The young man who will clean the ocean

Looking like a giant waterbird, this platform collects tons of plastic trash as it moves through the ocean; photo from The Ocean Cleanup Facebook page

In October 2013 I wrote about Boyan Slat, who had designed a platform he claimed “could remove 7.25 million tons of plastic trash from the oceans in five years and make a profit doing it.” His 2012 TEDxDelft talk was convincing, but the distance between conception and execution sounded like a canyon the size of the Grand.

Fast forward to 2015. A crowdfunding campaign has raised more than $2 million. Tests and feasibility studies have reassured Slat and his team the scheme will work. In 2016 his company, The Ocean Cleanup, will deploy the world’s first ocean cleaning system.

This is a bold, visionary scheme. The company’s site says they expect “to remove half the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in 10 years’ time.”

I’m placing my bets on The Ocean Cleanup and will be following them on Facebook and Twitter. And I’m placing my bets on all of us to stop using so much of the plastic that’s poisoning our oceans.



Pouring the oil of music over a bombed Baghdad neighbourhood


Karim Wasfi playing his cello after the car bombing in Baghdad’s Mansour district


On the last Monday in April 2015, three car bombs ripped through busy Baghdad neighbourhoods. The deadliest of them killed at least 10 and injured 27 others and shattered shops and vehicles in the upscale Mansour district.

Iraqi cellist Karim Wasfi defied the terrorists ‘ message of hatred and death. He came with his own message, of love and of the ordinary grace of daily life. He carried his cello into the rubble-strewn street, sat on a chair, and began to play. With that act, the former conductor of the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra poured the oil of his music over the rough seas of a traumatized city.

This was not the first time Karim Wasfi had used his talents in service of peace. Years earlier he formed Peace Through Arts (the Karim Wasfi Center for Music and Creativity). Within that academy students whose lives have been damaged by the ongoing conflict among Sunni, Shiite and Christian Iraqis learn music and etiquette in after-school programs. Leaving behind sectarian prejudices, they learn how to see beyond their differences and learn, talk, and perform with each other.

Barry Malone interviewed Karim Wasfi after he brought his music to the rubble of Mansour. The musician told the Al Jazeera reporter, “It was an action to try to equalise things, to reach the equilibrium between ugliness, insanity and grotesque, indecent acts of terror – to equalise it, or to overcome it, by acts of beauty, creativity and refinement.”

Karim Wasfi’s response to a horrifying act of violence is one we can all learn from. Responding to hatred with hatred has never led to peace or understanding. With his music, Wasfi reminds us that violence is not normal, rational behaviour. What is normal is going to work, playing with the children, preparing dinner and enjoying good music.



Family is how you love, not whom you love

Photo by skysthelimit, via morgueFile

Tylenol’s #HowWeFamily campaign comes at a time when overt racism in America is boiling over and when right-wing Christians claim their faith is under attack. People from those two camps may boil over themselves after watching the ad. The company hired activist filmmaker Dustin Lance Black to create the campaign videos. They chose well.

Selling pain pills by supporting the many faces of love is in line with some of the company’s earlier campaigns, such as “For What Matters Most”. As a friends-winning campaign, it will work for a large segment of the buying public. I might even have to buy some Tylenol next time I need pain relief.

In the video below Black talks about the #HowWeFamily program and lets the families who appear in the ads speak for themselves.

The ad asks two questions: “When were you first considered a family” and “When did you first fight to be considered a family?” When you watch this on TV, you will see the 30-second version. The one below is just over a minute.

In Black’s deft hands, these stories work as vignettes. The link to Tylenol is tenuous, but the link to emotions is strong.

As companies discover the power of storytelling, they are becoming increasingly adept at playing on our heart strings. Sometimes they take a bolder step and tell stories they know will rankle some of their customers, stories that challenge prejudices. It is a gamble that can backfire. On the other hand, it can gain allies. Kudos to Tylenol for pitching to an open-minded, accepting audience.


Turning brokenness into art

Tea bowl fixed in the Kintsugi method; photo via Wikimedia Commons

Tea bowl fixed in the Kintsugi method; photo via Wikimedia Commons

In Japan a small but dedicated cadre of skilled craftsman take the shards of broken pottery, paint their edges with lacquer, trace the break lines with gold, and make them whole again. Rather than trying to hide the break lines, they celebrate them. A piece once shattered becomes a work of art.

Kintsugi (golden joinery) is a spiritual practice. The item that has been repaired is a visible reminder of the healing that brought it back to wholeness. In a short documentary from Greatcoat Films, Muneaki Shimode, one of its youngest practitioners, says he believes the renewed interest in this centuries-old art is because “people are realizing that chasing after money and new stuff and new technology will not make us rich in spiritual ways.”

