#739 Language evolves as we do

The uneven surface, the steps are barriers to wheelchairs; language can be another barrier to inclusion. Photo via morgueFile

The uneven surface, the steps are barriers to wheelchairs; language can be another barrier to inclusion. Photo via morgueFile

We often hear that our thoughts create our reality. Since words convey our thoughts, both internally and as we speak, it follows that words create our reality too. When we pay attention to words and make course corrections, we change the lens through which we view the world. And when we change the lens, we open doors to social change.

I have been thinking about this today because of Randy Earle’s comment on my post about Helpers of the Handicapped in India. I confessed I was struggling with language around disabilities. So he sent me a link to his thought-provoking post, “Warning: Language Detour Ahead.”

Randy was diagnosed with adrenomyeloneuropathy 17 years ago. As the condition has progressed, he has become an expert on the barriers we erect to full mobility. He has also become attuned to our casual use of language that isolates and marginalizes. Here is a sample:

I have had scores of debates with well-meaning people about language. I have received thinly-disguised skeptical looks when I note language that I find offensive because it marginalizes me. Some are obvious put downs: “That’s lame!” Whatever object that phrase modifies is understood as substandard, “a lame excuse” or “a lame move.” Other awkward phrases have spawned cartoons in my community of advocates: picture the ropes needed for “the wheel-chair bound.” Yeah, that’s not me. No tying me down. And, please, don’t get me started on “crippling snow storms.”

Guilty as charged. Thanks for tuning my antennae, Randy. I already struggled with finding the right descriptors for some of the people whose stories I have shared in posts such as these: Photographer’s mistake creates opportunity, Underwater wheelchair ballet and Blind, not disabled.  Randy reminds me the issue of appropriate language goes far beyond any particular person or condition and seeps into our everyday conversation.

But language is fluid, not fixed. As we become aware of the impact of our words, we can use different ones or use them differently.

When I was growing up in Twin Falls, Idaho, we thought nothing of calling filberts “nigger toes” or of accusing someone of being an “Indian giver.” Women were supposed to be satisfied with being invisible when masculine pronouns were used to mean everyone. And don’t even get me started on all the casual racist, sexist and homophobic language strewn through the conversational landscape.

Things have improved a lot in my lifetime, and they will continue to change as we confront those who casually dismiss or injure us through their use of language. I have a lot to learn, but Randy Earle gives me hope that teachers will keep appearing in my path.


#738 Jeanne Socrates sails solo around the world – at 70

Lake Okanagan

From the deck of a friend’s yacht on an inland lake, I can only imagine what open sea is like for Jeanne Socrates.

The oldest woman to make a solo, non-stop circumnavigation of the globe sailed into the Inner Harbour of Victoria, British Columbia on July 8, 2013. Jeanne Socrates, a retired math teacher from the UK, had tried twice before. In 2009 she got as far as Cape Horn, where she had to stop three months for repairs.

In 2011 her boat was damaged in a storm off the southern tip of South America. From there she continued to the Falklands, South Africa, Tasmania, Tahiti and Hawaii. After circumnavigating via the Five Great Capes of the Southern Ocean (Cape Horn, Cape of Good Hope, Cape Leeuwin, SE Cape of Tasmania, SW Cape of New Zealand), she sailed into the Strait of Juan de Fuca on August 1, 2012.

Determined to sail non-stop around the world, she set out from Victoria in October 2012. Her blog is full of the kind of details dear to the hearts of fellow sailors but has little by way of insight into Socrates herself. What we can glean from articles about her is that she began sailing with her husband in her late 40s. The two of them commissioned the first Nereida in 1997 and sailed it from the UK across the Atlantic. When cancer took her husband in 2008, she embarked on a solo sailing career.

I am still three and a bit years shy of my 70th birthday, but with that milestone the next Big Birthday on the horizon, I am particularly inspired by Jeanne Socrates. She is a woman of intelligence, guts and determination. When her husband and sailing partner died, she did not tether her sailing dreams to the past. Instead, she continued to pursue her passion.

We can follow our dreams at any age, as Socrates demonstrates every time she steps onto the Nereida and sails solo toward open sea. So if you have decided you are too old to write that novel, climb that mountain or plant that vineyard, think again. If the dreams is still alive, go for it.


