Heroes


Rural sustainability in America can be attained. The majority of the green/sustainable movement has been concentrated in the urban centers – and we have to spread, fast.  Right now, we’re at risk of a civil war in this country – it’s crucial that we intermingle, create dialogue, and build bridges across the gaps.

There’s currently a movement sweeping the country – the anger that’s been fueled (in part) by Fox News and the Tea Party has grown exponentially, and it’s  impacted national politics.  There’s a growing cynicism and anger with the greenies I meet as well – folks on both sides are fed up and frustrated. Powerful emotions are flaring up, and people are going to get burned.

I moved down to Douglas County, one of the largest and poorest counties in Oregon.  I reluctantly left Portland and its microbrews, bookstores, and bikepaths behind, and traded them in for a trailer in the woods.  I found a caretaker position at Alder Creek Community Forest, a baby organization that wants to catalyze change and provide “a place for lifelong learning.”  Now I have 78 acres and 3.5 miles of trails all to myself, in exchange for volunteering to help this organization to grow.  Sound good?  It is.

Douglas County was described to me as “the battleground between environmentalists and loggers over the largest tract of old-growth forest left in the country,” but that may be a slightly dramatized version of the story.  Since I’ve gotten here, I learned that at its height, the timber industry employed somewhere between 40-75% of the county directly, and still employs 25-30% of the active workers.  Estimates of unemployment range from 15-25% in this county, depending on who you ask.

When I started asking questions about the “battle” between the environmentalists and loggers, I was told that it’s relatively moot at this point in time.  The price of lumber is so low that the costs eat up any profit, so landowners are holding on to trees.  Most of the big mills have shut down, and the ones that operate now have found leaner operations to sustain themselves – automation has probably done more to reduce timber jobs than any other factor.  I was told that “mills are processing exponentially more timber for significantly less cost” than they once were, but that “greedy corporate fatcats” told the workers that the environmentalists were to blame for the loss of jobs.  That story still sticks – “the hippies took our jobs!” is much easier to swallow than “I need to enhance my skills to keep up with a rapidly evolving technological society.”

So greenies – if you really want to help Momma Earth, join the quiet revolution and leave the intellectual fortress behind.  Ditch the cities and come out to the sticks.  Don’t preach your beliefs – grab a shovel and a paintbrush, and get to work.  Be a model of the behavior you want to see.  Do your country and your Momma a favor and start a green business where one doesn’t exist.

If you’re a solopreneur like me, this is even easier.  All I need to work is my cell phone, my laptop, and an internet connection.  The DSL isn’t as fast out here, but my desk has a great view.

Who knows, you might find out you love country living.  The air is clean, there’s plenty of trees, and there’s great art supplies – tons of old junk that needs fixing up.  The DIY spirit has been popping up all over the cities, but DIY is a way of life out here.  Country folks are resilient, tough, and kind-hearted.  People stick together out here, because cooperation is a survival skill.

If you don’t need to live in a city, quit!  Start exploring, and leave the smog and congestion behind.  The economy has ravaged these places, and foreclosures are cheap.  You can buy an old bar in Riddle, Oregon for $75,000 – and that’s just the asking price.  There’s a whole amusement park for sale off I-5!  Who hasn’t wanted to own their own roadside attraction?

Sustainable solopreneurs – you know who you are.  Join me, and help spread the love as we grow a new way of life together.  Leave the city behind, and get a little closer to your country roots.  Do it for your Momma.

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I watched two videos tonight on TED from two very different storytellers.  One is from a fiction writer named Elif Shafak, who delivered the most eloquent speech I have ever heard on stories and the politics of identity.  The other was from a psychotherapist named Naif Al-Mutawa  who designed “The 99,” a new comic-book empire of Islamic superheroes now collaborating with the Justice League, thanks to a deal with Marvel Comics.  Barack Obama recently praised Dr. Al-Mutawa at a conference celebrating entrepreneurs for his depictions of positive Islamic role models.

[I should interrupt myself here—if you plan on watching these amazing videos linked above, do so now.  I will continue to spoil their surprises.]

Elif Shafak is an amazing woman. I must start there.  Her presence and composure is comparable to the grace of Sophia Loren.   I haven’t read her books, but watching her speak has brought her books to my short list. Ms. Shafak’s words are cool raindrops falling on my face on a hot day.

Elif Shafak was born in Turkey, and in one of her novels a character refers to the slaughter of the Armenians as “genocide.”  For that, she was persecuted in a Turkish court for defaming Turkey.  In her TED talk, she spoke of the connective way that stories bind humans through imaginative experience, and the ways that we fail to draw the lines between fact and fiction.  After all, the character who dared to utter the word “genocide” was fictional.

Ms. Shafak urges us to draw those lines carefully, to remember when a story is just a story.  She spoke of her time as a child in an international school, and the way that she became a walking representation and a target for anti-Turkish sentiment.  Because she is a Turkish woman, some people expect to find a stereotypical perspective within her fiction.

She said she spoke in Harvard Square with two other writers—an Indonesian and a Fillipino.  “Like a joke,” she said.  The panel was advertised under the banner of Multicultural Literature—anything written outside of the West.  In this way, she felt others would (if given the opportunity) deny her right to explore the avant garde and the far reaches of her imagination.

