Celebrating Ingenuity

I don’t know why this tickled me so much, so I thought I would share it with you and see if together we can figure out why.

My son Nathan lives in Manila and works throughout the Philippines for USAID (Agency for International Development). It is the arm of our government that tries to do good in the world, funding roads, water, health and human services projects in countries that are struggling. He worked in Palestine before being transferred to Manila for four years after which he will probably be sent to a hardship post like Afghanistan. But I digress.

He sent me these photos recently and this is the story. He went to evaluate a project in the city of Legazpi in the Bicol region of the island of Luzon. He and the local folks working on the project visited a nearby volcano called Mayon. There were a couple of guys there, Nathan said, who were available to take staged photos of tourists. There wasn’t any advertising, no hustling, they just made it known that they could take a photo with your own iPhone that would amaze and amuse friends and family. Nathan’s local colleagues told him that they hoped for a tip and that was all. Intrigued, Nathan agreed and they choreographed and snapped these three photos. (more…)

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Imagine You Are on a Plane…

Imagine you are on a plane waiting to take off for Louisville. It is 5:00 pm and as instructed you have your seat belt buckled. The plane should have taken off 20 minutes ago and you are getting irritated.

A woman in an airline uniform stands at the front of the plane and speaks into the loud speaker.

“Good evening everyone. I am Sonia the booking agent for this flight. You may have seen me at the counter when you boarded. I want to apologize for the delay and explain to you what is happening. As you can see, this flight is completely full. Every seat is taken. We want to get you to Louisville just as soon as we can, but we have a problem. There are four crew members who need to get to Louisville tonight. If they don’t get there two early morning flights tomorrow will have to be cancelled and there will be a lot of disappointed travelers. (more…)

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It’s hard to write…

I always try to write something more or less upbeat on this blog, but this month I had a terrible time. I had opened the paper to see that the administration was gutting EPA, where I have so many friends and colleagues doing such important work. Every story – local, national and global — was filled with despair and foretold the end of more than a healthy environment. I saw our moral fiber crumbling, our values in a shambles, our caring and empathy for each other in rapid decline.

The next morning in that half-sleep and half-awake state I had a vision of a postcard I received many years ago. I have found that these flashes from the elusive land between conscious and unconscious are worth paying to attention to. And this one came with a message. Here it is.

When my younger son was 7 he went to a music summer camp in the mountains a couple of hours from home. That’s young, but he went with his older brother who had filled him with exciting stories from the year before. Nathan was eager to have those adventures, spend time with all the big kids and learn to play the drums. Halfway through the two-week camp session every kid wrote a postcard home. It was required and we parents looked forward to that reassurance that our child was alive and having fun. (more…)

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“A First”

As we age there are inevitably fewer and fewer “firsts.” At some point we have done, at least once, pretty much everything we wanted or needed to do.

But I am proud to say that I just experienced a big one – my first Democratic Party Ward Meeting. Roberto and I decided in these times of “What can we do?” to start at the grass roots and see what this work-in-progress called democracy is all about.

We pulled into the community center parking lot early and were surprised at the number of cars. And inside there was a mob. We greeted friends, got in line to be certified and receive our ballots, and found seats.  In a few minutes there was standing room only and the current ward chair addressed the crowd.

Ward 4a meeting, Santa Fe County

“My name is Terry Rivera and I am the chair of Ward 4a. I have been the chair for 54 years…” At this point I was sure I had heard wrong but Roberto confirmed, 54 years. “My father was ward chair and then I took over. I want to welcome everyone but also I can’t believe what I’m seeing – so many people! Usually I have to bring my children and grandchildren to make a quorum of six!”  Her expression was a mixture of pleasure and shock, with a trace of apprehension.


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Always Was and Always Will Be

If you are lucky enough to be a New Mexican you will probably grasp this immediately. If you are from elsewhere and have never had the chance to spend a few hours at a Pueblo feast day, let me introduce you to something very special.

Pueblo culture and religion run deep. In New Mexico, each of the pueblos has certain days of the year they celebrate. It may be to honor a patron saint, a time of harvest, or something that we non-pueblos don’t need to know about. A feast day includes traditional dancing in the morning and afternoon with a break in the middle when the dancers and cultural leaders retreat to the kiva and observers retreat to someone’s house for one of the best meals you will ever have. I find myself reluctant to say more for fear that hordes from around the country will come flocking and ruin the experience.


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Listen and Start Again

Rice paddy outside Ubud, Bali

In 2010 Roberto and I spent a month in Bali with the Bali Art Project. We went with friends who founded this remarkable program that takes eight lucky high school students and eight adults to spend a month in Bali, studying music, dance, painting and puppet making. For everyone who goes, it is life-changing, and I was no exception.

