Wanderlust and Other Addictions

I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”  ~ Robert Louis Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes

When Robert Louis Stevenson wrote this, the prototype of the automobile was still 10 years away and the four-lane highway and modern jet travel unimaginable, even for the author of Treasure Island.  About as unthinkable as travel by donkey is for us today.  Stevenson’s quote is commonly paired with images of highways and jets because it encourages us to do more of something that we cannot do without.  We, of all the living creatures capable of independent movement, have the itchiest of feet.  While it is true that everything is in motion, that many species migrate, by wing, fin, and hoof in response to seasonal change, only homo sapiens is afflicted with incurable restlessness. Life as we know it was shaped by an age of exploration and discovery.  It is who we are. Early epic masterpieces like Gilgamesh and the Odyssey were essentially travel writing, tales of adventures far from home. Why did they go? Unlike the quaint roving of an English gentleman in love with the experience itself, the epics suggest their protagonists were called to more serious, exclusively manly pursuits: war (often as paid combatants), trade, and diplomacy.  Even Buddha, the icon of peaceful abiding, had to leave his home in order to seek enlightenment.

What we have today is wanderlust on steroids, an addiction to speed — jets, fast cars, motorcycles, even bullet trains — as overpowering as any other habit.  As long as we feel compelled to get somewhere fast, as business people or tourists, and are willing to pay any price, we are stuck in fast forward.  Summer travel is barely over when the lucrative holiday travel season kicks in.  Because we have been willing to uproot ourselves for jobs or ‘a better life’ elsewhere, flying or driving across state lines or even across the continent, is inevitable for most Americans, me included. To be with the ones we love in another place, we willingly tolerate crowded highways, long, boring waits at airports, and sometimes fatigue that abates about the time we’re ready to turn around and go home. And that’s when everything goes without a hitch. Who hasn’t spent an unintended extra night en route, in an airport hotel, or even camped out on the departure lounge floor?

Here’s another lifestyle choice that keeps us in motion: the idea that everyone, not just the wealthy, deserves a getaway.  According to the National Realtor Association, the vacation and second home market just enjoyed its best year in recent history.  Flush from a decade or so when our homes were appreciating above historical trends (AKA the ‘bubble’), my 65+ cohort is packed with people on the go: two-residence Snowbirds (been there, done that), cruise junkies, serial house-sitters, and life-long RVers.  Le Mans, the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona Speedway may soon become anachronisms, yet it is evident that, with few exceptions, most of us will keep right on driving and flying until we burn through the last drop of gasoline and/or jet fuel.  (See, The Seat is Going Anyway)

ZachBrown-PhotoThat’s why I’m encouraged by a growing counterculture move on the part of the Millennials to dump cars and suburbs in favor of Walkable cities where they can walk or bike to work, take public transportation to an arts or music venue, stroll to food shops and other essential services, and skateboard to hang out with friends. Perhaps instead of lamenting their inability to achieve the standard of living of their parents and grandparents, we could be studying them for clues on how to live more creatively — not to mention in better health and degree of fitness — in a future of resource constraints. “The markets where Millennials are most highly concentrated reflect their desire to live in more socially conscious, creative environments. Austin, Texas has the highest concentration of this group—almost 1.2 times the national average—and fits the Millennial ideal, combining urban convenience with an exciting art and music scene.” (Nielsen report)

We may not be able to cure our restlessness, but perhaps we can cut it down to size.  Possibly, these new denizens of small, vibrant cities are the pioneers in a new age of travel by rail, sail, pedal and/or foot.  Bye-bye McMansions and three-car garages, farewell overstuffed cruise ships.  Hello staycations, homesteading in urban plots, mixed-use neighborhoods, and booming farmers markets where local is cool.

Why Millennials Are Ditching Cars …
ZachBrown photo

Going Sour for Good

I stumbled upon Sandor Ellix Katz’s book, Wild Fermentation: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Cultural Manipulation at The Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health bookstore last November, and because I’m feeling greater kinship with all things wild these days as well as the D-I-Y culture of Whole Earth Catalog*, I snagged two copies.  One as a house gift for friends we were visiting when we left our yoga retreat, and one for us.

