Monthly Archives: June 2014

Sine Waves

Someone once told me, My life is like a Sine Wave – it just goes up and down, up and down.

This is, perhaps, a poetic overstating of fact, yet it artfully captures the cyclical nature of life. The summation of all our experience may not make a perfectly formed normal distribution, yet prevailing wisdom would indicate that, yes, some things are bad, but it’s okay because some things are better.

It all evens out in the end. Up and down, up and down.

You can take that concept a step further, imagining the amplitude of life. If life is a sine wave, how high are the peaks and how low are the valleys?

It’s speculated that mental illness is an inseparable companion from creative genius. To truly create objects of awe and wonder, you need to be broken and pained. To achieve greatness, you need to experience despair.

The greater your depths, the greater your heights.

This frenetic, passionate, existence is high-amplitude living.

If that sounds unappealing, consider its alternative:

At it’s most extreme, low-amplitude living would be static. Instead of varying up and down, the sine wave would be steady at zero. A flat line maintaining a calm, constant existence. Never elated. Never depressed. Just steady. A static white noise.

Both waves average to be the same over time, yet these existences are not the same. But who’s to say which existence is better? Would you prefer a tumultuous torment of change, or a static, steady, stream?

Extremes, of course, are so rarely ideal – most people don’t really want to be the tortured artist or the static, unassuming, soul. Presumably, the ideal is somewhere in between but what does this mid-amplitude living really look like?

Photosynthesis for Humans

“Unlike other essential vitamins, which must be obtained from food, vitamin D can be synthesized in the skin through a photosynthetic reaction triggered by exposure to UVB radiation,” states a report from the National Institute of Health.

The initial photosynthesis produces vitamin D3, which regulates “at least 1,000 different genes governing virtually every tissue in the body.” Further transformations occur, generating forms of vitamin D which regulate calcium absorption and promote bone health.

With Victorian social norms mandating the avoidance of exposed skin, “By the late 1800s, approximately 90% of all children living in industrialized Europe and North America had some manifestations” of rickets – skeletal deformity due to low bone health.

With already low sunlight levels in these Northern climates, the addition of clothing layers proved unconducive to one’s health.

High vitamin D levels have been found to reduce the risk of tuberculosis, and could be linked to lower levels of cancer – except, of course, skin cancer. Other studies tie low vitamin D levels to everything from multiple sclerosis to hypertension.

Sunlight also plays a key role in the body’s production of Serotonin – or, as my sister used to call it, “the happy drug.” Low levels of this neurotransmitter have been correlated with “higher levels of irritability, impulsivity, aggression, disordered eating, and sleeping problems.”

Too much sun exposure can be bad, of course, but photosynthesizing vitamin D seems to have a lot going for it.

But really what I’m trying to say is – man, isn’t it nice out?

The first rule of show business

My father always told me that the first rule of show business is to keep smiling.

More generally, this could be stated as stay in character, but keep smiling joyfully mocks the stereotypical stage mom who can be spotted yelling, “Sing out, Louise!” from the wings.

Keep smiling.

I like to think of this as a dramatic restating of the “the show must go on.” Because what does it really mean that the show must go on? It doesn’t just mean the show needs to start regardless of difficulty – it needs to continue regardless of difficulty.

The show must go on. Stay in character. Never break.

Keep smiling.

My father had stories of actors who improvised in iambic pentameter or who effortlessly recovered from defective – or fiendishly altered – props.

The pros don’t miss a beat.

The wonder of live theater is that you never know what’s going to happen. Every run is a little different. Every moment something could go wrong. And it’s pretty much a fact of theater that inevitably something will go wrong.

But it doesn’t matter. Whatever happens, whatever unexpected thing comes your way, the show must go on. Never miss a beat. Never break character.

Just keep going and remember the first rule of show business: keep smiling.

Local v. National

“Local” and “national” are generally considered to be vastly different scales which can also be differentiated from their intermediaries of “regional” and “state-level” – not to mention the overarching “international.”

But are these scales inherently different? Or is there something in the framing that can bring these views together?

Conventionally, one imagines the “local” activist entirely absorbed in the intrigue of a few square miles. Interacting with a relatively small network of individuals whom they are just as likely to encounter in the grocery store as at a community meeting. The local actor is king of a tiny hill.

The “national” activist, on the other hand, seeks the holy grail – broad policy solutions to complex, context-dependent problems. Interacting with others from across the country caught up in this impossible quest, the national activist tries desperately to knit a patchwork of local perspectives into a cohesive whole.

These are caricatures, to be sure.

Regardless of one’s local/national orientation, it’s generally agreed that both (or all) levels of effort are needed to bring about change. Yet even with this conscious respect, subtle hints and innuendo hint at secret disdain for divergent approaches.

