#715 The place of stillness

Mädir Eugster

Mädir Eugster performing Sanddornbalance; photo clip from video

I could not breathe nor move until the final branch was in place, though my movement could not have affected the video performance of this most extraordinary act of balance and concentration. As the camera panned the judges and audience, it showed their mouths opening in wonder.

I’m grateful to Jenni Woodroffe for sending me the link to Miyoko Shida’s performance of Sanddornbalance for the Spanish television program, Tú Sí Que Vales (You Can Do It). Starting with a feather balanced on a curved palm branch, she added other curved pieces until the whole was an exquisite, aerial sculpture like the backbone of a huge fish. And all the while the feather remained in place.

Curious to know more, I did a bit of Web surfing and found the act performed by Lara Jacobs Rigolo for Cirque du Soleil’s “Amaluna”.

That took me back yet further, to Mädir Eugster, the dancer, acrobat, inventor and sculptor who created Sandbornbalance and was its sole performer until he taught it to the two women fairly recently. Both perform with his company Rigolo, which is now Rigolo Nouveau Cirque. They also perform with Cirque du Soleil.

A rough translation of what this piece means to Eugster is on his Facebook page. He asks, “Is it possible to consciously bring harmony, balance, balance, create and provoke them?”

The artist is capable of both harmony and chaos. With utter and profound concentration, Eugster and his two pupils draw the audience into a world of complete calm and total control of the body, where the slightest misstep would bring the delicately balanced pieces crashing to the stage. The ending returns the delicate structure to the place where it began. In the pile of branches lies the promise of rebirth.

Sanddornbalance is a visual meditation, a search for harmony played out with every movement. Watching it, I feel my breath slow, my thoughts quiet. My usual penchant for darting from one thing to another and back again stops and allows for a space of stillness. This gives me hope.

All three of the artists are on Facebook: Mädir Eugster, Lara Jacobs and Miyoko Shida. Lara Jacobs is also on Twitter.






#714 Yo-yo artist shows passion plus practice equals success

Yo-yo rouge

By Clément Bucco-Lechat (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Part magician, part acrobat, part dancer and consummate yo-yo artist, Japanese world champion Tomonari ‘BLACK’ Ishiguro takes a humble toy to astonishing heights of wizardry. It has made him a role model for anyone with a burning passion.

In his February 2013 TED talk, he talks about being a 14-year-old with no talent for sports and low self-esteem. Then he picked up a yo-yo and began practicing. Four years and 10,000 hours later, he won the World Yo-Yo Contest in Florida, “not achieved by his talent, but by his extraordinary effort.”

He dreamed the win would be life changing. It wasn’t. So he went to university, became a systems engineer, and felt passion ooze out of him. He says it was a video of Cirque du Soleil’s show “Dralion” that revived his dream of making a living, and a life, with his yo-yo.

BLACK quit his job and focused on becoming the best performer he could be. Heeding the call of his passion, he began to find the doors that would open to making it his life’s work. He won the world championship in the Artistic Performance Division. Then he met Viktor Kee, who had performed in Dralion. Kee advised him to study dance.

With an expanded repertoire of moves that included ballet, jazz, martial arts, gymnastics and absolute assurance with the yo-yo, BLACK began living his dream. His passion became his profession. He told the TED audience:

What I learned from the yo-yo is, if I make enough effort with huge passion, there is no impossible.

Watch his 2007 championship performance. Then watch his TED talk. BLACK is an example of the power of passion, when it is mixed hard work and determination. He gives me hope.

You can follow BLACK on Twitter and Facebook.


#713 Go ahead and talk with your hands

Olmec - infantile figure

Walters Art Museum, via Wikimedia Commons

Mother tried to tame my gestures. “Don’t talk with your hands,” she would say. The unruly digits were forever waving in the wind—for emphasis, nuance, illustration. I tried sitting on my hands, but it didn’t work. When I stood in front of the class, and later when I performed as a storyteller, my hands had as much to say as my words did.

So it is no wonder I tucked this 2011 report of a University of Chicago study into my file of reasons for hope. The two researchers who teamed up on it are Sian Beilock, Associate Professor in Psychology, and Susan Goldin-Meadow, the Beardsley Ruml Distinguished Service Professor in Psychology.

They were the right pair. Beilock’s work on the ways action affects thought led to her writing Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To. Goldin-Meadow has long been fascinated by the information conveyed by gesture and is author of Hearing Gesture: How Our Hands Help Us Think.