In an article for, Tony McNicol stresses that kintsugi does not exist on its own. Kintsugi artisans are experts in other areas. Muneaki Shimode, for example, is a maki-e lacquer craftsman. Aside from the practitioners themselves, each piece is an object created for another purpose. The kintsugi artisan takes the cracked, ephemeral object and turns it into something enduring, all the more beautiful for having first been broken.

Stories about the origin of kintsugi tell of a a fifteenth-century shogun who sent away a fine piece of broken porcelain for repair. He was dismayed when it returned marred with ugly staples. Kintsugi was born out of his desire to return his beloved piece to a state of wholeness and beauty.

We are all broken. Life cracks us with failures, deaths, betrayals, and disappointments. Kintsugi is a reminder that brokenness is part of what makes us beautiful. As our wounded places heal, the scars they leave behind enable us to be more compassionate and loving.


Kintsugi: The Art of Broken Pieces from Greatcoat Films on Vimeo.


Pianos in downtown parks

Piano near the library

Festivals Kelowna is trying something new. This summer our small British Columbia city has five public pianos in the downtown core. Anyone can play them, and people do. The musicians range from those who have barely mastered Chopsticks to professional performers. Everyone is welcome.

Keystone Music found the instruments. The pianos were painted funky colors by the good folk at Disney Interactive. City of Kelowna staff attended to logistics.

The pianos were tuned, plastered with invitational signs, and placed in places where a lot of people walk by. One of them is by the Rotary Centre for the Arts. Another is on the walkway between there and the library. The third, fourth and fifth are below the blue bear in Stuart Park, near the Sails by Kerry Park, and in the tunnel by Hot Sands Beach.

Seattle has them. New York’s Sing for Hope makes pianos available in parks. Artist Luke Jerram’s Play Me, I’m Yours project has over 1,300 pianos in 46 cities around the world. Kelowna joins the experiment in bringing music to the masses.

Nearly every time I have walked by them, the pianos have been in use. People smile, stop to take photographs and videos, or try their hand at playing with an audience of strangers. Thanks, Festivals Kelowna, Keystone Music and the City of Kelowna. You’ve brightened summer street life for residents and visitors alike.

My favourite video doesn’t want to embed from Facebook. I’m not sure who caught it, but it was posted to the Pianos in Parks Facebook page and features my partner, Robin Jarman, and his twin David, who is visiting from Adelaide, South Australia. You should still be able to see it using this link or the one below:

I was lucky enough to stumble upon these two gentlemen playing a fun tune! #PianosInParks

Posted by Pianos in Parks on Friday, June 19, 2015






Best summer homework assignment ever

The hill village of Fermo, Italy; photo by Liberatiarts, via Wikimedia Commons

An Italian teacher’s unusual summer homework assignment has gone viral. Cesare Catà told his students at Don Bosco High School to turn off their devices and go outdoors. They have a beautiful place to do that, in Fermo, an ancient Roman colony in the hill country above the Adriatic Sea.

Catà posted his vacation homework on Facebook. Huffington Post contacted Catà, who told them he models his teaching after the character Robin Williams played in Dead Poets Society. Rebecca Klein and Adele Sarno posted a translation of the 15 assignments that is a bit smoother than the automatic, online version. They are good advice for anyone. Among them:

  • Read as much as you possibly can. But not because you have to. Read because summers inspire adventures and dreams, and when you read you’ll feel like swallows in flight. Read because it’s the best form of rebellion you have (for advice on what to read, come see me).
  • Be as happy as sunlight, as untamable as the sea.
  • In sparkling sunlight or hot summer nights, dream about how your life could and should be. During the summer, always do everything you can to avoid giving up, and everything you can to pursue your dream

It is simple, timeless advice. Go outside. Dream. Read. Play. Think. Catà will be following it himself. Although he has ambitious plans, for writing a novel and essays and staging five Shakespeare plays, he is leaving room for spontaneity.

Thanks to my friend Judith Nielsen, an inspiring teacher herself, for letting know about this.


Mending clothes, mending hearts in San Francisco’s Tenderloin

2004 photo of Michael Swaine with his ice cream cart turned sewing cart; from his Web site at the California College of the ArtsSan Francisco’s Tenderloin is the one of the city’s seediest neighbourhoods, a place where crime, drugs, prostitution and homelessness are everyday realities. It is also a place art professor Michael Swaine calls “beautiful, magical”.

The beauty and magic come from the generous project Swaine began 15 years ago. On the 15th of every month he carts a treadle sewing machine to the the Luggage Store (an artist cooperative) in the Tenderloin. He sets up on a sidewalk and offers free mending for any of the residents who come by with torn, grungy clothing. While he puts on patches, does alterations and sews up seams, he listens to their stories, offering a moment of respect and quiet dignity to people living on the margins.

What Swaine offers is more than making tattered clothes last a little longer. He listens to people, who see he actually cares about the lives they share with him.