Ms. Shafak cautions us against blurring the line between fantasy and reality, and asks us to understand the distinction.  Stories move in circles, and when we define something we draw a line around it that boxes it in.

On the other hand, Naif Al-Mutawa reminds us that we have the power to create new political realities out of the stories that we tell.

Dr. Al-Mutawa spoke of reframing—the term from family systems therapy that asks us to shift our perspective and to look at something a new way.  His 99 heroes give children a positive take on Islamic archetypes without proselytizing in the slightest.  His mission is cultural, not religious.

Gary Engel said that Superman represents the true assimilated immigrant who has managed to successfully merge two cultures through his dual identities.  Dr. Al-Mutawa seeks to help children to heal by creating Islamic heroes who have merged their own identities—like all good superheroes, his characters are tortured with internal conflicts.

Both Ms. Shafak and Dr. Al-Mutawa have found the political and social power of stories through their success.  Stories are social collateral—by sharing a story with you, I show a tiny part of what I have to offer in a relationship.  We barter our emotions through the stories that we tell—especially those we tell ourselves.

Although Ms. Shafak has encountered the power of stories, I don’t think that she has used it to its full potential.  If I can paraphrase the comic book V for Vendetta, artists use the truth to tell lies, and politicians use lies to tell the truth.  Ms. Shafak is an artist.  Perhaps the only distinction between artists and politicians is the extent to which one desires power more than the other.  Each wields social collateral through stories, visual and spoken.

Dr. Al-Mutawa is more political in his reach for influence, although I believe his motives are pure simply from the joy in his face as he speaks of the impact his work has on children.  It is a shame that one rarely sees pure love on the faces of those who lead us in our politics.

I will end this in the same way that Ms. Shafak ended her speech: with a poem from the Sufi philosopher Yunus Emre.

Come, let us all be friends for once
Let us make life easy on us,
Let us be lovers and loved ones,
The earth shall be left to no one.

This is the view from a piece of land I’m going to go and see soon.

It’s for sale.

I want to buy it and start a social enterprise – I have a profitable plan that helps kids and makes a difference.

The property has been a lodge/ranch since the 1950s, and it has a decent income stream from guests coming to enjoy the nature and ride horses.  It’s about 20 miles North of the Columbia River in the Southern part of Washington, about 90 miles outside of Portland.

There are 80 acres, 6 cabins (including 2 caretaker homes), and one lodge house. The property sleeps 36-70 guests in its current use as a bed and breakfast.

The lodge house has 12 guest rooms, and would be perfect for a group home for foster kids.

Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foster_care if you’re not familiar with the state of the foster care system.  The upshot is that this country has a severe crisis on its hands.  There are too many beds, not enough kids, and the effectiveness of treatment programs is questionable.

As a nation, we need more quality programs to help kids.  I’m going to make some assumptions here, and at some point I’ll do more research.  I believe that kids separated from their families struggle more to adapt to society.  I believe that anti-social behavior (think crime) is ultimately cheaper for society to prevent rather than punish – schools are cheaper than jails.

Some kids are too tough for foster homes to handle.  When kids experience a high degree of trauma, they can’t cope with the expectations of school and “normal” family life.  These kids need help learning how to process their trauma while gaining life skills—and quite frequently they need to learn how to get along without using destructive behavior.

This means using a restrictive environment—one where boundaries are firm and expectations are clear.  This doesn’t have to be a prison – boundaries and expectations are constantly established in a well-run company.  Let’s face it, we all require a certain degree of structure—especially during the teenage years, which are tough for us all.

I’ve been planning this business for years—when I saw this property, I got so excited.

I work in corporate transformation—my team gets hired to teach leadership how to produce cultural change.  I realized that I could bring executives out to these cabins every day to work with the kids, and that they would pay us for the privilege.  I can tell the executives that they’re teaching the kids, and the kids that they’re teaching the executives—both will be true.  We’ll all learn a little something, and take it with us each day.

Not to minimize it.  We work with a psychotherapist-turned-consultant named Sylvia LaFair—recently outed as the “life coach” (not what she calls herself, although she does do coaching) for Jon from Jon & Kate + 8, if you follow tabloid gossip.  Either way, she’s been teaching leadership to executives for about 30 years, and has led trips up the Inca Trail and into Chaco Canyon as a part of her work.  She’s a fascinating person, and I am thrilled to have her involved.

I know tremendous teachers, therapists, and social workers who will all help to create a fantastic curriculum for our programs for the kids and execs.  I can pull together the plan to finance the purchase, which is where you come in.

We’re going to “cloud-fund” this together.  That’s where thousands of tiny donations combine to form a “cloud” of money – just like how Move-On.org was able to change the face of elections by pooling the resources of people who want to make a difference.

Except this will be a social enterprise – a business that puts doing good before making profits, but still wants to make money.  I like having a nice lifestyle.  I think everyone should have one.

Our investors should expect a reasonable rate of return—nothing fancy, but enough to put us on par with stocks, somewhere around (I’m estimating) 10% per year.   Thanks to the high profit margins of group homes and executive leadership, we’ll actually have more profit, which we’ll reinvest into other group homes like this one.

