20 September 2007

Be the best, not in, but for the world

Disclaimer: Normally this blog is not very political. This week's post is. If you don't like my views, read someone else's blog or, better yet, write me a comment and say your peace. Democracy isn't about agreeing with one another, but it is about conversation. . .

The title of today's post comes from a presentation I attended recently. A brand new non-profit organization in my community called enVISIONing Annapolis sponsored the talk. This is an organization dedicated to generating an inclusive dialogue to help our growing community plan for the long-term future. I volunteered to help out at the lecture because I think it's about time my little city begin a dialogue on its growth problems and social problems, and put an end to all of the useless bickering. I hear too many people around me who love to complain and only a few, very dedicated souls who do anything to address our problems. Sadly some of the do-nothings are in our local government; others are businesses. We need a change. We need someone to come in and shake us up and to make us think.

The quote in my title was made by a visionary urban consultant, Charles Landry, who used it to bolster his notion that for a city to survive and be vital, it needs to be creative and to have a creative class of citizens who think altruistically. I had heard of Landry's work before in the media. I love it that his title while he consulted with the city of Perth, Australia was "Thinker-in-Residence." That's simply lovely. Every city should have (and take seriously) a person called a thinker-in-residence. If we cannot afford to keep a thinker-in-residence, than it may be enough to bring one here for a weekend and ask him to tell us what he sees and to show us ways we might re-think our sense of direction.

Landry's approach to urban development is familiar to me. Not because I know a great about him and his work, but because he reminds me of another visionary, who I hold as one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth-century: R. Buckminster Fuller. Fuller, or "Bucky" as he was known around my house when I was growing up, was my father's design professor in Carbondale, IL back in the early 1960s. My parents knew Bucky and his wife. He came to their parties. What I learned from Bucky Fuller comes from everything my parents taught me about comprehensive design and about solving problems using your creativity. There's a well-known Bucky quote that sums up his creative process:

"When I'm working on a problem, I never think about beauty. I think only how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong."– R. Buckminster Fuller (1895 - 1983), US architect, engineer, and comprehensive thinker
Bucky Fuller was someone who you could truly call a visionary, that is, someone who sees the future just on the horizon and who works toward making that future a brighter, more positive one for the human population as a whole. No problem was too big for Bucky. He thought all of the time about how technology could be utilized for the good of humankind and even predicted the hunger storage many developing countries are experiencing now, in the 21st century. He believed that:

“For the first time in history it is now possible to take care of everybody at a higher standard of living than any have ever known. Only ten years ago the ‘more with less’ technology reached the point where this could be done. All humanity now has the option to become enduringly successful.”– R. Buckminster Fuller, 1980

He said that in 1980, three years before he left us and this planet for good. I don't think Bucky ever stopped believing that technology was the answer to creatively solving humanities problems.

Me, I'm not so sure that technology is the answer, but I know that creativity is. Perhaps this short post is my personal creativity manifesto. If, like Mr. Landry said, my little city of Annapolis decides to "be the best, not in, but for the world," what would "the best for the world" look like? Would Annapolis become a leader in Green Living? Probably not, but I would like to see green space (lots more than we have) in the city center. I would like us to tear up parking lots and put in parks. I want to see recycling containers along major pedestrian areas just like they are doing in Nova Scotia [See my post from July 20, 2007]. I want to see energy-efficient uses of wind and solar power. More sailboats and less motorboats, for the energy crisis that is upon us already. I'd like to see more historic homes have rain gardens around them, not just the few historic sites. Maybe a few "green roofs" would be a good idea, too.

Charles Landry suggested that Annapolis, as you approach it from the water -- the best way to approach our city, by the way -- has a dock area completely abandoned to the automobile. Why do we Americans so worship our cars? Often our entire environment is built around the ease of car travel and not foot/bike travel. I say we should get rid of cars downtown altogether. Yes, that means we'd need parking lots somewhere else, and public transport between these lots and the downtown. However, at least there then might be a downtown where children and adults could safely walk, perform music or pantomime, converse and celebrate. Wouldn't that be a better Annapolis for all?