Local activists think too small. National activists are out of touch.

I’ve enjoyed the pros and cons of working at national, regional, and local levels – though, for full disclosure, local is where the bulk of my experience lies.

And perhaps it’s this local orientation, but I can’t shake the feeling that there’s a different way to think about national work.

It doesn’t have to be a pyramid with local feeding up to regional, feeding up to national. Logistically, you’d probably need some such structure, but I imagine something much more dynamic and lateral.

What if people working locally in Somerville, MA connected with people working locally in Oakland, CA? What lessons could we learn from each other? What strategies could we share? What could we learn about the role of context – why what works in Oakland doesn’t necessarily work in Somerville?

And what if instead of crying, not in my back yard, we jointly found solutions – if we jointly explored cycles of gentrification and poverty.

I imagine a national network of local activists. Focused on the problems of their neighbors, but mindful of realities a thousand miles away. Activists who can track how a change in this community effects a change in that community. Who can think thoughtfully and collectively about how the complex pieces connect to a complex whole.

Somehow, when stated that way, local and national don’t seem so different any more.

Learning by watching

Somewhere along the line I seem to have become quite gregarious.

I’m not exactly sure how that happened – being outgoing has never exactly been in my nature. My sister used to tell people I was mute – a description which would often seem to be confirmed when I’d go whole social engagements without speaking.

It’s not necessarily that I didn’t have anything to say – but simply that there was so much to observe. I could spend whole evenings just sitting in the corner. Watching.

Eventually, I suppose, I decided I wanted to be more outgoing. Or at least to present the appearance thereof. You can learn a lot from talking with people – an action that’s somewhat challenging when you find yourself unable to talk.

For me, I’d say, socializing is a learned activity. My impression is that’s not the case for many, if not most, people. For some, it seems, socializing comes as naturally as breathing. For others, it is work.

I started by watching how other people acted and interacted.

Women, I determined in middle school, are supposed to be perfect while complaining about how hard it is to be perfect and while denying that they are perfect. You should be skinny, but eat junk food. Worry about what you eat, but say you don’t diet. You should do well in school, but call yourself an idiot.

There were a lot of unspoken rules, it seemed.

For a time, I tried to conform to these rules. I felt that awkward social pressure to feel above awkward social pressure.

But, I found, such behavior wasn’t really me, and therefore difficult, if not impossible, to maintain. At least I didn’t care to try any more.

Similarly, I adopted and abandoned behaviors linked to the importance of drinking coffee and wearing cowl-necked sweaters in the work place. I realized I would always be the kind of professional who engaged sharpies, paper clips and duct tape in attempting to appear in professional attire. I eventually came to the conclusion that if I wear heels, I’m more likely to fall unprofessionally than to stand out professionally.

Learning by watching was great, but none of it was me.

This is not a quandary I have yet resolved – nor one, I suspect that anyone ever fully resolves. But, I have found, this – what matters the most is that I’m genuine to myself. I can learn tips and tricks from other people. I can give myself practices exercises – like requiring I make small talk in elevators. I can watch others and I can learn from others.

But at the end of the day – I socialize in whatever way I feel so moved.

Even if that’s sitting in the corner. Watching.

Order and chaos

Order and chaos seem like they might be opposites. Order is, well, orderly, while chaos is, perhaps, not.

In chaos theory, chaos arises when a minor change in initial conditions leads to a dramatic change in outcome. I used to do this in computer programming – randomly choose a seed number between, say, .01 and .05, put it through a complex equation, and see what comes out. When the output value has a range dramatically beyond the .04 difference in starting variables, you know you have a chaotic system.

Fractals are a visualization of this principal. Chaos at it’s finest.

Chaos may also be interpreted as entropy – the lowest level energy state possible. By definition, entropy is disorder, but more subtly so than colloquial uses of that term might indicate.

Order takes energy. It takes work and thought and effort to create an ordered system – to build a tower of blocks, to clean a room, to maintain a molecule.

Eventually, that order degrades. Even the mightiest towers must fall. The thoughtful ordering of the universe degrades to its lowest energy state – entropy.

But does all of this mean that order and chaos are antonyms? I’m not sure.

While one describes an ordered state and the other a random state, the terms don’t seem mutually exclusive.

Fractal are certainly ordered, chaotic though they may be. The art of Jackson Pollock is chaotic, perhaps random, yet it shows a deep symmetry, a subtle meaning amid that randomness.

The connection between the terms seems more complex than language would typically imply.

Chaos is a natural state, Order is an interpretation.

An Evening at Aeronaut Brewing

AeronautIf you haven’t heard, Aeronaut Brewing will be opening in Somerville this weekend.

