Monthly Archives: July 2013

We’re all mad here

I’ll be offline the rest of the week as the OPENAIR Circus season wraps up.

A non-profit, volunteer-run organization, it’s been my privilege to work with the circus for over 10 years.

Every summer, this community comes together in parks and fields, teaching, sharing, and learning a range of circus and performing skills.

Everyone is welcome at the circus, and everyone has something to offer.

Every year, there are many new faces and many returning faces. I’ve seen families grow, watched kids become people, and made many friends along the way.

The circus is a special place. And a true community.

The tent goes up tomorrow, followed by four performances Friday-Sunday. Here’s to Circus 2013!

Rising of the OPENAIR Circus tent! from Sarah Shugars on Vimeo.

Extended youth and the myth of adulthood

I had today off work, but I woke up with a long list of to-dos.

First, I’m off work because I’m working for the OPENAIR Circus. So I should have spent the morning working on the program book for the performances this weekend.

Second, there’s still a few work-work related things percolating on my mind, so I thought about working on some of that.

After that comes a long litany of tasks from following up on emails to cleaning the house to weeding the yard.

And all I really wanted to do was stay in bed and read.

I ended up doing a little of all the of the above. And while I was out in the yard, pulling up the weeds that have been slowly encroaching on every possible inch, I thought about how hard it is to be an adult.

I mean, there’s just so much to do.

Psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, from my alma mater Clark University, studies what he calls “emerging adulthood” – roughly that period between 18-29 when you’re kinda an adult, but kinda not, because you’re getting older but you don’t really have your life pulled together.

Well, that’s how I would define it.

There’s all kinds of research from Arnett and others on this “new” stage in life development.

  • The key to becoming an adult is accepting responsibility for yourself (50% parents/36% emerging adults).
  • The longer road to adulthood is both positive and negative (44% parents). Or just mostly negative (43% parents).
  • Young people receive little to no financial support from their parents (69% emerging adults).

Now, this is all well and good, but with all the talk about how kids are taking longer to grow up and how 30 is the new whatever, I can’t help but wonder – what does it mean to be an adult anyway?

I mean, I’m more or less pulled together. I moved out of my parents house (and across the country) when I was 16. I have a job, a mortgage, and a retirement plan.

But I don’t really think of myself as an adult.

I’m not that grown up.

I’m no doughty, dull, matron overly concerned with the habits proper for a lady. Growing up hasn’t made it be beneath my dignity to climb a tree.

And more than that. Despite being mostly pulled together, I’m still kind of a mess.

Among the causes of declining social capital, Robert Putnam laments that entertaining guests in the home has fallen by 30-40 percent.

Putnam blames this on TV.

I blame it on my messy house.

I’d be ashamed to admit that, except the reality is that every adult I know struggles to get to everything. Everyone’s a mess.

We’re all frantically trying to pay our bills on time, keep our houses and yards looking neighborly, and stay on top of a million other little tasks. All while working, living, and, in most cases, caring for family members.

As a youth, or in my emerging adulthood, I kept waiting for this moment when I’d suddenly become June Cleaver (or something?) and suddenly be able to handle everything that was thrown my way. Lacking such an ease of dealing with things, I assumed that I was just not an adult yet.

I still managed to renew my passport, show up places on time, and not bounce any checks. But it continually felt like a struggle. It never magically got easy.

And now that I’m officially an adult, I’ve come to more fully appreciate the truth. We’re all just emerging adults – whether we’re 25 or 52.

We’re all just doing the best we can to be as pulled together as we can. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t.

But most of the time – we’re all just pretending to be grown-ups.

Kudzu Causes

There’s a lot wrong with the world, and unfortunately much of it is systemic.

And the systems that are in place are self-reinforcing.

So as time goes on, the systems just gain strength.

As activists and educators we challenge people to think about root causes – as if a hand trowel and a strong yank is enough to get the job done.

And it is a challenge to think about root causes.

Because it’s so much easier to paint over the problem in front of you. That’s a manageable task. And then you’ve accomplished something.

Isn’t that nice?

