My GPS has this wonderful “Avoidances” feature that allows me to select any of several driving obstacles I’d like to avoid: U-turns, toll roads, traffic, carpool lanes, ferries (?). When I’m traveling -at least, after I reach my destination – I choose to avoid “Highways.”
Toodling around Baton Rouge for the last few days, “avoiding” highways has taken me to some great places in some interesting ways. I’ve seen sights and neighborhoods that I’d never have enjoyed had a I just hopped up on I-10 or I-12 and puddle jumped between exits.
Taking city streets to the Old Capitol area took me through some gritty areas of Baton Rouge, but also gave me an intimate sense of the history and layout of the city. Driving main roads to Bluebonnet Swamp richly illustrated the wonder of this fantastic urban greenway, bordered on all sides by homes and businesses and busy roads that give no clue to the wild lands they embrace, or the diversity of nature the park protects.
In the same way, entering the LSU Rural Life Museum and Ag Center grounds – an amazing 40 acre oasis of history and botanical beauty – along residential roads that give way to boundless fields and acres of forest made the experience of time travel offered by this unparalleled museum of folk architecture and culture even more powerful.
Baton Rouge, like all communities large and small, is more than the sum of its parts. It is powered by the energy, perseverance and creativity of its people, made manifest through that people’s architecture, industry and artistry. Exit hopping on the highway makes it convenient to forget and easy to miss everything in between those exits that makes it all possible and, more important, that makes it all meaningful.
Tomorrow, I have to disable my highway avoidance and make use of those high speed interstates, at least for some major stretches, if I’m to have any hope of getting back home in a day, which work and life necessitates. But I’ll be keenly aware of the lives and livelihoods, of the history and communities, that I’m passing by. And at the first opportunity, I’ll be taking the first available exit off the highway and getting back to the roads that really take you places.
Do not depend on the hope of results. You may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. You gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything.” Thomas Merton
I try to live my life in alignment with my core beliefs. My work, my faith, my art all aim to serve that bottom line. I love FIRST because of its focus on transforming culture in a way that elevates and empowers and celebrates youth for doing important, intelligent work. I love LI4E because I’ve been able to exercise nonprofit creativity with it, experimenting with intellectual performance art like TEDxYouth and Mini Maker Faire, and working to bring things I believe are good for communities – accessible learning, makerspace projects, free resources – to more people.
I love my church because it helps keep me centered, informed about and focused on the things that ultimately matter to me, and which all the other things I do ultimately serve. I love writing and photography because they’re vehicles for self-expression, and give me opportunities to turn ideas around and inside out, visually and verbally, and to look at things from different perspectives.
And yet I struggle continuously against myself: against the baser, less noble aspects of my being, against my short sightedness, my impatience, my foolishness, working to keep self-righteousness, expectations and judgment at bay. Sometimes I succeed. Often I don’t. Always I am aware that I could be a much better person than I am, that I could be a better wife, mother, aunt, daughter,co-worker, and friend.
In a wonderful class I took recently – Everyday Practical Buddhism, an introduction to the Rissho Kosei-kai school of Buddhism which is grounded in the real world – practical – aspects of the faith, the idea that we are always working to overcome ourselves and that these struggles are part of the journey, resonated with me. Rather than look at personal backsliding as failure, it becomes simply an opportunity to practice being better. If practice does indeed make perfect, then I’m going to need a lot of practice, so I can expect to have frequent set backs. The idea is to shorten each failure, to experience more time between them, to become more aware of each of our thoughts and actions, more intentional and less reactionary in our responses. There’s no reason to beat ourselves up over our failures, just acknowledge, move on and try to do better next time.
It’s not easy. People like Mother Teresa, Ghandi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. , Dr. Albert Schweitzer, and the every day good people we encounter who make serenity and compassion look so elegant, if not easy, are constant reminders to me of what I could be, of what we all could be, if we just put others before ourselves more routinely. If we – if I – had more patience. More compassion. More love. If I could really let go, un-attach, stop the cycle of self-imposed suffering caused by the expectations I have of the way life ought to be as opposed to the way life is.
And then today I encountered Thomas Merton, and pulled up short at the quote that presented itself:
“Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. That is not our business and, in fact, it is nobody’s business. What we are asked to do is to love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy.”
