coffee shop cartoons: ‘Tis the season

It’s that time of year: self-reflection, family drama, holiday shopping, oh my…

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I know, at least for me, the holidays sharply show how different my life is
From how I thought it would be.
But I love it nonetheless.
Not because it’s all there is, but because of how those moments defined by grace
Still make me smile and cry, all at once.

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In My Wildest Economic Dreams…

1. Community service would be a tradable commodity.

2. Homelessness would not exist.

3. Health care would be free.

For the record, I consider myself a pragmatist, not an idealist. Pragmatically I know that, no matter how grand or modest the pursuit, both good and bad will result from it. There will always be unintended, unforeseeable consequences of systemic change, and there is never a point at which you can unequivocally step back and say, “Yes. We’re done. We’ve arrived.” Nevertheless, pursuing big ideas nets big impact, so my approach is to think big and dream big; go big or go home. Combined with diligent, dedicated work and incredibly creative strategies, big ideas are how systems start to change.

Our current economic system is floundering. Stagnant unemployment rates–7.8% in the U.S. for December 2012, and 9.8% in California during the same time–have spawned expert conversations about the reality of structural unemployment. Even if we wait for the global economy to rebound, for the Great Recession to yield to a boom cycle, there will not be enough jobs to support the global population of the 21st century. In the words of local nonprofit-slash-tech-startup, Samasource, “There is a global shortfall of 1.8 billion formal jobs.”

In 2001 Bernard Lietaer, a premier international expert on monetary systems and the global financial industry, predicted the economic crisis that started in 2008. In his book The Future of Money, he warned against increasingly risky speculation by giants of the financial industry. He argued that, based on the underlying principles of our modern financial system and the erasure of jobs inherent to the Information Age, complementary currencies must be developed to fill new and changing societal needs. With daunting issues such as climate change and water rights, the 21st century has already been marked by an acute awareness of our limited material resources. With the ceaseless information and exploration available through the Internet, however, we are also acutely aware of the unlimited capacity of human ingenuity.

As people, as workers, as family members, time is our most valuable human resource. With high unemployment, now some of us have a lot more time and with a wealth of skills and experience behind it. Add the context that, according to Paul Hawken in his seminal work, Blessed Unrest, grassroots responses to injustice have generated over one million organizations worldwide dedicated to sweeping social change. Within those organizations are people practicing thousands of new ideas about how we work, how we trade, and how we construct our communities. They’re building complementary economies. This confluence of events means we have a unique opportunity to invest our newfound time in experimenting with emerging economic and social change models. And we don’t have to reinvent the wheel, because there are already incredible local organizations where we can contribute, observe, and feed our capacity for invention.

Some of these organizations, like Samasource and Juma Ventures, are blending the best of nonprofit and for-profit principles to address systemic poverty. Some, like time banks throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, are testing formal complementary currencies as Lietaer recommended. I love learning about these organizations, because it’s inspiring to see the ambition of the tech world work alongside grounded, purposeful human service. And the more people know about these groups, learn from their experiences, and bring further innovation to these models, the more diverse and resilient our economy will be.

So, to bring it back (and add on, of course) to my original statement, in my wildest political and economic dreams:

1. Community service would be a tradable commodity.

2. Homelessness would not exist.

3. Health care would be free (including reproductive care and education).

I’m betting on the successes and failures from pursuing my first ‘big idea’ to inform the solutions for the second two ideas. I’m counting on my Millenial peers to further the social frontier by learning through new types of work. I’m trusting in the talents, passions, and visions of our communities to generate new solutions that don’t just address current problems but fuel future innovation. In short, I believe in the capacity of human ingenuity to solve unprecedented global problems.

Our material resources–natural and financial–may be dwindling or unsteady, but our human intellectual resources cannot be exhausted as long as we continue to use them. We desperately need a more resilient economy, and I absolutely believe we have the resources to build it.

—–

“Two things fill the mind with ever new and increasing admiration and awe, the more often and steadily we reflect upon them: the starry heavens above me and the moral law within me.” -Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 1788

The Legacy of a King

“A social movement that only moves people is a revolt. A social movement that changes both people and institutions is a revolution.” -MLK, Why We Can’t Wait, 1964, p. 117

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Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy is a touchstone of modern United States history. American children learn the story of MLK as one of triumph, of arrival at an American promise land of finally-delivered equality to long-suffering communities. That’s the abridged version, anyway. In reality, King’s infamous Dream of desegregation, of racial equality measured by economic equality, is pitifully underrealized in the U.S. today. As one example, the San Francisco Bay Area is one of the most diverse, liberal cities on the planet, and it is also segregated to a disturbing degree. (See the Tenderloin, Hunter’s Point, Japantown as compared to Nob Hill, Twin Peaks, Pacific Heights for details. Same goes for Oakland compared to Berkeley; East Palo Alto to Palo Alto.)

