Living in a War Zone

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Image from a different neighborhood zoning war that occurred in Kentucky, Image courtesy of WPSD-TV.

My neighborhood is in a war. We are not fighting with each other. Instead, we’re fighting against a more elusive and dangerous foe: the specter of commercial development.

We all received letters in the mail from the city planning department, which described a proposal to rezone our neighborhood from a Traditional Residential one to a Mixed Use Neighborhood. This could open up our streets to stores and businesses.

When I bought my house nineteen years ago, one of the major selling points was the “quiet neighborhood” where it was located. Even though it was near a shopping center, on the other side a massive city park offered a bit of wilderness, not to mention periodic backyard visits by deer, bear, and moose.

Friends and acquaintances who heard about my new home congratulated me. “It’s the nicest street,” they said. And it proved true. The street was full of long-term residents who cared about their community and their neighbors. We helped each other during snowstorms, floods, and ice storms.

Even 19 years later with new residents, the helpfulness is still there. My neighbors are invested in their homes and in making the neighborhood a good place to live.

But already, commercial development is encroaching. Two banks and an insurance agency take up one end of the street, which fronts a busy main artery and the shopping center. Basically, the planning agency proposes to extend that business district farther down my street and one block over, rezoning areas where people’s homes currently sit. The rezoning would impact 8 or 9 homes. My home is outside the area by the width of one home.

Our property taxes have increased due to a new apartment and business complex built a block away. I would not be surprised if someone wants to build something similar on my street.

Last week, the planning department held a public meeting about the rezoning proposal. There are three spots they want to rezone. Nobody protested the other two, which are located along already busy streets. All of the discussion focused on the plan for my neighborhood.

Residents, especially the ones in the homes inside the rezoning area, were concerned and angry. Some have already been approached by a developer, who also had the cajones to be at the meeting and to speak in favor of the rezoning. (You should have seen the nasty looks he got! My neighbors might be nice, but not when their way of life is threatened.)

At the meeting, one of my neighbors said that it makes no sense to rezone an established neighborhood to a Mixed Use Neighborhood and invite more development right into the middle of it. I agree with her.

My home was built almost 100 years ago by Swan Gustaf Anderson when he was 72 years old. His $450 mortgage was held by the Supreme Lodge of the Sons of Norway. I am the eighth owner of the house. I’ve been investing a lot in upkeep and remodeling of my home, but if rezoning occurs and a retail or apartment development goes in, I would be a fool to continue making that investment in a property that may one day have a view of dumpsters or a parking lot instead of big trees and homes.

This rezoning idea goes against provisions for Mixed Use Neighborhood development in Chapter 50 of the City of Duluth Legislative Code. One of the purposes of establishing a Mixed Use Neighborhood District is to, “Encourage mixed use redevelopment, conversion and reuse of aging and underutilized areas, and increase the efficient use of commercial land in the city.”

Our neighborhood is not “underutilized.” It is home to families who have lived there many years. Our homes may be aging, but they are all in good shape because we have invested in them. I would also argue that it is not an efficient use of commercial land in the city to displace people from an established neighborhood.

It also goes against one of the governing principles in the city’s comprehensive land use planning document. Principle #5 on Strengthening Neighborhoods says:

The present city is an historical amalgam of villages and other independent units of government, contributing to the present condition of Duluth being strongly defined by its neighborhoods. This condition should be reinforced through land use, transportation and public service delivery patterns which strengthen neighborhood identity. New institutional expansions, major public infrastructure or large commercial or industrial uses should not divide historic neighborhood patterns.

Allowing a commercial development right in the middle of our neighborhood is no way to strengthen it.

Fighting a zoning war is not how I wanted to spend my summer, but it’s necessary, I guess. Here we go!

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How a Print Writer With a Lisp Turns to Radio

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Tools of the trade for the Twin Ports Newspaper of the Air.

