What’s Your Prison?

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Alcatraz Island at night. San Francisco.

Walls all around us, inside us. Some built of fear, some of strength.

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A typical Alcatraz prison cell.

What’s it like inside your walls? Cozy? Snug? Cold? Dark? Rotten?

Are they keeping your heart safe, or are they keeping it lonely? Are they keeping others safe?

Whispers filter through the chinks. Come out, come out and play, they say.

The voices won’t wait forever. Someone else will grasp their warm hand and walk them toward the grassy dunes, open in the ocean wind.

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Alcatraz Lighthouse

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The Cream Puff of Happiness

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I meandered over the San Francisco for a work conference and found the best concept for an eatery near my hotel. All they sell is cream puffs. A whole store devoted to the ultimate in decadence!

While growing up, I had heard about cream puffs on television, but had never eaten one. They were not sold in my city at that time. Once I was old enough to cook, I happened upon a recipe in my mother’s Betty Crocker cookbook and promptly went about making them. I was in heaven with the eggy, creamy, fluffy result.

Now cream puffs are less of a rarity. But never in my wildest “I’m a hick from Minnesota” dreams did I imagine an entire franchise devoted to the sweet.

002Beard Papa’s offers several varieties of cream puff shells. At the store I visited, these included original, chocolate-covered and green tea-covered. Filling choices were vanilla, peanut butter, and green tea. (I suppose the green tea ones are for people who are trying to trick themselves into thinking they are eating something healthy.)

I ordered an original shell with peanut butter filling, and a chocolate shell with vanilla filling. Both were divine. The shells were crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside. The filling was cold and custardy. I preferred the vanilla filling over the peanut butter slightly, but only because it’s more classic.

With everything that’s going on in the world today, it makes me happy that cream puffs have their own store. If I’m 20 pounds heavier once I return home, you’ll know why.

Minnesota Singer/Songwriter Jacob Mahon

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At first he catches your attention because he pauses during his songs. And what’s he doing with his mouth?

Then you wonder what he’s singing about. Then you wonder how someone just out of high school can have such a powerful, gravelly voice. Then you marvel at his guitar skills. Then you notice that he sounds like Adam Sandler’s Waterboy character sometimes.

He sings a song from the perspective of a goldfish that’s about more than a fish.

He croaks a song about old people. Is he poking fun or offering a critical commentary on how society devalues the elderly?

This guy’s got talent. He’s like a male version of Lorde. Watch him go.

Perfect Duluth Day Interview: https://www.perfectduluthday.com/2017/04/06/duluth-band-profile-jacob-mahon/

KUMD Radio Christine Dean Interview:
http://kumd.org/post/55-live-studio-jacob-mahon#stream/0

A Vision of Abundance

Alexandra Cousteau

Alexandra Cousteau

Like many baby boomers, I could be found on Sunday evenings in the 1970s, cozied up to the television, watching a gnarly red-capped Frenchman exploring the depths of the ocean. The opening music to “The Underwater World of Jacques Cousteau” — full of violins and trumpets, with a playful xylophone riff — conveyed a sense of adventure and wonder that was unmatched by any other television show at the time.

The series inspired me to pursue a career as a marine biologist. Although that did not come to pass, I write about aquatic science, which is just about as good.

Like many young girls who watched the program, I had a crush on Cousteau’s son, Philippe. His other son, Jean-Michel, was okay, but Philippe – oooh la la! I was devastated when he died in an aircraft crash. And I thought Calypso crewman Falco had the coolest name.

Even as a poor college student, I donated money to the Cousteau Society and followed their adventures after the television show no longer aired.

So it was inevitable that I attended a talk last week by Philippe’s daughter, Alexandra. She was the keynote speaker at a celebration in Superior, Wisconsin, for the Lake Superior Research Institute.

The leggy blonde, whose mother was a model, is coming into her own as an icon for water issues. She founded a water organization, called Blue Legacy International, and was honored by the National Geographic Society as an Emerging Explorer.

Her talk centered on the theme of the importance of conservation and sustainable management of water for a healthy planet. However, Cousteau doesn’t like the word “sustainable.” She thinks that to most people, it means they must sacrifice something to achieve it, and that what is achieved is only marginal, not like things were before environmental problems happened.

The status of the oceans before humans started impacting it was one of abundance – huge schools of fish, giant pods of dolphins, a bay covered with oysters. Cousteau argued that we should have a vision of abundance instead of one of meager sustainability. It’s something people can be more enthused about and it’s an easier concept to imagine.

