why? why? why? why? why?

Soundtrack in my head:  Red Box, “Lean On Me (Ah-Li-Ayo)”

In the New York Times this morning, I saw an article that at first creeped me out, and then made me want to cry.  On the bottom of page 1 was a picture of a young boy on a swing and a cardboard cut-out bust of his father in military fatigues on the swing next to him.  The article is entitled “When Soldiers Go to War, Flat Daddies Hold Their Place at Home.”

The Maine National Guard is offering military families life-size cardboard cut-out photos of their loved ones stationed in the Middle East.  These cut-outs, know as “Flat Daddies,” (or, presumably, mommies) are supposed to help families connect with their loved ones thousands of miles away.  According to the article, these cardboard cut-outs are “toted everywhere from soccer practice to coffee shops to weddings.”

My first response was to the picture was, “This is creepy.”  My second response was, “It’s not the cardboard cut-out that’s creepy.” 

Indeed, it sounds like these “flat daddies” are an effective coping mechanism for the families dealing with loved ones deployed thousands of miles away.  It also apparently helps reduce anxienty and helps really young children recognize their parents when they come home on leave.  As one family member of a woman in the National Guard
put it,  “At first, it can take you aback, but it never did for me…I just felt like her presence is here. The Flat Soldier does provide comfort, and we’ll take it any way we can.”

Hey, if it helps them, it’s all good.

What’s creepy is the fact that this kind of thing is necessary to begin with.  That families have to be separated like this in the first place. I have one friend who signed up for the National Guard before September 11, 2001, and had no idea she might be deployed overseas.  That was not her understanding of what her duties would be when she signed up. 

I can’t imagine what these families must be going through.  And as I think about it families in Iraq have it at least ten times worse, because for them, the war is not 10,000 miles away, but right in their neighborhoods, and people being killed are not enlisted in the military, but men, women and children caught in the crossfire, or praying in the wrong mosque, and this is a Pandora’s box opened up by our invasion of Iraq.  We’re only helping the terrorists recruit more terrorists, as a recent declassified intelligence report confirmed what a lot of us have been saying all along.

I definitely don’t fault our soldiers.  I fault our elected leaders.  And as I read about the cardboard cut-out of a loved one deployed in the Middle East, propped up at the dinner table, helping a family cope with the separation from a loved on deployed tens of thousands away,  I cannot help but think to myself, why?  Why on God’s earth are we doing this in the first place?

How much longer must this go on?


seasons change and so do i

Soundtrack in my head:  Throwing Muses, “Fish”

It’s weird.  Last year at this time it was still quite warm out.  I remember feeling discomfort from the heat and humidity as late as October 8th last year.  This year is completely different.  Someone flipped the switch around Labor Day, and particularly the weekend before last, when we had some five or six days in a row of clouds and rain.   

Autumn is my favorite season, but this is something that I forget every year until September or October and then it suddenly hits me.  Every summer, I find myself pining summer’s end and this summer was no different.  The last few days, I’ve been living in abject denial of the fact that it’s getting colder out.  I’ve not been wanting to close my windows or even turn off my fan (though I do have it on “exhaust”), which means I’ve been waking up the last few mornings feeling very cold.  This morning, when I woke up, it was still dark out, the temperature was quite nippy and I found myself imagining that I was on one of the arctic sets of “The Day After Tomorrow.”  Okay, so maybe my imagination is a bit too vivid. 

But then I walked outside tonight at about 7:45 p.m. to run an errand and suddenly a new set of feelings kicked in.  I think what triggers it every year is a cold crisp wind and the sound of rustling leaves and suddenly I feel energized, even as I also feel quiet and reflective.  And, as I have every single previous year, I don’t remember what fall feels like until I’m actually in it.  

