Monday, February 23, 2009

Channeling My Inner Churchill

What is it about the British? What is it with our ongoing fascination, or at least mine?

Some of my favorite quotes are from dear old Winnie – Never, never, never give up. Or what about, If you are going through hell, keep going. That has helped me through the last three years of sandwich generation purgatory with my elderly parents.

And knowing that Churchill governed his nation through a war while suffering bouts of depression?! No wonder he’s my patron saint. No drama Obama? Nah, how about a cigar and a jigger of Scotch?

Now that we get to not only sound like our parents but relive their lives – aka The Greater Depression – we need a soundtrack and a mantra to get us through. Not that we don’t have our own great photos of bread lines and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” to fall back on. But it all sounds so much more civilized through the prism of the Queen’s English and a cuppa. Stiff upper lip and all that.

Your courage, your cheerfulness, your resolution will bring us victory – World War II poster – do read the article on the BBC site. Or like my English friend says, “You Americans whine too much.” Oh. I thought I was sharing. You mean I really am neurotic.

Perhaps it’s the gray, rainy weather we’re having in SoCal and that I get to use the blue EU umbrella my daughter gave me and that I schlepped home from Germany on the plane (No room for my restless legs but plenty for an umbrella during the greatest drought in a century) that brings out the English in me.

Or maybe it’s the Beatles album, yes, vinyl album, that the other daughter bought at a swap meet yesterday. “The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl.” I pointed to one of the two tickets on the cover and said, “I went to that concert,” where upon she immediately called her fellow swap meeter and said, minus a hello, “My mom went to that concert.” Who said your children won’t ever think you’re cool? Hah!

Or the tons of English lit I’ve consumed since “Le Morte d’Arthur” by Sir Thomas Malory in 9th grade followed by Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca” and her gothic copycats and reams more historical fiction from Roman Britain all the way through to Bridget Jones. Anyone for a little Emma Thompson?

In any case, I need something to calm my nerves because I’ll never be able to retire, take another vacation, turn on the AC or the heater (yes, we do use a heater in SoCal) or sell the house and move to the walkable city of my dreams, but I will indeed end up eating dog food just before I starve to death while trying to make dresses, à la Scarlet in Gone With the Wind, from the floral café curtains in the kitchen.

I’ll be found hunched over the computer, emailing an editor equally as gray and decrepit as me, begging her to schedule a 15 minute interview with my very unique, very topical client who will be the very kernel of a fantastically useful and informative story that will generate oodles of praise from grateful readers.

I’ve stocked up on tins of tuna fish. Sounds ever so much more manageable than a can of beans.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Tikkun Olam Fridays – Repairing the World One Step at a Time

Another Friday, another post on tikkun olam – to repair the world. Remember, you don’t have to finish the job, but it is your responsibility to start.

What action did you take this week, big or little, to make a difference?

Sometimes we need to be reminded why we ever thought it was important to work on improving the world. We’ve forgotten why we care and need help remembering the reasons we got into this Save A Piece of the World business in the first place.

That’s why I like reading blogs like Have Fun Do Good – A Blog for People Who Want to Make the World a Better Place and Have Fun! Britt Bravo does a solid job covering the nonprofit/social activism arena, interviewing people who have made a difference in the world, writing about change organizations and teaching her readers how to use social media for repairing the world.

You can see why I enjoy catching her posts. Yesterday’s, Interviews with 38 Social Changemakers: 3rd Anniversary of the Big Vision Podcast, is a good example of why reading her ideas helps me clarify what I’m doing. I’m encouraged by what others are doing whether it’s working to change our distribution food system, increase literacy, solve health issues, attack poverty, redesign cities, create recycling programs, well you get the idea.

In fact, you never know where you’re going to get a good idea or meet someone offline who’s doing good just because and can be that catalyst that we all need to stay in the game.

In November 2007 I took a trip to Boston to visit our oldest daughter in college and stayed at a B&B in Somerville. The lovely couple, who offered up extra bedrooms to visiting professors on speaking tours and parents attending college graduations, had started a personal nonprofit from the ground up. Personal in that it was inspired by the woman’s father, a Russian physics professor who became blind in childhood from measles but continued to live a full, successful and rewarding life.

Svetlana and Harris Sussman started the M.N. Adamov Fund, in memory of her father, to help talented visually impaired Russians get access to canes, computers and other kinds of support. They speak around the country, travel to Russia, specifically to St. Petersburg where Prof. Adamov lived, to deliver what people have donated and generally get the word out that blind people in Russia need help.

The Adamov Fund is a nonprofit organization registered in Massachusetts. Here’s their December email report, updating friends and supporters about their efforts for 2008. Also check their website, to see what can happen from a spare bedroom.

Dear Friends,

In 2008, we continued to help talented blind people in Russia through the MN Adamov Memorial Fund, which we started in 2005 in the name of Svetlana's father. We are still the only project in the US dedicated to doing this. We help people on an individual basis through personal contacts.