So we encourage people to go deeper. To not only feed the hungry and shelter the homeless, but to ask – why are people hungry and why are people homeless?

To address the root cause.

But what if even that is not enough?

Because systemic issues are so much deeper. So much tougher.

Systemic issues take in five, or six, or seven root causes. All tangled together and spreading like weeds. Growing up all over everything. Strangling all the other vines.

Peter Buffet – son of multibillionaire Warren Buffet – recently called for an Unger-smashing of how we think about global philanthropy:

“Money should be spent trying out concepts that shatter current structures and systems that have turned much of the world into one vast market,” he wrote in a NY Times op-ed.

A few days later, science writer Moises Velasquez-Manoff delved into the science of stress and status:

“[Neuroscientists] talk about the ‘biological embedding’ of social status. Your parents’ social standing and your stress level during early life change how your brain and body work, affecting your vulnerability to degenerative disease decades later.”

Whether it’s “philanthropic colonialism,” as Buffet calls it, or issues of entrenched socio-economics, for me, the systemic issues covered in both articles feel much deeper than root causes.

After reading those articles, root causes seem easy.

Maybe it’s a matter of semantics.

Or maybe it’s about pushing hard while leaving room for hope.

But I, for one, feel like we need to start thinking broader and deeper.

I’m the first to admit that when I try to push past root causes in my own thinking, I am quickly overwhelmed by the scope.

Everything’s so complicated. And entrenched. And seemingly impossible to deal with.

And that may be true to some extent.

But I know I can’t address a problem if I can’t even conceive of it.

Unger Smash!

In addition to my made up rule that I should blog every weekday, I have a made up rule that no post should take me more than 20 minutes to write.

I have to write about something that’s speaking to me enough that the words flow naturally from my thoughts with minimal editing and rejiggering.

But it’s Friday. And I’m tired.

I started a post about defining the good life.

But I wasn’t really thinking about the good life. I’d been thinking about it earlier, but didn’t get around to writing it down.

And by the time I started writing, all I was thinking was that it’s Friday. And I’m tired.

I tried to get energized and get back in to it, but that doesn’t seem to be a successful strategy at the moment.

So I’m going to cheat a little bit, and instead of writing, I’ll just share this image of Roberto Unger, whom I’ve blogged about before, smashing contexts.  Well, this isn’t really him smashing contexts, but this is how I like to imagine it:

Happy weekend, friends.


How much do you care?

This morning there was a 7-alarm fire in Somerville. The Somerville Patch estimated 45 displaced with 8 homes damaged.

I saw the story on the news before I left the house. I saw the helicopters as I headed to the gym. Everyone at the gym was talking about it. I smelled the smoke as I walked to work.

When I saw that the good folks over at the Somerville Homeless Coalition were collecting donations to support people displaced from this and other fires, I felt the need to donate. To support these neighbors I’d never met.

And if you feel the same need, go ahead and donate. The purpose of this post is not to dissuade you otherwise.

But my impulse to support people whom I felt connected to, even though I’m not (?), made me think back to one of the readings from the Summer Institute – a chapter from Peter Singer’s One World.

Singer points to a common dissonance of reasoning: proclaiming that all human life is equally precious, yet feeling a stronger obligation to some people over others.

While he logically ticked through the partiality people feel towards their family, friends, neighbors, countrymen, etc., proclaiming some okay and others unfounded, I found the dissonance of the question still resonating.

His ultimate point – that everyone should donate 1% of their annual income to the world’s poorest citizens – doesn’t strike the same nerve that the neighborhood fire stuck this morning.

My immediate response to the dissonance is one of efficiency and impact – I am confident that the Somerville donation will make a significant impact, while I feel less confident about the impact of an international donation. While that logistical concern may be well founded, it feels hollow in comparison to my genuine reactions.

My next response is one of capacity – I could give up everything I have and still not fix the terrible, global inequality or make a dent in global poverty.

That feels more authentically close to my concern – when I start to think about the world’s problems on this scale, my mind quickly spirals out of control. I can’t figure out where the line is – how much should I reasonably give? What low level of giving makes me a terrible person?