A craft brewery and urban farmhouse in the old Ames Envelope, Aeronaut features a line up of eight craft beers for a range of palates. Thanks to my work with Somerville Local First, I got a sneak peek at this new venue last night as they hosted a pre-opening “Somerville night”

Their beer, of course, was fantastic.

IMG_6418Among my personal favorite was the Lagerfeuer – made with smoked Butternut Squash. Yeah, you read that right. And it’s delicious.

Their maple beer – made in partnership with Groundwork Somerville – is a good choice for those who prefer darker beers. Their Imperial Stout is also a quality dark beer, with a rich, nutty flavor.

With the hot summer weather upon us, the Armadillo (made with Tangerines!) and the Saison are both light and refreshing.

IMG_6417And, their space is fantastic. Joining other local businesses such as Aerial Arts Craft and Brooklyn Boulders in giving Ames a life after death, they’ve opened their space to host Barismo coffee roasters and Something GUD, a CSA which includes ready-cooked meals and locally prepared treats.

All in all, a great new business for our Somerville Community!

Words cannot express…

As a general rule, I don’t use the expression, “words cannot express…”

As a communications professional, I feel as though – while words can never truly express, they are my medium and I must do with them as I can.

Like any medium, they will always want for something – words can not wholly describe my internal state any more than pictures or performance. Ideas are wild and no so easily captured.

But words can express a lot.

Tybalt is dead, and Romeo—banished.
That “banished,” that one word “banished,”
Hath slain ten thousand Tybalts –

That one word.

Perhaps words can never fully capture the depths of unbearable grief or the highs of soaring exultation – but nothing can ever fully capture those ineffable moments.

We are discrete particles. Forever apart.

Words aren’t all we have to express ourselves, but all meaning travels through a medium – and we must do our best to try.

Minor miracles

At a certain point yesterday, I decided I wasn’t going to accomplish anything today.

Not that I didn’t want to accomplish anything – I certainly have plenty to do – but as I mentally prepared myself for the day to come, a day full of back to back meetings seemed unlikely to culminate in feeling productive.

Too often back to back meetings result in running late and being unprepared. By the end, the whole day is a foggy blur of miscellaneous recollections.

So, I needed a lot of mental preparation to dive into today. What time did I need to walk out the door to get to my next location on time? What did I need to bring with me and when would I gather those materials? It requires a lot of thought.

But, I am so excited because today I managed to go to spin class, arrive on time to four different productive meetings, some of which required travel and some of which were over an hour, eat lunch (half at 1 and half at 3, but still), run an errand for a non-profit I work with, keep up with my (work) email, cross a few looming things off my to-do list, and get in a little reading.

I’ve still got one meeting to go, but, man, this day has been more productive than I thought.

…And this is how I take joy in the little things.

Wisdom never knows best

There is, of course, wisdom which comes from knowledge and experience. Burning your hand on a hot stove teaches you something about the optimal way of interacting with stoves.

And yet, it seems, there are few things as dangerous as the belief of expertise.

That is – just because my knowledge and experience has led me to certain conclusions, doesn’t make those conclusions Truth or even best. My knowledge and experience still has value – but it doesn’t capture the whole story.

Think of this in terms of microagressions, for example – a white person, no harm intended, asks a non-white person where he’s from.

The asker thinks he’s making small talk. The person being asked thinks their identity as an American is being questioned. Both perspectives are valid.

In the case of microagressions, it’s important to educate those in positions of power about how such statements may be received. Even if no harm was intended – there’s a problem if harm was the result.

But thinking more broadly, it’s not always clear who’s behavior needs to be corrected.

I remember this great Christopher Durang play – Laughing Wild. A woman opens talking about buying fish in the grocery store. Another person was in her way. She waits. The person doesn’t move. She doesn’t know what to do. She gets increasingly frustrated. Eventually she punches the guy. Serves him right for being so terrible.

The next scene opens with a man – seemingly unrelated to the first monologue. Eventually, he ends up explaining how some creepy person was stalking him at the grocery store. They just wouldn’t go away. He thinks maybe if he stands really still, eventually they’ll leave him alone. They don’t. This person just stands behind him. Staring. He is a afraid. He doesn’t know what to do. Eventually, the woman screams and punches him. He has no idea what’s going on.

While one could certainly put a gender analysis to that interaction, I prefer to interpret it more generally.

Sometimes I feel like we’re all those characters. Some days we’re swinging the punches and some day we’re the ones being swung at. But at the heart of it, none of us really know what’s going on – we know our own lives and worlds and realities, but we don’t know anyone else’s experience.

And without that full picture of experience and reality – how could we ever presume to know best?