My spouse adores fermented foods.  We are never without plain yogurt and sour pickles in our larder (Bubbies or Batampte), and often I’ll catch him drinking the last bit of brine from a soon-to-be empty jar.  I used to tease him that he was embalming himself from the inside out, but his energy and stamina at age 80 are, as they say, proof of the pudding. Our Florida grandsons have picked up on Papa’s pickle habit and that makes me feel better about their otherwise almost vegetable-free diets.

One of my new women friends — a sister spoken word performer in Women Aloud — is an avid maker of pickles and every time we meet to share monologues and work on our next show, she brings everyone a jar of her latest batch. So, something wild is in the air, right in our own homes, and I believe ready to be domesticated for our own good.  In case you haven’t been following your Dr. Oz updates, probiotics (available in all fermented foods, yes, even wine) are hot. Anyway, with Sandor Katz’s wonderful book in hand, we decided to launch ourselves into sauerkraut production. If you like a laid-back prose style, e.g. “I never measure the salt, I just shake some on after I chop up each quarter cabbage,” he is your man.  Here’s our annotated recipe from Wild Fermentation:

First, you steal two cabbages…bada-bing.

Actually, homemade sauerkraut really begins with a quest for a good, old-fashioned stoneware crock like this one my spouse found at the local Good Will Thrift Boutique, first time lucky. Finely shredded cabbage — thanks to the new Cutco knife (if you have a college-bound grandson, the brand needs no explanation) — kosher salt and about an hour of your time. You pack the crock with shredded cabbage in layers, green and red if you like, sprinkling about a tablespoon of salt on each layer. Press down firmly with a potato masher or your fists. After all the cabbage is used up, insert an inverted clean plate into the opening. It should be sized to leave just enough space around the circumference so you can see some cabbage. We used a butter plate about 6 inches diameter. On top of the inverted plate, place a clean gSauerkraut 1lass or ceramic bowl, then pile on whatever clean weights you can find: several large cans of tomatoes is what we used.  Cover the whole thing with a clean kitchen towel to keep dust out and walk away. Needless to say, everything that touches the kraut-in-progress should be clean, but sterilization is unnecessary. Unless you keep your home on the cool side, the ambient temperature should be sufficient to cause the weighted cabbage to exude some natural brine which rises to the level of the plate. If not, slowly add about a cup of salt water until it does. Lift the cloth and give it a sniff every day until you see some liquid rising and it gives off a slight sour fragrance.  If it gets dry, repeat the addition of some salt water. In about a week, you will likely be able to scoop out enough of young sauerkraut to enjoy with your pan-grilled dogs or Reuben. Always wash the plate before you replace it into the crock and clean off any weights that may come in contact with the cabbage. We kept watch over our developing kraut as one might a sleeping child or beloved pet. A little more than a week along, some scum came to the surface of the brine, normal, said the directions, so we didn’t panic. We removed it carefully, scraping with a flexible spatula works.  At this point, you can repack and let the fermentation process continue for a more sour taste.

We decided our kraut was just the way we like it: slightly crunchy like cole slaw and with a delicious but not overpowering tang.  So we decanted it into several clean jars and refrigerated it.  Some for us, some for friends.  You could, according to Katz, let your sauerkraut continue to ferment for as long as you wish, assuming you are willing to repeat the steps.  You simply take what you want to use for a meal any time during, repack the crock (as above) and let sauerkraut and dogit do its thing. Eventually, the sauerkraut will compress down into something closer to the product you can find in the supermarket deli section. After it is to full strength, it can keep for a long time, which is probably why frugal societies that ‘put up’ foods in a way that preserved their nutrients for later consumption, were so keen on these fermenting techniques. The Korean staple, Kimchi, is close cousin to this European concoction, and other Asian cuisines include fermented fish products in many favorite recipes.  Our homemade sauerkraut went on this dog, with a generous helping of Grey’s Poupon mustard and Nancy’s jalapeño pickles.  Are you salivating yet?