Singer’s 1% suggestion is meant to alleviate this anxiety, but the arbitrariness of that number leaves me empty.

It also seems to come from a wildly different understanding of the cost of living.

But it does make me think.

Maybe the amount doesn’t matter so much. Maybe it is just arbitrary. But maybe we should all do just a little bit more to make the world more equitable.

Support those in your community and support those abroad.

But do what you can to do just a little bit more.

Inclusion and Efficiency

I think one of the biggest tensions I run into – or at least one I think about a lot – is the conflict between inclusion and efficiency.

In high school, my government teacher was an aid for a State Rep. in California. (I took this class at a community college rather than at my high school). He talked a lot about how the state government worked, and sometimes complained about how long it took to get anything done.

But what I remember most is that even in complaining about the inefficiency of the system, he was quick to point out:

The system is inefficient, but it was intentionally designed that way.

The inefficiency ensures time for discussion. For deliberation. For ensuring that what seemed like a good idea actually is a good idea.

The inefficiency is good.

In my currently life, practicing the dark arts of marketing – even for the power of good – I find I’m often trying to create the illusion of inclusion while secretly plotting for the power of efficiency.

That is to say, I often need buy-in from people whom I don’t really have the time to get buy-in from.

When I plan a project, I try to think about who needs to know what when or how to generate buy-in and a sense of inclusion among core constitutents.

But I tend to think in terms of impediments which make the process inefficient, rather than as valuable insights that make the end product better.

Now, to be fair, it depends on the project, the people, and the context I’m working in – sometimes I really do need people’s input. But sometimes – just sometimes – I include people because I’m thinking that ultimately I need them to be on board and talking to them now will create the impression they were consulted.

It’s no wonder I generally assume public processes are a sham.

I’d be a terrible city planner.

Sure, I’d listen intently to the input of the average citizen, but really the process of asking for their input is there just so they feel like they were involved. So they’re not surprised by the end result. So they feel, falsely, that they were part of the process.

And making them feel that was restores efficiency, because when the project is being implemented, they have less room to complain. After all, they were part of the process.

In case you’re wondering, my devotion to efficiency is roughly reason #46 that I’m a terrible person.

But the good news is that the first step is admitting you have a problem


Don’t trust me anymore (or, the value of youth engagement)

As I officially age out of the “youth” demographic (seems to go on a while, doesn’t it?), I wanted to take a moment to say that young people are actually kinda important and we should go ahead and listen to them from time to time.

And if you think young people don’t care, aren’t informed, or whatever other negative stereotype you want to throw out there, you’re mistaken.

In the 2012 presidential election, young people 18-29 (that was me!), had a 45% turn out rate. Folks 30 and up, on the other hand, voted at rate of 66%. Okay, let’s dig into those numbers a bit.

About half of all young people have no college experience. Half. The 2012 turnout rate among folks with no college experience was 28.6%. That compares to the 55.9% turnout of their college-educated peers.

I’m getting these numbers from my brilliant colleagues over at the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE). Go ahead and check it out.

Add to that the fact that it can be more complicated to vote when you’re first registering, and those numbers start to look a little different.

When I first tried to vote, I registered in my home state of California and requested an absentee ballot be sent to my Massachusetts address. The absentee ballot arrived about a month after the election.  So, then I decided to vote from Massachusetts. I registered through some group that was canvassing on campus. And then….my name wasn’t on the voter rolls. Special thanks to the poll workers who let me cast a provisional ballot, though.

I haven’t had any such complications since.

With a flurry of new – or discussion of new – voting laws in many states, registering and voting is getting more complicated then ever.

It doesn’t seem that hard to figure out when you’re already registered and just have to roll up to the same polling place twice a year or more, but trust me. It really is kind of complicated.

But, what I really want to talk about is the half of the population that has no college experience.

Now, I don’t mean to turn this into a discussion of whether or not everyone should go to college, but the reality is that college provides a significant amount of resources, skills, and social capital that is not generally available to people outside it’s walls.

