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A Star to Steer By

In lieu of being in Pittsburgh for the December holiday in the wake of my wife’s suicide in June, I am traveling to Ecuador.

The week after I arrive in Quito, I will join a trip to the jungle to a local community in preparation for a medical relief group. In return for a place in a canoe, food and place to sleep, I will take photos and write up the trip for their web site and teach community members some English. Then we will drive back to Quito.

Compass to Steer By

The Tool for the Job

After that the trip is open-ended. For several weeks I will travel and sight -see. I have no idea what I will do and who I will meet. I may visit Machu Picchu. I may go to the Galapagos. I may do something else entirely. I’m creating a new script, navigating without a map. I’m bringing a waterproof journal, my folding compass, my laptop and my harmonica — and the ubiquitous smartphone with camera. (I don’t plan to be constantly taking a lot of selfies, but who knows? You may hear from me.) It’s about being present for the journey, as someone I was close with recently reminded me.

Be rather the Mungo Park, the Lewis and Clarke and Frobisher, of your own streams and oceans; explore your own higher latitudes . . . Nay, be a Columbus1 to whole new continents and worlds within you… HDT, Walden

Or, since the Galapagos2 may be on my itinerary:

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by… – John Masefield, Sea Fever

Our local Engineers Without Borders chapter has a water project in Curingue Ecuador, and a new one scheduled that I’m the education lead on. Our EWB contact in Quito has been tremendously helpful. I’m grateful for her and others in Pittsburgh who have encouraged me. A number of people have warned me to be careful​. Well, yes. Life is not risk-free. It’s also not a spectator sport. I got a full complement of immunizations this past week, including yellow fever and typhoid. I trust those I’m meeting. I am looking forward to , dare I say, fun after being in a long, dark tunnel. Namaste: Seek the light.– CDL

Sunset in Utah

Sunset in Utah (Photo credit: Cherie Byars, Ph.D.)

1Not the most popular explorer now in South American or anywhere else, but Thoreau was creating a metaphor.

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Entertainment for the Journey

I’m preparing for an upcoming trip to Ecuador in December. I tend to overthink, and am learning there are some serious snakes and spiders in the jungle there, including the Fer-de-lance and black widow. But if we can’t entertain ourselves during the journey, never mind others, what’s the point?

Image: Fer-de-lance

Hola, Señor Fer-de-lance! (Courtesy BBC Nature)

 

Interview With an Ecuadoran Snake

Hola, Señor Snake.

Hola, Gringo .

Como estas ?

Muy bien. Y tú ?

Okay. Thanks for asking .

Are you on a holiday. ?

Yes. A friend invited me to accompany her.

Be careful where you step.

Gracias. You are a courteous snake .

De nada . We try to make guests feel welcome in the jungle . Did you get all your vaccines? I could administer any you’re missing with my built-needles.

Thanks. I’m good. Some people are afraid of snakes.

Some people are afraid of their own shadow.

Yes, there seem so many things to be afraid of these days. My friend says she hates snakes.

Strong words. But that’s nothing to me. I just exist here, doing snake-like things.

Do you bite?

Only a little,  if someone steps on my head.

But you are very venomous.

Lo siento. It is my nature. I use my venom to catch and eat small rodents like agouti — preferably accompanied by a glass of Syrah.

Not fava beans and a nice chianti ?

No! What do you think I am? I generally don’t much like people either .

I hope you’ll make an exception for me.

We’ll see.

My friend said some folks here call her a witch .

Then she should be okay. She can cast a spell to keep me away. Is she a good witch or a bad witch?

She says she can be very bad: muy malo.

Make sure she does not cast a spell on you and turn you into an agouti .

Too late. The spell is cast. Here I am thousands of miles away in the jungle bringing medical care to local people. At least it’s for a good cause.

Did your friend bewitch you to lure you into her lair ? Like a spider.

No, I think she likes me. I call her querida bruja* for fun .

She is like a lady witch doctor , perhaps.