In their experiments Beilock and Goldin-Meadow asked volunteers to solve the puzzle known as Tower of Hanoi. Most of us have tried it at one time or another. The game has three rods and a stack of round disks of gradually smaller diameters that fit over them. To solve the puzzle, you have to move all of the disks to another rod. The catch is that each disk you move has to be placed atop a larger disk.

You can read about the methodology on the University of Chicago’s Web site. What gives me hope is that the two authors found through this and other research that gesture actually appears to affect brain processes, helping people understand concepts. It turns out gestures are an important part of learning.

So, Mother, you tried your best, but those gestures were helping me master my little part of the world. They still are.

Learn more:


#712 In praise of the aging body

Richard and Alice Matzkin

Richard and Alice Matzkin; photo clip from video by Jeff Foster

Alice Matzkin was 58 when she looked in the mirror and saw gravity pulling every part of her body down. Her husband was struggling with his own fears about aging. Instead of running from their fears, the two artists decided to explore them. Richard began sculpting naked old men. Alice painted nude elder women, ranging in age from 58 to 87.

The book that grew out of their focus on aging is extraordinary. The Art of Aging: Celebrating the Authentic Aging Self. In the video produced by Jeff Foster, they talk about their book and their work. Richard says something that really resonates with me:

Is summer more beautiful than winter or spring more beautiful than fall? It’s different, and that’s the thing. When you look at an old face, if you look at it with judgment, you see an old person. But if you look at it without judgment, you see the person, the history, the character, and that has its own beauty. People don’t do that.

Alice follows that with another gem:

Part of coming to terms with the aging body is to realize how precious life is. To focus on what you might perceive as negative, to focus on the lines and wrinkles, just is a waste of time. It’s just life taking its course, just nature taking its course.

Their message is so different from the endless ads for products to hide wrinkles, cover grey hair, and perpetuate a myth of youthfulness. The Matzkins show the exquisite beauty in old faces, old bodies and old lovers. Their reverence for their elder models pulls the plug on bottled-up fears of loss and replaces them with deep acceptance and joy.

Alice and Richard Matzkin are guides on the aging journey. They give me hope.


#711 Two more LGBTQ barriers fall

Rainbow flag

Symbol of inclusion and diversity, the rainbow flag has even more reason to fly now; photo by torbakhopper, via Flickr Creative Commons

Media—mainstream and social—are buzzing with news of two U.S. Supreme Court decisions handed down on June 26, 2013. They clear away two more hurdles to recognizing same-sex marriages throughout the States.

In the first case, the court declared the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) unconstitutional by a 5-4 vote. DOMA has excluded same-sex partners from the definitions of “marriage” and “spouse”. Couples married in one of the growing number of states sanctioning same-sex marriage (12 at present) or in other jurisdictions were still not eligible for federal benefits enjoyed by heterosexual couples.

That hit Edith Windsor hard when her wife died. She and Thea Spyer married in Ontario in 2007. After Spyer’s death in 2009, Windsor was hit with $363,053 in estate taxes because their marriage was not recognized by the Internal Revenue Service under the convoluted rules of DOMA. Windsor filed suit, claiming DOMA violated equal-protection principles set out in the 5th Amendment.

The road to victory has been convoluted. In 2011 the Department of Justice refused to continue defending DOMA. The House of Representatives took up the cudgel and continued to pursue the court case. The Supreme Court’s 77-page decision says in part:

The federal statute is invalid, for no legitimate purpose overcomes the purpose and effect to disparage and to injure those whom the State, by its marriage laws, sought to protect in personhood and dignity. By seeking to displace this protection and treating those persons as living in marriages less respected than others, the federal statute is in violation of the Fifth Amendment. This opinion and its holding are confined to those lawful marriages.

That is one tick for marriage equality. The second came the same day when the court refused to come to the defense of California’s Proposition 8, again by a 5-4 vote.

The state has treated same-sex couples like yo-yos, legalizing their marriages, rescinding that decision, legalizing them again, then subjecting them to a hostile ballot initiative (Prop 8) that once again made their marriages illegal.

Two lower courts, including a federal court, had already ruled that Proposition 8 was unconstitutional. The Supreme Court determined that since the initiative was a state issue, neither they nor the federal court of appeals had jurisdiction in the case. Although proponents of the Prop 8 ban on same-sex marriage vow to keep fighting, it is likely marriage equality has finally jumped its last major hurdle in California.

Media wires hummed with the news. Twitter and Facebook immediately began buzzing, with the majority of commenters weighing in on the side of same-sex couples and opponents being predictably venomous. Victory rallies sprang up across the country. LGBTQ support organizations heralded the decisions and immediately sent out requests for funds.