The curriculum we develop will be the work of some of the best minds in experiential learning, education, and therapy.  My plan is to donate that curriculum to the Creative Commons—so that anyone, anywhere, can benefit from what we create.

Everywhere across this country, we need to pull together the people that struggle with those who have a lot, and give them the chance to learn from each other.

There are lots of homes for sale, lots of people who need places to live, and a real lack of good “life-skills” curriculums out there.  You know, ones that work—programs that actually teach people the skills to thrive, not just survive.

I want to call this Microcosm, because I want the kids to represent a diverse population—like a microcosm of this country.  Culturally, regionally, ethnically, geographically—there is a need to bring people together, to allow them to experience diversity – not just preach about it.  We’ll be a little tiny America, out there in the woods, saving the world one child at a time.

Stay tuned, and contact me directly at 630.240.3072 if you want to be involved.

ps all these pictures are from the property, courtesy of http://picasaweb.google.com/copperwestoffice/MtAdamsLodge

“Because people think they’re Gods.  I don’t know, you’re the one who does that kind of crap.”   My fifteen-year-old sister’s response to my question shouldn’t have surprised me, especially since I’d asked it to my friends on Facebook.  I am in the process of collecting answers; I want to know why people climb mountains.

“It is not the mountain that we conquer but ourselves,” said Sir Edmund Hillary, the most famous member of the team that was the first to summit Mount Everest, that famous highest peak.  He once closed a lecture with the line, “nothing can keep us from our goal.” Sir Hillary delivered that speech in school fourteen years before his ascent of Everest.

The spirit of that statement fascinates me.  I believe that sentiment expresses the same ruthless desire for success that creates corporations, the same belief in the self that propels great artists or writers to succeed.  Sir Hillary does not say that nothing will keep him from his goal; he says that nothing can.  In that statement, there is no possibility of failure.

Of course, upon examination, this is not a reasonable belief.  Plenty of things could have kept him from that goal, such as wind, snow, or a bullet to the head.  His determinism falls into the category that child psychologists call magical thinking; the idea that he cannot fail is not rational.

My sister says that I am “the one who does that kind of crap”, but I do not consider myself to be a climber.  Yes, I have climbed mountains.  I sing in the shower, but I am not a singer.  I know people who are climbers, and they are a different breed entirely.

“When I started I enjoyed it and saw it as a hobby; now I feel it is becoming a way of life,” said Billy, who posted on a web site in response to someone else asking why people climb mountains.  “I sometimes wonder why I am here, in this place which is so close to death or injury.”

I wondered that same thing last year, while I was clinging to an ice axe on a glacier at the top of Mount Edziza in Northern British Columbia.  I was working as a field guide in a wilderness therapy program based a few hundred miles away in Alaska.  I was the least experienced of our three-guide team.  Our head guide, Erik, was exploring a crevasse in the glacier above the group.  I wondered what would happen if he was to fall into the hole in the ice.  Matt, the other guide, was back at the base camp with the three-hundred-plus-pound  child who could not summit the mountain’s peak.  That young man had accomplished the largest goal in his life to date by hiking forty miles to arrive at the mountain; Matt helped him to celebrate the accomplishment that day, while Erik and I took the other eight children to the top.

Erik and I were in charge of a group of eight young men ranging in age from twelve to seventeen.  In order to perform my job, I had removed a certain level of personal responsibility from my mind.  I would do anything in my power to save a life, but I was well outside of my comfort zone.  This was my first time on a glacier, my first time on what I would consider a real mountain – I believe that there should be a category somewhere between Mountain and Hill.   The summit of Mount Edziza has been measured at 10,220 feet above sea level –  not the highest elevation I have achieved in my lifetime.  The journey to get there represented far more to me than simply the lack of a trail, crossing the slow incline of the tundra towards the base of Mount Edziza, or even the steep slope of the glacier that I found myself upon.

Edziza is a glaciated volcano – a mountain that was formed from a volcanic eruption and subsequently covered with many compacting layers of snow and ice over millennia.  There are a small series of other peaks directly around Edziza, but she is the tallest in her particular grouping.  During a discussion with our group of boys a couple days after our summit, I told them of the weather patterns that are typical of mountains.

Most non-volcanic mountains do not appear in isolation, but as a range.  Either glaciers have carved out steep channels as they receded, leaving mountains behind, or tectonic plates beneath the Earth’s crust moved together, pushing up mountains with their force.  All across the world, the topography of the landscape helps to shift and create corresponding weather patterns that connect the entire globe.

Heat from the sun soaks into the Earth each day, and rises up, bringing moisture up to form clouds.  At night the cool air sinks as the Earth chills, and leaves dew behind on the leaves of plants.  The topography of each region intersects with the rising and sinking temperature of the air, forming localized weather patterns known as microclimates.

Mountains form distinct microclimates—hot air rising up the slope of the warmer landscape around the mountain collects water as the air cools, and glaciers at the top of mountain peaks help to chill the air into clouds of rain and snow.  The snow collects over eons, compressing into the ice layers which form the glacier.