Kind of . Though she is a very interesting witch — she leads eco tours and runs a farm.  She goes rafting .

Sounds like she has a real pair of ovaries. Does she intimidate you?

Not too much. And who wants boring?  And If she turned me into an agouti, we couldn’t have interesting conversations.

Yes. Conversation is important.

You have some some serious spiders here by the way, including black widows, tarántulas and very unhygienic spitting spiders. But no. I came because I wanted to.

You are from the States ?

Si. Pennsylvania .

The keystone state . Two main cities: Philadelphia , city of brotherly love , and Pittsburgh , city of three rivers .

You are an educated snake.

Gracias. I have my degree in herpetology.

I know other snakes where I come from, like timber rattlesnakes.  I come across them when I hike.

I know a nice family of timber rattlesnakes el Norte, in the central part of  Pennsylvania. We stay in touch by Facebook and WhatsApp.

Being a snake, you have no opposable thumbs. How do you dial your phone?

Google voice activation works well enough . So when are you leaving Ecuador?

A few weeks.

What a pity . Back to all that cold . Away from your friend .

That’s the way the world works now: everyone is connected but apart.

Yes. Strange. If I may be personal, you seem not always positive.

It’s my nature sometimes. And it’s based on experience.

But you entertain me. Will you visit again?

I’m here to show up and enjoy the journey now.  I’m not thinking about the future . Sure. Maybe.

If you visit again please look me up. I’ll keep the light on for you.

Will you put a mint on my pillow?

No. An agouti .

Gracias .

Just watch where you step and lay your head. You never know what you might encounter in in the jungle. See you later.

Not if I see you first. Ha ha.

Hasta la proxima.

Chao.

# # #

*Dear Witch

Image: Agouti & Syrah Wine

Better Together (Photo credits: Agouti: brian.gratwicke, Syrah: Ricardo Bernardo | ricardobernardo.net)

 

Appropriate Technology

Since becoming involved with the Pittsburgh chapter of Engineers Without Borders, I’ve become intrigued by the notion of appropriate technology. EWB is kind of like Doctors Without Borders (Médecins Sans Frontières), except members carry a slide rule (well, handheld calculator) instead of a stethoscope.

I’m not an engineer (nor do I play on on TV). I am interested in novice-expert learning, problem-solving, storytelling and how we share what we know. I have written before on the right tool for the job, and techniques and technology that fit particular needs within constraints of time, money and resources. This includes older technologies that can be re-purposed for modern needs. For example, Crankies , aka moving panoramas, offer a form of visual storytelling dating to before the 19th Century that does not require PowerPoint or electricity. (Carbide lamp, anybody?)

Image courtesy of The Crankie Factory. Pittsburgh’s first Crankie Fest is slated for 7 p.m. Feb. 28 at the Wilkins School Community Center in Swissvale.

Although it is 365 miles (587 kilometers) from the ocean, Pittsburgh is not entirely landlocked. Whatever is tossed into our region’s three rivers flows to the Mississippi and the Gulf of Mexico, included the plastic bags and other trash that end up in the oceans. Now an idea originally developed by a 16-year old Dutch kid named Boyan Slat may help provide a low-tech answer to removing it.

We’ve certainly been sold the notion that technology can meet our every need, from medications to self-driving cars. But there’s usually a tradeoff, as Sherry Turkle and others have recently written.

In assessing the appropriateness of any technology, we would do best to keep in mind the question Neil Postman asked: What problem does this technology solve? What problem(s) does it create?1 — CDL

1Please see a 1998 posting and appreciation of Neil Postman and his questions at Yale Engineering.

 

 

 

 

Fellow Travelers and Other Strangers

You’d think experiencing hardship and prejudice due to your ethnic identity or nationality would make you more tolerant or sympathetic to a group of people in your midst encountering these. Especially if the differences between you are slight — so that the world sees you as sharing more similarities than differences.

