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Those Little Critters are Amazing

DSCN0325Rock Creek, Montana     How many of us ever have good thoughts about most insects?  We keep busy swatting mosquitos, shooing flies, stepping on cockroaches, tiptoeing around caterpillars, and gingerly keeping an eye out for the whole host of little buggers.  Granted, we might let a ladybug crawl over us, remember spending hours playing with doodle bugs as kids, admire a butterfly as it passes by, or root for a dragonfly helicoptering in on a bug, but for most people that’s about the extent of it:  live or let die.

On the creek we’re outnumbered by nature’s life.  A deer will stand ten feet away, and if we’re quiet, eyeball us from time to time, while pulling at some high grass until one of us moves or another deer comes along and chases us away.  We drive by mountain goats on the road.  Sometimes we fish across from moose.  The chipmunks are bold this season, after having been almost invisible last year, and they are on the hunt.  We’ve roosted a couple of out the garbage can when the lid wasn’t on tightly enough.  One ran across Chaco’s lap while reading outside.  Another somehow got in the trailer, ran behind me, and gave us a chase for a minute until the broom encouraged her out the door.   A mother and her brood of baby mice were found in a child’s dollhouse in the shed.  They had moved in.  Another reminder that we’re just visitors here.

And, another reminder about how little we know about the millions of other species of animal life sharing the space with us.  I read an interesting obit in the New York Times several weeks ago about a naturalist named Howard Ensign Evans and a book he had written almost forty years ago called, Life on a Little-Known Planet, so I got the book and crammed it in my bag for a look on the creek.  Wow, did I learn a lot!

Lightning bugs, glowworms, or whatever you might call them are actually beetles.

Flies on short bursts can get close to forty miles per hour.

Having been stung by wasps twice before leaving home in one week, I read the chapter on wasps carefully.  Evans was a wasp expert, so he was partial to them, and he told story after story of parasitic wasps, almost smaller than the eye can see, and how they were ant-slayers or used ants to carry their eggs or virtually fill up some other larva with their eggs.  Or as Evans says,

“…without parasitic wasps and other insects that keep leaf feeders at moderate levels, the course of evolution might have been very different:  whole groups of plants might have become extinct, other poisonous plants might have flourished, and the vast hordes of herbivorous mammals and their predators might have never evolved.  In a sense we owe the miracle of humanity to the wasps.”

Like I said, he’s got a wasp-bias, but he makes a point about how little we know and how much we take for granted.

So I learned more than I’ll likely remember about cockroaches, locusts, and even bedbugs, but the tidbits I’ll retain were worth the read, like the information on coloring and mimicking by various insects.  Some species of butterflies have a white spot or distinctive marking in order to trick birds that might attack them into going for that spot where they can either sustain the injury or give them a bad taste.  Because some butterflies emit chemicals that deter birds from killing them, there are whole species of mimetic butterflies that have developed similar colors and patterns in hopes of fooling birds the same ways.  Sometimes it works.   Sometimes it doesn’t.

There may be a million stories in the naked city, but there are at least that many, if not more, in nature all around us, if we’re willing to look and learn.

Photography, Memory, and Work in Sally Man’s “Hold Still”

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Sally Mann

Rock Creek, Montana    Sally Mann is a reasonably well-known photographer with a determined vision of her art, her family, her land, and the South itself, that is enthrallingly captured in a combination memoir, history, and defense in her recent Hold Still. She writes almost poetically in some parts and because and in spite of it all, you can’t help liking her and wishing her Suburban would pull up in front of a house nearby, so you could walk over and say, “hi!” If I were rating it for Amazon, I’d give it five stars.

But, that’s all here and there, when it comes to some of the points she makes that are worth serious thought. One of the more interesting, especially coming from a photographer, are accusations that photographs themselves are destroying and altering memory. She might have been expected to argue that photographs are supplementing memory or even that they are substituting for memory, neither of which would have triggered much thought or debate. Instead at several different points in her book, she approaches photographs, even her own, with an attitude that seems almost openly hostile to the pictures themselves, despite it being her passionate avocation.