If you enjoy preparing food, let me warn you that these adventures in the art of fermentation could be habit-forming.  As we completed this morning’s project and stored our crock for next time, I had a strong intuition that our kitchen was probably humming with live culture.  What better time to  capture what was in the air with a batch of sourdough starter? I fell in love with sourdough thanks to my mother who acquired a hand-me-down batch from a friend in Alberta Province, and kept it going for over 20 years.  She fed it weekly, and baked biscuits, rolls and bread of unparalleled flavor and texture for family, friends and neighbors. Once, she even smuggled a cup of starter through customs in her cosmetics bag. There is also something that appeals to me deeply about being part of an ancient tradition, the idea that one needs to feed ‘Mother’ every time you take some for a recipe.  A permaculture vibe: regenerative, rather than merely sustainable. I haven’t had much success with earlier attempts at sourdough starter, but that’s before my kitchen went wild.

Here is a link to a free pdf copy of Sandor Ellix Katz’s book: Wild Fermentation: A Do-It-Yourself Guide to Cultural Manipulation although I encourage you to look for it at your usual book sources, help keep a roof over his head, and his fermentation workshops full.  He is also the author of This Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved and his http://www.wildfermentation.com/, also looks amazing.

*about Stewart Brand, editor of Whole Earth Catalog, not so much.  See George Monbiot’s critique

Does Florida Have A Poet Laureate?

Happily, surprisingly, yes!  As of June 15, after a gap of three years, Peter Meinke, 82, was appointed to the position.  As it happens, I am familiar with Meinke’s work via his second volume of poems, Trying to Surprise God, gifted to me by one of his students at Eckerd College, a sister writer and friend.  Who knew then I would come to live in the home state of this poet, whose Lines from Key West, inspired both curiosity and a sense of foreboding? I’ve been feeling as optimistic about the state of poetry in this country as I do about the State of Florida, which is to say not very. But this news is somewhat encouraging on both counts, if only because Meinke’s four year term also coincides with a critical window of opportunity for Florida to get its act together about sea level rise and the rising demand for solar energy. There is, as the title of one new collection of climate-related poetry puts it, So Little Time: Words and Images For a World in Climate Crisis.  

Poets were once the rock stars of their generation, able to speak truth to power through their art. They got it, and did not fear to take a stand. Here’s T.S. Eliot, writing in 1939:  “For a long enough time we have believed in nothing but the values arising in a mechanized, commercialized, urbanized way of life. It would be well for us to face the permanent conditions upon which God allows us to live upon this planet.”

The good news: poetry is persistent enough, even in our social media, texting-crazed, wired culture — perhaps even because of it —  for questions about its demise to crop up every so often.  The latest iteration comes in a CNN report on the appointment of Juan Felipe Herrera as the next poet laureate of the United States.  Notwithstanding The Writers Almanac, and popularity of poets like Billy Collins (a former U.S. laureate) and Mary Oliver, it is clear that the number of people who read poetry is shrinking to cult status. And yet, undeniably, as the surge of interest in poetry after 9/11 indicates:

In times of national crisis, when ordinary language fails us, we still turn to poetry to express the inexpressible.  Brandon Griggs, CNN

I believe poetry can — and must — show up whenever and wherever it can make the strongest impact, where it takes us by surprise, shakes us out of our lethargy, and makes us care about what truly matters. And for that, we need more than the printed page; we need spoken word poetry, delivered at open mics, popup events, or even through campaigns such as the voicemail poetry created by poet and professor, Major Jackson, for his students at the University of Vermont.  It goes like this: you call a friend and, without any explanation, recite a poem on their voicemail. If they answer, you tell them to hang up and let your next call go to voicemail.

spoken word micThe other reason I see a future for spoken word poetry is Eve Ensler. With her launch of The Vagina Monologues in a tiny theater on the Westside of New York City, Ensler demonstrated the power of spoken word to touch people deeply. She not only shook up gender politics, she also launched an ongoing international campaign to call attention to violence against women and girls. Performing her material and the formation of a troupe that grew from that experience (Women Aloud) has me asking some new questions. What if a campaign based on spoken word poetry (or monologues) could do for climate justice activism what Ensler did for the women’s movement? And if so, what better place than Florida, climate ground zero, to test it out? When you think about it, critiques of the status quo and prophetic warning are by no means a new role for poetry through the ages. Think Shelley’s Ozymandias. I especially love Wendell Berry’s savage wit and quiet anger in Questionnaire and Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front from which one of my favorite quotes: Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.