#737 A Song of our Warming Planet

Daniel Crawford; photo clip from A Song of Our Warming Planet

Daniel Crawford; photo clip from A Song of Our Warming Planet

The data from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies are dizzying. They show average global temperatures edging inexorably upward from 1880 to 2012.

Understanding the implications of that climb is difficult for many people. So cellist Daniel Crawford accepted a challenge from his professor, Scott St. George, to turn a set of data into a piece of music. The result is “A Song of Our Warming Planet.” Crawford says in the video:

In the piece of music, each note will correspond to a year and then the pitch of that note will represent the temperature of that year. So then these really high pitches, that would mean a warmer year and the lower pitches would be a cooler year. The data comes from the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at NASA. It’s a compilation of global annual surface air temperatures.

Climate scientists have a standard toolbox to communicate their data. What we’re trying to do is we’re trying to add another tool to that toolbox, another way to communicate the ideas to the people who might get more out of this than out of maps, graphs, numbers.

Climate change is a defining issue of our generation, and it’s still something that a lot of people don’t fully understand. What we’re trying to do is to represent with the music sort of the immediacy and the importance that this issue has right now. If we act on it, maybe it won’t be as much of an issue for the future.

The video ends with the prediction of another 1.8 degree celsius climb in global temperature by the end of the century. The notes needed to represent that are beyond the range humans can hear.

Hoping the work will inspire other artists and communicators to convey the climate message in ways that inspire action, Crawford has released the score and sound files under a Creative Commons license.

This is an inspiring collaboration that gives me hope that our artists and creators will continue to find new ways to communicate the most important issues of our day.


#736 Farming an office building

Photo clip of Pasona HQ ground floor cafe, from video

Photo clip of Pasona HQ ground floor cafe, from video

Urban farming has grown legs lately. SPIN farmers are growing produce on unused yards. Roofs are being turned into market gardens. Guerrilla gardeners are tucking herbs and vegetables into median strips and unloved spaces. But the Pasona headquarters office in Tokyo is a new one on me. It is not a model of sustainability since an indoor farm requires a lot of energy. However, as an experiment in staff engagement and greening the office environment, it bears watching.

The building is unmistakable, with its green, growing walls facing Tokyo’s busy streets. The Japanese recruitment company chose to renovate an existing building rather than build a new one. The building does have a green roof, but inside the walls are many green surprises. For instance:

Using both hydroponic and soil based farming, crops and office workers share a common space. For example, tomato vines are suspended above conference tables, lemon and passion fruit trees are used as partitions for meeting spaces, salad leaves are grown inside seminar rooms and bean sprouts are grown under benches. The main lobby also features a rice paddy and a broccoli field. These crops are equipped with metal halide, HEFL, fluorescent and LED lamps and an automatic irrigation system.  An intelligent climate control system monitors humidity, temperature and breeze to balance human comfort during office hours and optimize crop growth during after hours. This maximizes crop yield and annual harvests. Seasonal flowers and orange trees are planted on the balconies between the 3′ deep double skinned facade.  Partially relying on natural exterior climate, these plants create a living green wall and a dynamic identity to the public. This was a significant loss to the net rentable area for a commercial office. However, Pasona believed in the benefits of urban farm and green space to engage the public and to provide better workspace for their employees.

OK, I admit. I am gobsmacked by Pasona’s attention to the well being of its employees and by the company’s concern for the future of farming in Japan. They actually offer public seminars and an internship program that trains a new generation of farmers, of the urban variety. Since Japan imports the overwhelming majority of its food, the company is investing in the sustainability and well being of the whole country by encouraging young people to consider farming as a career.

As for employees, they enjoy a cafeteria stocked with farm-to-desk foods. Pasona asks them to lend a hand, working alongside the company’s agricultural specialists in growing and maintaining crops that are as local as you can get in an urban environment. The CScoutJapan video takes you inside the office building, with its green spaces everywhere, food for the cafeteria being grown within easy reach, and even a rice paddy.

Pasona’s approach may not be the answer for long-term, sustainable food security in urban areas, but it is a fascinating experiment that is well worth following.


#735 Cerrie Burnell helps pull off our blinders

Photo clip of Cerrie Burnell from ABC News interview

Photo clip of Cerrie Burnell from ABC News interview

Cerrie Burnell is a British singer and dancer, a gifted actress who might be seen as just one more attractive addition to the talent pool, but her right arm makes her different. It stops at the elbow.