Even before his assassination, Dr. King enumerated the challenges of fighting for lasting equality in a scathing indictment of the American mainstream:

“The majority of white Americans consider themselves sincerely committed to justice. They believe that American society is essentially hospitable to fair play and steady growth toward a middle-class Utopia embodying racial harmony. But unfortunately this a fantasy of self-deception and comfortable vanity. Overwhelmingly America is still struggling with irresolution and contradictions. It has been sincere and even ardent in welcoming some change. But too quickly apathy and disinterest rise to the surface when the next logical steps are to be taken. Laws are passed in a crisis mood…but no substantial fervor survives the formal signing of legislation. The recording of the law itself is treated as the reality of the reform.” -MLK, Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community, 1968, p. 4-5

Unsurprisingly, King’s more complex philosophies are rarely quoted or brought up in The Civil Rights Story. It’s clearly in part because he’s truly radical in his articulation of justice. I also think it’s because his pronouns–such as “God,” “Negros,” and “Man”–can trigger intense discomfort in 21st century politics.

Most notably, King’s spiritual commitment and the Christian doctrine that founded his political activism seem misplaced in today’s ideological spectrum. Though they use similar vocabulary, the lunacy of today’s religious political activists– i.e. Michelle Bachman, Paul Ryan, and Todd Akin–are nowhere close to King’s expressions of compassion and equality.

“There are three dimensions of any complete life…: length, breadth, and height. The length of life… is not its duration or its longevity, but it is the push of a life forward to achieve its personal ends and ambitions. It is the inward concern for one’s own welfare. The breadth of life is the outward concern for the welfare of others. The height of life is the upward reach for God. These are the three dimensions of life, and without the three being correlated, working harmoniously together, life is incomplete.” MLK, The Measure of a Man, 1959, p. 36-37

For present-day progressives, I wonder if King’s reliance on ‘God’ to define a fulfilling human life makes his broader point harder to swallow? Has the pervasiveness of his Christian philosophy in his writings contributed to a highly abridged version of his legacy? Does it freeze his message in time, deeming it a distant relic, isolated from today’s brand of highly polarized politics?

“[M]an is a being of spirit. That is what the psalmist means when he says, ‘Thou hast crowned him with glory and honor.’ Man has rational capacity; man has a mind; man can reason. This distinguishes him from the lower animals. And so, somehow, man is in nature, and yet he is above nature; he is in time, and yet he is above time; he is in space, and yet he is above space. This means he can do things that lower animals could never do. He can think a poem and write it; he can think a symphony and compose it; he can think up a great civilization and create it.” -MLK, The Measure of a Man, 1959, p. 17

As you can see, categorizing King based on today’s political standards gets complicated pretty quickly. In his written works, King reveals ideological loyalties that seem contradictory today: he’s both rational and spiritual, a modern philosopher and a devout practitioner. Within one argument, for example, King calls out the failures of America and the ‘West’ in manifesting its ideals by invoking a disembodied, God-like voice. Then, later on the page, he alludes to American Exceptionalism as a sound basis for pursuing justice:


“Oh, I can hear a voice crying out today, saying to Western civilization, ‘You strayed away to the far country of colonialism and imperialism. You have trampled over one billion six hundred million of your…brothers in Africa and Asia’…[and] It seems I can hear a voice saying to America: “You started out right. You wrote in your Declaration of Independence that ‘all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…’ But, America, you have strayed away from that sublime principle. You left the house of your great heritage and strayed away into a far country of segregation and discrimination. You have trampled over…your brothers. You have deprived them of the basic goods of life. You have taken from them their self-respect and their sense of dignity. You have treated them as if they were things rather than persons. Because of this, a famine has broken out in your land. In the midst of all your material wealth, you are spiritually and morally poverty-stricken, unable to speak to the conscience of this world. America, in this famine situation, if you will come to yourself and rise up and decide to come back home, I will take you in, for you are made for something high and something noble and something good.’ ”
-MLK, The Measure of a Man, 1959, p. 29-30

I love reading King’s written works because 1) he’s a brilliant writer, and 2) they beautifully embody the natural contradictions of the human experience. His ideas and words soar above linear history and the limits of human nature, yet his vocabulary is surprisingly anachronistic, shaped by and for his unique moment in time.