Annapolis may be laid out in a plan that mirrors European cities, but it is decidedly not a European city in character. European cities have pedestrian-only shopping districts and better public transit. Europeans expect to walk or to ride bikes downtown. Why not think even more creatively than Washington, D.C. or Baltimore about public transit? If Annapolis and its region has so much coastline, then why not build water transit that everyone can afford to use. Let's abandon our cars for environmentally-efficient boats! Wouldn't people from out of town pay to ride in the world's first water-taxi-only downtown corridor? Couldn't we make it easier for tech workers to kayak or canoe to work? The waters are rising folks. Chesapeake Bay Foundation's research on climate change suggests that the sea rise will be as much as 3 or 4 feet by the end of this century.

Well, perhaps I am too naive. I still think our community is much in need of a wake-up call and I'm glad Landry made some of the controversial observations about our city that he did. I would love to see more young artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs living and working downtown. But young people are priced out of the housing market in our downtown. My husband and I are very middle class professionals and yet buying a house in downtown Annapolis (or even a condo) is not possible. We are looking at homes in burbs and rural communities to the south and to the west to lay down permanent roots, as I've almost given up on this city as a place I can truly call a "hometown." It's a sad commentary when we cannot afford to live here, it means there are many more workers in Annapolis with vital skills: school teachers, police officers, restaurant workers, and medical care-givers, who can only dream about living in Annapolis.

I want this city to be a beautiful, living place where there is diversity and harmony. How can that be when so many people feel abandoned and closed-out of the dialogue. I've offered to give my time at future enVISIONing Annapolis lectures in the hopes our efforts might indeed generate some dialogue and the dialogue, some serious action.

13 September 2007

Wheels of Time

Calendar from Webster.com
Etymology: Middle English calender, from Anglo-French or Medieval Latin; Anglo-French kalender, from Medieval Latin kalendarium, from Latin, moneylender's account book, from kalendae calends
1 : a system for fixing the beginning, length, and divisions of the civil year and arranging days and longer divisions of time (as weeks and months) in a definite order -- see MONTH table

Reflections about the way human beings tell time have been with me this week. It began with a news story on BBC News about the country of Ethiopia celebrating their own version of Y2K seven years after the rest of us (cf. Why Ethiopia's Millennium is seven years late, by Elizabeth Blunt BBC News, Addis Ababa). I find it rather interesting that Ethopians so love their way of seeing the world, and believe so fervently in their own Christian traditions dating to ancient Coptic times, that they staunchly refused to celebrate the Millennium on 31 December 1999. Of course, I also know sticklers to the rule in the Western World who wouldn't actually believe we had entered the Third Millennium until 1 January 2001.

I can remember that I had a childhood preoccupation with calendars from many different cultures and studied clocks, watches and timepieces in coffee-table tomes in the library at a fairly early age. It probably began with my love of history and archaeology that I nurtured during those formative years. I had a flirtation with the idea of becoming an Egyptologist or scholar of Ancient Greece back then. My elementary school librarian reminded me a few years ago when we were reintroduced, that I was the little girl in Second Grade who had every book on Egypt, Greece and Rome checked out at some point. (Yes, I was a book nerd even then.) What I was hungry to learn centered around the fact that these cultures had different languages, different ways of viewing the world, different beliefs and religions. Among the array of differences about these ancient peoples I discovered for myself was their methods of telling time. The ancient Romans were very focused on conducting business. Maybe that is why we borrow the etymology for our word "calendar" from their word for the accountant's notebook. [See epigraph above.]

There's a hilarious cartoon about Druids at Stonehenge who are deciding what to do with the standing stone calendar they've just finished constructing by Tom Cheney from The New Yorker. It made me laugh because once human beings create a system, they cannot seem to let well enough allow and enjoy the invention. No, they always make their lives even more complicated by adding extra layers of minutiae, red tape, or rules. Calendars are not simple wheels of time, but rather the starting points for entire philosophies, religions, ways of conducting business, or exchanges of communication.