The fundraising needs to continue because the fight is far from over. SCOTUS (the Supreme Court of the U.S.) quashed DOMA, but that only affects federal legislation. The majority of states still do not support marriage equality. The legal picture for gays and lesbians is a confusing patchwork of protection and discrimination across the country.

Still, the two 5-4 decisions made by SCOTUS show that times are changing for the better. And that gives me hope.


#710 From Tanya Davis’s spirit to ours

Tanya Davis press photo

Tanya Davis press photo

Tanya Davis was living in Vancouver, British Columbia when Kinnie Starr and Shane Koyczan blew her on course at a cabaret show at the Church of Pointless Hysteria.

The course they blew her onto was performance poetry. If they hadn’t, millions of people (including me) might have missed out on her stunning poem, “How to Be Alone”, and the video of it created by artist and filmmaker Andrea Dorfman. Anyone who has ever felt less-than, for any reason, would have missed lines like this one:

It’s okay if no one believes like you. All experience is unique, no one has the same synapses, can’t think like you, for this be relieved, keeps things interesting life’s magic things in reach.

Artists wondering if their work mattered would have missed out on an earlier collaboration with Dorfman, Art. Though it has had only about a tenth as many viewers as the later video, “Art” shoots an arrow straight into this writer’s heart with its chorus:

Art, art, I want you
Art, you make it pretty hard not to
And my heart is trying hard here to follow you
But I can’t always tell if I ought to

The singer, songwriter and poet moved across the country and made her mark in Halifax. She is still performing but wrote on her blog, on May 10, 2013:

I won’t be touring much for the next little while since I am busy morphing
something is happening but I don’t know what
my poems are changing
so are the songs I want to be playing
I have new things to say but how will I say them… give me some time, I’ll figure it out.

Take all the time you need, Tanya Davis. Those of us who are inspired by your work have plenty to keep our spirits happy while you gestate whatever artistic expression your soul calls out of you.

At First, Lonely


#709 Gun violence is down in the U.S.

Crime scene tape

Scenes like this are far less common than they were 20 years ago; photo by Yumi Kimura from Yokohama, JAPAN [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Mass shootings and daily reports of violence would make anyone think America was a scary place to live or even visit. That makes the Pew study released in May all the more significant. It turns out gun homicides have dropped 49% since 1993.

Furthermore, in the first year of the study, out of 100,000 people ages 12 and older, 725.3 were victims of non-fatal violent firearm crimes. By 2011 that had dropped 75%, to 181.5. For all non-fatal violent crime, victimization rates had dropped 72%.

Granted, the downward trend slowed around 2007, but the good news is it has not gone back up significantly. Contrast the statistics with the dread. The Pew study found that 56% of Americans are convinced gun crime is higher now than it was in 1993.

The report details some possible reasons for the decline but makes no claims for being able to do more than speculate. What makes tracking the reasons even more challenging is that the trend is global. A 2007 report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (Criminal Victimisation in International Perspective) found that rates of victimization had dropped in North America, Australia and most European countries over the last two decades.

The findings confirm the trend Steven Pinker identified when he examined the long sweep of human history. Mainstream news and crime shows aside, humans can actually be reassured that crime rates are continuing to drop instead of getting worse.

That should give us impetus to yank our politicians’ chains when they promise to get tougher on crime, build more prisons, and mete out harsher punishments. Let’s tell them to study the statistics, cool the rhetoric, and spend those “extra” dollars on schools, bike paths, parks, libraries, roads and all the other things that improve the quality of life for everyone.

Thanks for the study, Pew. It gives me hope.


#708 Use Carrotmob to vote with your money

Michel Royal photo of carrots

© Dr Michel Royon / Wikimedia Commons

One way to influence business practices is to stop spending money on things that upset us. Withhold dollars to force change. Carrotmob  starts with a different idea: Spend money to motivate change.

Anyone can sign on and propose a Carrotmob. If people like it, they agree to join the mob. If enough people like it, change happens. Here are some examples:

  • Greening the Green Room Cafe and Coffeehouse in Hendersonville, North Carolina was a modest idea. The Carrotmob community brought in at least $200 or 20 customers, and the café agreed to “offer a weekly special that features local, organic produce and/or coffee.
  • Hawaii’s first Carrotmob asked people to descend on the Wine Stop in Honolulu and buy wine, beer or holiday gifts. Enough did for the Hawaiian, woman-owned local business to have the funds for a full lighting and mechanical system retrofit.
  • A horde of students shopped at Bangkok’s Villa Market on February 20, 2010 to show their support for a ban on plastic bags. The campaign was a success. The store gained money and supporters and banned the bags.
  • Hundreds of ecology-minded customers descended on La Vuelta Café in Rochefort, France, using their money to encourage the café to opt for “a sustainable and ecological restructuring of its premises.”