Sometimes I think I’m like my housemate’s dog Rudy, who sometimes seems to have either amnesia or multiple personalities.  I remember one night it was my turn to take her out for a walk, but when it came time, she was barking and running away from me, even when I held her leash in hand saying, “I got your leash!  I got your leash!”  Finally a housemate and I cornered her, and I put the leash on her, and at that very second her personality changed.  She jumped around in excitement as if to say “Oh boy! Oh boy!  I’M going for a WALK!  I’M going for a WALK!”  The same principle seems to apply here. It’s like I get temporary amnesia nine months out of the year until September rolls around and then and only then I remember why fall is my favorite time of year.  You’d think after nearly forty years of this cycle I’d retain some memory of just what autumn feels like, but no, it’s still like new every year.

It’s funny–I don’t think spring and summer trigger any desires to hear specific types of music.  But Christmas brings out–what else?–my desire to listen to Christmas music.  There’s some music I like to listen to in the fall as well.  One is an LP called “October Nights” by an 80’s folk group called Stone Soup that makes me want to light a fire (if only we had a working fireplace here) and curl up under a blanket while watching the flames.  Another CD I like to listen to is a compilation called “Lonely Is An Eyesore”–a 1987 compilation of dreamy, moody, reflective and dramatic music by groups who were on the 4AD record label at that time, including the Cocteau Twins, Throwing Muses, Dif Juz, This Mortal Coil, Clan of Xymox, and others.  I particularly like the Throwing Muses song, “Fish,” whose swirling cascades of drums and guitars evokes images of swirling cascades of leaves blowing in an October wind. 

So let’s hear it for temporary seasonal amnesia–it allows me to enjoy each new season as if I were experiencing it for the first time…


friday night co-op dinner: jazz improvisation in two parts

Soundtrack in my head: Deee-Lite—Runaway

Cooking dinner for a dozen people or so is one of the most stressful duties a house member here has to do, and every one has to take a turn. Given that six out of the twelve people here in the house are new, it was not hard to see the how the challenge and chaos of bringing new cooks up to speed might overwhelm us. So we instituted a system in which the new cooks, during their first two dinners, would be paired with an experienced cook.

I was paired up with this one woman and our first effort—a stir-fry—went pretty well. Friday night was our turn again to cook and it would be a challenge because both of us kept odd hours—I had to leave the house at 7 a.m. and return a little after 5 p.m., while the young woman had the morning free, but would have to work until 9 p.m. So Thursday night, I picked out a recipe that looked relatively easy but creative—a tofu eggplant casserole. She agreed it would be worthwhile recipe to try, and we arranged it so that she would purchase the necessary groceries from Mifflin Street Co-op and pre-prepare things, and I would cook things right when I got home at 5:15.

When I got home, I found her boyfriend (also a house member here) and a long note from her waiting for me.  She said that she tried to purchase everything we needed for the eggplant tofu casserole, but it just would not fit in our budget, so she told us that we would be having vegetarian fajitas instead.  Her boyfriend gave me the tour of what she had done until now. There was this big huge-o pot of some kind of marinara sauce cooking, with a bit of spice added to it.  We both realized that it was more fajita sauce than we’d ever need and so we decided that we were going to add spaghetti, to this Mexican dinner.  Why not? Works for me. Until third grade I thought that pizza was a Mexican dish, so this can’t be that much of a stretch, right?

The boyfriend went out and got more tortillas and cheese. I tasted the sauce and decided it needed more bite if it was going to be fajita sauce and not just spaghetti sauce, so I added some cayenne and chili powder. That did the trick. And in the next forty-five minutes we rushed and got things together and had everything on the table by 6:00, remarkably.

The food was well received.  But Friday night dinners aren’t always very well attended and we had a LOT of leftovers. I told the boyfriend that I’d take care of the cleanup since he’d already done more than his share of work–it wasn’t even his turn to cook.

As I started to put the leftovers into containers and label them, I found myself get a little giddy with the labels.