Given the realities of human abundance on the planet, this may be a pipe dream. But what a happy pipe dream!

Cousteau also thinks we focus too much on the environmental problems that exist and not on the vision we want to achieve. She gave the example of a tip from her downhill ski instructor, who told her not to look at the trees while she was skiing. “Because that’s where you’ll end up.” He advised her to focus instead on where she wanted to go.

Since I had just listened to a talk about sustainability by Andrew Revkin, I found Cousteau’s concept of abundance intriguing. I think those two should get together and compare notes, if they haven’t already!

I didn’t have my notebook with me, so am writing this all from memory. Two other things that struck me were her story about a child who was banned from watching the Cousteau TV show, and her story about how she learned scuba diving from her grandfather, Jacques.

Cousteau said that people usually gush about her grandfather’s television show (much like I did at the beginning of this post). But a man who attended one of her talks said he would get too excited by impending peril in the underwater adventures. When Cousteau would enter a cave filled with sharks, the boy would jump up and down on the couch, yelling at the divers not to go into the cave. He’d end up hyperventilating every episode until his parents took matters in hand and banned him from watching the show. Funny!

Cousteau said she learned how to swim before she could walk. At age seven, Jacques decided she was old enough to learn how to scuba dive (a technology he invented). As she sat on the edge of the boat, getting used to the regulator in her mouth and the gear on her body, she decided she didn’t like it. She was about to tell Jacques that she didn’t want to do it when he gave her a little push, and into the water she went. The undersea world has captivated her ever since.

Cousteau’s talk ended with a question and answer session. One of the last questions came from a tearful fifteen-year-old. She said that the students in her high school were all pessimistic and hopeless about the environment. She wanted to know how to offer them hope.

After taking a moment to compose herself, Cousteau, who was tearing up too, offered stories about things that are making the environment better. But perhaps, sensing the inadequacy of this in the light of teenage angst, offered to continue the conversation with the girl through her web site.

By now, most of the crowd was wiping away tears, including the director of the Lake Superior Research Institute, who closed the session in a choked voice.

Like her grandfather, this Cousteau has the ability to move people with her storytelling. I hope she inspires a whole ‘nother army of marine biologists and aquatic scientists. And a whole bunch of people who can tell the story of the environment, showing us where to go without crashing into the trees along the way.

Louis Jenkins’s Favorite Poem

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Louis Jenkins reads at Zenith Book Store in Duluth, Minn.

Laconic prose poet Louis Jenkins gave a reading at a book store last week in Duluth.  He’s one of my favorite local writers (even though he lives in a Minneapolis suburb now instead of Duluth), so I went. I think of him as Duluth’s Earnest Hemingway. He has that larger than life quality and talent. A chance encounter with him once even inspired a poem out of me. (See “Two Poets in the Cereal Aisle.”)

The Poetry Foundation website describes Jenkins’s poems as having “a tight focus on the mundane particularities of ordinary existence, using deliberately flat language to comic and often heartbreaking effect.”

The last time I went to one of his readings years ago, I left my cell phone on. My children were home with a babysitter, and I wanted to be available. I told the sitter only to call me in an emergency. Right when Jenkins was reading a poem, my phone went off. I was in the middle of the crowd and everyone looked at me. I was too mortified even to turn off the sound; I just fled the room with my ringer intermittently blaring.

The call was not an emergency. After mildly chastising the inexperienced babysitter (I am a Minnesotan, after all, we can’t afford to get all riled up), I sheepishly returned to the reading, waiting until the crowd was applauding to cover my entrance.

At last week’s event, you can bet I turned that sucka OFF. Jenkins read from his new book, “In the Sun, Out of the Wind.” Afterward, he took requests for readings from his other books and he answered questions.

One memorable question came from my friend and partner in crime, Sharon. She asked which poem of his was his favorite. His response was, “The next one.” He went on to explain: “Sometimes you think, ‘I got pretty close with that one,’ and those are the good ones. Other times you wonder, ‘Why in the heck did I write that?’ ”

Another person asked him what he thought of living in the Twin Cities. “Bloomington’s a lot like Duluth,” he said. “It’s only got one good restaurant.”

The topic of actor Mark Rylance came up. In case you haven’t seen the Tony awards lately, Rylance is the actor who, for the last two Tonys he’s won, recites a Louis Jenkins poem instead of giving an acceptance speech. Rylance and Jenkins even did a play together based on Jenkins’s book, “Nice Fish.”