The Irish have had more than their share of hardship and tragedy — from invasion by Cromwell in the 18th Century to rebellion and the more recent Troubles. As Yeats wrote:

Out of Ireland have we come.
Great hatred, little room,
Maimed us at the start.1

Ironically, now the Irish themselves – some of them, anyway — lack sympathy with a group among them who call themselves the Travelers.

The Travelers are not Gypsies, or Roma. They are a distinct group that has existed for hundreds of years throughout Ireland and Great Britain. (One group made its way to South Carolina.) They have strong family connections, and have made their their living traditionally as itinerant tinkers, traveling from town to town repairing small items. Sometimes by stealing. They are a small group, ethnically distinct by one definition; maybe not so much by another. They use their own language, Cant, which at times their hosts proposed to outlaw, as was tried with Welsh and Gaelic. Given their small numbers, the Travelers seem not worthy of much attention by international groups and individuals (government officials, reporters, ‘advocates’). One thing’s clear: no one in Ireland seems to want them in their backyard.

Bridget O'Donnel and her starving children, 1849, Illustrated London News

Bridget O’Donnel and her starving children, 1849, Illustrated London News

In October the New York Times reported a fire that killed ten people in a Travelers’ encampment in Carrickmines, Ireland, near Dublin. The dead included five children and a pregnant woman. The town – with a name redolent of Irish labor and suffering – contains a fragment of an ancient castle built to protect the invading English from marauding Irish tribes. (It was subsequently used as a piggery.) Encampment, summons up associations ancient and more recent — from Celtic nomads, to the Irish monks setting sail to the Shetland Islands and Scandinavia and (possibly to America) in curraghs, to Famine ships carrying human cargo, and now Syrian refugees fleeing to Hungary and Germany.

Following the destruction of the fire in Carrickmines and shock of their fellow Travelers’ deaths, the survivors sought a new location to settle. Those in the surrounding community who at first expressed sympathy refused to extend that sympathy to allowing Travelers a place to live. Local residents in Dublin  blocked access to a temporary location being prepared for them.

No doubt the situation is complex. How do you create a inclusive community with those who stubbornly refuse to assimilate – who are in fact perceived as a threat? But this has always been the case. In America the dance of assimilation bred as much intolerance as tolerance as each group of immigrants made its way. The Irish showed little sympathy to Italian and Slovak immigrants. Neither group sympathized much with African Americans’ struggle for freedom and equality. 19th-century illustrations by Thomas Nast depicted Irish immigrants as violent, apelike savages.

Political cartoons during the Red Scare of the 1920s characterized Eastern European and other immigrants as bomb-wielding radicals and Bolshies. In the 1950s McCarthy-era rhetoric charged ‘fellow travelers’ as consorting with communists bent on the destruction of American democracy – which some were. It’s a short leap to the terrorists of today.

My own family, illiterate coal miners who ranged between Edinburgh and Belfast, arrived in the U.S. before the First World War. They traveled to Indiana to mine coal and then to Pittsburgh, where my grandmother was born in 1909. She was the first in her family to attend college and became an elementary school teacher – a vocation my own daughter follows.

The Irish have always been travelers, great fighters, and great laborers, willing to take the dirty, dangerous work that others would not, and live in dirty, dangerous places. I have seen their handiwork and witnessed their graves on my own travels cycling and canoeing the Erie and C&O Canals.

In 1844 I arrived upon the fateful shore.
I left the land that was no more
To work upon the railway2

Erie Canal Graves

Cemetery at Adams Basin on the Erie Canal (Photo by the Author)

The truth is we are all travelers, making our way existentially and physically through the world, seeking a home. It’s clear from recent events that some pursue their journey less benignly than others.

Articles in the Irish Times have highlighted entrenched attitudes about the Travelers: among these that they are antisocial criminals, that they are uneducated. Money allocated to create settlements for Travelers remains unspent to opposition from their fellow Irish. One resident near Dublin said, “They just don’t live the same way we do….That’s not a slant on them. It’s just a fact.” “We just don’t want them here,” and, “No one in the country would accept this.”