Burnell is not the victim of accident or disease. She was born that way. She never let it keep her from climbing trees, swimming or riding horses. Her worst disability was the prosthetic arm she had to wear until she refused at the age of 9. She told The Guardian’s Emine Saner she has not worn a prosthetic since then, not while she was with the National Youth Theatre nor during drama school and not when she won a spot as a presenter on the BBC children’s channel, CBeebies.

What Saner calls “a flurry of demented emails and posts on a BBC messageboard” followed Burnell’s first TV appearances. They came from parents claiming it was inappropriate for a woman with a disability like that to show herself on television.

Burnell used the reactions as an opportunity to talk about societal prejudices. She told Saner:

It wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before. It didn’t come as a surprise to me. It wasn’t about me. It was about a much longer-standing prejudice. If anything, it made me think it’s even more important to raise the profile of disability in a positive way. By that, I don’t mean talking about disability for hours on end, which is dull for everyone – just get up, get out there and do something that has nothing to do with disability and let people see you.

She also said something that resonated for me in her interview for ABC News:

I think that’s really what this highlights is that people aren’t just used to seeing disabled talent on tellie. And hopefully this will be the beginning of getting more disabled faces on.

She is right. About the only time we see people with disabilities on television is if they make the news or are the subject of a documentary. That is a sad commentary on the marginalization of our disabled citizens. It is time that changed, and people like Cerrie Burnell are going to make it happen by pulling off our blinders. She gives me hope.

You can follow Cerrie Burnell on Twitter.


#734 Tarra, Bella and friendship’s mysterious chemistry

Bella and Tarra

Bella and Tarra; photo clip from farewell video

The chemistry of friendship is mysterious. We meet so many people in our lives, yet only a handful of them become close friends. The same is true of other species. One of the most moving examples is the friendship of Tarra the elephant and Bella the dog.

Tarra was captured in the wild in 1974. After a lifetime performing in circuses and zoos, mostly with Carol Buckley as her care taker, she became the first resident of the Elephant Sanctuary in Hohenwald, Tennessee. Buckley was co-founder.

Tarra was a sociable animal, regularly grooming and interacting with the other elephants. Then a stray dog wandered into the sanctuary and stayed. Staff named her Bella and watched as she and Tarra became inseparable friends.

In another video you can see them romping together in the snow. One of three stories CBS filmed about the two friends told the story of an injury that kept Bella separated from her big pal for three weeks. Tarra stood vigil until her little buddy could join her again.

Then the unthinkable happened. Bella was attacked on October 26, 2011, probably by coyotes. When staff found her body, they could see it had been moved from the site of the attack. And Tarra had blood on the underside of her trunk. It appeared the great-hearted elephant found her dead friend and carried her home. Their friendship of eight years had come to an end.

Tarra’s grief was as big as her body. Her elephant companions gathered around. They offered her food and kept her company. But no one could take the place of her canine friend.

Elephants should never be in captivity, never be trained to perform tricks for the amusement of us two leggeds. But knowing a bit of the story of Tarra and Bella gives me hope for the future of our relationships with our fellow creatures. Gradually we are moving beyond the hubris of believing only humans have intelligence, relationships and emotions. Tarra and Bella are two of our teachers. May their legacy continue to touch our hearts.


#733 Toys for girls who are budding engineers

This was Debbie Sterling's Kickstarter dream - GoldieBlox on the shelves at Toys 'R' Us; photo clip from Kickstarter video

This was Debbie Sterling’s Kickstarter dream – GoldieBlox on the shelves at Toys ‘R’ Us; photo clip from Kickstarter video

Two of my favourite childhood toys were building sets. Lincoln Logs were small wooden pieces of varying lengths, notched at each end. I built houses and stores, fences and bridges with them. Thanks to Wikipedia, I know they were invented by John Lloyd Wright, the son of Frank Lloyd Wright. The Erector set had the advantage of coming with pulleys, wheels, gears and motors. The metal pieces had lots of holes in them, which made it easy to fit them together with nuts and bolts.

Many girls today enjoy building as much as I did, but toy manufacturers are slow catching onto the huge variety of interests that are not gender limited. So when Upworthy posted the new GoldieBlox video (see below), I let out a big cheer. GoldieBlox is “disrupting the pink aisle with toys for future engineers.”