For the sauce, I wrote, “9-15-06: Fajitagheddi sauce. It’s for fajitas! It’s for spaghetti! It’s two—two great tastes in one.”  The spaghetti was labeled “9-15: Mexican noodles. Really. I know the package says s-p-a-g-h-e-t-t-i, but really, it’s Mexican noodles. Honest.”  Refried beans I labelled as being “for re-re-frying.”  For the salad, I said “Lettuce consume this fine salad while the going’s good.” And finally, for the last Tupperware container, I said, “They’re tortillas. What more can I say?”

IMG_0456.jpgWhat would move me to put a James Joyce twist on labels for leftovers? Was it inspiration that compelled me to be such a muse of the magic marker and masking tape? Um, I imagine that Joyce must be spinning in his grave. Punch-drunkeness, the fact that it was Friday and I was ready to do anything but work? Perhaps.

It was probably the same muse that in 1989 inspired my college roommates and I to compose an elaborate David Letterman-style answering machine message entitled “Top Ten Reasons Why We Can’t Come To The Phone Right Now.” Which, mysteriously, may have been behind the sharp drop in messages people left us, as most callers probably hung up by the time we got to Number 4 on the list…

all come together now

Soundtrack: Bob Marley and the Wailers “Redemption Song”

After months of talking about it, our co-op house finally did it. We ventured out to a beautiful retreat center in the hills outside of Dodgeville, WI and bonded as a community.

A small group of us started talking about the idea of this retreat back in January when we realized that only four out of twelve house members would be staying. We saw an opportunity to rebuild the co-op and create a stronger and more cohesive community than before. Despite the large number of people we would have to recruit, we felt that we should be selective and hold out for people who would contribute and dedicate themselves to the house. It wasn’t a question of picking only who we liked—we’d seen in our co-op and other co-ops that if the house was full of people who merely viewed the co-op as cheap rent as opposed to a community to invest oneself in, the quality of life for everyone in the house would decline. So in all of our advertisements, we put out the desire to develop a tight-knit community in the hope that we’d attract people who were looking for just that.

I feel we lucked out. It was as if the right people kept coming and contacting us. I believe that all things are arranged spiritually for us behind the scenes, though it is not our place to make quick judgments as to why things are arranged as they are. We had three people leaving in the summer, but two out of the three summer membershippers (yes we use the word “membership” as verb here in Madison) ended up signing contracts with our house for a full additional year, and the third person contributed significantly as well. This made the transition a bit easier. Of the eight new people that joined us between June and September, four of them, including two out-of-staters, had previous experience with co-ops. Three of the eight are new to Wisconsin.

With so many new people, we felt that we needed something that would establish a feeling of community rather quickly, and that’s where we came up with the idea of a retreat. It’s easy to get caught up in one’s own day-to-day life even in a co-op house, but we felt that if we could create a place where people could step away, connect, and openly put out on the table what they hope to get out of their co-op experience, we could have a much stronger community than we otherwise would.

I’d once attended a retreat in a beautiful location in the hills near Dodgeville and I knew it was inexpensive. This part of southwest Wisconsin was never touched by the glaciers that came through tens of thousands of years ago, and it is so hilly here I’d almost call it mountainous. Indeed, I once read that a mountain range existed millions of years ago starting in Sauk County, the county north of where we were, and going northward. It’s funny—I have a debit card that shows a rather pastoral scene of some of these hills and when I gave it to a cashier in Illinois, he asked where this picture was from and had a hard time believing it was Wisconsin. Some parts of this area remind me of West Virginia.

We were lucky to be able to reserve the space in early September, and so last weekend, we ventured out. I was nervous. I knew that it was one thing to plan the retreat but an entirely different thing for it to be a success.

IMG_0444.jpgWe arrived at the site and it turned out to be even more breathtakingly beautiful than I’d remembered it to be. I think the beauty of the terrain moved other people, too and I suspect that it helped set the tone for the retreat—despite the fact that it was a cloudy and rainy weekend. In some ways, the rain helped bond us a little more in that it forced us to spend a lot of time together in the retreat house rather than going off on our own, though a few of us still managed to get outside, toss around a football, and engage in a rather competitive game of “500.” At another point, a couple of us were taught how to play a rather raucous card game called “Egyptian Rat Screw,” with the loud shouts and laughter of that game providing an amusing contrast to the quiet concentration of the Scrabble players at the next table.