Beside So Little Time, this year, the UK’s Guardian launched a series of 20 original poems on climate curated by British poet laureate, Carol Duffy, because (as she wrote): If information was all we needed, we’d have solved climate change by now. The scientific position has been clear for decades. Researchers have been waving a big red flag that has been impossible for our politicians to miss.”  Her goal for the collection: “… to reach parts of the Guardian readers’ hearts and minds that the reporting, investigations, videos, podcasts and the rest had failed to reach.”  

Poets grieve, rage, and pull no punches.  An example:


We closed the borders, folks, we nailed it.
No trees, no plants, no immigrants.
No foreign nurses, no Doctors; we smashed it.
We took control of our affairs. No fresh air.
No birds, no bees, no HIV, no Poles, no pollen
No pandas, no polar bears, no ice, no dice.
No rainforests, no foraging, no France.
No frogs, no golden toads, no Harlequins.
No Greens, no Brussels, no vegetarians, no lesbians.
No carbon curbed emissions, no Co2 questions.
No lions, no tigers, no bears. No BBC picked audience.
No loony lefties, please. No politically correct classes.
No classes. No Guardian readers. No readers.
No emus, no EUs, no Eco warriors, no Euros,
No rhinos, no zebras, no burnt bras, no elephants.
We shut it down! No immigrants, no immigrants.
No sniveling-recycling-global-warming nutters.
Little man, little woman, the world is a dangerous place.
Now, pour me a pint, dear. Get out of my fracking face.

~ Jackie Kay

More to think about:

The Dark Mountain project, a network of writers, artists and thinkers who have stopped believing the stories our civilisation tells itself. We produce and seek out writing, art and culture rooted in place, time and nature.

Poetry Outloud — an annual contest for the spoken word that offers school-age performers cash prizes include $20,000 toward a college scholarship.

Consider supporting the poetry/climate effort by your purchase of So Little Time: Words and Images for a World in Climate Crisis, by Greg Delanty and other poets and photographers.  (Green Writers Press, Brattleboro, Vermont).  I am not affiliated with the authors or publisher.

The Gift Economy*

The world was made to be free in.

Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.

Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
to learn

anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive

is too small for you.

~ Sweet Darkness, David Whyte

For those who make their livelihood in the financial markets or follow their own investments closely, this week will require seat belts, low and tight across your laps.  If you believe things are going to return to ‘normal’ for the dominant energy sector any time soon, read this from the Post Carbon Institute. It certainly calls into question whether Shell’s proposed Arctic drilling is anything but pure political theater. Although we divested from fossil fuels a while back, I have vowed not to look at our portfolio until the end of the day, but maybe end of the week is even better. I am not a fan of volatility in money matters or in human behavior (perhaps that’s redundant).

So, I’m turning my attention to what I can do When Things Fall Apart, to cite a favorite book from a favorite author.  I’m reading more poetry and attempting to write it better because, well, if not now, when?  I’m also making plans to put up a crock of sauerkraut in the hour formerly known as Sunday service because at least it will leave me with something that nourishes me for a few days.  I’m beginning to explore life in the gift economy*, the realm that exists apart from getting and spending, (although I will have to acquire about 5 lbs. of cabbage and some Kosher salt for my project) and I invite you to join me there.

Let me begin with a riff on these lines lifted from David Whyte’s poem for a few bars, and feel free to hum along (here is the complete poem from Whyte’s collection, The House of Belonging, ©1996 Many Rivers Press, and long a favorite of mine). First, I’m more than a little tickled that Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat. Pray. Love) chose this quote for her poem of the day. While I would argue against a purpose for something as impractical as a poem, David Whyte is well-known for his work with corporations and organizations to help employees break old habits of mind and ‘come alive’ on the job. Having done time myself in some stagnant workplaces, I cannot help but wonder how many people rose up from one of Whyte’s workshops and kept right on walking.

This poem, and others of his most loved verse, are an invitation, an enticement, to be more alive, moment to moment, to simply be. I read these lines as a call to free ourselves from all the boxes we put ourselves into, often unwittingly: our roles, relationships, titles, possessions, self-delusions, anything that makes us dead to the world ‘to which we belong.’ For this kind of breakthrough, Whyte suggests, we need our own ‘sweet darkness’ of meditation or reflection, so we may learn who we are, where we belong, and with whom. Discovering whatever brings us alive is the great uncompensated work of a lifetime. My short list: my long, ever-surprising marriage; poetry, especially read aloud; music, especially making it, however inexpertly; real conversations with friends and strangers; walking with no particular destination; slow food; slower everything. What’s on yours?