Case in point: in my working life I am a museum educator for a historic site. Annapolis was founded as Maryland's capital in the late seventeenth century and had it's heyday throughout the eighteenth century up to the War for Independence. England (and, thus it's colonies in the New World) adopted the Gregorian Calendar in 1752 CE due to a parliamentary act known as An Act for Regulating the Commencement of the Year; and for Correcting the Calendar now in Use. That means that anyone born before 1 January 1752, suddenly had a new birthdate thrust upon him/her. The new birthday would depend upon whether or not s/he was born before March 25th, the Christian holiday of the Feast of the Annunciation, which in England was the first day of the Civil (or Legal) Year. Famously, George Washington's birthday moved from 11 February to 22 February due to the change from the Old Style calendar to the New. Confused yet? [See resources below.]

To make matters more confusing, you and I need to decide what heavenly body will be the basis for our calendar. For people living in North America or Europe, the sun is likely the basis for your daily existence and days of conducting business. If you come from India, Jordan, or China, your dates may be based upon lunar cycles. The Feast of Easter, the height of the liturgical year for many Christians, is often calculated as the first Sunday from the full moon on or after the vernal equinox (21 March). This is why the movable feast of Easter dances around. It comes one year in April, but might sometimes appear in late March. If you are a farmer or gardener, you might be more concerned with the lunar calendar like the one in Farmer's Almanac. If you sail, kayak or live near a large body of water like the Chesapeake Bay, then the moon is also important to you because it affects coastal tides.

This is all to suggest that calendars are very arbitrary things by nature. The next time you make a lunch date with a friend or business meeting with an associate, think about the fact that there is a social contract to which you both must agree: not only a date and time, but also upon which calendar you are using.

By the way, Happy New Year today if you are Jewish. It's Rosh Hashanah (09/12/07 or Elul 1, 5767).

Do you have a favorite movable feast? Use a minority calendar? I welcome you to post your comments and ideas here.

Annotated Resources:
Learn more about the Old Style vs. New Style Calendar and how to make sense of dates around the year 1752 CE in a helpful article by Mike Spathaky written for genealogists.
Use Earth Calendar to find out what holidays are celebrated on any given date on the Gregorian Calendar.
See WebExhibits for more about the minutiae of the Western World's calendar: Definitions of Our Year, http://webexhibits.org/calendars/year-definitions.html
If you are interested in the history and archaeology of calendar, I highly recommend the scholarship of Anthony F. Aveni in such books as Empires of Time: Calendars, Clocks and Cultures.
One of my personal favorite books of history and folklore about telling time is by a British history professor from University of Bristol, Ronald Hutton who wrote The Stations of the Sun among many fine scholarly works on rituals and folklore in Great Britain.

06 September 2007


I am that supreme and fiery force that sends forth all the sparks of life. Death hath no part in me, yet do I allot it, wherefore I am girt about with wisdom as with wings. I am that living and fiery essence of the divine substance that flows in the beauty of the fields. I shine in the water, I burn in the sun and the moon and the stars. Mine is that mysterious force of the invisible wind. I sustain the breath of all living. I breathe in the verdure and in the flowers, and when the waters flows like living things, it is I. I found those columns which support the whole earth . . . I am the force which lies hid in the winds, from me they take their source, and as a man may move because he breathes, so does a fire burn but by my blast. All these live because I am in them and am of their life. I am wisdom. Mine is the blast of the thundered word by which all things were made. I permeate all things that may not die. I am life.

-Hildegard of Bingen, 12th century

My reflections this week are elemental. Not only am I engaged in some private research on the elements, but I am also beginning a course acupuncture treatments for chronic sinusitis, an illness which has plagued my whole life. I found it thrilling, therefore, to find in twelfth-century visionary artist Hildegard von Bingen's writings the epigraph above on the nature of lifeforce.

Our bodies are living organisms with communities of organs working in collaboration and with a network of neurons deciding on courses of action. Our nerves are like the invisible wires that cause mechanical devices like computers to switch on or switch off in a pattern of ones and zeros. If this metaphor holds, then it also stands to reason that sometimes a body's wiring or mechanisms may not function correctly, or might encounter a problem creating an infinite feedback loop. Clearly my immune system has been running poorly and is currently experiencing a breakdown.