We got the board president of Madison Community Co-op to come out and facilitate the “getting to know you” and visioning activities. She did an excellent job—she engaged us in a number of exercise that got us to talk about ourselves and reveal little bits of interesting trivia about ourselves. People pitched to help cook and clean up after the meals.

IMG_0443.jpgBut the peak of the weekend had to be the fire we built in the evening. The rain had stopped for a number of hours, and it became dry enough by evening time that we were able to build a good fire, though it took a good half hour to get the fire going. But it was at the fire that MCC’s president got us talking about our passions and about what we hoped to get out of our community living experience. We found that we were all pretty much on the same page. We wanted a family atmosphere at our house, one where we could feel comfortable with our housemates, share a lot about ourselves and do various fun activities together. And then we spent the rest of the time talking and laughing before retiring for the evening. The rains resumed in the middle of the night. It was almost as if they’d paused for us.

The next morning we had breakfast and one of our bi-weekly house meetings, but with the rain and chilly weather being unrelenting, we decided to leave earlier than expected. No matter—we accomplished what we were going to accomplish. The sense of teamwork and pitching in continued even when we arrived back home. The car that I rode in had all of the leftover food and several housemates pitched in to bring it back in from the car to put it away.

I think we were already off to a good start when the new people moved into the house one by one, and the retreat solidified it. Of course, this cohesiveness isn’t going to stay together by itself. It takes effort. I think my 45 months here have been a process of unlearning some old habits, particularly the habit to cocoon and keep others out of my life.

crumbling buildings and crumbling delusions–9/11 reconsidered

Soundtrack in my head: Alicia Keys, “Fallin’”

A cold rain has been falling all day here in southern Wisconsin.  The Ironman triathlon is running through my neighborhood, and I’ve seen some runners covering themselves in plastic to protect against raindrops that chill to the bone.  A great day for quiet reflection.

I wouldn’t normally join the cacophony of voices remembering and reflecting on September 11th—the media, the government and various politicians are saying plenty about that fateful day and the implications thereof.  But I think most of them are missing the point.

I have vivid memories of that day. I still lived in Chicago at that time, and September 11, 2001 was to be perhaps the busiest, craziest day of my tenure with the Environmental Fund of Illinois. We’d spent months preparing for September 12, 2001. Yes, September 12th. That was the day that we and fourteen other not-for-profits would go public with an affiliation agreement we’d signed with Earth Share and would be publicly debuting our new name, Earth Share of Illinois. So I came in at the uncharacteristically early time of 7:30 a.m., preparing final arrangements for an event we would have, and getting ready to send dozens of faxes to media outlets.

Around 8 a.m., I got a call from one of my board members telling me he’d have to cancel a committee meeting that was scheduled for later that morning. He worked for Ameritech, and he said that things had suddenly gotten busy for him “because there’s an emergency and the whole country is on alert.” I said “What?” He replied, “Turn on the radio.” That’s when I found out about the World Trade Center and the Pentagon being hit. Upon hearing this, I felt like I was momentarily in free-fall.

At that moment, we did not know if there were more attacks coming or not. I knew that staying in downtown Chicago would have been considered risky, but part of me was still focused on preparing for September 12th. I sat there for a few minutes wondering whether I should stay or go. Our office had huge windows facing both the Dirksen Federal Building and the INS office, and I knew we’d be very vulnerable if something happened to those buildings. But I went ahead and had a conference call with another board member.

After the call, I was still on the fence about staying at the office and I suddenly had this feeling that if I went to the bathroom, I’d get a clearer idea. I did that, and on my way back to the office, I ran into a woman my age who owned the framing gallery across the hall from my office and she said, “Go home, Steve. Go home. It’s getting too creepy here.”

That was my cue. I started to write a note to my co-worker, but then she arrived. She explained that she’d been watching what was going on TV, and then added “Um, I noticed that we’re near a federal building…” I interrupted her and said, “Don’t even think about it. We’re going home.”