One of the strange ironies of life is that many mountain climbers rarely get to see the view from the top—because of the clouds.  When we made it to the top of the mountain, clouds obscured our view.  We stayed on top long enough to eat a snack, and to congratulate the boys for their accomplishments.  For many of them, that climb might be the most challenging accomplishment of their life.

On the way up, I was in charge of the eight boys while Erik navigated the crevasse, determining the places that were safe to step.  When his probe plunged through the snow layer, he would carefully poke a region around the area, to figure out which portions of the glacier would support the weight of a human.  This is a standard climbing practice—glacial navigation is slow and tedious work.  Snow bridges – areas of the glacier which look sturdy, but do not hold weight – are common.

The slope of the glacier was roughly thirty-five degrees – we had used our boots to kick steps in the side of the snow, and held tightly on the ice axes which provided an additional hold in case we slipped.  The climb was relatively straightforward.  I trusted Erik’s experience to guide us through.  When he left me in charge of the group to probe ahead, I worked hard not to panic.  My heart rate increased, and my breath rate elevated.  I tried to reduce the tension in my shoulders, to slow down my breath, to convince myself that I would be able to handle the situation if Erik was to plunge into the glacier.  I did not have a plan, and that scared me.

I figured that if he fell through the ice, I would have to evaluate the situation.  First and foremost, my obligation was to the children.  I could not abandon them – if I fell in after Erik, there would be eight boys alone on a glacier in a completely remote area of British Columbia.  Rescuers would take at least forty-eight hours to reach us.  Should I abandon Erik, bring the children down, then come back up to rescue him?  What if I could save him?  My wilderness rescue training was racing through my head, but I felt totally unprepared.  Wilderness medicine is never composed of right or wrong decisions; it is always a best guess, a lesser of two evils, a hope that perhaps the right decision can be made and a life saved.

While these thoughts were going through my head, the young men were getting restless.  Many of the kids in the program have trouble staying focused in school; many have a hard time staying still.  I reminded the boys constantly to hang on to their ice axes, not to throw snowballs, not to jump around.  Finally, I got frustrated. I yelled at them that this was real shit, life and death, and they had better shut up and pay attention.  I had been waiting to use my big-poppa voice, the booming one that means business.  Since the kids had not heard me pull that card out of my inner deck in the four weeks that we had been together, twelve people in almost total isolation, they shut up.  I resumed worrying that Erik would fall through the ice.

Erik did not fall through the ice.  I did.

Before that happened, Erik had been using small wooden poles with neon flagging tape to stake out our path, and had returned to rejoin the group.  He was standing five feet in front of me, and told me to lead the group up the path he had marked.  He was to bring up the rear.  I took four steps, and the fifth did not hold.  My foot plunged through the ice.  The weight of the pack on my shoulders pushed me down fast, and the ice crumbled under ice that had felt stable with my first foot upon it.  Instinctively, I jabbed my ice axe into the ice in front of me, and Erik grabbed my pack.  I was clinging to the edge of the ice in front of me.  I did not look down to see if there was an end to the hole that I was hanging on to; my only thought was to escape to safe ground.  My heart was racing faster than it ever has in my life.

“I should have told you that was there,” said Erik as he grabbed the back of my pack to help me out of the hole.

“Yeah, that would have been nice to know,” I said.  I was getting used to pretending to be far more calm about life than I actually feel.  I turned around to speak to the boys, who were droop-jawed and big-eyed with wonder and fear.  “Hey kids, there’s a hole there.  Don’t fall in.”

We helped the kids to take a big step across the hole, and navigated a few more hidden snow bridges on our way to the top.  When we made it to the summit, we held a small ceremony.  Days earlier, at the base of the trail where we had started, we asked each of the boys to bring a small rock representing something that they wanted to leave behind: a behavior, an attitude, a mental pattern that had held them back.  We were constantly trying to use metaphors to help the boys to understand that their actions and choices determined the course of their lives.  Each of us placed our rock in the snow, and spoke aloud what we wanted to leave behind.  I don’t remember what everyone left behind.  One was anger, another wanted not to steal, another said he wanted to leave behind his habit of being irritating and annoying to get attention from others.  I’m pretty sure I wanted to leave behind my frustrations at circumstances beyond my control, but I was still in a little shock at my plunge through the ice.

We made it down the mountain and back to our other guide quickly.  The boys were elated at their accomplishment.  We were stern in our reminders to them that most accidents on mountains occur on the way down; climbers forget that the mountain is just as dangerous in the descent as it is on the way up.  The lack of caution kills more people than any other factor.  Often it takes the form of summit fever – when the goal is close, people rush in and forget the safety precautions that held them in place on the way up.

“Why the hell are we doing this?” one of the boys asked me on the way up the mountain, before we reached the glacier, when we stopped for a snack.

“You know why,” I told him.  We had talked about the metaphor of the mountain with these boys so many times. “Because once we’ve finished climbing it, no one can take that away from you.  Once we reach the top, you will always be the you that has climbed a mountain.  Because you thought you couldn’t do it – you saw this mountain from a distance, and you said that there was no way that you could climb it.  Now you are.”