Inarguably, she is correct that the photographer choosing to frame a scene in a certain way and using the unmitigated power of selection from their many choices of shots in the same scene and sequence can use the final photograph produced to warp reality in the split second of that moment apart from any other context. In some ways,  her point holds more weight for her photography as art and artifice, than it succeeds as a brief the danger of a photograph supplanting or subverting memory. The disruptive rise of the smartphone, the quality of the pictures, and the ubiquity of photographs has perhaps changed the vernacular of photography and memory more than Mann wants to credit, as immersed as she is in her own vision and art. The proliferation of photographs and the cameras that take them currently are laying their own claims to be seen as facts, reality, and truth, almost making memory and perspective passé. Who cares what the police claim might be their memory, when a cellphone captures the scene of a killing in South Charleston or an athlete’s spin on a beating in an elevator in Baltimore? Photographs are now public, and memories are private, regardless of the distortion.

Mann has a horse in this race. She clearly still feels embattled over the controversy of her art involving pictures of her three young children provoked years ago, giving her a bitter taste of fifteen minutes of fame, while undoubtedly making her career as well. Hold Still has some score settling, but it’s her memoir, her right. She had me convinced about her motivations and practice as an artist until she told a story of one of her daughters objecting to a dress she would wear in public being too revealing despite having appeared nude in Mann’s family pictures, essentially saying she was an actor in the photographs but a person on the stage. For Mann’s argument to work for me, I wanted her children to say the photographs were an expression of their natural selves and spirit, even knowing from Mann’s description the pain and plodding of her staging. As children, they could be pure. Uncomfortably, on reflection, I started to be troubled that as actors, they could be porn. I want to be all for Mann, but I’m troubled now, and perhaps more in loco parentis and not as modern as I would like to claim. There are certainly no pictures of her children as adults, and that absence midst the myriad other photos also speaks volumes. I’ll have to think about this for a good while longer.

On the other hand in Mann’s defense, her feet-on-the-ground view of herself as an artist is rooted in her ability to embrace herself as a worker, and I loved that, and it makes me unabashedly her fan. Hear her on “ordinary art.”

Ordinary art is what I am making. I am a regular person doggedly making ordinary art…”ordinary art” is the art that most of us, those of us not Proust or Mozart, actually make. If Proust-like genius were the prerequisite for art, then statistically speaking very little of it would exist. Art is seldom the result of true genius; rather, it is the product of hard work and skills learned and tenaciously practiced by regular people. In my case, I practice my skills despite repeated failures and self-doubt so profound it can masquerade outwardly as conceit. It’s not heroic in any way. To the contrary, it’s plodding, obdurate effort. I make bad picture after bad picture week after week until relief comes: the good new picture that offers benediction.

There’s hope for us all in our dogged labors. Maybe there’s even art there!

Could Trailer Design Make More of “Less” in Housing?

inside of an airstream

inside of an airstream

Rock Creek, Montana     When discussing the fascinating work done by the Advanced Studio of nine students from the Yale School of Architecture working with noted Italian architect, Pier Vittorio Aureli, on the question of how to squeeze 100,000 units of affordable housing into the overheated, expensive real estate market of San Francisco, I noted what I found to be an appropriate irony that I was reviewing their work while pecking away in an Airstream trailer, my son sleeping silently in another room nearby, so I wanted to flesh out that point.