I boarded the Blue Line subway going northwest and the subway was quite crowded. It was basically like evening rush hour—maybe a little more so—but at 9:45 a.m. People were amazingly calm about the whole thing—many were talking and a few people even cracked jokes about the events. There was one guy talking loudly on his cellphone saying, “Oh yeah, tens of thousands dead. I’m headed out to O’Hare now, if they don’t clip me first.” When I got off at Western, a number of us noticed a guy in his mid-20’s sitting against the fence and looking ill. I walked up to him and said “Are you all right, my friend?” He replied, “I can’t breathe!” and rocked back and forth. I got the attention of a CTA attendant. We asked the guy if he was suffering an asthma attack. He said no, and I realized he was probably suffering a panic attack. He talked about the incidents at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and was freaked out that people were laughing and talking on the CTA train and just had to leave the train.

From the station, I drove my car home, with the intention of participating in an Earth Share conference call. But when I dialed the conference call number, I couldn’t get through. Then later, my board president called, and after discussion with another board member, we decided to cancel the local event we were planning for the next day.

September 12, 2001 was a day we’d been planning for months. At one point, Earth Share had my colleagues fly in from other states for a media training with Susan Anderson, a former television new reporter (anchor? I don’t remember if she was actually an anchorperson) at Chicago’s CBS affiliate. And now our plans were crumbling like the Twin Towers, trumped by other people who had been planning for months for September 11th. I finally got Earth Share’s executive director on the phone—needless to say, he was not at all happy.

A month later, we would hear about anthrax turning up in the U.S. It was an interesting time for me because since I represented 20 different environmental groups in the Combined Federal Campaign workplace-giving program, my job involved traveling to the sorting rooms of numerous post offices in the Chicago area to promote these organizations. I wasn’t worried about anthrax because no discoveries of that had been made in the Midwest, but it was interesting. At one facility, the manager came out and made some announcements—one of which was that masks to protect against anthrax were available to any employee that wanted them, and at a few facilities I went to, I saw one or two employees wearing those masks.

But in the days immediately after September 11th, it was not clear how the government and media would respond to those tragic events. People did not necessarily beat the drums of war right away. I remember reading a New Yorker’s blog about volunteering near Ground Zero in the days after 9/11 and his girlfriend had a sign taped to her saying “Free hugs.” I saw pictures of people in New York standing in a circle with signs saying, “Our mourning is not a call to arms.” An acquaintance from the Company of Friends—a networking organization of readers of Fast Company magazine—organized a discussion the Friday after 9/11 about the significance of what happened that fateful day and how we should respond. I think we knew at that time that it was pretty much inevitable that we would declare war on someone and engage in military action, but we weren’t sure how or where. We hoped that our government would respond to this event by reflecting on its foreign policy and on why people would feel so motivated to commit such terrorist attacks, but alas, that wasn’t meant to be.

Five years later, I still don’t think our government and the majority of Republicans and Democrats understand the significance of what happened on 9/11/01.

The terrorist attacks demonstrated for the first time that 50 people holding a significant grudge could cause significant disruption in even the most powerful nation in the world. Because of that, traditional notions of military power and military strength have flown out the window. Yet we are still charging on, trying to fight a 21st century war with 19th and 20th century means. I remember the scene from “The Last Samurai” where Tom Cruise and a large group of samurai warriors charge the Japanese army with their swords only to be cut down by machine gun fire. That’s us, puffing out our chests and charging, but getting nowhere. I don’t think we even know how badly we are losing what we call “The War on Terrorism.”