That night, we ate so much chocolate that I thought I would burst.  We had prepared for the celebration with the boys by bringing extraordinary quantities of food and desserts with us, lugging them along for twelve-hour days (at times when portions of the group were slow), all for this moment.

“Now that you have climbed the mountain, you can no longer say what’s possible in your life,” I told the boys as they crammed chocolate in various forms in their mouths.  “That mountain is just like any goal that you set – it doesn’t matter which mountain you climb.  You just have to choose a goal, and go for it.  Every goal is attained one step at a time, just like the mountain is climbed.”

I wonder about the results of that experience for those boys.  I know it helped them; I know it was transformative.  It is impossible to measure the impact of an experience like climbing a mountain.  The boys held their heads higher, stood straighter, and had more confidence in their behaviors after climbing that mountain.  My hope is that the boys will retain that knowledge; that they will know that they can, like each of us, choose the mountains that we climb each day.  Many people seem to circle around the base of the mountain that they have chosen, afraid to take the first step, afraid of failure.

“It is not the mountain that we conquer but ourselves,” said Sir Edmund Hillary.  The mountain is not dominated by the experience of a climber.  No one with any sense would presume that clinging to the side of a slope and making it to the top and back down again constitutes mastery of the mountain.  If an ant climbs up my pants while I eat a picnic and makes it to the top of my head and lives to tell the tale to his ant friends, has he conquered me?  No.  In the same way, our only battles are inside ourselves.  We choose our goals, and thus we determine the course of our lives.

There is one quote by Sir Edmund Hillary that I believe adequately describes the experience.  He was asked of the scientific nature of the mission, the reasons why people were paying for him to climb mountains.

“Nobody climbs for scientific reasons,” he said.  “Science is used to raise money for the expeditions, but really you just climb for the hell of it.”

At the beginning of this year, I made a pact with a dear friend who had been a roommate in Oakland, California. She’s a therapist, and the center where she was working closed down. I had decided I wanted to work in nature with kids, and I was looking at farm-based educational programs when I came across “Wilderness Therapy Jobs.” I had never heard of such a thing, and I forwarded it over to Kathryn, thinking it might be just the thing to cure her stuck-in-a-rut blues. It didn’t even occur to me that I should apply, until I was dared to do it – “I’ll apply if you do” – and two weeks later, we were on our way to The Last Frontier.

On a cold evening at the end of January, earlier this year, Kathryn and I landed hard in Wrangell, a small island in Southeast Alaska. It was snowing, the runway was icy, and the pilot burnt the rubber of the tires so hard that the cabin of the plane filled with smoke. The whole plane let out nervous laughter – welcome to Wrangell! some folks shouted. I’d made friends with a loud and gregarious woman who spent a full hour telling me all about what a great town we were headed to – she’d moved there with nothing a few years back, and people had been kind and generous from day one. She assured us we’d have no problem finding her in the bar in the future, and offered to watch my dog for me if I needed it.

We were picked up, along with a few other co-workers-to-be, and taken on a quick 4-minute tour of the town – that’s about all it takes. There’s the post office, 2 grocery stores, 3 bars, the museum, and 7 churches, plus however many houses. About 1,800 people live on the island, all told.

That night we ended up at a small gathering, where everyone welcomed us, gave us food, beer, and sang songs while playing guitar. It was a fitting introduction to a town that prides itself on its friendly and hospitable demeanor.

I was there with about 45 other people for staff training, to be field guides in a wilderness therapy program. For seven weeks we’re gone from the world, immersed in the Alaskan (and Canadian) wild lands. We work with kids from all over Alaska, some that have never seen trees before, because they’ve been in the near-Arctic tundra their whole lives, in villages that depend on hunting whales, seals, wolves, caribou, or other animals for survival.

In my experience with kids, I knew that getting them away from their iPods, video games, and families would give them time to think. I knew that the wilderness gives people space – it makes some people nuts for a while – to really consider themselves in the context of a world that is vast and rich beyond our ability to understand it. When I was being interviewed for the job, I was asked if I was familiar with their program and curriculum. “To be honest, I’m excited to get to know it,” I replied, “I think it’s great that you have a program, but I think that the wilderness is the therapy.”

I didn’t really have an understanding of just what it is like to grow up in Alaska – the wilderness is a part of the people there, I believe. It is impossible to pass by the drama of the light – for many months, the only light is that of twilight, as it hovers between dusk and dawn – and to not be affected by the constant variations that are exposed where mountains meet the ocean. I thought that I was going up to teach kids how to be in nature, but in reality, I was going there to teach them how to come back into society.

Over the next six months, I got to know the town quite well. I spent a lot of time with folks that were there to work in the same program, and also got to know many of the locals. I worked a handful of shifts bartending at the Totem Bar over the Fourth of July weekend, the town’s biggest party each year. I got to run my own radio show a few times, playing records and songs from my laptop on dreary rainy Sunday nights. Knowing that we were the only station available on the island was a cool feeling – “you’re stuck with me!” I could imagine folks driving along in their cars, or in lonely cabins out on the winding road that snaked along the perimeter of the island, only to meet its end 20 miles away from town, forcing you to turn around and head right back where you came from.