The paper sent along to me by my comrade, Michael Robinson Cohen, one of the budding architects on the project was entitled, poignantly and astutely, “Is Less Enough.” Many of the proposed projects as well as their historical references harkened to the designs of monastic life, their cells, and cloisters. There were discussions of how to design these units from what they called a “standard” apartment size of 400 square feet to half or one-third the space, between 150 and 200 square feet. There were discussions of SRO, single room occupancy, hotels as a potential model for these new units. In fact, the heart of the overall argument underpinning the entire studio was a new vision of “the room” itself. It would seem to me to make these kinds of housing units or apartments feasible and even desirable in the future, some cross fertilization with the work that is probably less appreciated in addressing exactly these problems has been undertaken by house trailer, marine, and railway architects, who make a living out of making a whole lot more of the “less.”

Being off-the-grid, I can’t access the exact dimensions of the 1978 Airstream Land Yacht where I’m pecking away, but I would reckon the inside room dimensions, wall-to-wall, front-to-back at between 300 and 350 square feet, and likely way closer to 300 than 350. Unlike the Aureli Studio designs, trailers and houseboats, not only have designated areas for sleeping, toilets, and showers, but also kitchens and cooking, which the students’ designs were all putting into the “core” or shared spaces, which might or might not appeal. In a trailer like this one, and there are no doubt huge improvements unknown to me that trailer architects have devised in the last 37 years since the Silver Bullet came off the line in Elkhart, Indiana, there are bunks for two and a fold out couch in the living room for more. I’m not recommending this for permanent family living, but for the onesies and twosies of the urban precariat this is pretty good. One of the marvels of these contained spaces is that there is storage everywhere, largely absent in the designs I saw: under bunks, under couches, above bunks and above couches, along walls, under sinks, around the shower and sink, above the sink, and frankly in every nook and cranny. Making more out of less, remember.

A ceiling on a trailer is hardly 6 ½ feet tall. No housing code would allow less than 8 feet, giving a different concept of a “room,” even more space. Many of the designs seem to have foldout Murphy-type beds, which is nice, or bed lofts, taking advantage of more height in the room, which would seem like a gift for design as well. An Airstream has a rounded top, rather than a rectangular surface, meaning more usable cubic space for the taking in these proposed new units.

I don’t want to beat the point to a pulp, but perhaps the way to look at future use is not only some cooperative space for larger social utilization, laundry, and the like, but to imagine a unit design as less monastic and more on the order of self-contained. Low-and-moderate income families in large parts of the USA have already established that they will buy trailers, because they are affordable, and they will live in them, not as transients, but as permanent housing.

When architects talk about embracing the vernacular, when it comes to getting more out of less and making people line up and be happy getting it, it might be worth learning from these humble dwellings.

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Inside of an airstream

Inside of an airstream

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Is Less Enough? 100,000 Homes for San Francisco

Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 11.20.09 AMRock Creek, Montana    Michael Robinson Cohen built a couple of coffee carts for Fair Grinds Coffeehouse that have always been particularly useful in handling the throngs at Jazz Fest and at other times. He also built the extension of the coffee bar at our Ponce de Leon location along with a couple of sandwich boards. My companera and I visited with him frequently when he and a woman we knew well ran into each other frequently during the two-day marathon showing of The Jackel several years ago. He left the city for the Yale School of Architecture, and I wouldn’t have been surprised if that might not have been the last we heard from him, and it was for years. I got a message from him out of the blue during the fall that he was part of an advanced studio underworld with renowned Italian architect, Pier Vittorio Aureli, and their project was to see if they could figure out new and innovative ways to add 100,000 units of housing in San Francisco, and not just housing, but affordable housing in the “executive” city by the Bay that is squeezing out the last of the working class with every passing month. On the fly, I connected him to Randy Shaw of the Tenderloin Housing Clinic, and wondered what might come of all of this studio speculation, if anything.

Changing planes in Denver for several hours and able to briefly access the internet, I was barely able to download this massive PDF file that ended up containing nine different, but all fascinating, notions of how 100,000 units of new housing might be shoehorned into the difficult housing regulations, sky high real estate values, and challenging topography of San Francisco. Reading through the whole Aureli Studio book in my Airstream trailer might seem a weird juxtaposition, but, ironically, might have been the perfect place to contemplate their work and this problem.

