social commentary


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.

I wrote the letter below in response to a NY Times op-ed piece by a Harvard econ professor.  N. Gregory Mankiw uses himself as an example of why rich people would stop working if taxes were higher – a dangerous myth that circulates whenever talk of raising taxes arises.

I’m sharing it here because I’ve had access to some very ambitious people who are motivated by money, and they don’t think in the same way that normal people do.  I’m speaking of the people who put aside their families and their relationships for the sake of business, and those who wage war to make a profit.

My family members are primarily good-hearted working-types who can’t even conceive of the type of greed that they hear about in the news each day.  My grandpa can’t imagine that people would actually wage war over oil – for him, there is nothing as valuable as a human life.

For many rich and powerful people, money in the bank is worth a lot more than a human life.  The role of government is to safeguard the people from this type of dangerously ambitious greed.  When this type of myth is spread, it results in policy that undermines the ability of good people to make a decent living – much like the recession that we’re in today.

from Aaron McManus
to ngmankiw@harvard.edu
date Thu, Oct 14, 2010 at 11:57 AM
subject Ambitious people don’t work less, but academics might.

Mr. Mankiw,

With all due respect, you are spreading a highly damaging myth by using yourself as an example.

As an academic, writer, and teacher, it’s safe to assume that you’re motivated by thoughts and ideas.  Your concept of the legacy that you want to leave most likely is propelled by thinking about the innovative thoughts that can impact and shift the way that economics are considered in the general public, and not about how much money is in the bank when you die.  You say yourself that you “don’t aspire for much more than a typical upper-middle-class lifestyle.”

You have fought hard to get to your position of success as a Harvard professor – but please consider that most of the people who are in the top 5% of income-earners do not define success in the same way that you do.  Please consider these two (cliche) quotes from two “titans of industry”:

“Life is a game. Money is how we keep score.” – Ted Turner 

&

“After a certain point, money is meaningless. It ceases to be the goal. The game is what counts.”  – Aristotle Onassis

When people are playing a game, they simply want to achieve the highest score.  It doesn’t really matter how the rules are defined – because a basketball player scores more points per game than a soccer player does not make him a superior athlete.  They are simply playing games with different rules. 

The athlete, like the titan of industry or the academic, is motivated by a level of mastery.  Most successful people define themselves by comparison to others within their field – we want to “best” our competition, to emerge victorious – this could easily be wrapped into a larger discussion of human nature emerging from a competitive biological drive motivated by natural selection.  The difference is that the “titan of industry” keeps score through money – the Forbes list of the richest people springs to mind.

Why would someone who has worked exclusively to attain vast sums of wealth simply stop?  The wealthy people I’ve known who have “worked their way up” do not have a sense of “enough” – they want to see simply how much they can attain before they reach retirement.  It’s the same motivation that I see with people playing video games – the quest to see if they can beat the high score of the other people who play the same game.  In the case of the financially-motivated, the higher the bank balance, the higher the quality of lifestyle.  In our consumer-driven world, there is no end to the status symbols that can be attained  – and consequently no end to the desire to attain them.

By using yourself as an example, you promote an idea which resonates with “normal” Americans who are not exclusively motivated by money. Most people are not titans of industry, and have not had direct access to the minds of the uber-wealthy.  Most people aspire to a sense of “enough” – they desire security for themselves and their children, and probably a place of contentment – the noble “pursuit of happiness” that we are told we are entitled to as Americans.

The myth that you are spreading becomes dangerous because you attach it to economic policy – and your position at Harvard and the nature of an op-ed piece in the NY Times lends credibility to your views.  The problem is that our policy is not shaped by people who have a sense of “enough” – many of our past presidents and global leaders of the past 300 years have reminded us of the dangers of big banks and the military-industrial complex who simply will not stop seeking wealth until they die.  In its ideal, our government exists to protect “average people” from those who would do them harm in the quest of attainment.

Our legislative process determines the “rules of the game” that the uber-wealthy play – but these “rules” are felt by average people as the economic policy that shapes our lives.  Is it realistic to assume that a titan of industry would withdraw from the game simply because it was a little harder to increase his or her wealth?  No more realistic than believing that Michael Jordan would have stopped playing basketball if they moved the net an inch higher.  It simply increases the challenge, which whets the appetite of the ambitious person, not drives him or her away.

Good fiscal policy requires more than just increased taxes on the wealthy.  There are many challenges that we face as a country, and our sharpest minds should be attuned towards solutions.  I would ask you to consider the mentality of the people who drive and shape our economic policy, and put yourself aside.  I think that if you do, you’ll find that you do not share the same motivations as those who would seek only money.  You probably have more in common with hard-working Americans who simply want to provide a better quality of life for their children and their communities than those who would stop at nothing to attain vast sums of wealth.

Please consider the ramifications of spreading the idea that rich people would stop working if taxes were higher.  The net impact of the myth that you are spreading will be harmful to the policy that results.

Thank you for your consideration.

Sincerely,

Aaron McManus
630.240.3072

 

 

—– update: 10/15/10 I received an email reply thanking me for my comment, which was certainly gracious of Mr. Mankiw.

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.”

Every business should look to the emerging field of community development for tools that will help to grow their corporate culture.

Every community should look to successful business examples of internal cultural development for the techniques that work to establish consensus.

Steps that work:

1 – Ask questions, don’t presume solutions.

Too often external consultants presume that they know what’s best for a group of people – in an organization, community, or corporate environment.  The first and best practice should always be to assess first, analyze later.

2 – The solutions are always within the group.

Group dynamics are the same wherever humans gather.  The process itself is the solution – too often people sit through ineffective meetings where the same things are regurgitated, the same people dominate the conversation, and the leaders don’t know how to lead.  I guarantee you that there is a solution to any problem within any group that has organized around a collective purpose.

3 – Never underestimate the importance of politics.

Human emotions and relationships are irrational.  All fields of study attempt to categorize irrational behavior into sequential and logical portions – that’s a large part of the human quest for knowledge.  We’re doing a great job.

There are always unknown relationships at play.  Step back, hold the big picture (the mission of the group), and know that the process will never go as fast as you would like it to go.  Don’t tell anyone else to do the same thing – when you encounter frustration (or other negative emotions), make time to listen and understand the layers under the surface.

4 – Find shared purpose, and hold on tight.

Why do people organize into communities?  Why do we decide to work for one business and not another?

The answers always come back to shared values. To effectively manage any group, you must constantly remind the participants of the benefits of their involvement.

Studs Terkel said something to the effect that communities form where there is shared action with purpose.  Whenever we get together to accomplish something, we have formed a community.

The largest question that remains:  What do we want to accomplish?

“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.

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