Well worth reading the week before every new year…


David Foster Wallace — Kenyon Commencement Speech 2005

(If anybody feels like perspiring [cough], I’d advise you to go ahead, because I’m sure going to. In fact I’m gonna [mumbles while pulling up his gown and taking out a handkerchief from his pocket].) Greetings [“parents”?] and congratulations to Kenyon’s graduating class of 2005. There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

This is a standard requirement of US commencement speeches, the deployment of didactic little parable-ish stories. The story [“thing”] turns out to be one of the better, less bullshitty conventions of the genre, but if you’re worried that I plan to present myself here as the wise, older fish explaining what water is to you younger fish, please don’t be. I am not the wise old fish. The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude, but the fact is that in the day to day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have a life or death importance, or so I wish to suggest to you on this dry and lovely morning.

Of course the main requirement of speeches like this is that I’m supposed to talk about your liberal arts education’s meaning, to try to explain why the degree you are about to receive has actual human value instead of just a material payoff. So let’s talk about the single most pervasive cliché in the commencement speech genre, which is that a liberal arts education is not so much about filling you up with knowledge as it is about “teaching you how to think”. If you’re like me as a student, you’ve never liked hearing this, and you tend to feel a bit insulted by the claim that you needed anybody to teach you how to think, since the fact that you even got admitted to a college

Seeds are a source of wonder…

Photos by Dave Smith

Many seeds are so small that their beautiful features escape us. Many others, although large enough to see easily, are such common, everyday objects that we do not really see them. They are, however, worth our careful observation.

The first and most obvious beauty in most true seeds is in the perfection of their simple forms. Their outlines or silhouettes exhibit endless variations in the curve of beauty. In their entirety, too, we find wide ranges of proportion and different graceful and simple masses that are pleasing to look upon.

The sphere is a thing of beauty in itself, although quite unadorned. Artists have tried to produce nonspherical “abstract” forms that possess such grace and proportion as to call forth a satisfying emotional or intellectual response in the beholder. Some of the nicest of such forms lie all about us, unnoticed, in seeds. The commonest are such basic forms as the sphere, the teardrop, and the ovoid and other variations of the spheroid.

As Economic Growth Fails, How Then Do We Live?

Energy Economy Online
Part II: Out With The Old

There is a growing consensus the world economy is in a lot more trouble than politicians and media talking heads are letting on.  The four major headwinds to growth were covered in Part I of these three articles, and there dubbed “The Four Horsemen of the Economic Apocalype”:

1.  Too Much Debt
2.  Resource Limits
3.  Destruction and Decay of Infrastructure
4.  Greed

That article was a brief summary of the extreme challenges we now face.  These next two articles are an attempt to move beyond this understanding of what has gone wrong, to develop a sense of what we can do now, as individuals and as a society.

We cannot “set things right” in the sense of restoring things to the way they once were, but we must begin now to adapt to the new realities if we are to reduce suffering and continue an advanced culture.  Today’s article, “Out With the Old”, will discuss the end to seven unsustainable practices.  In the next and final article in this series, “In With the New” will discuss new ways of living we can adopt as economic growth fails.

Out With The Old — Seven Outcomes as Economic Growth Fails:

Before we allow our society to sink into a chaos of devastation and deprivation, there are many wasteful, or otherwise doomed, practices that will end.  The “Out With the Old” list is not a proposed agenda for politicians to adopt.  They are too committed to the existing order to voluntarily make these changes.  Rather, the end of these practices will come (and much of this is already happening) as pragmatic realities sink in.  They are unsustainable Dead Ends, so they will not be sustained:

1.  If You Can’t Pay the Debt — Don’t! Debt that cannot be repaid, won’t be repaid. This is hard for conscientious borrowers to accept, but reality takes hold.For those borrowers who wish to avoid default, “not paying the debt” may mean not paying it all oneself, but instead sharing the load. There will be a wave of down-sizing, as the cavernous spaces of McMansions are split into more affordable sized living spaces, through multiple-generation households

10 Winning Moments for the 99% in 2011


2011 will be remembered as the year the world woke up and began to fight back against a tiny minority that had held on to control—of money, of political power—for far too long.

Time Magazine named “The Protester” its person of the year, but the story is much deeper than that. Here in the US, the year began with despondency—a new class of Tea Party-supported legislators and governors were taking office around the country, and taking immediate steps to impose their anti-worker austerity agenda.

But the austerity class met resistance—first in Wisconsin, where Gov. Scott Walker moved to take away workers’ right to collective bargaining. The people in Wisconsin responded by occupying their Capitol building, kicking off a movement which spread through Ohio and Indiana, then seemed to subside before erupting in the fall with Occupy Wall Street.

But throughout the year, organizers were working around the country, fighting the power of Wall Street, big business, and the right-wing governors who do their bidding. We asked ten of them to talk about the moments that stood out for them this year, the moments that gave them hope. Some are moments you’ve heard of, some might have slipped past you. But all of them were signs of long-overdue change.

1. Melissa Ryan, New Media Director at New Organizing Institute – Wisconsin Leads the Fight Back

“For Wisconsin I think the big moment was when the 14 Democratic State Senators left the state [to avoid a vote on Walker’s collective bargaining bill]. I really think that’s what triggered the energy around the recall of the Senators, really triggered the energy around the recall of Walker. It changed from people taking to the streets because they didn’t know what to do to really having the energy to change something.