The company was started by 2005 Stanford University engineering graduate Debbie Sterling, who was not willing to accept the status quo, in which less than 20 percent of engineering graduates are women and only 89 percent of working engineers are male. In Fast Company’s inspiring interview with her she says:

We have a princess culture as little girls. Toys are gendered in this certain way to promote different learning and play patterns. I think kids kind of begin to understand that building and science is for boys and decorating and being pretty is for girls.

The 2005 Stanford University engineering graduate launched a $150,000 Kickstarter campaign in September 2012. A month later she had attracted 5,519 backers and $285,581 in funds. Ten months later she achieved the nearly impossible goal of being granted shelf space in Toys ‘R’ Us. She created the video below in fist-pumping celebration.

To reach her intended audience, girls between the ages of 6 and 9, Sterling designed GoldieBlox (yes, a play on the folktale) around stories. She explains in the introductory video that each kit is based on a different story about Goldie, the girl inventor who loves to build. She and her friends go on adventures and solve problems by making simple machines, using the toolkit provided.

The two little granddaughters who have my heart in Australia love dressing in pink, dancing around, being girlie girls. They are totally adorable in their princess or fairy gear. They also love books and stories. They have sharp minds, are curious, and enjoy manipulating their worlds. They would be good candidates for the engineering fun of GoldieBlox so I’m keeping my fingers crossed these construction kits will soon be available in their country.

Sterling is not trying to wipe out pink or princesses. She is trying to enlarge girls’ dreams for themselves. This small company is one to watch. GoldieBlox gives me hope.

You can follow GoldieBlox on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Pinterest and the GoldieBlox blog. My thanks to Bonnie Sheppard for posting on her Facebook status the Upworthy link that introduced me to GoldieBlox.



#732 The poet in the hardware store

Chagrin Falls Hardware

Daniel Bentley took this wonderful photo in the Chagrin Falls hardware store I wrote about a while back; via Flickr Creative Commons

Some encounters leave grooves in our memories. Meeting a poet in the hardware store was one of those for me.

The hardware need that sent me to the jumbled aisles of the store has receded in my memory. I’m not even sure when I visited. I suspect it was before 1975 because the store would have been close to my home in Seattle’s University District. On the other hand, it could have been around 1983, when we moved back to the city after a stint in Rochester, New York.

I only know I was there on my own and that the middle-aged guy behind the counter started a conversation. Whatever I had come for was quickly retrieved from a jumbled collection that looked as if it had never been sorted or updated since the store opened. But the counter guy knew exactly where to retrieve the item I requested. I liked the old-fashioned feel of the store and the friendliness of the man who served me.

I paid for the item and lingered to answer a few questions unrelated to hardware. The track of the conversation veered quickly into poetry. When I expressed interest, the counter guy pulled out a notebook and handed me several of his poems.

I suspect they are around here somewhere, along with the detritus of my past lives, the bits and pieces that get tucked into boxes every time I move. And I move a lot, not because I am a restless sort, but because Life waits until I settle in and then hands me new instructions.

So I may not see the poems until I move again, when I will sort through the old boxes, throw away a few odds and ends and then, with a sigh, seal everything back up until the next move.

But even without putting my hands on those poems today, I remember meeting the poet and feeling buoyed by the sudden and unexpected connection in a jumbled hardware store.

The closest I could come to the look and feel of the Seattle hardware store was in the photo above, from Chagrin Falls, Ohio, the scene of an inspiring cash mob to help save the old store.


#731 Dogs as drug and alcohol therapy

Santorini Stray dog

Shelter dogs need love; so do the boys working with them. Photo of Santorini Stray by Klearchos Kapoutsis, via Flickr Creative Commons

This is one research project I am glad includes animals, both canine and human. Lindsay Ellsworth is a doctoral candidate at Washington State University in Pullman. She is conducting the first study of its kind, testing whether spending time with dogs can be therapeutic for teenage boys in drug and alcohol treatment.

Each week Ellsworth picks up four dogs from the Spokane Humane Society’s shelter and takes them to the Excelsior Youth Center. Boys in one group brush, feed and play with the dogs for an hour. They fill out a mood scale before and after their time with the dogs.

Boys in the other group participate in activities available at the center, such as pool, video games or basketball. They also fill out the mood scale.