The students with van and driver

That first hot and humid morning, we all piled into our van and crawled through the clogged traffic to our gamelan lesson. The classroom was more like a temple, beautiful, ornate, with high-ceilings. And our teacher, we had been told, was not a mere teacher, but a master; we were very fortunate that he was willing to take us on. He was dressed traditionally and welcomed us with a smile full of the most brilliant white teeth. There were four rows in the orchestra, with gamelans of different sizes and different numbers of xylophone-like bars. He invited us to sit where we liked. I chose a mid-size model and slid onto the low stool facing my gamelan. (more…)

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Troubled Waters: A Tale of Two Protests

Remember the occupation earlier this year of the Malheur Wildlife Refuge building in Oregon by the Bundy brothers and friends? They had come to the rescue (in their opinion) of locals who had been convicted of burning forest land and were protesting. They saw these rural Oregonians as fellow victims of the federal lands policies — policies that deny them free use of public lands. They were not welcomed by most locals who preferred to handle the situation in their own way and resented outside interference.

standing-rockNot long after Malheur, the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline project began at Standing Rock in North Dakota. Thousands of sympathizers, Indian and non-Indian, flocked to the encampment to ally with the Sioux. The Standing Rock Chairman expressed thanks to all who are raising their voices with the Sioux against the actions of the pipeline company and what they see as the complicity of the Army Corps of Engineers, responsible for permitting the route under the Missouri River just upstream of the tribe.


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Strange Bedfellows: Me and Glenn Beck

You could have knocked me over with a feather when I read Glenn Beck’s recent commentary in the New York Times.  “The only way for our society to work is for each of us to respect the views of others, and even try to understand and empathize with one another,” he wrote. He took the words right out of my mouth. I nodded vigorously again as I read on. Grassroots movements, including the Tea Party, Bernie Sanders’ followers, Occupy Wall Street and others, he said, share the same feelings of not being heard, of not belonging, of having no control over their future.

So where did this revelation come from, I wondered? He explains that following the shooting of the five police officers in Dallas, he saw the parents of the gunman interviewed and was struck with their grief “as parents, as Americans and as human beings.” He invited several Black Lives Matter activists on his radio show and got to know them on and off air, he says, and found them to be decent, hardworking, patriotic people. Although he disagrees with them on many things, including politics, he says, “are we not more than politics?” Good for Glenn. He took the initiative and reached out to listen and learn.

He goes on to say, “We are a country in trouble and we have only one way out: reconciliation. We must follow the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message and method and move away from a pursuit of ‘winning’ and toward reclaiming our shared humanity…cultivating empathy for one another, in our communities and in the news media, …and in our politics. [This] is the path we must choose as nation. If we don’t, what we have seen this year will be just the beginning of the hate we are about to unleash.”

I couldn’t agree more with my new strange bedfellow, and I am excited (perhaps a poor choice of words in this context) to hear my dearly held sentiments coming from such an unexpected place. But this in itself is interesting. I realize that I expect to hear what I believe from those like me. I expect those that aren’t like me to say something contradictory. I expect that only liberal, progressive, bleeding-heart, peace-seeking folk like myself will expound on empathy and reconciliation.

But Glenn shows me that this concept that we are all human beings and need to show each other respect and empathy is not exclusive to me and my kind. He and I are polar opposites on so many social, economic and political issues of the day, and yet there he is, standing with me, defending my most fundamental belief. This means that there be many more of these believers out there in places I never dreamed of exploring. And it means that I have been a real isolationist when I didn’t need to be. If people who disagree on all kinds of issues can at least commit to respect and empathy….wow, there may be hope!

And so, Glenn and I, together, urge our friends, neighbors, countrymen and leaders to reach across that aisle, that backyard fence, that workplace cubicle – whatever separates you from the other – and offer a little respect and empathy and see what happens.

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My Own Worst Nightmare

Are there certain personalities that you just can’t stand? For me it’s a righteous, haranguing fanatic who is not interested in any other point of view and unwilling to even entertain the thought that he or she might not be right. I run into these people occasionally in my work as a facilitator. They are strident and angry. They insist on speaking first and frequently. They ignore everyone else in the room while pretending to ask a question which is really a thinly-veiled attack of some kind. They have no sensitivity and no awareness. I picture them going home and kicking their cat and slamming the refrigerator door.

So, you can imagine my horror when I found myself being one of those people. Here is my confession.

dans-bookI was at a book launch for a friend who has written “American Serengeti: The Last Big Animals of the Great Plains.” It is a fine and important book about the destruction by frontiersmen, traders, hunters and recreators of huge numbers of bison, pronghorn antelope, grizzlies, grey wolves, wild horses and more on the North American Continent. I found myself (more…)

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In Praise of Bureaucrats

There is actually so much to talk about at this moment – presidential contest, race relations, gun violence, natural disasters, homeless refugees worldwide – that I am paralyzed. I just can’t go there.

And so I am going to look to the upcoming holiday, Labor Day, and say something in praise of laborers, something that I have been meaning to say for a long time. “I love bureaucrats.”  I’m not saying that I love them all. The ones who give the word “bureaucrat” a bad name are running Tupperware businesses out of their desk drawer, playing hours of Candy Crush or Words with Friends on their smart phones, shopping for a pop up tent or a set of golf clubs online, or just putting in time waiting for retirement.

capitol bdgBut the ones I want to talk about are true civil servants, committed, even passionate about being that critical link between government and citizens. They could be working elsewhere, in an office with a window even, making more money, receiving more admiration, but because they care and believe in the system they are squirreled away in a cubicle, doing their best for the rest of us. They are committed to making government run smoothly and efficiently. They know they are tiny cogs in a huge machine, but they also know that every cog is critical, every cog is connected to other cogs, and the whole depends on these well-oiled parts humming along. (more…)

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