I had heard elsewhere of the seclusion that comes from living on an island. I learned recently that the words “island” and “isolation” share the same root, and those words played a significant role in my thinking over this year.

I met a man who has spent the past 15 years paddling a rowboat around the islands that dot the ocean waterways of the Southeast. He approached a table where I was drinking beer with a couple of guides – we’d just gotten back from the field, and were full of the nervous energy that must be decompressed by adult company and beverages. He came straight up to the table, wearing his homemade paddling gear – tons of pockets, nothing cotton, many layers, all function and no nod to style – and looked at us each in the eyes in turn quickly, saying, “You men look like a wiiiiillllllld bunch of fellows out for trouble tonight!”

We all had a good laugh, and he told us a couple of crazy tales that I wish I could remember. Up there, the abnormal is completely just a way of life – each visit to the bar or the library (my two main haunts, aside from the houses of friends) offers interactions with people who live on the complete fringes of what I once considered to be American society.

It left me thinking about the nebulous nature of society – we are whatever we think ourselves to be, really. When I would talk to kids who grew up in villages of a couple hundred people that proudly proclaim themselves to be Bloods or Crypts, it would make me nuts. I’ve worked with gang members in Chicago and Oakland. How dare you assume these cultures as if they were your own – you don’t know what they represent to me, or to the people who have lost their loved ones to the insanity and uselessness of gang violence. In a way, it’s the same feeling that I got here in Portland, when I saw a little woodcutting that was hanging for sale in a hippie coffee shop here. It showed a tribal-gear-wearing hippie chick with dreadlocks, tattoos, and piercings facing a generic Native American wearing a blanket, feathers, and with braided hair. The title of the piece was, “The Struggle is the Same.”

No, it’s not.

In February, we were brought to the Chief Shakes Tribal House – an amazing structure that was built in the ancestral ways, without nails, levels, screws – anything but joinery and outstanding craftsmanship. The totem pole that stands in the Smithsonian as the example of the Northwest style was carved in Wrangell. The petroglyphs on the beach near my house were thousands of years old… this island has major history.

Marge Byrd and her niece Norma are Tlinkit, of the Raven Clan, I believe. They wore regalia that they had made, they sang us songs of welcome, and they told us how they had lost their land, their language, and their stories. Marge talked about the impact that it had on her grandchildren to be brought back to Wrangell as adults and finally given names, with a ceremony, to become part of the tribe. It’s something that would normally have happened as children, but they had moved to Seattle and had lost touch with the old ways.

I cried when they thanked us for working with their children. Many of my dreams have totemic symbols and imagery in them, and I felt really connected to this place through my dreams. I told Marge that, and there were tears in her eyes as I hugged her.

On a greater level, I realize, the struggle is the same. My ancestors swept through Europe, conquering tribes and converting people to Christianity. In many ways, my people are responsible for eliminating untold languages, stories, customs, and religions.

Part of the work that I came up to Alaska to do was to understand these forces up close and personal. Some of the places that the kids come from have had their first missionary contact within the past 50 years. Others, like Wrangell, were bought and sold by various colonizing forces. Wrangell proudly states that it is the only town in Alaska to have flown 4 flags – Tlinkit, British, Russian, and American.

There were elements in Wrangell that made me sad. Most of the buildings there are built from imported materials, and (I’m guessing here) less than 1% of the food sold in the grocery store is from local sources. Everything is shipped in, and people leave their trucks running during the summer months out of habit – for 20 minutes while they chat with people. People buy large boats, large trucks, and large houses – it reminds me of the values of suburban America, with a strong Southern flair.

The people of Wrangell are some of the nicest, most kind human beings I have ever met. I was told repeatedly that, “No one will ever starve here. All you have to do is knock on a door around dinner time, they’ll feed you.” Our neighbors would give us freshly caught fish, home-grown vegetables, and other goodies. When asked why they were so generous, they would simply say, “you work with the kids,” and leave it at that. I could never walk the mile down the road to or from town carrying any kind of bag without being offered a ride.

Unfortunately, I’m not going back next year. I came up this year with the promise of work, and I’m still struggling to catch up on my bills. I didn’t work for most of March or April, and I made do on $45 during March. Without the generosity of the people around me, I never could have done it.

There is an organizational mindset that runs through the place that I worked, seeming to devalue their employees. Maybe it’s because they’re the largest employer and source of income for the entire island – there is no one to hold them accountable. The people of that island are some of the kindest, heartiest folks that will band together in a pinch to help each other out – I find it entirely plausible that those people simply don’t look for the dark side in the same way that my city-bred cynicism seeks it.

I talked to a lady who has worked for them for years – she told me that the state passed a Medicaid provider cost-of-living increase a while ago onto the organization, and she’s still waiting for it. She said she went to the head honcho, and he told her that he was “looking into whether or not we have to pass that money along.”

I talked to a guy who got fired after working for them for years. The general consensus in the rumor mill was that he had pushed back, questioning the practices of the company in the ways that they managed risks, logistics, and employees. He was apologetic, and complimented his bosses and co-workers. He said that what made him saddest was the way that the people he had long considered friends had immediately shunned him, and no longer spoke to him any more. I witnessed it, as I sat next to him on the barstool and saw most of the people who worked with us carefully avoid coming close to where we were.