Creating an Ecology of Hope


Mark Karlin: At a time when there is such gloom about our global warming and pollution crisis, why are you optimistic about unleashing the capacity of the “EcoMind”?

Frances Moore Lappé: Mark, I’m neither an optimist nor a pessimist. I am a dyed-in-the-wool possibilist! By this, I mean with an eco-mind, we see that everything’s connected and change is the only constant. From there, something shifts for me. I can see that we’re all actually co-creating our future moment to moment – which feels like endless possibility. One of my Buddhist buddies distrusts the idea of “hope” because it can distract from the present moment. I get that. But for me hope isn’t wishful thinking or blind faith about the future. It’s a stance toward life – one of curiosity and humility. With an eco-mind, we get ready for surprises, for we realize it’s just not possible to know what’s possible. How freeing. That’s the hope I hope “EcoMind” helps to unleash in the world.

Mark Karlin: You have a section in your first chapter: “So why are we moving backward?” Can you summarize that? Aren’t mobilizations such as the one taken against the Keystone XL Pipeline moving forward?

Frances Moore Lappé: When I say “backward,” I am talking about global trend lines of ecological disruption and human suffering. Yes, there are many positive mobilizations, but what’s been pushing me along all these years is the big “why”: why are we together creating this downward spin, a world that, individually, not one of us would ever choose? Gradually, I came to see there’s only one thing powerful enough to explain it: the power of ideas.

We see the world through a “mental map” – our core assumptions about how the world works. If our mental map is life serving, we’re fine, but I argue in “EcoMind” that, unfortunately, the prevailing mental map is not just badly, but perversely, aligned both with human nature and wider nature. So, it brings out the worst instead of the best in humans

Happy Christmas!


Society of Friends Meeting House

The Morning News

Most of what is truly historic in New York has been pushed to the margins of the city. As the city grew outward from Manhattan, the modern world (of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries) covered or dismantled the foundations laid by New York’s earliest European inhabitants.

My trips to view historic sites, then, have taken me deep into Staten Island, just north of the Bronx, and this past weekend to Flushing in northeasternmost Queens, where the Quakers’ original Meeting House stands today.

I called to confirm the house would be open and tours would be available. I certainly didn’t want to schlep all the way there only to find the house locked and empty. The woman on the other end of the line assured me the house would be open for services and tours would be available starting at noon. I asked her when the service began, and she told me 11, then asked if I’d ever been to a Quaker service before. No, I hadn’t. She explained that Quaker services are “silent”—there is no program, no predetermined speakers, but should any participant feel the spirit, they speak. I wasn’t sure what to make of that, but I figured I’d learn soon enough.

Unlike my previous visits to historic sites, I didn’t invite anyone to accompany me to the Friends Meeting House. I guess I’m just not comfortable asking my friends to go to church with me. This wouldn’t be a bunch of re-enactors playing dress-up, after all. At the Meeting House we would only find real people genuinely enacting their faith. I figured that I should show at least some respect, especially since I was going into their house of worship, and I’d be more inclined to laugh at things if I brought someone.

I took the 7 train to Flushing, the last stop on the line. I curiously noted that I was pretty much the only white guy in the whole crowd at the station. Once topside I noticed that, much like Chinatown on the Lower East Side

Todd Walton: Occupy Christmas


Two mornings before Christmas on a brilliantly sunny day in Sacramento, Max wakes to his phone ringing and smiles in honor of his wife Celia who was always the one to answer the phone when she was alive.

“Ahlo,” he says, enjoying how deliciously warm he feels under his pile of blankets.

“Daddy?” says Carla, 54, Max’s only child. “Did I wake you?”

“A lucky thing,” he says, sighing contentedly. “Today’s the day we go cut the tree.”

“Why not wait for us?” she asks with little enthusiasm. “Save your back.”

“I’m going with the Riveras,” he says, happy to think of Juan riding up front with him while Rosa and Hermedia and the kids enjoy the spacious backseat. “Placerville, here we come.”

“Listen, Daddy, about tomorrow. We’ll just get a cab from the airport. Save you a trip in that horrible traffic.”

“But I like picking you up,” he says, disappointed. “The weather is gorgeous, and we can take the river road. Dylan loves riding in the Rolls with the top down.”

“Well, but … Daddy, I don’t think that would be such a good idea. Not this year.”

Max frowns. “Why not this year? Could be raining next year.”

“Well …” she sighs. “Dylan is quite caught up in the whole Occupy Wall Street thing, and …”

“So now he doesn’t want to ride in his grandfather’s Rolls Royce?” Max chuckles. “I hope you assured him I am not among the evil 1 percent, but well-entrenched among the blessed 99.”

“Daddy, it’s … he’s 18 and he’s in college now, and …”

“What about my mansion in the Fab Forties?” asks Max, gazing out his window at the bright blue sky. “Are you two gonna stay in a motel and meet me for meals at Denny’s?”

“Daddy, don’t. Dylan knows you and Mommy bought the house long before the bankers took over the country. And the Rolls … it’s just what that represents now.”

“Whatever you say, sweetie,” says Max, closing his eyes. “I’ll see you when you get here.”

Max is proud of his old car, a mahogany brown 1958 Rolls Royce Silver Cloud he rescued from the wrecking yard in 1997, the year he retired from the U.S. Postal Service. Max is 78, a widower