigit such as facebook, twitter, cell phone aps, etc. For more information, go to their website . Or to see an example of it’s use go to .

Monday, June 15, 2009

Howler Monkies should be sedated

Oh the hazards of the 10AM ferry. In exchange for a nominal amount of extra sleep, I endure tables filled with teens playing cards, loud out-of-state vacationing talkers and sticky, howling children. Children who buy all the good donuts as soon as they get on board, whine about having to go to the bathroom, and narrate everything around them.

“Look! He has a hat!”
“Yes, dear. What color is the hat?”
“Blue! He has a blue hat!”

Lovely. On good days, the parents realize that it’s a two-deck boat, and they take the child upstairs. On bad days, the child is indulged, ceaselessly, so much that you want to shout out.

“Didn’t you learn anything about the effects of unrealistic expectations from the last meltdown of Britney Spears?”

Apparently not. Instead these parents allow their children’s outrageous behavior to escalate while everyone else on board suffers and considers using their cell phone to take video to send to the Super Nanny.

One of the benefits of being the mother of children is the justification I feel when casting annoyed, dirty looks, devoid of empathy or understanding toward parents who lack the courtesy of drugging their children if they can’t be controlled, before stepping onto a boat or a plane. I’m serious. When my kids were of howling age we use to fly a lot between SFO and St. Louis. I was a young mother with two boys. And, as I would board the plane, I could see terror in the face of every business traveler in coach, each of them making pacts with the devil or god so we wouldn’t sit near them. We would worked our way down the isle scanning for our seats, and I’d joke along the way, “Hi! It’s us, you’re worst nightmare!”

Once we sat, usually to the disdain of those sitting closest, I’d say, “Don’t worry. They’re drugged.” This line never quite got the reaction I was going for on the St. Louis side. Usually it was a look of astonished alarm. I mean it wasn’t like I was giving them Quaaludes…just a proper dose of Benadryl. It’s a trick I learned from a pharmacist when I was in the Army. I call it being considerate.

Sadly this wisdom is lost on some. I’ve tried to suggest the sedative method whenever I encounter a parent whose child screeches like a howler monkey, but they always look at me like I’m some sort of monster. So, I decided to just keep my suggestions to myself and cast dirty looks instead.