Although age has taken its inexorable toll, Jenkins still has a twinkle in his eye when he reads, and his wit is unmistakably intact. I felt privileged to see him once again, and to sit through the entire reading this time.

8 Steps Toward Sustainability

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Andrew Revkin, playing a right-handed guitar left-handed.

Former New York Times environmental reporter, Andrew Revkin, spoke in my neighborhood yesterday. I meandered over to hear him because he’s an acquaintance of mine and because I just think he’s cool. Little did I know he would offer ideas for making our world more sustainable, plus end his talk with a song!

His talk was part of a Peace & Justice series put on by the Alworth Center at the College of St. Scholastica. Currently the senior environmental reporter at the independent investigative newsroom ProPublica, Andy specializes in the topics of climate change, the Amazon rainforest, and sustainable development.

I met Andy years ago when I took part in a week-long science writing workshop put on by the New York Times in Santa Fe. He was my small group leader. He offered critiques on our stories and gained inspiration from us for new topics to cover for his beat.

One morning, he was reading a copy of the Times and railing at some edits made to his story. I recall being so tickled that even reporters at a venerable institution like the Times are at the mercy of their editors.

At the end of the week, we gathered for an outdoor barbeque and Andy strummed his guitar and sang for us. (He has accompanied the likes of Pete Seeger.) I added to the mix, singing the only song I have memorized, an old revolutionary war folksong called Katy Cruel.

Andy even offered to write me a letter of recommendation for my journalism grad school application, so he has a special place in my heart, and I couldn’t miss an opportunity to hear him again.

Many people don’t know that when Andy started his career, he wanted to be a marine biologist. I can’t recall the specifics, but he was working on a project about “Man and the Sea,” in a far-flung location like New Zealand, when he got distracted by an offer to crew a sailboat that was sailing the world. He joined the crew and spent a year-and-a-half at sea, broadening his literal and figurative horizons.

20170928_192357He explained all this during his talk (called “Ending Life as we Knew it”), and showed a photo that he took during his sailing travels of a modest shop in a small town that had piles of leopard skins stacked outside it for sale. This got him thinking about the sustainability of our species on the planet. In hopes of changing peoples’ attitudes toward the world in which they (we) live, he turned to journalism and started covering environmental issues.

Andy refers to climate change and sustainability as “super wicked” problems that will only be solved with multi-pronged approaches, including on the most difficult battlefield, which is inside peoples’ minds.

He offered eight strategies as a recipe for society to become more sustainable:

  • BEND. This deals with resilience. We need to learn how to live on the land in a way that takes current and future landscape changes in to account. Andy offered an example of an ocean island that is all built out. If the island had some undeveloped land around its edges, it would be less vulnerable and more adaptable to sea level changes.
  • STRETCH. We need to stretch our brains to think differently about things like land use planning and to think ahead to what conditions might be like in the future.
  • REACH. This deals with communication. We need to let people know what’s happening with their world in a way that reaches them. I thought Andy’s talk was a good example of this. He didn’t just present a bunch of facts/figures and scary graphs. He told his story and got the audience’s emotions involved.
  • TEACH our children and ourselves more sustainable ways of living.
  • REVEAL. This involves calling attention to hidden problems. Andy used the example of heat or gasses being emitted from a factory, which could only be seen with a special camera. This example reminded me of the underwater camera that was pointed at the BP oil spill gushing out of the pipe in the Gulf of Mexico. Things like that get people’s attention and lead to quicker action.
  • REFLECT. Get scientists together to cooperate on problems and give them time to reflect on solutions.
  • REJOICE. Relish the gift of life and our humanness.
  • REPEAT. Keep doing all these things over and over in a disciplined manner (like “lather, rinse, repeat”). Keep retesting systems and examining conventional ways of thought.

20170928_194201Andy said when he asked a prominent scientist what it would take to solve the issue of mankind’s sustainability, he was surprised when the man didn’t offer a lot of numbers and charts. Instead, the man said that sustainability will take “a miracle of love and unselfishness to solve” if we are to survive as a species.

Andy ended his speech by grabbing his guitar and singing a tongue-in-cheek song about how “liberating carbon” is the American way.

Let’s stop liberating that carbon people, and let’s keep thinking about how our actions affect the planet. And maybe, just maybe, things will get better.