On a recent Sunday morning, I faced a test of my skills when I led a radio broadcast for the Twin Ports Newspaper of the Air (TPNA) for the first time. This is a service of the Lighthouse Center for Vision Loss in Duluth. I am one of about seventy volunteers who read local newspapers every morning for two hours over a closed-circuit radio system for people who can’t read the newspaper themselves. Some are blind and some have had strokes and can no longer hold a newspaper.

Now, if you know me, you realize that getting up early on a weekend morning is definitely not in my character. But I enjoy reading the Sunday paper. I was looking for an organization to volunteer for, and because I have a background in audio work, this just seemed sort of fun.

Once a month, I haul myself out of bed at 6 a.m. and head down to the Lighthouse Center. We have two copies of the newspaper and read in teams of two, switching off every other story. The leader opens the broadcast, keeps track of time, reads public service announcements and the weather forecast, and has final say on which stories get read.  All the other person needs to do is read their assigned stories. It’s much easier not to be the leader!

We don’t have time to read everything in the paper, so we concentrate on news listeners can’t hear elsewhere – the local stories. Other broadcasts focus on national stories, so we don’t need to read those. The obituaries are a big draw, so we are required to read them at the top of the hour. Some people tune in just for those.

It’s tricky because the broadcast is live. If you mess up something, you need to muddle through the best you can. If you have a coughing fit, you need to run out of the room and cough outside, with your partner taking over instead. If you need to pee, you have to hold it until it’s your partner’s turn to read a longer story so that you have enough time to go.

20180318_080050None of these things have happened to me yet, although I did lose track of a story once. With all the story page jumps in the newspaper, it can be confusing to know which page to find it on. Thankfully, my partner noticed my confusion and handed me his copy of the article.

Besides having to overcome my natural weekend laziness, another reason this volunteer job is a challenge is because of the speech impediment I had as a child. In elementary school, while my classmates were out playing during recess, I was sitting in a room with four or five other children, practicing my “s”es.

I wasn’t aware I had a lisp until I got singled out for Speech Class. In fact, when I first heard about the class from my teacher, I thought it involved learning how to stand up in front of people and give speeches. I imagined that might be sort of fun.

It wasn’t until I started going to the class that I understood it involved the drudgery of practicing how to speak correctly. Once a week, we would sit around a table, concentrating on how our tongue moved in our mouths. I needed to learn to redirect the tip of my tongue to the roof of my mouth when speaking, instead of thrusting it forward against the back of my front teeth.

We practiced tongue-twisters and were drilled on certain sounds over and over again until we got it right. I don’t recall how many weeks I was in Speech Class, but I must have made progress because I was able to rejoin my classmates full-time.

My foray into audio began years later in graduate school, when I decided that learning how to do a radio show would be a more interesting capstone project than writing yet another article.

Some nice ladies at KUMD Radio (Thanks Christine Dean! Thanks Lisa Johnson!) were willing to show me how to record and work with the files, and I produced a pre-recorded series called Listening to the Lake, which had public health and environmental themes.

I found my “radio voice,” and this led to a later series called Superior Science News on KUWS Radio, which was produced by Dani Kaeding. Lo and behold, nobody complained about my “s”es.

Along the way, I got to see these radio professionals at work, and always marveled at their ability to simultaneously load CDs, remember to announce the time, and find the day’s weather forecast to read.

Now here I was, groggy on a Sunday morning, put to the test to see if I measured up to my radio lady role models.

I’m happy to report that everything came off without a hitch. They, and my speech teacher, would have been proud.

Creativity, Motherhood and Rats: How They All Go Together

Mom rat and baby

Image by Howcast.com.

I was asked to give a short talk today on creativity and motherhood for a local organization. Here’s the result:

When I became pregnant with my first child 26 years ago, I started to panic. It wasn’t that I was afraid something would be wrong with my baby or that I was afraid of the labor process — although these are justified fears and I did think about those things.