His teachings, his actions, and the timeliness of his powerful vision established MLK as a leader of his era. But his overarching message rings true in any time: challenge what you see, challenge what you know, and challenge injustice with radical compassion until freedom and equality are both the letter and spirit of the law. His ability to express the richness of a pluralist existence resonates with a growing realization about our global fate:

“As long as there is poverty in the world I can never be rich, even if I have a billion dollars. As long as diseases are rampant and millions of people…cannot expect to live more than twenty-eight or thirty years, I can never be totally healthy… I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. This is the way our world is made. No individual or nation can stand out boasting of being independent. We are interdependent.” -MLK, The Measure of a Man, 1959, p. 48-49

With that last sentence, it’s clear to me King’s legacy isn’t just a frozen moment, and it isn’t just a speech at the Lincoln Memorial or a ‘triumphant’ struggle for Civil Rights. His words indeed sparked a revolution, because he didn’t just move people, he moved them (and their kids) to an unprecedented breadth of social activism that we’re seeing flourish in our networks.

“It is true that these elements [the marching, the confrontations, the protests] have meaning, but to ignore the concrete and specific gains in dismantling the structure of segregation is like noticing the beauty of the rain, but failing to see that it has enriched the soil.” MLK, Why We Can’t Wait, 1964, p. 116-117

With the advent of the Internet, we’ve rediscovered our collective potential to propel social change. In Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken estimates that well over one million nonprofits, NGOs, social enterprises, and grassroots community groups founded in the last twenty years constitute “the largest social movement in human history.” These organizations are part of King’s legacy, part of the kind of hope, resilience, creativity, and community building (and celebrity fundraising) that he led through Selma and Birmingham.

We’re in a time when we desperately need to regenerate ailing systems, to solve pressing global problems. Martin Luther King, Jr. for his divinely human beauty, the Hercules of progressive social change. But beyond leading his contemporaries, Dr. King also enriched the soil of political activism for the growth of future generations. Based on Hawken’s research, I think King’s nonviolent leadership and radical compassion did indeed start a revolution. I also think this is just the beginning, just the initial fruits of his reign.

I can’t wait to see them multiply.

‘Where the Sidewalk Ends’

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Image from Wikipedia.org.

Just for giggles, let’s entertain the idea that the Mayans were right and some profound universal alignment/shift/calendar moment happens on 12.21.12. And let’s say this ‘moment’ is a slice in the space-time continuum…
________________

Headnotes (‘cuz there’s not exactly room at the end, ya know?):
*Any arbitrary-yet-precise moment we choose to anticipate (12:21:12, for example) will unfold around the world continuously for 24 hrs on 12.21.12. Twenty-four hours on the infinite edge of a portal. Hmmm…what could we do with that?

**Concept of distinguishing human time from ‘meta-time’ borrowed from the current planetarium show at the Cal Academy of Sciences. It’s about local and global seismology, digital earthquake simulations, and our planet’s geological evolution. Translation: all kinds of Nerd Heaven.

***Whoa. That was fun, huh? 😉
__________________

Here’s where I’m going with this: What if 12.21.12 (+12:21:12*) is a rupture in the fabric of spacetime, where/when we can slip into an alternate dimension of infinite possibility? As with other imagined portals, what if we could enter and exit them in an instant and never know the difference? The moment would pass in the blink of an eye, but its impact has real-world consequences (a la 1990s Contact). Our attempts to measure this phenomenon “in human time”** are incomplete, so skepticism abounds that it actually exists.

If this portal exists, we could use it to infuse Our Era—whether it’s ending or beginning—with all of the _______ we can muster. [#joylovegratitudepeace]

Why not? What have we got to lose?

‘Cause that’s the ultimate moral of the epic stories: there’s good/bad, evil/sacred, fear/courage, etcetcetc within everything and all of us, and it’s what we choose to bring forward that wins in the end.

Image from "Ramblings of a Minnesota Geek" (mngeekramblings.blogspot.com).

Boromir struggles with the intoxicating power of The Ring. *dun-dun-DUH!!!* Image found on “Ramblings of a Minnesota Geek” blog.