Western medical science can perform great miracles. I don't doubt that it is a valid path of restoring health. I do find, however, that after some 34 years of attempting standard Western medical practices: drugs, injections, inhalers, etc., I need a breath of fresh air and a different point-of-view to help solve my systemic problem. It's not just the headaches I often feel, ranging from mild to migraine. It's not just the sore throat, coughing, wheezing and general feeling of listlessness that comes with each infection. It's the constant rash of dry, crackling skin; the insane amount of water I need to drink to prevent dry-mouth; and the pressure on my brain. Sometimes it's also the millisecond of fright that arrives in the morning, wondering if I'll be able to take that first breath of the day through my nose or mouth -- or at all.

That's where the Chinese concept of Qi comes in. Qi, life energy, is a concept that I have known about since I wandered about studying Eastern philosophies during college.

A definition of Qi from Wikipedia.com

Qi, also commonly spelled ch'i (in Wade-Giles romanization) or ki (in romanized Japanese), is a fundamental concept of traditional Chinese culture. Qi is believed to be part of every living thing that exists, as a kind of “life force” or “spiritual energy.” It is frequently translated as “energy flow,” or literally as “air” or “breath.” (For example, tiānqì, literally “sky breath”, is the ordinary Chinese word for "weather). In Mandarin Chinese it is pronounced something like "chee" in English, but the tongue position is different

I now realize that Qi is the same word I've heard people pronounce like /chee/. Some even use a westernized spelling of it: Chi, as in Tai Chi Chuan, a martial art I practiced for a while during graduate school. Personally, I think of Qi as lifeforce, the energy that binds our bodies together and helps them to breathe and move. It's also the energy that makes us aware of ourselves and of our surroundings. It is that which creates our sentience.

Lifeforce is not unknown to the West as Hildegard's poetic writing proves. Many religions hinge around a concept of a life-force or an energy surrounding all things. It is a concept familiar to anyone who knows about the Shinto beliefs in Japan or to the cosmology of Native American peoples. And even if you aren't particularly spiritual you've probably heard of The Force. ("Use The Force, Luke.")

There must be something within my body's energy or lifeforce that is not working as it should. Why should I labor under a near constant state of illness, no matter how slight? It's been so long since I've sought any medical treatment for my sinusitis, and since I last received care for it, the world has changed. Insurance companies now accept the probability that cases like mine can be treated with acupuncture. And that is where I arrive at the Qi concept. I know someone who found great relief from sinus trouble through acupuncture. Other friends of mine have had even more serious illnesses like Crohn's disease treated successful by Chinese medicine and acupuncture.

At last I have found the right combination of willingness to try something new in the hopes of relief from my non-debilitating, yet irritating condition and of ability to afford said treatment. I found my courage and went to my first acupuncture appointment last Thursday.

The first thing I realized was that it was more like going to a massage therapist appointment than like a doctor's office visit. I didn't have to undress and wear a tiny sheet. I didn't feel cold. The room was not lit by harsh fluorescent lighting, but rather dimmed, warm light. There was gentle music playing in the background. My acupuncturist was calm and professional as any medical practitioner might be, but with that hint of empathy you don't often receive from a medical doctor. She feels my case is treatable, but she will need to see me frequently at first to get my wiring to recalibrate itself. The needles, don't hurt, by the way. You hardly feel them at all. In comparison to the years of desensitization injections and antibiotic injections I received as a child, they are a walk in the park. I know well that I will have to wait and see if acupuncture can offer me some relief, but I long for my body to be in harmony with itself.

If you are curious to know more about the relationship of the Chinese concept of Qi to medical health you might want to read an online article on acupuncture and qi or the following paragraph from Wikipedia's article:

Qi in traditional Chinese medicine
Theories of traditional Chinese medicine assert that the body has natural patterns of qi that circulate in channels called
meridians in English. Symptoms of various illnesses are often believed to be the product of disrupted, blocked, or unbalanced qi movement (interrupted flow) through the body's meridians, as well as deficiencies or imbalances of qi (homeostatic imbalance) in the various Zang Fu organs. Traditional Chinese medicine often seeks to relieve these imbalances by adjusting the circulation of qi (metabolic energy flow) in the body using a variety of therapeutic techniques. Some of these techniques include herbal medicines, special diets, physical training regimens (Qigong, Tai Chi Chuan, and martial arts training), moxibustion, massage to clear blockages, and acupuncture, which uses small diameter metal needles inserted into the skin and underlying tissues to reroute or balance qi.