The real issue was, I was afraid that the idea I had for a novel would be subsumed by the demands of a newborn. Having a child would strike a death-knell for my creative dreams. My story would never see the light of day. I had floundered around with writing it, and had come to the realization that I needed help. This fear was foremost in my mind when I signed up for a novel-writing correspondence course offered by Writer’s Digest Magazine soon after I found I was pregnant.

I had heard all the cultural messages that tell women that being creative and having children are incompatible, and I believed them.

The novel-writing course provided me with structure that saw me through the rest of my pregnancy and motivated me to keep working on the story once I had my baby boy. The instructor’s encouragement also helped.

Even so, it took me a long time to finally finish my novel and to get it published — as long as it takes to grow a child into adulthood.

The thing that held me back wasn’t motherhood, it was waiting for the right moment to feel creative – the moment when I wasn’t busy, stressed, or emotional. I was too much at the whim of my outside life. I hadn’t learned yet how to control my inner life and allow room for the creativity to flow no matter what was happening “outside.”

A recent article in The Atlantic Monthly magazine backs up the premise that having children does not harm creativity. In fact, it can change the biology of the mother in ways that can allow for even greater creativity.

Kelly Lambert, a professor of behavioral neuroscience at the University of Richmond, studies the maternal brains of rats. Yes, on Mother’s Day, I am going to talk to you about rats, and their brains, no less. Lambert found that when rats become mothers, their brains, which are closer in structure to a human’s than even those of mice or dogs, start reprogramming themselves.

Their sensory and motor systems sharpen. Their circuitry becomes more efficient. Maternal rats are more direct and lethal hunters, catching their prey four times faster than non-mom rats.

Even after having their babies, the changes persist. Lambert found that the mother rats experience less memory decline in old age and have quicker navigation skills than non-mothers, outsmarting them in mazes.

Although neuroscientists do not yet understand what direct impact pregnancy and childbirth have on the human maternal brain and creativity, I am here to testify that, yes, it is possible to be a mother and be creative, too. And I’m sure plenty of other women can testify to this. It’s just that sometimes when you’re a parent, you have to find more creative ways to allow for that creativity.

If you have a partner, have them take care of the kids for a while so that you can go on a writing retreat. Don’t allow your creativity to take a back seat to the other demands of life. Try different things until you find something that works for you.

I learned how to make this inner creative space while I wrote my second novel. Even though I had a second child by this time, after reading a story about right-brain, left-brain thinking and how to make both sides of your brain work together to foster creativity, I learned how to put myself in that elusive creative mind zone, instead of waiting for the zone to come to me. Thanks to this, it only took me two years to write and publish the second one.

You don’t need to be superhuman to have children and to be creative. Mothers have been doing it forever. As the magazine article said, creativity takes time and periods of reflection, and a willingness to let go of ideas that don’t work and move on to better ones.

Learning to look at the world through the eyes of your children, be they yours biologically or children of your heart, is not a bad way to make your own thinking more flexible.

Vegan Shoes, Who Knew?

Vegan shoes

Did you know there’s such a thing as vegan shoes? I didn’t either, until I bought these, and the veganism came as an unexpected side benefit. They feature “microbuck vegan leather uppers,” whatever those are.

Does this mean I can eat them if I get hungry?

Getting my Blue Mind on — Part 2 of 2: Stuck Inside a Psychedelic Washing Machine

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The float pod in purple. Would you get in this thing?

At the suggestion of Wallace Nichols, I made an appointment for a sixty-minute session at my local flotation pod. The pod was in a room in the basement of a yoga studio, and it’s the only one in these here parts of northern Minnesota.

The pod technician led me to the room, which contained the pod and a shower. He gave me the choice of silence for my impending pod experience or four types of music. I chose piano music. He explained that he would have to program that into the computer, which was upstairs in the reception area.

The pod was about ten feet by eight feet. It featured a large hatch, which was open, and rotating, pulsating colored lights that illuminated the ninety-eight-degree water.