The Free Mending Library morphed out of what Swaine originally called Reap What You Sew. In an interview for Grist, in 2012, he told Darby Minow Smith his project is a response to our throwaway culture, where the goods we buy are designed to wear out. He said, “Hopefully we can have more of those moments of mending, whether it’s your resume, or your car, or your shoes.”

The image is a good one. So much in the lives of people around us, and in all our lives, needs mending. Fifteen years ago Swaine made a commitment to spend one day a month doing his part in that mending. He mends clothes, and he mends heart, and his mending brings goodness to a down-in-the-heels neighbourhood.

Michael Swaine: “Mending for the People” Tenderloin National Forest, San Francisco from Andrew Galli on Vimeo.


Art flows through this girl’s soul, onto the canvas and into her poetry

Akiane Kramarik in Ireland; photo from her Facebook page

Akiane Kramarik in Ireland; photo from her Facebook page


Nature was her teacher, and Akiane Kramarik absorbed everything. Home schooled in rural Illinois, with no television or radio to disrupt her explorations, she was only four when she began drawing her visions in extraordinary creations, using whatever materials were at hand.

At six she was painting. By seven she was writing poetry. Though her parents were atheists, she began sharing visions and dreams of a spiritual realm she had never learned of through her family or studies. She has been called an Indigo child, a child prodigy, a spiritual conduit.

Turning 21 in 2015, she is a renowned painter, best-selling author, and a totally amazing young woman. The video below is a 9-minute introduction to her life and work. When she is asked what message she wants her art to give to people, she says, “I want people to find hope in my work.”

You can follow Akiane Kramarik on Facebook and YouTube.

Amazon US, Amazon Canada or your public library


Dancer, cellist, and singer improvise magic

Three artists creating magic on the TED2015 stage; photo from video below

Three artists creating magic on the TED2015 stage; photo from video below

Dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones steps onto the TED2015 stage. Joshua Roman draws the bow across his cello’s strings. Vocalist, composer and culturist Somi leans into the microphone. What follows is extraordinary. Together they improvise “The Red Circle and the Blue Curtain”. Like jazz musicians, the three artists pick up on each other’s music and spin a web of magic.

What stirs me and gives me hope in this piece is the way each plays seamlessly off the other’s contributions. This kind of magic is available to us all. Children achieve it in times of free-flowing, imaginative play – the kind that employs cardboard and rocks instead of screens or manufactured, plastic playthings. But any of us, letting go of strictures and expectations, can reach deeply into our creative imaginations and explode with something new.

Joy is our reward, a kind of explosive joy that comes when we silence our inner critics long enough to experience the wonder of our own unique expression of life. Paint it. Draw it. Dance it. Sing it. Let the “IT” be pure expression of your vibrant essence.


Dream job at 91

Where some people just see a labyrinth of problems, Barbara Beskind sees a pathway to solutions. "Maze Puzzle" photo by FutUndBeidl, via Flickr Creative Commons

Where some people just see a labyrinth of problems, Barbara Beskind sees a pathway to solutions. “Maze Puzzle” photo by FutUndBeidl, via Flickr Creative Commons


If a company wanted to design high-tech gadgets for the elderly, they would be smart to get advice from someone old enough to understand the challenges of aging. That is what IDEO did with 90-year-old Barbara Beskind.

IDEO is well known for innovative design. When they turned their attention to an aging population, they wanted firsthand knowledge of challenges and needs faced by the elderly. The 90-year-old Beskind applied and was hired.

Her designing career began when she was only eight. It was the Depression. Toys were in short supply. Only by creative use of found materials could she and her mates have the playthings they wanted. Beskind had an inborn penchant for design. Her mates became the happy end users of the old-tire hobby horses she created.

In spite of being told girls could not enroll in engineering courses, she turned a home economics degree into a career as an occupational therapist. As a result of designing therapeutic technology for people with balance problems (and receiving six patents), she had the right set of skills when IDEO began searching for someone to assist them with designing for seniors. The advice turned into a one day a week job.

Beskind not only had personal experience with aging. She had moved into a retirement community, where she had observed the challenges faced by her contemporaries. That gave her ideas very useful to IDEO.

One of the things she witnessed was falls and their aftermath. That gave her the idea to design a sort of airbag for walkers, one that would deploy with a 15-degree lurch. For people having trouble remembering names, she designed eyeglasses with cameras and speakers. They record photos and names of people introducing themselves to the eyeglass wearer and then discretely identify that person the next time he meets them.

And on it goes in what Beskind is calling one of the best chapters of her life.

Age is not the defining factor for intelligence and creativity. While physical and intellectual declines are definitely challenges of aging, they are not universal. We should use whatever gifts and skills we have until we die or become unable to continue utilizing our expertise. Thank you, IDEO, for recognizing the gifts Beskind brings to design and for giving her the opportunity to contribute her creative intelligence. And thank you, Barbara Beskind, for being a beacon for healthy aging.