What if—rather than fearfully wait for what might happen when Everything Changes—we stretch our imaginations beyond what ‘makes sense’ (because there’s sure as hell plenty about this world that doesn’t make sense to me anymore) to believe in something absurdly improbable, take this once-in-multiple-millenia opportunity, and breathe regenerative light and fire into it. If we can embrace our collective, intense, white-hot destructive/creative power to dissolve bullsh*t and injustice, we could actually initiate this progressive, feminine shift that so many people are talking about.

So, why not? Why not just give it a shot, and our ‘objective,’ protesting egos be damned? (To the death of the ego–)

Are you ready to go over the edge, to stare into the depths of our wildest dreams about what’s possible and not just recapture what we’ve lost but reclaim our ability to ignite new life and purpose into a world on the brink? You’ll never know you left, but the world will never be the same. It will be better.

Hey, look: here it comes. It’s Where the Sidewalk Ends

___,___,___,___,

Ready?

___,On the count of one,___,___, two,___,___,thr–

[let(s) go]

***

This One Time in Israel…

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I had to get to the bus. Not just any bus, THE bus. The only one back to Jordan that day, leaving from Nazareth. I did not have lodging, and there’s no Joseph on this trip. I’m traveling alone. My friends had said, “Oh, don’t worry about getting around in Israel. All the signs will be in Hebrew and English, and the people will be helpful. It won’t be any trouble at all.”

Which is why I did not study numerals, letters, or basic sayings in Hebrew before going to Israel, like I did with Arabic for Egypt and Jordan. Which is why I kept myself awake on the first bus from Tel Aviv to Nazareth, communicating with the bus driver using strategic eye contact through his giant rearview mirror. “Do not let me miss my stop,” my bleary eyes said. “See? I’m staying awake and aware. I’m being self-reliant. I’m willing to follow instructions. Just please don’t let me miss my stop.”

My nonverbal deal with the not-at-all-friendly bus driver had begun earlier that day, when I climbed aboard the almost-empty bus at the creepily-empty bus station, and clearly looked confused by all the signs only in Hebrew (*ahem* see above).

5:00 a.m. — The bus driver asks, in halting English, “Which stop?”

“Nazareth.”
“Which stop?”
“Nazareth.”
“No– which stop?”
“…Uh…The central bus stop.”
“No. None.”
“Um, what?”
“Many stop in Nazareth. Which one?”
“I’m taking the next bus to Amman.” *shows driver name of bus company*
*shrugs* “No.”

Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhmmm WHAT?? Well… shit. I nod, point at my travel notebook (he glares, gives a curt nod, glares some more), take my seat, and frantically scour every scrap of information I’d written down for my trip. Confirmation codes, departure times and locations, arrival times and locations, bus line numbers, phone numbers… no bus station. All the other buses I’d taken had arrived at and departed from central terminals. I’d stupidly assumed Nazareth would be the same. Now I’m in Israel, it’s dark outside, I’m exhausted and can’t read anything, and I have no idea where I’m going. I also have a very tight timeframe in which I need to transfer from the first bus to The Bus to Amman. How tight, you ask? 20 minutes, give or take nothing.

(If you are related to me–particularly if you are my mother–I’d like to take this moment to remind you that I am currently writing this from the safety of my home, under a warm blanket, in one piece. [Which is more than can be said for most Palestinians. Just sayin’…])

So anyway, I’m on this bus, right? And it’s sooo effing early in the morning, and it’s just me ‘n’ this bus driver playing psycho-aggressive eyesies in the rearview mirror over the course of three hours and finally he just looks at me and nods. (Thank God I’d been paying attention.)

I grab my stuff, and walk to the front. It’s 8:02 am. The Bus to Amman leaves at 8:25. Three extra minutes.

“Get off here. Ask them. They will help you.” *points outside*

Ah, yes. The children with machine guns. Thank you, kind sir, for saving my ignorant American ass, and yes– I will go ask them. Nevermind that they scare the freaking ba-Jesus (Ha! It’s Nazareth. Get it?) out of me, or that I’m blown away by how much they look and act like they could be at summer camp. I’d been observing the Israeli soldiers through a few bussing adventures. They were everywhere, and they looked so, so young. Most made slight uniform adjustments to be trendier; some clusters would playfully tease each other, affirming a nuanced social hierarchy; and there was usually a shy one, standing off from the rest, sometimes reading. It was an absurd, eery echo of my own adolescence, but with much harder faces and much, much heavier artillery.