The technician explained that all the Epsom salt in the six inches of water is what makes a person float. A bottle of fresh water stood nearby to rinse the salt out of your eyes in case some happened to get in, plus a towel, and a small floaty tube if a person wanted it for head and neck support in the water. Earplugs were also available, to keep the excessively salty water out of one’s ear canals.

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The float pod in its yellow phase.

I asked the technician how I would know when my session was over. He said that the music would stop and a voice would say, “It’s time to exit the pod.” (Somehow this struck me as funny, and I almost giggled.) Then the filtration system would come on, which he said was rather loud and was bound to wake me up if, by chance, I fell asleep in the pod.

He mentioned that after the session, since it was late in the evening, he probably wouldn’t be at the desk once I finished, so I could just get out and head out on my own. I asked him how I should pay for my session because I hadn’t done that yet.

This seemed to surprise him and I ended up giving him my credit card, which he was going to process while I was in the pod. He said he’d leave the receipt and card for me on the front desk and I could get it on my way out. (Damn, why did I say something? I could have had a free session!)

Details done, he left me to my experience.

I was expecting soft piano music during my pod float. I expected to emerge totally blissed out. That didn’t quite happen.

After showering and putting in the ear plugs, I entered the pod wearing only my birthday suit. I wondered when the music would start. It never started. I suspect the technician was so distracted by processing my payment that he forgot to turn on the music.

I laid there in the water (which is weirdly buoyant), and decided I didn’t need no stinkin’ music. I even got brave and turned out the psychedelic lights. As I lay there in the silent dark, suddenly a jet of water came on. My body started spinning slowly around in the pod.

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The float pod in green.

The filtration system! Hey, I thought that wasn’t supposed to come on until my session was over. Surely, sixty minutes hadn’t passed yet? It only felt like ten minutes. Now what to do?

I could push the red button in the pod, which the technician said would cause an annoying sound to come from the computer in the reception area. But would that work since the music wasn’t working? Would anyone even be there to hear the annoying sound?

I didn’t feel like getting out of my warm pod and running upstairs in a towel to complain to the technician. Besides, that wouldn’t be very Zen.

So I stayed where I was, getting pushed in slow circles by the filtration jets. At some point, I turned the lights back on because it was just too weird having all this stuff happen to me in the dark.

Then I started giggling. This was like being stuck inside a giant psychedelic washing machine. Yes, I could always raise the hatch and get out if I wanted. But I didn’t want to. Besides, that wouldn’t make for a good story.

After about five minutes, the filtration system turned off. Although I wasn’t sure when it would strike again, I was finally able to relax and get into the floatation groove. It was very blissful. I could hear my heartbeat and my breathing.

Pods are supposed to inspire creativity and help with pain management. I didn’t have any pain. Mostly, what I thought about during my session was how to describe it in this blog post.

My bliss was shattered after about a half hour when the filtration system came on again. I floated around and around in more slow circles. As before, the system eventually shut off. I laid there until I thought my session was over and I emerged from the pod, checking my watch. I was only about ten minutes over my time.

I took another shower to rinse off the salt and got dressed. My credit card was waiting for me at the reception desk. Nobody was there. I debated again whether to find someone to complain about my expectations not being met.

Nah, that just didn’t seem very Zen. Besides, it was all kind of fun.

Would I try it again? Maybe, if I was really stressed out. But I don’t see it as something I would need regularly.

I picked up my card and walked into the night, peaceful.

***

Update: The owner heard about my experience and offered me a free float as compensation for my interrupted experience. I told him that I wasn’t dissatisfied at all by the experience and didn’t feel like I really needed another float. But I have a friend who is very stressed out lately. I asked him if my friend could have the float instead, and he said yes. How nice of him! Bliss all around.

Getting my Blue Mind on: Part 1 of 2

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Wallace Nichols

I had Dr. Wallace Nichols, author and marine biologist, captive in my car for forty minutes over the course of two days. Far from kidnapping him, he was in my car willingly because I was his morning chauffeur for a local science conference about the St. Louis River (the one in Minnesota, not the one in Missouri).