So you end up with a system where folks who have some resources get themselves in a ton a debt for more resources, while folks who have few resources…still have no resources.

And worse, yet, those folks with few resources are systematically shut out of civic life. Not just voting – compared to their peers with some college experience, youth with no college experience have lower rates of being involved in a community project, being contacted by a political party, reading the newspaper, attending public meetings, and being a union member. (CIRCLE again).

Not only are they not asked to participate, the system makes it pretty clear that their participation is not wanted. And besides all that, they’ve got serious shit to do.

And having a bunch of grown-ups calling them ne’er-do-wells and scoundrels really doesn’t help too much. You should be encouraging them to have their voices heard.

Genuinely encouraging.

So next time you wonder why the youth in this country play their music loud and don’t care as much as you did when you were their age, please stop and ask yourself – what are the institutional structures perpetuating that activity and what have you done to combat them?

Young people really do have important things to say.

But don’t trust me — I’m over 30.


The Forest and the Trees

I tend to be a very action-oriented person. I don’t really know what that means, but it sounds like a good approximation of my reality.

I’ve recently noticed that I’m continually saying things such as, “Yes, this IS happening,” or “No, that’s NOT happening,” or even, “Let’s MAKE this happen.” As if sheer force of will alone is enough to determine the future.

Generally, I think being action-oriented is a good thing. There are, after all, many things that need to be acted upon.

But there’s a danger in this, too. The danger of diving too deep into the weeds, of focusing on the tactic not the strategy, of neglecting thinking in the face of doing.

I’ve blogged every weekday for the past two weeks as I participated in the Summer Institute of Civic Studies. At lunch time, I’d run back to my office and ask myself – of all the thoughts jostling around in my head, which seemed the most compelling, the most coherent?

It wasn’t always easy to pick out the line of thinking that could be quickly translated into a blog post, but there was always something there to choose from. Today, after a staff meeting and a 2 hour conference call to kick off my first day back to normal life, lunch time rolled around and I stopped to ask myself what I should post about.

All I could think of was my half-formulated to-do list. All I could think of was action.

Now, to be fair, today was my first day back and I am definitely feeling wiped out after the last two weeks. But I’d like to continue blogging and using this a venue to process my thoughts.

So this is the challenge to me: to make time for the thinking as well as the doing. To appreciate the forest as well as the trees.

Google Searches

In honor of the Summer Institute of Civic Studies, which ended yesterday, here are just a few of the things I’ve Googled over the last few weeks:

P. T. Barnum, Jumbo the Elephant, and the Barnum Museum of Natural History at Tufts University
Robert Putnam
Political Psychology
Center for Civic Media
Civic Boston
Federalist Papers
Habermas tandem bike
Hardin commons
How many continents are there
Hulk smash
Petty bourgeois radical
Pirate democracy
PT Barnum Tufts
Reasons to be cheerful
Roberto Unger
The Good Society Journal
The ones we’ve been waiting for
Unger smash


Solutions for an Innovative Society

As our country, it seems like innovation is a core part of our goal. We want to advance technology and understanding. To build faster machines, more efficient machines, and, one can hope, more sustainable machines.

But innovation is hard. Not only because of the education and cost that goes into creating the innovation, but because of the human cost associated.

Manufacturing is out, the tech sector is in. Old tech is out, new tech is in.

If you can’t keep up, that’s your problem – you should just retrain for another job. Assuming you have the option to retrain. And assuming you can find someone to hire you if you’re over 50 and spent your whole career working in a now dead sector of society.

So good luck with that.

As we rethought a Constitution in class yesterday – ours, incidentally, put human well-being at the center – I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a better way.

Could we as a society support innovation by providing for people who are innovated right out of work?

I don’t know. But it would be interesting to map out how that would work.

I think of it as something of a Social Security system, but I’m not sure if the today’s workers pay for today’s retirees would work.

I also wonder what sort of regulations would be in place to moderate who benefits. Would you get support if you lost your job at any point over a certain age? Or only if you’d been working a specific, recently downsized industry?

Just some questions to ponder on this ridiculously hot day. Give me a shout if you have any solutions.