8:03 a.m.– I jump off the bus and walk to the mini-checkpoint-station that may as well be a telephone booth with 5-10 soldiers milling ’round with nothing to do. I show their leader (the one with the biggest gun who looks about 20) my handwritten itinerary. He scrunches a dark, furrowed brow.

“Where are you going?”
“Amman.”
“Hrm. Which bus are you taking?”
“Uhhh the [bus company name]. It’s the only one that goes to Amman.”

He turns to his right-hand not-yet-man. Spirited conversation in Hebrew ensues.

*throws hands in air* “I don’t know. It must be in the Arab side of town. Go with him, he’ll help you.” *gestures to Arab taxi driver*

Whew, thank goodness! I love taxi drivers (seriously) and at four weeks into my travels, I’d cobbled together a quasi-sensible Aranglish+gestures that worked more often than not. This is one of the ‘not’s.

8:06 a.m. — Chatting with the cabbie is getting me nowhere in terms of catching my bus. He doesn’t know what I’m talking about, and we’ve been driving around asking randos on the street. They don’t know where The Bus is either, though it doesn’t help that I don’t actually speak Arabic. Blood pressure rises. Sweating escalates.

8:15 a.m. — He pulls over next to a group of middle-aged men drinking tea, minding their business, and conversing. He talks to one of the men through the window. They repeatedly ask me to clarify what I’m looking for. I try to answer calmly, and successfully resist the urge to scream. Blood pressure rises. Sweating escalates. Feverish anxiety disrupts capacity for complete sentences.

8:16 a.m. — All hope is lost. And then…a look of recognition. Hurried speech in Arabic. Profuse thank-yous from the short-haired American girl fly frantically from the window as the cab drives away. Blood pressure maintains. Sweating continues.

8:21 a.m. — Driver and girl banter excitedly, unintelligibly. Questions are asked. None are answered. Speeding ensues. A stoplight is spotted; the light turns red. Blood pounds at temples.

8:23 a.m. — I can see The Bus on the other side of the intersection. People are boarding. We are waiting. Time stops.

8:24 a.m. — He guns it on green crosses the intersection flips a super-illegal U-turn pulls up to the curb looks back and smiles and waves and smiles and waves and shoos the girl out of the cab while she pays too much not enough tip. She runs into the ticket office and endures a stern lecture for tardiness. Agrees enthusiastically to accusations of personal incompetency. Smiles, nods, pays, smiles, nods. “Shokran!!!”

8:25 a.m. — I climb on to The Bus. It smells like urine. SweetJesusthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyouthankyou I’m home-free.

Here’s what’s messed up: I traveled around more freely in a place I’d visited once than people who’ve lived there for generations can. The military presence of Israel–within Israel, not even Gaza or the West Bank–is overwhelming and terrifying, if only because teenagers are being given machine guns en masse, and without a lot to keep them busy. I am not an anti-Semite (say it with me now, “I am not an anti-Semite”) or a Holocaust denier, or harboring any negative sentiments about Jewish people or the Jewish faith, and I really appreciated the help of Israelis in the above story…but the Israeli government’s (note: NOT ‘the Jewish people’) calculated militarization of a region and terrorization of a people is sickening. So is the American media’s insistence on portraying the conflict as a war between equal political sides. The prevalent subtext is “This is a highly complex, ages-old global issue. Don’t insert yourself unless you know what you’re talking about, because you’ll be swiftly discredited if you try.”

Rather than start with a laundry list of atrocities exacted by either side, though, I’m offering two political truths:

1. This is not an ‘ages-old’ conflict. It started in 1947.
2. This is not a conflict of two equal, warring parties. Israel is a modern nation-state, afforded sovereignty and its accompanying rights. In our current international political system, statehood is the ultimate form of political agency, allowing for a people’s representation and empowered negotiation on their behalf. Palestinians do not have access to the political technology of the nation-state, making it much, much harder to advocate for their security interests on an equal playing field with Israel, nonviolently or otherwise.

People with real lives, real families, and real histories are being used as disposable political pawns (on both sides) in a twisted game of extremist chess, except one side was never given a queen and the other has a blank check from the United States.

This is not a war between equal and opposite forces. It’s an occupation. Many Israelis agree, and want to see the violence stop.

…Any ideas?

Image from BBC News.