Nichols was the conference keynote speaker, talking about concepts described in his book, “Blue Mind: The Surprising Science That Shows How Being Near, in, on, or Under Water can Make you Happier, Healthier, More Connected & Better at What you do.”

As a watery kind of person myself, I relished this opportunity to learn more about the whole Blue Mind thing. Basically, it’s this: Being by or in water can calm people down and make them more creative. This idea is nothing new, it’s just that now it has a champion in the form of a Kevin Costner-esque man with a Ph.D. And it’s a nice side benefit that this man seems very humble and down-to-earth (down-to water?).

Book CoverThis is my rather jumbled account of things I quizzed him about in my car, things he said at the conference, and things I recall from reading his book. I tried to separate all the information out according to when I heard him say it, but it was useless. I guess I’m too holistic for that.

Although Nichols’s ideas may seem rather surfer-dude-ish — like they come from California, which indeed is where he lives — Nichols refers to himself as a Native North American. He grew up on the East Coast, but has lived various places in the Midwest and Southwest while on his eventual way to the West Coast.

In fact, Nichols credits the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore for focusing his love of water and inspiring his career as a sea turtle biologist. He visited the area for ten days when he was in high school.

I wish I would have had time to ask him exactly what happened during his experience to inspire him, but in his speech he said his time in the Apostles led to his realization that water was, “. . . Where you feel like the best version of yourself. You are surrounded by nature, you’re in the elements. You’re where you should be.”

Something he didn’t mention in his speech was that he used to stutter as a child. I would expect that being in the water helped with that. “Just to be quiet in or near the water. To learn a new activity, learn to surf or to swim – those are very often the highlights of our childhood or adulthood,” he said.

His goal at the conference was to encourage the audience to bring science and emotion together in their work. He used a mixture of personal stories and research results to highlight how important water is to people from emotional, psychological and spiritual standpoints.

I read the Blue Mind book a few months ago. What struck me was that Nichols cited many studies, but most of them were associative – there weren’t many you could point to that were specific to how people react in and near the water.

I asked him if he was doing any more specific studies or if he was cooperating with any neuroscientists who were. He said that since his book was published in 2014, other studies have been published, and in his conference speech he described them.

Also, to the audience he said, “We talk a lot about the ecological, the economic and educational benefits of our work. We’re pretty good at quantifying this stuff, these 3 Es. We’re not so good at talking about or even including this emotional connection, the emotional benefits of healthy waterways. I would say, that should be switched to the top of the list. These are the benefits that grab people and bring them into the conversation.

”From a strategic perspective, first let’s not leave them out, and second, let’s prioritize them so that we’re fulfilling a larger movement. The emotional connection supercharges our understanding of ecological, economic and educational benefits of healthy waterways. By the way, emotion is something we can study. It can be as quantitative as you want it to be. It is hard science. Increasingly, organizations are using emotions as a tool to advance their advocacy work.”

Nichols offered this criticism and advice for environmental groups: “The environmental movement has used fear and anger to communicate about their issues. Guilt and shame are other motivators, and lots of facts — until they are confused. We talk about ecosystem services, we talk about the crisis. We blame you. It’s your fault. It’s terrible. The future is bleak. And by the way do you want to join my club? Sound familiar?

“Is that effective? We think it is. But we’ve proven time and time again, not so much. Maybe gratitude is another tool we can use. Love, what about that as a motivator?”

He left the conference attendees with this thought: “Water is life that makes life worth living as well. When we undervalue water, we lose that. When we undervalue anything or anyone, bad things happen. Water is our first medicine, for both physical and mental health. Bring the science of emotion to your conversations, do not ever leave it out.”

If you’d like more information, please check out his book. You can also read this blog post I wrote for my job.