Without any of the studio ever specifically addressing the devilish details of the real dollar cost on their renderings, all were in agreement obviously that to add 100,000 units mean thinking “small,” no matter how grand their vision, how soaring their language, or how erudite their historical reference points. The title of their collective enterprise, “Is Less Enough,” speaks to the troubling question unanswered.

The various schemes were a creative and detailed education in themselves for the uninitiated like myself. One plan contemplated going underground where housing regulations were nonexistent. One was of a mind to build in the median or neutral ground of thoroughfares and in the parking lane of streets. I examined that plan in detail, since I doubted I would never see anything built like it in a street in my lifetime. One jutted out on piers into the Bay, and I tried to imagine the substructure that would protect the building from an earthquake and the tsunami that might follow. Another was an eight stories high box and pictured in the middle of a neighborhood where houses came to its proposed waist, and I could almost hear the neighbors screaming to their elected officials in this city, where the 1% is king and the top quarter would be virtually one-percenters in the rest of the USA, about the loss of their sight-line and inventing new love for the “character” of their neighborhood.

Nonetheless, what was so exciting to read was the depth of the political recognition behind each detailed set of drawings. They saw themselves designing for the precariat, even if many of the tech drones themselves might be rationalizing their housing situation as temporary before they were as rich as Gates, Jobs or even better, Zuckerberg. They understood there was a new transient class and that a city that grew by 30,000 while it only added 1500 units of housing was drowning out the sounds of a new enslavement of workers in the roar of its own boosterism. It was also exciting to read so many of the young architects views on the necessity of communal and cooperative arrangements, their notions of a “core” where common functions would prevail and separate “cells” or units where residents would find private spaces, and despite their questioning about whether “less” might be “enough,” their implicit assumption that in all likelihood, it was going to have to be.

Michael’s own project was to build an adaptation of the Italian post-war palazzina or as he wrote:

Palazzina is a medium scale building that offers affordable housing for mid­dle-income freelance workers in San Francisco. Suitable to the existing den­sity of the city, the intermediate scale of the project, which sits between the townhouse and the tower enables independent inhabitants to form residential cooperatives. Limiting the size of the community supports effective sharing of space and domestic tasks, engendering a collective consciousness that is essential for the precarious worker of the disenfranchised middle-class. While the project is contextual in scale, the autonomy of the building is made evident by its cubic form and isotropic façade. The regularity of the exterior clearly marks a limit to the city and conceals the project’s unique spatial and social interior.

The palazzina also shared an understanding of co-op apartments and common space in New York City housing, where families could purchase their individual units, while sharing some common services and space.

It was a relief to read that this was not just transient housing and therefore might have more prospects of realization, given our continued love affair with home ownership and the developers resistance to speculate on building more SROs or anything with the word “transient” involved no matter how young, clean cut, and techie this new precariat might want to claim that they are. I was also pleased to see that one plan went right to the heart of redeveloping the SROs in the Tenderloin where Randy Shaw has made his career. He might not applaud every detail, but he would be happy to see that architects are thinking about ways to rehabilitate some of his 500 SROs, rather than letting them crumble to waste as some of their owners seem to intend.

Undoubtedly we need a whole lot more of the kind of thinking the Aureli Studio at Yale has done about San Francisco, and we need it to leave the ivory tower and get into the heart of the cities where we all live and work and desperately demand decent and affordable housing.

Pope Francis is a Cheerleader for Organizing!

150712131441-03-pope-0712-exlarge-169Rock Creek, Montana    Hey, are you having a bad day? Not sure things can ever be any different? Not sure it’s worth the effort to get out there and hit the doors, talk to your neighbors or co-workers, and do what has to be done?