It’s not the “worthiness” part that galvanized me so much – I know better than that. When you get right down to it, I could say I’m not worthy of all the love and care I’ve received all my life. I’ve done nothing to do “deserve” it. It’s that third line – “What we are asked to do is love, and this love itself will render both ourselves and our neighbors worthy. “ It’s not that all of us deserve love, which makes it a need-based experience, but that all of us are called upon to love, which puts the idea and the practice wholly in our own hands and within our sphere of influence.
I’m not sure how I missed Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968) in the scope of my searching and learning. Perhaps I just wasn’t ready for him before. The son of artists, whose own journey of self-discovery in his short life took him from Catholicism to communism to monasticism, Merton’s body of work includes some of the earliest interfaith dialogues and studies in the U.S., encompassing some of the first Western conversations with the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh, among other Eastern religious figures.
“You do not need to know precisely what is happening, or exactly where it is all going, “ Merton believed. “ What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”
Well that’s a good thing! Especially since just when I think I’ve got it figured out, it becomes quite evident that I don’t.
“What we have to be,” he said, “is what we are.”
My life is a work in progress, but I’m increasingly aware that I tend to over complicate things, to over think the moment in which I would do better to simply be. I want to fix and help and improve, when all I really need is to be open, caring and accepting, of the moment, of those in my life at any given moment, of whatever experience envelops me at that moment.
“To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to the violence of our times,” Merton observed.
Conversely, he said, “It is useless to try to make peace with ourselves by being pleased with everything we have done. In order to settle down in the quiet of our own being we must learn to be detached from the results of our own activity. We must withdraw ourselves, to some extent, from the effects that are beyond our control and be content with the good will and the work that are the quiet expression of our inner life. We must be content to live without watching ourselves live, to work without expecting any immediate reward, to love without an instantaneous satisfaction, and to exist without any special recognition.” (No Man is an Island)
Can I do that? I don’t know.
As my work with both FIRST and LI4E take me into new circles of relationships and influence, it can be easy to lose sight of the whole point of doing it all, to get caught up in the excitement of success and forget the bottom philanthropic line, the mission and goals at the heart of it all. As my adult children take their own paths through life, it’s natural to want to point out perceived hazards or errors of choice, to try to keep them safe and help them be successful, when all they need is the freedom to make their own mistakes and enjoy their own successes, my unconditional love and an open door. When I have to share my life with someone I find unpleasant, it’s easy to fall into resentment, when I could simply let go of expectations and judgment and exist side by side, making better use of my existence, and more joy in theirs.
I’m a work in progress. No promises. But if all I’m really called upon to do is love, I can certainly try.
My day job involves working for an organization whose mission is: “To transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders.”
Those are the words and vision of inventor Dean Kamen, founder of the U.S. Foundation for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, better known as FIRST. FIRST engages kids in elementary through high school grades in competitive robotics competitions that provide youth with opportunities to work with professional mentors and learn science, math and engineering skills in fun, enduring and rewarding ways, with over $16 million in scholarships for participating high schoolers.
“The assumption that drove the creation of FIRST, “ Kamen said in an interview with PTC last year, “ was you get what you celebrate in a free culture, and the reason America was slipping compared to a lot of its peers around the world—particularly in kids getting involved with and mastering science and technology—was not bad teachers or bad schools, it wasn’t what we don’t have. It was the fact that as a rich country we have so many distractions that have created for kids role models that prevent them from working hard at things that matter.”
In the last few weeks, I was so immersed in working with students , their mentors and the local business community supporting kids in “working hard at the things that matter,” that I almost missed an equally important debate on things that matter to us here in Tampa Bay involving a big box retailer and the substantive public tax payer incentive that county officials want to give the store to open shop in our community.
The Tampa Bay Times reports that the Hillsborough County Commission is considering contributing $6.25 million (down from $15 million, initially) toward road improvements around “The Estuary”, an enormous, ironically named shopping plaza planned between Falkenburg Road and Interstate 75 – currently the site of Florida pine scrub, and a good 15 miles inland from any chance of an “estuary”, which is by definition a partially enclosed body of coastal water where freshwater from rivers and streams meets and mixes with salt water from the ocean and actually does something physically, biologically, environmentally and even economically useful, by virtue of the recreational opportunities our coastline offers.
Besides the sad fact that “The Estuary” shopping center is going to completely destroy anything remotely natural – estuarian or otherwise – in the area of planned development, developers predictions of “ annual sales of $61.8 million, generating state and local sales taxes” and “property assessment climbing to $16.4 million, boosting taxes on land now used for agriculture” ring hollow in light of the facts, and misleading in light of “things that matter.”