Being the most powerful country in the world, it is relatively easy for the U.S. to defeat a foreign army, but one cannot defeat grudge and anger—those feelings can survive any military defeat and the fall of any government. It is that grudge and anger that feeds terrorism. We are being taught that lesson in the war in Iraq, which I believe will go down in history as the single greatest strategic blunder ever by the United States—a Vietnam-style quagmire mixed with oil creating a huge mess, not only with our foreign relationships, but also with our domestic well being. With every bomb we drop and every person we kill, we plant the seeds for future terrorist attacks. Only a tiny percentage of those seeds will sprout, but nevertheless, the reality is that we are preparing the ground for future terrorist attacks. If someone wanted to ensure that more terrorist attacks would occur on our soil in the future, they would do pretty much what our current government is doing right now.

Look, I’m not going to pretend that I have all the answers to threats by terrorists. I think we can reduce the chances by engaging in more diplomacy and to stop being the lone cowboy on the world stage, and following the old adage of keeping friends close but enemies closer. This will not eliminate the threat of terrorism. But I think I’m on solid ground by saying that as a first step, we should stop pouring gasoline on the fire. I repeat: STOP POURING GASOLINE ON THE FIRE. 

I think that through 9/11, we are being shown that war as we know it is an obsolete tool, and it is folly trying to shape the future with bombs and machine guns is folly.  We have a choice of learning this lesson either the easier way or the hard way.  Right now, it looks like we’re learning it the hard way.

getting lost and loving it

Soundtrack: Fun Boy Three and Bananarama, “It Ain’t What You Do (It’s The Way That You Do It)”

So a couple of weekends ago, I found myself hanging out on at the Union Terrace on Lake Mendota. For those of you who don’t live in Madison, let me explain what “the Terrace” is. Madison has one and Chicago doesn’t, which is one of the reasons why I live in Madison.

img_0293.jpgThe student union of the University of Wisconsin happens to be located at the edge of Lake Mendota. In the back of the Union, there is a large patio area that leads right up to the edge of the lake, and people refer to it as the Terrace. There are probably hundreds of metal tables and hundreds of matching chairs with a distinctive round sun or sunflower-like pattern on the back. In addition to a great view of Lake Mendota, there is also a stage in which concerts are held during the warm months, where you can watch the band against the backdrop of the lake. Students and members of the Wisconsin Union can buy beer and food there. On a nice afternoon or evening, hundreds of people hang out there, talking, drinking, listening to the music, enjoying the food, people-watching, gazing at the gorgeous sunset, etc. It’s not just students and alumni—one thing that makes Madison distinctive is that the campus area is more integrated with the rest of the town than in most other college towns.

It’s a great place to lose yourself. It is not uncommon to run into someone you know there, and it’s all too easy to let entire afternoons and evenings go by, lost in good vibrations and great conversations along the lakefront.

net3414.jpgThat’s what happened to me a few weeks ago. I walked over to the Terrace at about 4 p.m., intending to spend maybe an hour or two doing some journal writing, but then I ran into a friend of mine. She, in turn, introduced me to some other friends and we hung out, taking in the sun and the blues music being played on stage. At about the first brat and second beer during my third hour at the Terrace, it dawned on me that I might be spending the rest of the evening there…which I did.  As I watched the spectacular sunset, I enjoyed listening to a folksinger less than half my age who nevertheless had a remarkable knowledge of music from the late 60’s and early 70’s, and then, after it got dark, we watched a blind jazz/blues pianist from New Orleans take the stage and energetically charge up the crowd as his hands engulfed the keyboard like a fire about to spread out of control.

I love September.  It’s weird, because every summer I find myself desperately not wanting it to end because it’s, well, summer, but then September strikes and I’m suddenly loving the cooler nights and mild days, and later I’m reminded that fall is my favorite time of year–something that I forget every April or May.  You’d think after thirty some-odd years of this cycle, I’d remember what my favorite season is, but then again, if I’m savoring each new season like I’m experiencing it for the first time, then all the better.  But now that it’s past Labor Day, the days on the Terrace are numbered, and in not too long, it will be too cold to hang out there for the rest of this year.  The best I’ll be able to do is look out over the snowy terrace and the frozen lake from the warm confines of the Rathskellar.  But I’ll try to let my self “get lost” at the Terrace as much as possible in the meantime.