Here’s some good news: you have a friend! Pope Francis, that’s who. Listen to this line from his remarks recently to the World Congress of Popular Movements meeting in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia:

“…the future of humanity does not lie solely in the hands of great leaders, the great powers and the elites. It is fundamentally in the hands of peoples and in their ability to organize. It is in their hands, which can guide with humility and conviction this process of change.”

In fact you may have been down at the mouth for a simple reason according to Pope Francis “…suffering from an excess of diagnosis, which at times leads us to multiply words and to revel in pessimism and negativity.”

So, rather than wallowing in negativity, there has to be change, or as Pope Francis says:

“I would insist, let us not be afraid to say it: we want change, real change, structural change. This system is by now intolerable: farmworkers find it intolerable, laborers find it intolerable, communities find it intolerable, peoples find it intolerable … The earth itself – our sister, Mother Earth, as Saint Francis would say – also finds it intolerable. We want change in our lives, in our neighborhoods, in our everyday reality. We want a change which can affect the entire world…”

For organizers especially, the Pope has some words of comfort that almost make you blush hearing them when he says praises our work with people as “fish in the sea of the people,” as Mao recommended:

“This rootedness in the barrio, the land, the office, the labor union, this ability to see yourselves in the faces of others, this daily proximity to their share of troubles and their little acts of heroism: this is what enables you to practice the commandment of love, not on the basis of ideas or concepts, but rather on the basis of genuine interpersonal encounter. We do not love concepts or ideas; we love people…”

The Pope was doing a bit more than cheerleading for organizing in his Bolivian remarks. He asked social movements and organizers to take on three “tasks.” First to force the economy to be “in service to the people,” secondly, he wants us to “unite our peoples on the path of peace and justice,” and, finally, “to defend Mother Earth.” Underscoring those tasks is his analysis, which is important. He identifies part of the fight as being against a “new colonialism.” One face of this colonialism is the “anonymous influence of mammon: corporations, loan agencies, certain “free trade” treaties, and the imposition of measures of “austerity” which always tighten the belt of workers and the poor.” Another face, are you listening to us Comcast and the like, is “ideological colonialism,” which he defines as “…the monopolizing of the communications media, which would impose alienating examples of consumerism and a certain cultural uniformity….” In another interesting concept, Francis argues that we should unite people through with a methodology that is “polyhedric, where each group preserves its own identity by building together a plurality which does not threaten but rather reinforces unity.”

This guy, Francis, is worth watching. And, I’m not saying that just because in Bolivia he also spoke of organizers as “social poets,” which I dearly love. He may be willing to give courage to act and not just heart and soul to social movements. Here is the clarion call in his oration to the people we organize:

What can I do, as collector of paper, old clothes or used metal, a recycler, about all these problems if I barely make enough money to put food on the table? What can I do as a craftsman, a street vendor, a trucker, a downtrodden worker, if I don’t even enjoy workers’ rights? What can I do, a farmwife, a native woman, a fisher who can hardly fight the domination of the big corporations? What can I do from my little home, my shanty, my hamlet, my settlement, when I daily meet with discrimination and marginalization? What can be done by those students, those young people, those activists, those missionaries who come to my neighborhood with their hearts full of hopes and dreams, but without any real solution for my problems? A lot! They can do a lot. You, the lowly, the exploited, the poor and underprivileged, can do, and are doing, a lot. I would even say that the future of humanity is in great measure in your own hands, through your ability to organize and carry out creative alternatives, through your daily efforts to ensure the three “L’s” (labor, lodging, land) and through your proactive participation in the great processes of change on the national, regional and global levels. Don’t lose heart!

Solar and Batteries are Knocking on Utilities’ Door – Part 2

solar-panelsRock Creek, Montana     Bill McKibben, professor and environmental advocate, most notably through 350.org, wrote an interesting piece in The New Yorker, making the case that we are on the verge of the big leap to solar and, essentially arguing that utilities are standing in the way of systemic change. Solar, wind, and other renewables are increasingly able to provide the power, costs are plummeting, batteries are improving, and the monopoly utility cost and financing structure and their resistance to change are now the essential stumbling blocks according to McKibben.