Bass Pro’s track record and the history of big tax incentives for major retailers suggest assurances that “ Hillsborough could break even on its $15 million investment by 2018” are probably more than a little inflated. More important, though: Do we truly believe that subsidized shopping offers a real return on our investment towards our collective future?
Bass Pro projects it would create 369 permanent, full-time jobs in addition to 1,517 temporary construction jobs over five years, and the entire shopping plaza development is project to create 1,327 retail jobs.
But the fact is, says a report by the Public Accountability Initiative that examined such claims (Fishing for Taxpayer Cash), “Bass Pro often fails to deliver on its promises as an economic development anchor and major tourist destination – promises which were used to reel in government subsidies. Its stores successfully attract shoppers, but often do not produce sought-after economic benefits associated with major tourist destinations,” and taxpayers in places like Cincinnati, Harrisburg PA, and Bakersfield, CA “ have been left with high levels of debt and fiscal stress as a result of Bass Pro Projects.”
“Retail is not economic development. People don’t suddenly have more money to spend on hip waders because a new Bass Pro or Cabela’s comes to town,” Greg Leroy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a non-partisan economic development watchdog group based in Washington, D.C., told The Atlantic Cities in an article last summer . “All that happens is that money spent at local mom and pop retailers shifts to these big box retailers. When government gives these big box stores tax dollars, they are effectively picking who the winners and losers are going to be.”
Larry Whitely, a spokesman for Bass Pro Shops, argued in the article that their stores “should be viewed as an amenity being added to a community — much like one might view a park or a library. …”These aren’t just stores – they are natural history museums. Every store is designed to reflect the unique natural environment of the area in which it is located.” “
Aside, again, from the basic fact that the store, by virtue of its construction, would be destroying a unique natural environment in the area in which it is to be located, $6.5 million would buy a lovely real natural history museum , park or library with a far greater return on the investment, socially, aesthetically, academically, environmentally and economically. $6.5 million dollars could also address food insecurity, make a serious impact on homelessness, pay for new teachers, finance school improvements, or make a nice deposit on a light rail system.
From a purely personal perspective, $6.5 million could fund a couple or three FIRST robotics STEM education robotics teams in every one of Hillsborough County’s nearly 160 K-12 schools for years, helping create the type of scientifically literate people Florida needs for a truly economically successful future. Because the real path to future prosperity in Florida and nationally, economic development experts are saying, is growing a knowledge based economy,not a consumer based one.
A knowledge based economy is one that is “driven by research, ideas, innovations, and technical skills to generate high-impact economic benefits and high-wage jobs. Strong sustainable knowledge economies
- Are able to sell goods and services at a higher profit margin than others;
- Earn average wages up to $25,000 more than non-knowledge-based communities, and;
- Are able to perform and execute business through more cost-effective and efficient relationships.
In the “New Economy Index” report of states by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which evaluates states on a similar “knowledge based” formula, Florida ranked 21st – and dropping.
“Some have argued that, given the economic downturn, now is not the time to focus on innovation,” observed the report’s authors. “rather, our chief concern should be job creation. Yet, fostering innovation and creating jobs are by no means mutually exclusive. To the contrary, most studies of the issue have found that innovation is positively correlated to job growth in the mid- to long-term.”
By a correlation factor of 0.87, notes one author – ” in fact exponentially proportional to KEI (Knowledge Economic Indicator) , ie higher the KEI, higher is the per capita income of that country and vice versa. Highest KEI is of Denmark at 9.58 on a scale of 1 to 10, and the lowest KEI is of Myanmar at 0.96 at rank 145.” (Express Tribune-)
Among the key findings in Change the Equation’s Florida Vital Signs report, “Florida needs a world class education system and seamless talent supply chain to meet workforce demands at all skill levels. STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – is of the utmost priority if Florida is to achieve its long term goal.”
Nowhere in that report is there a call for more consumer opportunities or retail jobs.
“Before handing taxpayer money to Bass Pro projects, ” concludes the Public Accountability Initiative report, ” public officials should consider what some other cities are going through as a result of Bass Pro-anchored projects that have fallen short: high levels of debt and fiscal duress, lackluster development, vacancy and blight, and lower-than-expected tax revenues. Considering the potential consequences, it is imperative for public officials and taxpayers to take the proper steps to ensure that they are not subsidizing an underperforming development: ask straightforward questions of Bass Pro and project developers, demand transparency and data, secure contractual guarantees that limit cannibalization, and, above all, consider alternatives. There is no good reason to subsidize development that sells cities short and leaves taxpayers on the hook.”