Of course, poetry is part of the gift economy, in the sense that it is available and of benefit to all. With very few exceptions, no one lives on poetry alone, or the making of art of any kind, for that matter. The U.S. Poet Laureate gets a stipend of $35,000, plus $5,000 travel expenses, paid by a private grant. And yet, “It is difficult,” said William Carlos Williams, “to get the news from poems/yet men die miserably every day/for lack/of what is found there.”

The library system is another such enduring gift (thank you, Andrew Carnegie). It’s anyone’s guess how many lives have been changed, lifted-up, by the simple act of reading. Some libraries have added tools and equipment.  Speaking of free access, you should be able to download an e-book version of Pema Chodron’s best-seller by clicking on When Things Fall Apart. You might consider this giveaway a smart marketing move to sell more of her books generally,  But I consider it another example of the gift economy, made possible by the Internet. In fact, one could argue that the entire Internet fits the description of gift, albeit one needs tools and access.  In one of my favorite visions of a future worth having, small farmers in the developing world generate local energy via solar panels and use technology like affordable cell phones and/or rollup computers to download necessary information, while their children logon to (free) Khan Academy.

freecycle-300x141Other gifts: the National Parks System, including the incomparable Florida Everglades, when last I checked. Public beaches, mandated by law. Public spaces, as long as you’re not breaking a local ordinance on size of group or activity.  Let’s also include, Free-cycling. Blogs, from the mighty HuffPo to this one (although you must tolerate some ads — sorry.) My favorite: foraged foods — berries, mushrooms, wild greens.  Then, the obvious freebies: trees, wild pollinators, along with clean air, water, soil, and sun, rain, wind — anything we consider held in common, available to be used and enjoyed by all. In other words, all that brings — and keeps us alive. For these gifts, may we be sufficiently grateful to pass them forward.


*I am using ‘gift economy’ is a broader sense than this definition, and more akin to that suggested by Charles Eisenstein’s book: Sacred Economics: Money, Gift, and Society in the Age of Transition.

What We Can Know

Like transplants from elsewhere, we go to Florida’s beautiful, relatively uncrowded beaches in summer to fill our lungs with salt air, press our bare feet into the sand, and look for turtle tracks. It turns out that 2015 has been a record year for turtle nesting in Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.  Sure enough, there were plenty of fresh tracks in evidence on a recent Sunday morning, many new nests, and a researcher on dune buggy taking his morning tally.

Preserving life other than our own is for many people an instinctive response, one that affirms our interconnection with and interdependence on all living things, including the Earth itself.  Some years ago on this same stretch of beach, we rescued about 20 turtle hatchlings by keeping hungry seagulls in the air while the young made a dash for the waves. This race that relatively few actually win, apparently also hones the turtles’ survival skills and increases their chance of living into adulthood and reproducing. We were giddy with joy that morning, though none the wiser about the way of turtles, e.g. how do they know which way the water is? Or how is it that their mothers, and some day these newly hatched females grown to adulthood, catch a ride on the Gulf Stream and return to this very beach to lay their eggs? Loggerheads, Leatherbacks and green turtles are (unlike urban trees, alas) protected by law, so evidence that they are thriving is reason for celebration. But more than that, I’m curious about how significant this shift, if indeed it is a lasting one, could be in big picture terms. What might it suggest about the future health of our world if turtles, like bald eagles, any life form for that matter, do well enough to be removed from the endangered list? Or when damage can be reversed as we step back and let nature takes its course. We don’t always know what will work until we see what happens.

You have to be encouraged about the most recent news about bees, too, as well as for ‘a new breed of bee keepers‘ who are swelling the ranks, according to a recent story in the Palm Beach Post’s business section. The newcomers are entering the business as a sideline, drawn by the high demand for honey, but what if they could become part of a citizen movement to preserve and strengthen bee colonies? An associate professor of entomology is quoted as saying that CCD (colony collapse disorder) is “gone or pretty minimal,” which suggests that a turnaround via human intervention is possible. And bees are kind of important to our food security.