Next year, they want us to pay them to train us on how to do the job we’ve already done. It’s not a lot of money, just $150, but when you add up the other expenses, it becomes a lot. They’re willing to pay us for the classroom time – $10 an hour for 8 hours each day – but once we go into the field for “field training”, we’re supposed to reimburse them for the cost of our food.

Most of the guides don’t live in Wrangell – during the winter, the already suffering economy seems to practically shut down. The fishermen and loggers aren’t working, no construction gets done, and there aren’t any tourists. The few viable service jobs are already taken by locals, and so the nomadic field guides normally go home to spend some time with loved ones in the off-season.

I made the decision to come to Portland. It’s got the west-coast food scene that I missed, plus I figured I could score a cheap room and a tolerable job. It’s worked out well. It’s about as cheap as it gets to fly to Wrangell from here – cheaper than Anchorage, even, although I couldn’t tell you why.

All told, when you combine the extra cost of food, lodging, and airfare, it’ll cost me about $850 to go to training. When you add in the $150 that they’d like me to pay them, it would’ve cost $1,000. In my mind, there’s a great reason why I can’t afford to pay that: I only made $10,000 this year. That even sounds like more than it is – it cost me about $4,000 in airfare, gear, and the Wilderness First Responder training that I was required to get. That means that after netting $6,000 in annual income, I’m supposed to shell out to come back and get trained on how to do the job I’ve already proven I can do?

They also made the decision to cut the pay of their top people who have been their the longest, and to add additional responsibilities to an already-obscene list of things that the Head Guide on each program takes on.

I can definitely understand the reasons behind all of this – organizations need to save money, and it’s good to cut costs. Salaries and pay need to be reviewed, and where things should be adjusted, they should be.

According to my calculations, there are exactly 3 people who were impacted by the cut from the top. Does that really make sense not to grandfather in the salaries of those people in that have demonstrated their ability to implement a really challenging program?

Let’s take a look at the expectations of the employer in this circumstance:

– Work 55 days straight with no breaks (49 days in field, plus 3 days prepping & 3 days closing down)
– Work 16 hour days, more if the kids don’t go to sleep when they’re told (which they certainly don’t always)
– Maintain constant, 24/7 responsibility for the lives of 11 other people in what the Coast Guard considers to
be the harshest climate on the continent
– Write approximately 900-1,500 words of paperwork each day on each kid (amounts to well over a novel for
each guide on each program)
– Implement therapeutic goals in absence of outside involvement, transforming lives of children & setting them
on path to success
– Manage logistics of 49-day wilderness expedition that may include (but is not limited to) hiking in a
rainforest absent trails, canoeing in high-traffic oceanic waterways (about 150 miles from where a lot of
“Deadliest Catch” is filmed), paddling down one of the world’s largest rivers, and climbing a 10,000 foot old
volcano with a glacier on the top of it.

It’s not an easy job, although it is by far and away the most rewarding experience I have ever undertaken. I am so amazed to be a witness to the incredible people who take this on – I would never want to be a head guide for this company. Every time something life-threatening happens, or a kid has “behavior”, it means more paperwork for the head guide – in addition to what has to be already done. All that means is that the guide team gets less sleep. Sleep deprivation is considered to be one of the best forms of torture, but it is assumed that you will sacrifice sleep for paperwork.

During my time doing this, I was being paid $120 a day. That sounds good, except for the 16 hour days… it works out to $7.50 an hour, less than minimum wage in Portland. Let me be very clear – I was thrilled. I was not there for the money, nor was I going to go back for the money – it was all about the experience.

Knowing that they were trying to cut costs, I would certainly be happy to help out, if I could. While I was working for them, I got to see a lot of wasted money – knee-jerk reactions to situations that resulted in thousands of dollars spent on jet boats, float planes, and airfare across Alaska. I personally escorted a kid back home, flying from Wrangell to Anchorage, staying overnight, and coming back – it cost the company $1,400 in airfare and hotel, plus another $200 to pay me – and I wasn’t needed (although that could be debated).

There were so many situations where transportation and administrative costs were pissed down the drain – and it’s really hard to see your employer wasting money and simultaneously telling you that they can’t pay you. It’s even worse to hear that the training is mandatory, and you’ve got to pay for it.

I told them I couldn’t, because of the financial situation I was in, and that I didn’t think it was fair to ask… and they thanked me for the feedback and wished me luck in the future.

I’m sad, because I wish that I could relive that experience. All the excitement of my Alaskan experience – the first time seeing the unending range of mountains that are simply nothing like anything in the lower 48, the experience of getting 9 adolescent boys to sing the Golden Girls theme song together (“Thank you for being a friend, travel down the road and back again”), watching 6 humpback whales fully breach 100 yards from our canoes – scared shitless that they would pop up under our tiny vessels but thrilled with every second of it, making it to the top of the mountain and falling through the glacier, catching myself on the lip of the ice.