Public officials – and the public – should also consider what really matters to Florida’s future and help us build a Knowledge economy that will serve us and future generations far better, and make us far more productive and competitive than any retail chain store ever will. If, as Dean Kamen says, and as I fully agree, we get what we celebrate, and the best we can do is Bass Pro Shops , then that’s all we’ll get.
If, however, we choose to celebrate creative productivity and scientific and technical literacy and achievement, we’ll get so much more than we could ever have imagined!
Depending on who’s doing the talking, and what they’re talking about, either god or the devil is said to be in the details. The astounding and sometimes horrific nature of the insect world is one of those situations where both may be there at the same time.
This past summer, in particular, insects have had their share of headlines, from tick borne diseases to mosquito induced West Nile Virus,and flea driven Bubonic plague . Okay, technically ticks aren’t insects, they’re arachnids, but they’re arthropods of note and notoriety. Almost everyone’s heard of Lyme Disease now, which is caused by tick bites as are a number of other illnesses. But the tick bite illness in the news this summer – tick induced delayed anaphylaxis -is one I first heard about a couple of years ago when I was working on my book, the Florida Allergy Handbook .
I was actually in the middle of a draft review and was double checking some facts on tick allergy when I came across an article citing research about how the bite of certain seed ticks predisposed some victims to a severe allergy to meat.
I did a double take.
It got weirder. You only developed the meat allergy if your blood type is other than A or AB. The first
reports hailed from Australia but were eventually confirmed by University of Virginia researchers who found that some individuals bitten by “seed” ticks–the tiny larval young of adult ticks–experienced severe anaphylactic reactions three to six hours after eating beef, pork or lamb.
As I reported in my book, “Patients first experienced an increasingly intensifying itching that spread across the skin’s outer and deeper layers, and escalated to swelling, intestinal distress and finally symptoms of anaphylaxis. “
The culprit turns out to be an IgE antibody that binds to a sugar molecule known as alpha-gal, a finding that further disrupts what we thought about allergies, which are typically caused by proteins in food, pollen, dander and venom, not sugars .
Every time we think we’ve got a handle on things, it turns out we’re just holding a branch connected to a whole lot of other branches – and it’s full of bugs. We rarely really know what we’re talking about, and even when we do, the little things still rule.
West Nile Virus is nothing new, but this past summer the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, reported a record 2,118 ill and 92 dead of the disease, across 44 states. Mother Earth News is not alone in suggesting that climate change might be causing the increase in insect borne diseases.
“The best insecticide ,” says Mother Earth News.”… is cold weather. Nine of the 10 hottest years on record occurred between 2002 and 2011 with 2012 likely becoming the hottest year ever recorded! We are having earlier springs and hotter summers which mean mosquitos can breed earlier and longer.”
And that’s exactly what they’re doing. Throughout the Florida Allergy Handbook, I cite instances of climate change as a likely contributing factor to everything from larger, more virulent poison ivy to record size wasp nests. This summer in Florida alone, we’ve had nine inches of rain above normal, making for larger and longer areas of standing water that provide prime breeding ground for mosquitoes and other pests.
An intriguing article in Wired this month observed, “In the United States, Lyme disease is thought of as the major tickborne bad actor — but over the past two years, health authorities have been coming to grips with the unappreciated toll of other tick-related diseases, including erlichiosis, anaplasmosis, STARI, and babesiosis, which is moving into the blood supply. That’s not even to mention the toll of long-standing insect-borne diseases: malaria, one of the top five infectious killers in the world, along with rapidly rising dengue.
“When we indulge in cultural fascination with scary new diseases, we tend to look to the animal kingdom — bats in the movie Contagion, whose scenario was based on the discovery of Nipahvirus, or monkeys in just about any account of Ebola. Like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, we have difficulty believing we can be brought down by something we can barely see. (In some cases literally: The tick suspected of transmitting Heartland, Amblyoma americanum, is half the size of a sesame seed.)”
And yet arthropods continually fascinate me. The massive global, economic, social and health impact of things in such tiny packages is stunning in its unintended audacity. There is a wasp, for instance – a tiny fairy wasp with the ironically long name megaphragma mymaripenne - that is just 200 microns in size,; just twice the width of the average human hair, and smaller than a single celled amoeba. And yet this creature is replete with organs!