Whatever drives us to discovery, anyone of us can only know a small fraction about our world relative to what there is to know, and most of what we discover is through hands-on experience, experimentation and observation. But I believe we are obligated to engage with and learn whatever we can, and in that process come to love the world and want to save it. In that context, here’s a photo of one of our grandsons, an incoming high school senior who aspires to become an aeronautical engineer, Shaw harnesses the winddoing an experiment of his own with wind power on Mousam Lake, Maine. Earlier, he and his youngest brother successfully ‘sailed’ their canoe across this same lake using this same outsize umbrella. When you recall that before the discovery and rapid implementation of fossil fuels, humans explored the known — and unknown — world entirely under sail, perhaps this augers well for the great re-skilling, a back-to-the-future, intergenerational strategy I believe is inevitable for our survival as a species. I am glad to leave speculating on origins and causation to scientists, philosophers and those of religious persuasion. And when we need a little humility to prick our 21st century techno-arrogance bubble, we might channel rock star astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who reminds us that something called Dark Matter is accelerating the expansion of our universe, but we don’t even know what it is. I highly recommend his terrific on-demand StarTalk Radio Show, a combination of Car Talk (a lot of joking and boisterous laughter) with great interviews and razor sharp observations. In the recent edition that included snippets of deGrasse Tyson’s interview with Ariana Huffington, she noted that far from being in opposition, scientists and people of faith are united by a sense of wonder. One cool woman. The show ended with a call for greater scientific literacy for everyone. May it be so, and may it begin in the home, in schools, and the House.

Unplug Yourself

Here’s a tip for a healthier, more resilient future: get outdoors more and leave your smart phone at home when you do. There’s plenty of evidence that suggests we need what nature gives us for free: refreshment, relaxation, and a sense that we are part of something larger than the manmade environment in which we spend most of our waking hours. In South Florida, indoors automatically means air-conditioning 24/7, breathing recirculated air. Like being on an endless plane ride. Children who spend time playing outdoors every day are not only less likely to become obese, they do better in school. Even elderly shut-ins benefit from being near some green plants, particularly if they care for them. High touch.

Indoor living, whether at work or home, or at a popular restaurant like Duffy’s, is screen time, all the time.  I love to cook but increasingly go to the Internet for a recipe rather than consult one of the many cookbooks I own. Lately, I find myself checking the weather on my smartphone instead of opening a window or going outside to sniff the air. I confess I am hopelessly addicted to The Skimm for my quick dose of news, about all I can take. Most bedtimes, the urge to check email or Facebook one last time is all but irresistible. In wakeful periods during the night, I’m on my tablet reading a novel or catching up on one of the blogs I follow. At least I notice how these habits are changing me in ways I don’t like, stoking impatience and compulsive behavior. You have no doubt realized that Big Brother Internet is watching your searches and online shopping.

Here’s something else I find worrying, for myself and even more for my grandchildren who already exhibit serious dependency on screens (don’t even get me started on video gaming!). We are learning to depend on our visual, and to some extent auditory, senses at the cost of other senses that make us complete human beings. Since touch and smell are more connected to the emotions, is it possible that our addiction to screens themselves — not to mention our compulsion to miss nothing — is changing our relationships with each other as well as with our life support system.

Screen Addiction is Taking a Toll on Children writes personal health columnist, Jane Brody, in a report that is sure to resonate with grandparents and add to our concerns for their future. Perhaps you, too, have witnessed your grandchildren gradually change from affectionate, engaging pre-schoolers who were delighted to see you, always ready to play a game or share a joke, into Tweens or Teens who are so captivated by their devices, they barely acknowledge your presence. To be sure, adolescence is hard on everyone including the ones going through it, but this feels different from familiar teen angst, much more invasive and scary and with ramifications we may not fully comprehend. “Many come to view the real world as fake,” writes Brody. For those of us concerned about the effect of violent video games on children, this is chilling news indeed. Brody’s not letting adults off the hook either.  Her advice is sound: How to Cut Children’s Screen Time: Say No to Yourself First. 