In various ways we were able to assist over 150 blind people in St. Petersburg, Moscow, Essentuki, Volokolamsk, Novosibirsk, Sergiev Posad. We did not go to Russia this year. We plan to go to St. Petersburg at the end of January 2009 and look forward to meeting with many old and new friends.

Thanks to donations to the Fund, we provided folding white canes to 50 more people this year, digital voice recorders to several dozen students, magnifiers to visually impaired people, some used laptop computers, toys to a teacher of blind children, educational materials to a group of expressive therapy teachers, a talking Braille watch, copies of a guide to English Braille.

We were able to find a number of people going to Russia who agreed to be couriers for us--a woman from New Jersey, a tourist from Cambridge, four business travelers from Boston, a professor from Dartmouth, several students from local colleges. We always need more couriers to take things in their suitcases.

We arranged for 6 undergraduate students from Duke University to spend two months volunteering with a rehabilitation center for the blind in St. Petersburg over the summer.

We were invited to speak at the national conference of the Russian American Medical Association in Boston in October.

We spoke at the regional meeting of Young Professionals for International Cooperation in Boston in October.

We were on an IDEAS competition team at MIT that won an award for a Braille Pencil concept in April. We were advisors to an MIT class project that designed a Braille labeler in December.

We attended the Unite for Sight conference at Yale in April.

An article about the Adamov Fund was published in the newsletter of the US-Russia Chamber of Commerce of New England.

We maintained and updated the web site

We stay in touch with people in Russia through email, Skype chat, phone calls. We monitor the situation in Russia and learn about things we can help with.

We are ending the year with a few hundred dollars in the Fund's account. We need financial support to continue. We have requests for many more canes--they cost us $30 each--and for more digital voice recorders which cost $40 each.

For various reasons we decided not to apply for tax-exempt 501(c)(3) status from the IRS. We will continue to operate as a nonprofit corporation registered in Massachusetts.

Donations to the Fund are tax-deductible through the continued assistance of the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton, Mass.

Thank you for your support.

Svetlana Adamova Sussman

Harris Sussman

Monday, February 16, 2009

Happy Monday!

Today I’m taking the day off. No clients, no community organizing, no straightening the house, bill paying, elderly mother managing. And no nagging the youngest about web searching for our college tour come spring. I’m gonna play.

You heard me right. I’m doing nothing but fun stuff today. Some writing, some blog straightening, some photo organizing – doing the creativity resolution. Then I’ll grab a cup of coffee with a friend – another one of my new year’s resolutions that – don’t hate me because I’m perfect – I’m keeping!

Which means I’m having a guilt-free day. Let’s see, when was the last time that happened? Age 6?

And why is this okay? Because I read it in the paper! “Buying Happiness”, LA Times, today. Seems that experiences will make you happier than material things. Duh. So what should you do with the change in your pocket? Have fun.

I’ve got a loop of photos running as a screensaver from our recent Freiburg trip to visit our oldest on her junior year abroad. This was money well spent. I’ll repeat that, because I’m cheap, haven’t traveled much and the daughter of Depression-era parents who had no credit record to buy their house in 1964 because they paid cash for everything. (They did get the house but, as I recall, they had to sign-up for a credit card to do it.)

This vacation was exceptionally wonderful because we stayed in one place and WALKED EVERYWHERE and spent lots and lots of time just being with our kids. Sometimes that meant crawling up in a ball covered by my pea coat in the kid’s messy dorm room as I napped, my husband made chicken after figuring out the Celsius conversion and the kids watched Sponge Bob in German on the telly.

The only souvenirs I have are the empty mulled wine cups from the Christmas Market and a striped pashmina (9 Euros, not bad) that goes with everything and warm feelings every time I catch a photo of a castle or a streetcar or the kids mugging in front of a snow-filled backdrop.

Of course this not-new-news came from a study that said experiences tend to make people feel more alive. Their suggestion? Buy experiences. Mine? Buy them cheap – coffee and window shopping at the new Nordstrom’s. Or take the opportunity when it arises, if you can, and spend it with family you love.

Happy Monday!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

In the Middle of Nowhere

How do you build community when you live in a bedroom community in the middle of the exburbs? Urbanist Joel Kotkin says, in The City: A Global History, that all cities need the same elements to function: political, economic and spiritual. Security, commerce and a soul. There is a universality to the urban experience whether it’s New York or Beijing. And a sterile sameness to the suburbs that were supposed to save us whether it’s in Las Vegas or the Conejo Valley where I live. So how do you build community?

I live in the middle of nowhere. It’s very pretty, filled with open spaces, undeveloped mountains and good school systems.

And that’s it. No markets, drug stores, gas stations, book stores, movies. Nada.