And on these creatures live other creatures in an almost infinite Whoville universe. Click the image below for a remarkable 1 milimeter to 500 nanometer inward zoom at the constellation of life in a humble amphipod.
“Nature will try anything once,” Annie Dillard wrote in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. “This is what the sign of the insects says. No form is too gruesome, no behavior too grotesque. If it works, if it quickens, set it clacking in the grass.”
All around me things are clacking in the grass. The abundance of summer rains have
produced an abundance of life everywhere you look – and sometimes it’s best not to look too closely. For days I watched a rather amusing little orange insect trundling placidly among the white pentas in my yard. I researched, and ran it past my usual expert sources – All Things Bugs, and IFAS . But because I’m nothing if not curious, I decided to run a “What Kind of Insect is That?” contest at Fine Art America while awaiting an answer, to see what other kinds of interesting critters might be out there.
Nearly 200 entries of amazing insect photos were submitted. It was there that I learned my cute little orange bug was a juvenile assassin bug that would grow up to do just what its name suggests – assassinate other insects.
The winning entries are remarkable things to behold – a yellow and black treehopper, by Craig Lapsley , with giraffe spots on a humped head and an opaque eye; a rainbow colored lantern bug, by Roy Foos, right out of a Dr. Seuss book, with a red elephantine protuberance covered in white spots and sporting green and yellow wings ; and a bulbous cicada, by Shane Bechler , with enormous cellophane wings.
These are in fact the little things that run the world, and will continue to do so long after we are gone. The cockroach repels us, yet because of us it thrives in the ecosystem of our leavings. We’re peripheral to the universe of ticks and mosquitoes, who largely exist on the blood of other animals, and yet they fell us by the thousands almost as an afterthought. Even the bubonic plaque has made a resurgence, contracted by a child in the Colorado this past summer, when she was bitten by fleas on a dead squirrel that she handled.
And yet insects are also beautiful , like butterflies, and successfully resourceful like ants, and vital to our existence like bees and other insect pollinators without whom our food crops would suffer and die. They also aerate the soil, are a critical food source for other animals, decompose dead materials,and fertilize the soil with the nutrients from their waste and remains.
It’s easy to fear and detest – and possibly be injured by – the things we don’t understand. E.O. Wilson said “More respect is due the little things that run the world.” Respect, born of knowledge and common sense conduct in and proper preparation for the outdoors, will protect us better than GMOs and indiscriminate eradication practices.
The god and the devil in these extraordinary details deserve both our reverence and some healthy caution, for they are both terrible and wonderful, like the Creation from which they hail.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if you knew exactly what was in the food that you were eating? This is especially important for people with life-threatening food allergies. With the Portable Allergen Specialized Spectrometer, or PASS, you can finally do that! Using the technology of mass spectrometry, the PASS device scans and penetrates the food with microwave beams. It then turns the scanned information into tangible data that goes through the mass spectrometer-like machine inside the device. Once the process is finished, the information will then be shown on a screen, showing each and every type of food that is on the plate. This device will help people with food allergies that are worried that what they are eating at a restaurant might contain the food that they’re allergic to (In other words, they’re afraid their food won’t PASS the allergy test).”
The PASS system is the brainchild of 15 year old Matthew Temmer, of Land O’Lakes. Matthew, who presented his insightful thoughts on the power of youth voice and vision at TEDxYouth@TampaBay 2011 , which I help curate, suffers from severe food allergies, and developed the PASS device idea”so that no one ever has to experience a severe allergic reaction at a restaurant again!”
When I wrote the Food Allergy Field Guide, the biggest concern facing those with food allergies, including my son, was – and remains – eating out safely. My son enjoys french fries, but seasoned fries are often off limits, because it’s hard to know if there’s flour in the seasoning, and wait staff aren’t a reliable source of information about ingredients, nor are cooks sometimes. The same issue applies with gravies and sauces. And cross contamination is always a concern. Having something like the PASS device to ensure safe dining would also make for far more relaxed and enjoyable dining for those with food sensitivities. So I applaud Matthew’s great idea and hope someone can help make it a reality in the near future.
You can read more about Matthew’s idea at Connect a Million Minds, and if you think it’s as potentially useful as I do, I hope you’ll cast a vote for the Portable Allergen Specialized Spectrometer as totally awesome, too!