But the main focus is on the dogs and the boys. If Ellsworth’s study can show that being around the dogs, learning to be calm, observant and responsive affects the boys’ behaviour and makes treatment more effective, both troubled youth and homeless dogs will benefit.

Initial findings tell her she is on the right track so she is doubling contact hours between dogs and boys. She told WSU’s Rachel Webber:

We found one of the most robust effects of interacting with the dogs was increased joviality. Some of the words the boys used to describe their moods after working with the dogs were ‘excited,’ ‘energetic’ and ‘happy.’…

I was surprised, during the trial period, how calm the boys were around the dogs and at how outbursts and hyperactivity diminished. It was something you could observe like night and day.

Robert Faltermeyer, executive director at Excelsior Youth Center, said:

It’s an opportunity for kids in a real chaotic life, making unhealthy choices, to focus in on a specific task with an animal. It empowers them to make positive changes even on the simplest scale of correcting the animal’s behavior.

I think those exposures build some internal capacity for them to say, ‘Hey, I think I’m capable of changing my life.’

Drugs and young minds are a bad combination. The drugs scramble things in developing brains. It is possible working with dogs could help reset the faulty wiring, giving youth another path for success in treatment and beyond.

Once again, dogs are showing themselves to be some of the best friends a human can have. That gives me hope.


#730 Anne Lamott gives us permission to love our flawed selves

Photo by Carry Bass, via Wikimedia Creative Commons

Photo by Carry Bass, via Wikimedia Creative Commons

When I heard Anne Lamott speak in Berkeley in 2005, I laughed and cried and left the packed room feeling as I had grown heaps in my lifelong search for meaning in this crazy, wonderful life. I had jettisoned religious practice when I was 19 but had never lost the hunger for spiritual connection. Here was a highly successful, self-deprecating writer who had regular, frank conversations with God. Lamott was so real and honest I left there feeling as if we had had a long, hearts-open conversation, even though I had not said a word to her.

On July 2nd, when she updated her Facebook status, I wanted to rush right over with a freshly baked loaf of bread and a hug. Since I live in British Columbia, I did the next best thing. I shared what she wrote on my timeline and also on the SARK writers’ group’s Facebook page.

But even that didn’t clear out of my system what reading her post stirred up in me. She had me at the first paragraph:

I got to do a once-in-lifetime writerly thing last week, one of those high octane events where you just KNOW you will feel completely better about yourself for the rest of your life in every way, because it means you will have truly arrived…And I got VERY lost. It has taken me four days, two Kissing dogs, church, three hikes, two huggy girlfriends, and two visiting brothers for me to get found.

We have all been in that grizzly place, when our expectations bounce out of their usual, modest place and soar to dizzying heights. And then they crash spectacularly, and we are lost, lost, lost. All our signposts were leading to this life-changing moment, and our life did not change. We were punched back down to that modest place, and it was an uncomfortable fit. We tacked a big “F” for failure across our hunched psyches.

Anne Lamott survived her most recent crashing disappointment. It was not her first and will not be her last. Life is like that. And we keep dusting ourselves off, stripping away the “F” and picking up our hopes. We do that because our flawed, miserable, joyous, successful, failed selves are supremely beautiful to the core and because we all have something unique and important to say. We may write it, paint it, cook it, sew it, build it or love it into existence, but only we can birth it into the world in exactly our way.

So while what Lamott wrote on her Facebook page on May 1st addresses writers, it would be a good reminder to post on our walls and our hearts, for those crash-and-burn days when we need to be reminded how glorious this crazy life truly is:

That’s all you have to do today: pay attention–being a writer is about paying attention. Stop hitting the snooze button. Carry a pen with you everywhere, or else God will give me all these insights and images that were supposed to go to you. Hang up a shingle on the inside of you: now open for business. Wow! You won’t have to wake up at 70, aching with regret that you threw your creative essence under the bus. And if you already are seventy, then you won’t have to wake up at eighty, confused and in despair about how you let your gift slip away. Because you will have been writing–or dancing again, or practicing recorder–every single glorious, livelong, weird, amazing day.

Maybe life really is a bowl cherries. Mostly it’s sweet, but sometimes we bite down hard on a pit. That is when we can take comfort from companions like Anne Lamott. She gives me hope for my own flawed self.

Update October 29, 2013: Salon published an excerpt from her forthcoming book, Stitches: A Handbook on Meaning, Hope and Repair