There are so many more stories in my head. I know I’ll be back, someday – that town, and that place are forever carved into my mind. I want to paddle on the ocean there again, looking for glacial streams to drink from, eating berries from the bushes while scouting the bear tracks all around, seeing wolves, watching seals, whales, eagles, and ravens playing…

Wrangell, you have given me the monumental, life-changing experience that I sought, in more ways than I could possibly have expected. I learned about community, survival, peace of mind, the benefits of a slow pace, laughter, music, and much more.

I’m sad that I won’t be there this year to share all of that with you. I know that good will come of this, because I’m going to work to take these lessons of the wilderness with me. Thank you for what you’ve taught me – they will stay cherished jewels in my heart forever.

Kathryn and I shared a great experience, coming up to Alaska, and we are heartier people for it. We pushed the limits of what we thought we could endure, and took on greater challenges than we knew we could face. Wrangell became my home in the wilderness, a small town that I looked forward to being in, where she and I were once dubbed the King and Queen of Wrangell karaoke.

As silly as it all is, those songs still play on in my heart.

“Creating this new economy starts by accepting that there are no solutions except the ones we imagine and implement.”

Go back, read that one more time and think about what it means. It’s worth it.

Tiffany sent me a link to an incredibly well-written article that is grounded with all the sense and wisdom that a 94-year-old activist, writer, and educator could attain. I went to the website for the Boggs Center, where I read up on all that this woman has done.

Watching this amazing elder speaking with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now is great – her thoughts, her energy, her courage to continue to inspire and motivate the world around her to recognize our place in history is amazing.

When she spoke with Danny Glover, the conversation was more interesting. “Evolution is not only anatomical, but is social and cultural,” she said. “[W]e are now experiencing the collapse of industrial civilization.” I’m really curious to keep reading more about this woman’s work – she’s been in the trenches for decades.

Her discussions sparked a lot of thoughts for me – I’ve been puzzling through the idea of “this whole Detroit thing”. I’m really interested in helping to spark a revolution there, and I guess I’m just not ready to pack up my bags and move over to Detroit. At least not yet. In the mean time, I’d like to get involved, and I want to inspire other people to act.

That’s a big part of the idea of the Superhero Action Project – helping people to find their inner Superhero and to take Action. I think the idea of projects works really well for people, since that’s the way that my generation seems to work. We take on projects – a documentary film, an internship, a consulting gig – I look at my restaurant job as a project. It’s something I do now for a variety of reasons, but seeing it as a project allows it to have a conclusion. Used to be, folks thought in terms of careers… now we think projects.

So embracing this – what can I do from Portland to help out Detroit?

I think I’d like to sell t-shirts and seeds.

How will that help, you say?

The Boggs Center has these dead-sexy shirts – plain black or red with white lettering that says

{r}evolution

on it – because revolution is evolution, get it?

I think it would be really neat to sell seeds that we can send to Detroit, and to sell garden equipment that we can send there – to get people to donate their old gardening supplies would be awesome. I’m sure that people could use them – and seriously, is there anything better that could happen there than more vegetables going in the ground? Screw federal bailouts – let’s pay poor people to grow themselves food. Grace Lee Boggs has been mobilizing youth to plant community gardens for years – let’s send them the supplies to keep doing more.

Grace Lee Boggs, you have reminded me that we are in the middle of the revolution that began in the 1960s, and I thank you for that. Because I was born into this time, it is hard for me to know the historical context of my surroundings – but thank god for great history teachers. In hundreds of years, when decades are explained away in small sentences and no longer even merit paragraphs, much less pages, they will write of this time as one of great change.

“May you live in interesting times.” – old curse.

Here we are people, in the middle of a great revolution. You are a Superhero, surrounded by turmoil. Victims are all around you – those who need food, water, shelter, and love. The villains are behind gates and security devices, guarded day and night by hired professionals – they are the same ones who took federal bailouts to rake in huge profits… What do you do?

Thank you to a living Superhero. Thank you, Grace Lee Boggs, for reminding me of how I want to spend my life – who I want to be when I reach 94 years of age. Thank you for modeling the behavior of what it means to be human.

“What’s to stop us now from turning Detroit — its highly trained engineering talent, its skilled and unskilled workforce desperate for employment, its underutilized production facilities — into the Arsenal of the Renewable Energy Future?

If we did, Detroit could go back to building something America needs. As a nation, we could prove that we can still make things. And while we’re at it, we could regenerate not just a city but our sense of who we are.”

Thanks to Julia for sending me this link to Time Magazine’s most recent installment in their Detroit series. It’s clear to me, and to a great many of other people, that this nation needs jobs. Detroit is a prime example of why the quality of the jobs is just as important as quantity. As a nation, are we ready to wake up to the fact that we have an incredibly huge under-educated, under-served urban underclass of people who are very poorly qualified to hold jobs?

This makes me think back to my time living on Chicago’s West side… in a neighborhood that was worse than Detroit’s current 28.9% unemployment. I remember the two-block-long line for jobs when a new dollar store opened up. One politician there said that the unemployment rate of her congressional district was about 60% unemployment – and that was in 2005, when few people recognized we had a problem.

Who is going to go into Detroit and implement Van Jones’ green jobs program? Who is willing to invest time and energy into an area so blighted that there are no services, no food, and no neighbors?

This sounds like a job for some serious superhero action…

More to come. Stay tuned!

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