These 21st-Century words echo those heard and published during the 19th Century. The Great Famine of the 1840s and ’50s, The Great Hunger – An Gorta Mor — killed thousands and sent millions fleeing to American, Canada, New Zealand and other countries. In Great Britain the general attitude was good riddance to their strange ways and tragic lives – contributed to by Britain’s own poor laws and policies of discrimination dating from Cromwell’s day.

inbusinessAs Cecil Woodham-Smith writes in The Great Hunger:

The wretched, ragged crowds provoked irritation, heightened by the traditional English antipathy toward the native Irish. … “No attempt was made to explain the catastrophe to the people; on the contrary, government officials and relief committee members treated the destitute with impatience and contempt.”

No doubt my ancestors and their acquaintances were among those discriminated against. In America they were met with political cartoons and rhetoric emphasizing their antisocial behavior, their ignorance, profligacy, religion, language, criminality and otherness.

Now we witness refugees fleeing Syria and the Travelers in Ireland seeking a home. Questions of Illustrated London Newsimmigration policy arise once again in the long-winded rhetoric surrounding the windup to the U.S. Presidential election, fanned by the horrific scenes perpetrated on Friday November 13th in Paris.

Nevertheless, I am struck by the minute degrees separation that alienate rather than bind us as human beings. In the 1840s The Illustrated London News published accounts uncharacteristically sympathetic to the Irish. One article quoted an eyewitness to their suffering who declared Everything has been tried but a little sympathy and kindness. But how do you maintain sympathy for someone you’re afraid, rightly or wrongly, is trying to kill you? — CDL

Woody & Marjorie 9-5 and 9-6 Show Dates Canceled

We have canceled the Woody & Marjorie:  Hard Traveling show dates scheduled September 5th and 6th at the Omni William Penn in Pittsburgh.

The Chaos of Others

What rough beast … Slouches toward Bethlehem ? — W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming

Pittsburgh opened its arms, er paws, last week to the Anthrocon convention. The Furries came to town in rags, tags and velvet gowns. The event was a testament to the region’s diversity and tolerance. It also brought in a ton of money.

Ten years ago, the same week as the Furries’ arrival in Pittsburgh, terrorists’ bombs went off in London. Fifty-six people on subways, trains and buses died. Hundreds were injured. All to defend religious belief and identity. 

Open a newspaper or a website and chaos arrives at your virtual doorstep: news from nowhere and everywhere. The world is a scary, confusing place filled with sound and fury (as well as furry). One week it’s a misguided young man in Memphis shooting folks at a church; the next refugees fleeing Somalia. 

We work hard to convince ourself the world is orderly nonetheless. We tell ourselves stories in order to live — myths to impose structure and meaning. We cannot help seeking the sermon in the suicide, wrote Joan Didion (who also wrote an essay inspired by Yeat’s poem.)

We seek solace in technologies that allow us to control nature1 while subverting our better natures. People stare at their smartphones on the bus or subway or while driving as if gazing into a Delphic oracle. In a high-tech society where we purport to make rational, scientific decisions based on statistics and datamining, online fantasy games and graphic novels about magical worlds are increasingly popular.

Given the above, the fact that people pursue drugs like marijuana and heroin as a pathway to an alternate reality is no surprise, though no less pernicious.

Or, one can live in a part-time fantasy world, dressing up in costumes, uttering spells and engaging in strange rituals with others of similar beliefs. Religious dogma offers consolation with the condition that we buy into whatever story is told by those in authority that reassures us we are among the elect.

Soccer, baseball and other sports fans know this as well. Pittsburgh Steelers football fans dress in black and gold and go tailgating.

What if some people deal with the chaos around them and in their own lives by impersonating cats, dragons and other creatures and wearing a tail?

Personally, I’m a fan of humor. In the film Duck Soup a country (not Greece, but just sayin’) goes to war to pay its debts. The Marx Brothers turn the considerable chaos and danger of their 1930s world of Hitler and Mussolini and fascism on its head. Look, they say, this silly stuff can’t hurt you. Look how absurd. Shakespeare does that in plays from Midsummer Night’s Dream to Twelfth Night.