Many of the campaigns fizzle, but even those can raise awareness about the potential for us to use our money to reward businesses for good practices as well as to support causes we value. In her piece for Adweek, “Marketers Need to Embrace Peer-to-Peer Activities,” Joan Voight quoted Unilever CEO Paul Polman:

I envision a 21st century form of business where the everyday consumer is helping to shape the social contract. It’s a business world that is moving from value-based transactions to values-based partnerships.

Polman’s comment is significant since his company is partnering with Carrotmob as part of its Sustainable Living Plan. I realize the Big Business link will make a lot of people wary of money’s co-opting the whole idea of the social contract. On the flip side, we vote with our money every time we buy food, support a cause or squirrel away funds for a rainy day. We might as well use that money to vote for the kind of world we want to live in.

You can follow Carrotmob on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube.


#707 He doesn’t flush it; he spreads it

Reuse of ecosan nutrients in agriculture

By SuSanA Secretariat [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

It may look like plain old poop to most people, but to Jeevan Maharjan it is the difference between ordinary and exceptional crop yields. When he shows up at the market with his human-waste-fertilized fruits and vegetables, he has no trouble selling his wares.

The Nepalese farmer says human waste far outperforms chemical fertilizers. He should know. His parents used it, as have farmers for centuries. What updates Maharjan’s experience is his ecosan (ecological sanitation) toilet. He told CNN how it works:

The urine and feces are stored in separate airtight compartments of the toilet, he said, for later use on the land. The urine is kept for about two weeks before it is used, while the feces, which is turned into manure, is used every six months.

The World Health Organization has issued “Guidelines for the Safe Use of Wastewater, Excreta and Greywater.” The guidelines examine issues of policy, health, sociocultural aspects, economic and financial considerations, environment and planning. Clearly there are risks involved in all those areas, but with the right standards and oversight, human urine and feces have significant value.

One example is phosphorus, a mineral that is essential for plant growth. We are depleting the world of phosphate while at the same time increasing demands for it. WHO says:

Urine alone contains more than 50% of the phosphorous excreted by humans. Thus, the diversion and use of urine in agriculture can aid crop production and reduce the costs of and need for advanced wastewater treatment processes to remove phosphorus from the treated effluents.

Jeevan Maharjan’s human fertilizer improves the soil of his 27,000 square foot farm on the outskirts of Kathmandu.  Other initiatives are larger scale, such as the 685,000 urine diverting dry toilets constructed in Guangxi Province between 1997 and 2003, the Swedish initiative in Tanum Municipality and SOIL (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods) in Haiti.

These initiatives give me hope. They are making it possible to continue or implement an ages-old practice but in ways that are safer for people and the environment.


#706 Jayden’s Pink Lemonade Stand for Peace

Jon and Jayden Sink

Jon and Jayden Sink and the Planting Peace staff at Equality House, from FRESHCASSETTE’s Facebook page

When 5-year-old Jayden Sink learned about the Westboro Baptist Church’s (WBC) hate campaign, she decided to counter with a campaign of her own. With the help of her father, Jon, she set up a Pink Lemonade Stand for Peace on the front lawn of Equality House. That is the house one of the founding members of Planting Peace painted all the colours of the rainbow, right across the street from the Topeka, Kansas headquarters of WBC.

Naturally “church” members called the police to protest the child’s lemonade stand. When that didn’t work, they shouted obscenities.

Instead of intimidating Jayden into closing up her stand, the WBC nastiness attracted a lot of lemonade customers. Jayden netted $170 for the cause of peace.

That was just the beginning. When Jayden’s Pink Lemon Stand for Peace campaign was posted on Crowdrise, it quickly exceeded the $500 goal. The first time I checked, the total was over $1,000. The next day it was over $13,500 and climbing.

The budding activist chose her family well. Her dad, Jon, is the founder of FRESHCASSETTE – Creative Compassion, “a project to showcase music, art, and video…while bridging these creative outlets with humanitarian and philanthropic efforts.” While WBC teaches children to hate pretty much everyone, Jon Sink teaches Jayden to meet hate with love.

On Father’s Day 2013, that must have driven the WBCers crazy. A child and her dad dared to spread a message of peace and love within sight of a group whose speech, actions and writings drip with vitriol. Their quiet message was louder than anything the hatemongers could shout that day.

Jayden Sink will grow up knowing the power of love to overcome hate. That gives me hope.