The heart of his argument is “…that innovation, energy-saving and energy-producing technology is now cheap enough for everyday use.” Significantly the story line behind this is what he bills as a regular working class house for a regular working class family in Vermont. The Canadian-owned Green Mountain Power had financed an energy makeover for a family with new insulation, heat pumps for the water heater and to warm the house, solar panels on the garage, and LED light bulbs. The family reduced the “energy footprint of their house by eighty-eight per cent in a matter of days, and at no net cost.”

McKibben is on solid ground on the declining price of solar panels. He notes that “price has dropped ninety-nine per cent in the past four decades, and roughly seventy-five per cent in the past six years.” I’m on record as a believer in their ability from my experience on the receiving end on Rock Creek. Most of the rest of the piece was his effort to establish that utility companies are in “a death spiral,” as their industry trade group, the Edison Electric Institute, has warned, and that they need to change or be made to change. His exact words “are waiting for someone to tell them what to do.” By that he means all of us as customers or the government.

McKibben’s view of black and white, good and evil is appealing, and god knows we’re on his side, but a careful reading really establishes that we are close, but not quite there, and part of the problem is plainly the economics still aren’t there as Melanie Cranston detailed in her current article running in Social Policy. The “biscuit cookers” as the old Arkansas energy czar Witt Stephens used to call utility customers are subsidizing the upper income users who have made the shift in places like California for line use, peak demand access, and all back up supply. Indirectly, McKibben even furnishes a good example of how close the cost factors really are for both customers and wannabe renewable users and the utilities. Arizona utility regulators approved a minimal $5 per month user connection fee for customers converting to solar, 90% less than Arizona Public Services (APS) had requested, and the numbers still worked for companies like Solar City who were installing the panels. The Salt River Project, which is also in Arizona unilaterally put a $50 per month charge on solar users, and the installers moved elsewhere because the numbers didn’t work. McKibben doesn’t explain that Salt River is not under the Arizona Public Service Commission because it is an operation more along the lines of the TVA, more public, than private.

Utilities have not sufficiently earned the trust of most customers that is adequate to allow them to control demand within a customers’ home which is part of the quid pro quo on the Vermont story, along with liberal financing from the utility, which is also not something being offered or incentivized in much of the country, including the “sunny” belt of the South. For lower income and working families especially it is not enough to find that there is “no net cost” in this kind of wholesale conversion to a new technology. There needs to be a real savings, and if there’s not a substantial savings then there has to be a program from somebody somehow that shoulders the transition costs for the user.

When the economics are so tight on the conversion that a regulatory swing of $500 like in Arizona makes the whole solar project collapse, the ice is just too thin still for most people. Sadly, I know they are for me. I also know the politics of too many Southern and Western states, the legal requirements binding the regulatory bodies, the power of utilities during the legislative sessions, and how few of the regulators are elected these days. $5 today could be $50 tomorrow or $100, and that doesn’t work, especially when energy is still relatively cheap in the USA for most people. I’m not even sure I know what to make of David Crane of NRG, “the country’s biggest independent power provider,” as McKibben calls them, and his statement about eight per cent of a family “disposable income.” Why did he use the word “disposable?” Did we just reduce overall income to a lower subset to boost energy expenditures up to 8%? And, when Crane says “on all forms of energy,” does that include what we pay at the pump to put our cars and trucks on the road for work and whatever?

McKibben is right and on the side of the angels here, and his advocacy resonates with what we need to achieve climate change and environmental health, but short term low and moderate income people can’t make the leap across the divide until the money is right, and the figures, unfortunately, are still way too tight. The clock is ticking, but a lot of us are going to have to wait until the savings are on our side just because our wallets are lighter than our energy bills, no matter how much we hate our utility companies and would like to let the sun shine our systems.