Illustration by Erin Fletcher. For more information please go to http://erinsartportfolio.blogspot.com/2014/02/pandoras-box-illustration.html

Comics like Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and Robin Williams open the Pandora’s box of our identity (with the emphasis on Id) and allow us to peek briefly at the darker angels of our natures2 — little Grendels aching to get out and smash the world or blow it up. Dancing on the knife edge of sense and nonsense led each of them to the edge of sanity and beyond. Do we forget their loss so cheaply?

What is mental illness but a mind overwhelmed with chaos? Maybe depression, schizophrenia and other maladies are alternate stories a desperate mind tells itself to make sense of the world.3 Our treatments address the damaged neurochemistry or faulty wiring while still ignoring the suffering spirit. The rest of us may be deluded, or stupid, or heavily medicated, but we manage to keep our suffering – and that of others — at arms length. Compassion requires entering, or at least acknowledging, the chaos in others. This is uncomfortable and scary, because it echoes the potential or actual chaos within each of us as individuals and societies. But if we fail to do so, chaos grows, takes on a life of its own and perpetuates evil. Like terrorists blowing up subways, trains and buses, or shooting strangers.

If the alternative is dressing like anthropomorphic creatures and strutting around town, I’ll serve the FriskiesTM. — CDL

1See John McPhee’s The Control of Nature

2 Not to say Weeping Angels

3 Read Susan Sontag’s llness as Metaphor

Woody & Marjorie: Hard Traveling

On Labor Day weekend 2015, the Omni William Penn hotel in Pittsburgh presents a celebration of Woody Guthrie’s songs and stories to honor Southwestern Pennsylvania workers past and present. ‘Woody & Marjorie: Hard Traveling’, combines live music and readings centered around the lives of Woody Guthrie and his wife Marjorie Mazia.Woody Guthrie was an iconic musician of the 1930s and 40s. Marjorie Mazia danced with the Martha Graham Company in the 1940s. Guthrie and Mazia had a passionate relationship marked by creativity and true devotion, despite his restless wanderings and the losses and struggles they faced together. The show pays tribute to the uniqueness and continued relevance of his work in helping us find the individual and collective stories that connect more than divide us.
Woody Marjorie  HT Image Contrast
‘Woody & Marjorie: Hard Traveling’ is presented in partnership with Advanced Labor & Cultural Studies as part of a special Omni Labor Day package that includes Saturday dinner or Sunday brunch in the hotel’s Terrace Room. Recommended for ages 16 and up. For more information about the show please call 412-353-3756. For event information and reservations, please contact the Omni William Penn at 412-553-5235.

‘Thin Man Comes to Pittsburgh’ Live Radio 2014 Playbill

Please see the digitized playbill for our upcoming November 22nd and 23rd The Thin Man Comes to Pittsburgh weekend performance at the Omni. Show tickets are still available both days. Read more of this post

11/22/2014 ‘Thin Man Comes to Pittsburgh’ Package Sold Out ; Show Tickets Available

The Omni William Penn sold out dinner packages for our upcoming 2014 performance of The Thin Man Comes to Pittsburgh for Saturday 11/22 and Sunday 11/23. Show tickets are still available. Please call 412-553-5000 or e-mail jkaiser@omnnihotels.com. Also, the show was featured on 10/24 in the Post Gazette’s Radio Notes.

'The Thin Man Comes to Pittsburgh' 2014 Poster

‘The Thin Man Comes to Pittsburgh’ 2014 Poster

Interview in the PDCDC Newsletter

August interview with Taia Pandolfi in the PDCDC (Pittsburgh Downtown Community Development Corporation) Downtowner on collaborating with creatives and following my bliss in the ‘Burgh.  And see a related essay on live vs. virtual performance by Stefany Anne Golberg in the Smart Set. — CDL

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