Think about your own life. Are you stressed out? What helps you deal with that? Is it working for you? If not, remember the water. Remember music. Remember nature in general. Get out there. And don’t forget to breathe.

*

Another conversation I had with Mr. Nichols dealt with floatation tanks. You know, those are the tube tub things you can go in that are filled with warm salt water and silence.

They strike me as sort of scary, but Nichols He recommended them for dealing with stress or to inspire creativity.

A business in my town recently opened a flotation tank. I decided to live on the wild side and give one a try. My appointment is tonight. That’s what Part 2 will be about.

Congratulations, You’ve Been Spied Upon

Russian hacking statsThe recent indictment of Russians who were part of the notorious Russian internet “troll farm” that interfered with the U.S. elections hit close to home for me. I have suspicions that my little ol’ author web site (and perhaps this blog, which is featured on my site) may have been an information source for them. Then again, maybe not. But here’s what I know:

I opened my author website to the world in March 2014. The world paid it no attention, but just having it up felt good at the time.

About a year later my site, which only got a couple of views per day, started receiving hundreds of views. By summer 2015, it was receiving over 400 views per day. Who were these people? Google Analytics tells me they were mostly from Russia, but the majority could not be tracked to a specific country because they didn’t have a language set on their computer.

Hmmm. Mysterious. I thought at first that maybe it was Russian schoolchildren who had to do an assignment on a famous Russian general who has a last name similar to mine (General Zhukov). Maybe they found my site by accident while they were looking for information about him.

My other thought was that maybe someone posted my web address in an online forum or a Russian dating site without my permission, and that’s what drew people. Nobody asked me for a date, though. (Darn it!)

My site grew so popular, and I was so concerned that I called my website hosting company and asked them to check if anything strange was going on. Nope. Everything was okay, they assured me.

I even checked all the links on my site to ensure they weren’t going somewhere unintended. Every link went were it was supposed to go.

And it’s not like my books were hugely popular, so it didn’t seem like the viewers were people hungry for eco-mystic-romance. (Darn!)

I started to breathe easier in the fall of 2016, when the traffic on my site dwindled to more reasonable levels – only 10 or 15 views per day.

Imagine that, I was relieved when fewer people visited my website!

Then came the suspicions and the news of the Russian hackers interfering with the U.S. election. When the indictments were handed down last week, I decided to do some research of my own to see if there were any correlations between the traffic on my web site and Trump’s candidacy and election. What I found disturbed me, and I will post the metrics here, so you can make up your own mind.

As you can see from the data graph, the surge in traffic to my website began around March 2015, just a few months before Trump announced his candidacy. Could the Russians have been doing research in support of Trump’s run for office? The number of hits to my site peak on June 16, 2015, which is the same day that Trump announced his candidacy. Then there’s an abrupt decline until a week or so later.

When I told one friend about this pattern, they suggested that maybe the Russians thought that I’m an opinion leader and they were checking my site (and blog) to gather information on American opinions to better craft their disinformation campaigns and political messages. Hmmm, could be?

Visits to my site jumped up and down, but stayed higher than normal until Trump was elected. Then they dropped off to the measly numbers – only a couple of views per day, which it is still experiencing today. Hardly any of those viewers are Russian. The majority are American. And all those mysterious viewers from an unknown country are gone.

As another part of my research, I looked at a timeline of 2016 presidential campaign hacking fast facts. It begins in September of 2015, when the FBI contacts the Democratic National Committee to warn them about their computers being compromised by Russian hackers. One would expect that the hackers did their work earlier than September, which coincides with the rise in views to my web site.

A couple of weeks ago, my former Russian language professor gave a talk about how Russians think. After his talk, I decided to bounce this info off of him because I knew he used to work for the CIA. After I described the pattern of visits to my website, his verdict was, “Congratulations, you’ve been spied upon.”

I’m not sure what to do with this information. I guess for now, I’ll just feel really creeped out.

If I disappear suddenly, you’ll know the Russians did it.