Now those of you who know Oak Park or live here may say that’s not true. Why just 2 miles up Kanan Road we have markets and fancy hair salons and coffee shops. And just 2 miles down Kanan we have more markets and drug stores and shoe repair shops and alteration ladies.

But they’re not technically in Oak Park and you can’t really walk to them on a regular basis. And you can’t take a street car or bus. To the Costco or the Michael’s or the Staples. And you wouldn’t want to. How could you shop? My God! We’ve built ourselves into a corner with nothing but big box stores and miles of roads and houses.

We do have an Episcopalian church and a Chabad house. And you can go to the dentist, both adult and kids, and a pediatrician. Those I can actually walk to. How medically useful.

And I suppose the Starbucks strip mall technically is in Oak Park. But the movies are about 3 miles away. Wait, I just remembered we have a library we could walk to. It’s small but we’ll count it. Only not in the summer when it’s 100 degrees and it’s uphill all the way.

But the Macy’s, Barnes & Nobles, and Bed, Bath & Beyond, well I don’t think you can take a bus from anywhere near my house to get to them. Theatres, a university, a shoe store? Who am I kidding? Why do I torture myself?

I’ve just been to two local transportation meetings for Ventura County and talked with a lovely woman from the City of Thousand Oaks. I now know our problem - we don’t have density. And we’re an affluent area that skews young. The immediate needs seem to be the elderly and the low income folks.

I have no qualms with helping them out. Their needs are real. I would be happy to pay extra sales tax to build a transportation system that helps all of us. We are one county that doesn’t have that. Shame on us.

I hear that San Luis Obispo has good bus service and I know that Ventura, the city, is rebuilding its downtown and seems to have more transportation and walkability. They are compact. I should check them out just to see if Southern/Central California can even envision something besides a car.

Today I tried to hook up the City of Thousand Oaks Youth & Aging Services lady with the Oak Park online newsletter editor, both well meaning people who obviously love their towns. The TO lady was born here and the Oak Park guy does the newsletter and website for free.

I thought the newsletter could help publicize two upcoming meetings on soliciting information about what people want regarding housing, transportation and other services. While the morning meeting is expecting a nice turnout, the evening meeting only had one RSVP even with all the PR they’d done. They needed to get the word out. I believe Kanan Road runs through Agoura Hills, Oak Park, Westlake Village and maybe even Thousand Oaks. Our suburbs bleed into each other. Remember, I can’t get a quart of milk in my town. You’d think transportation would be high on everyone’s needs list after last spring’s $4.75/gallon gas prices.

So did the newsletter editor help publicize the city lady’s meeting? No. Only Oak Park events in the newsletter. As if we were all separate villages surrounded by forests and meadows instead of the sprawl we actually are. As if we weren’t all in this together. But then Agoura Hills didn’t ask my input about the new freeway overpass that impacted the surrounding communities for miles around. I understand the newsletter's limits, but I should have known.

Pending business meetings or family emergencies I will go to that transportation meeting. I will drive to this meeting. Maybe some of the same people will be there from the other two meetings. I’ll smile and say hello. I’ll put my secret plan into action. I’ll build my community one hi at a time.

They want Boomers’ input. I can tell them my dream. Maybe they share it. I can get to know fellow citizens who want to make the system work and talk about LA and the Valley and the Conejo – all sections of Southern California where I’ve lived for over 40 years and would stay if we had buses on the streets instead of coyotes. We’ll commiserate about the drought that was only dented by last week’s rain and the record string of 80 degree days in January and the state budget that finally passed before my teacher friends got IOUs as paychecks.

I don’t want bikes. That’s a bandaid and besides, I have bad balance with a helmet on. I want buses. I want to walk to the market. I want a city with a soul and a streetcar.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Nourishing Wednesdays – Building Community From the Ground Up

Old MacDonald had a farm …

Sunday’s New York Times Business section had this headline “Farm Life, Subsidized By a Job Elsewhere”. This is a piece of good news. The Agriculture Department’s just released Census of Agriculture, which comes out every five years, said that the number of farms increased by 4 percent from 2002 to 2007. Most of the new farms were small and part-time farmers. Since the last one, female farmers grew nearly 30 percent. Read the article here.

Last week’s the Jewish Journal, Feb 6-12 issue, included “Farming the Land, Torah in Hand”, about Jewish farmers – young North American Jews who are learning to farm and do it Jewishly. They’re part of a larger and growing group of environmental and food activists who come out of new Jewish farm-education initiatives. Hazon, an advocacy organization that promotes sustainable environmental practices and sponsors an annual Jewish food conference, is one such organization. They’ve got a great blog, The Jew & the Carrot, which I recommend for recipes and discussions of food issues.

Today’s Boston Globe talked about joining a CSA, community supported agriculture, to help support those growing number of small farms. You buy a stake in a farm and share the risk, and the bounty, with the farmer.

This long term suburban girl wants to know where this fascination with farms is coming from. Perhaps I was an eggplant in another life.