Screens also interfere with our experience with the actual.  Ever noticed how many parents at a recital or school play are making a video of the event as opposed to just experiencing it?  So can they be said to be truly present, or to put it another way, what exactly were they present for? Pixels on a tiny screen?  And what will they remember later: being there, or just what the video tells them they saw? Comic and social critic, Louis CK, does a riff on this subject that is typical of his style: you’re laughing and feeling a chill down your spine at the same time.

kids walkingHey, I love my smartphone. I love texting and sharing photos. I love the built-in GPS that gets me places, the restaurant reviews that save me time and money, being able to leave the heavier equipment at home when I’m on the go and still stay in touch. But we all need to give it a rest. Screen addiction is not healthy for children and other living things and it is not healthy for the Earth. The good news — and there has been more of this lately, from Pope Francis’ encyclical to the rise of solar power through unlikely alliances (see Green Tea Coalition) — is that we can do something about it.  We won’t save the world and our own skins by changing our lightbulbs and shopping greener, but a re-engagement — all senses open — with what we have and what we stand to lose: the only home we have, just might. Turn off, unplug, go hug a tree or a friend.

Bye-Bye Indie Movies

The closing of the Mos’Art Theater in Lake Park this past week is a small, personal tragedy for those of us who loved the great selection of independent and foreign films found there for the last five years. We’ve seen Oscar-nominated documentaries, animated films and features, and even got to vote on them. We’ve attended benefits at the Mos’Art like the showing of The Vessel, co-sponsored by the local National Organization for Women and Emergency Medical Assistance.  Most recently, the 2015 Oscar-nominee for Foreign Language Film, Wild Tales, drew an appreciative audience. To catch films of this caliber now, means driving at least 20 minutes on a hair-raising stretch of I-95 to the only other cinema of its kind in northern Palm Beach County. But even more than the inconvenience, it saddens me to see this promising venue, on the same block as our other favorite local hangout, The Brewhouse Gallery, go dark. A vibrant community needs more thriving small businesses, not fewer, more foot traffic, not less.

indie_logoLake Park has a more diverse population than our home town, and just like the other artsy, colorful, interesting town of Lake Worth, diversity also brings with it more security issues and various defensive strategies.  I notice, for example, that Saigon Market where we shop for a terrific array of Asian ingredients, and the Vietnamese pho/hot-pot restaurant its owners opened last year, pull down metal shutters over their display windows and door at night.  It’s common practice in fringe neighborhoods in any urban area, and one choice retailers can make to protect themselves. But a fortress does not a community make. More venues like The Brewhouse Gallery and its neighbor, Art on Park, both of which cater to emerging artists, are a better way to go. I say this even while recognizing that today’s artists’ haven is tomorrow’s high-rent district. Hello Miami’s Wynnwood.

We live less than 5 miles from Lake Park, in a family oriented town we landed in more than a decade ago, following one set of grandchildren to the sunshine of South Florida. It has its virtues — low crime rate, good schools, two excellent community centers with pools and other sports facilities, more large shade trees, a Whole Foods Market, the Gardens Mall, and of course, a multiplex theater featuring the usual fare of blockbusters. Developers of Downtown, and the newer Midtown, have tried to infuse a sense of community around the collection of shops and restaurants, with comfortable public seating, periodic art shows and free music on the weekends in the season (that is, not the hotter summer months).  Downtown features a carousel and a train for tots that also goes round and round each evening, clanging bell and all. But the design approach doesn’t seem to be moving us in the direction of a real town center as a community gathering place. The farmers market is somewhat better, but without some effort, it’s too easy to be ships that pass in the night. Even the kids don’t seem to be having much fun, except occasionally when they cut loose from their parents and play with other kids. They set a fine example.

I’ve made the point here before that as shoppers, diners or spectators, we’re more likely to stick to our companions. Mingling or chatting with people we don’t know would be an exception rather than the rule, and that’s a seriously bad trend for community life, let alone the kind of resilience the future may demand of us. I don’t think our little corner of Palm Beach County is an isolated example (but I’d be delighted to have that view challenged).  If we aren’t comfortable with the people we meet in the commons, how can we become better at talking with each other in community meetings where an issue of mutual interest is being discussed, let alone in a more politically charged gathering?  Shouldn’t we all be concerned about the silo lifestyles and bland conformity so many of us have adopted, and adapted to, without understanding what and whom we are sacrificing?  I think so, and the indie-minded among you might agree. I’ll leave you with some links worth checking out:

Transition Streets  — just launched website

Strong Towns

Walkable WPB