Category Archives: Interdisciplinarity

The Scenic Route

The Scenic Route (lemoyne.edu)

The Scenic Route (lemoyne.edu)

Would you believe it? After ten years teaching at Georgetown University, I got lost, yesterday, on my way to graduation. For some, being lost is not a major issue. Not so for me! Suffering from a mild form of dyslexia, getting lost instills in me a momentary sense of panic, as well as embarrassment, even at my stage in life. It is only recently, and with hindsight, that I have come to view the architecture of my brain in a new, and more positive, light. Now I realize that, while others, with more disciplined brains, may go straight to the quick, I meander along the scenic route, gaining serendipitous insights and experiences along the way. Graduation day was a reminder for me.

Let me say first that it is very easy to get lost on the Georgetown campus, especially if one veers off the beaten path. For, as the photograph below shows, the university buildings are nested on a hill, so that each appears to sit atop the others, as in a honey comb. In between, there are many nooks and crannies, connected by long staircases, which appear seemingly out of nowhere. When joined, they form a very elaborate maze. In such a 3-D environment, negotiating the landscape requires spacial skills as well as a good topographical map. Neither were at my disposal on graduation day.

Georgetown University (courtesy planetware.com)

Georgetown University (courtesy planetware.com)

Graduation has always been a rather straightforward, well scripted event. Absent rain, it has traditionally taken place right in the middle of the campus, in front of the main hall. This year, however, it took a different form; instead of one ceremony, in which both Masters and Doctors walked across the stage to the accolades of all, there were now two. The first, which celebrated the PhDs, took place as usual on the main campus, while the second set of ceremonies, featuring the Masters candidates, was distributed, according to degree, in different locations throughout the campus.

It was on the way to the ceremony for the Communication, Culture and Technology Program that I lost my way. The event took place in a large tent, situated on one of the terraced areas at the bottom of a long staircase. Locating it was problematic–at least for me. According to our instructions, we were to find the spot by following the faculty procession as it exited the main campus. However, even though the faculty members were clad in an array of brightly colored robes, within moments their two continuous lines dissipated, and blended into the crowd. Not knowing where to go, or how to get there, I meandered around asking directions, but to no avail. At last, I found a sign pointing to the disabled route, which–under the circumstances–seemed quite appropriate for me. Following the sign, I entered a main building where some very helpful people, although unfamiliar with the site, were able to trace out my destination on a map, and set me on the right course.

So it was that I arrived at the second graduation ceremony, and in time. The effort was well worth it. Not only was I delighted to see all of my students pass in front of me across the stage; I also relished the comments of the speaker, Ed Seidel, Assistant Director at the National Science Foundation, who talked about complexity, and the future challenge that it presents for our brains! According to Seidel, in the future scholars will be overwhelmed by so much data that they can only make sense of it with the help of computational tools, and–as importantly–the collaborations of multiple scholars from widely diverse disciplines. As he said, solving the problems of tomorrow will require a community.

(courtesy of causesdyslexia.net)

(courtesy of causesdyslexia.net)

At this point a light went off in my head. In such an environment, people who are somewhat dyslexic may be at a considerable advantage in addressing future issues. For, their brains do not simplify. To the contrary, the pathways that a dyslexic brain follows are highly complex. Moreover, the dyslexic brain actually resembles a collaborative community, such as that described by Seidel. Working up to four times as hard as normal brains, its neurons interact and share information across a myriad of sources, creating in the process a holistic and, therefore, more realistic picture of the world. For those of us who follow circuitous routes such as these, the key is not to get too caught up in the scenery.

Letting Go. . . .

Letting Go (Courtesy of Bisayan Lady)

Letting Go (Courtesy of Bisayan Lady)

The long hiatus in my blog postings is due, in part, to the difficulty I have been having letting go. It has now been more than two months, since Sparky– my dearest friend, and occasional collaborator–passed away. When he wasn’t commandeering my blog, he was there on my shoulder, helping me to see the world in a different way. The time has come to say goodbye.

Sparky, or Spartacus as he was formally called, was a blessing in more ways than one. A gift from my student Mridulika Menon, Sparky was intended to help assuage my loss of his predecessor, a black lab-shepherd suitably named Diablo. We browsed the dog pictures in all the nearby shelters, but my husband Brock was unable to choose one from among the many to be left behind. Let’s just wait until a dog shows up on our door step, he resolved. And, much to my suprise, on the very next day, that’s precisely what Sparky did! There in my office door was Mridulika, cradling an ink-black puppy, which she had purchased on the streets of Georgetown. I was on my way to George Washington Hospital to pick up my husband, who was undergoing a minor medical procedure. Just before leaving, I called and asked the nurse to tell my husband that Spartacus would be accompanying me.

one smart dog

one smart dog

Sparky was not only intelligent, he had a special gift of empathy. No doubt he was sensitized to other people’s feelings and emotions early in life, for a year after he came to live with us, my husband was stricken with multiple myeloma, then thought to be an incurable cancer. Overcome with fear, I turned to Sparky and held him fast, absorbing his massive strength and fortitude. Years later, he was still there, his head in my lap, at the first sign of a tear. On his last day, the day I had to put him down, I struggled to hide my feelings. My greatest fear was that Sparky would sense my grief, and try to comfort me.

Grand Old Boy

Grand Old Boy

It was Spring Vacation, so I was able to stay home by myself, reliving and savoring my shared times with Sparky. Already I missed him so. As often happens with me, I found comfort in a book, a rather unusual and, I should add, controversial one at that.

Written by the physicist Evan Harris Walker, the book was entitled The Physics of Consciousness: The Quantum Mind and the Meaning of Life. Building on Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, the entanglement phenomenon–or as Einstein described it “spooky at a distance'”–the concept of state vector collapse, as well as quantum tunneling, Walker contends that reality is non material; to the contrary, it is subjective–that is to say dependent upon the consciousness of a quantum observer. In individuals, this consciousness is the product of quantum tunneling, which is carried out among the synapses within the brain. As importantly, given the entanglement of the quantum world, and the irrelevance of time and space, consciousness must also be nonlocal, and therefore conceived of as a whole. When, according to Walker, we view it this way, we encounter God.

Having to negotiate myself through the scientific concepts inherent in Walker’s argument might have distracted me from my pain. However, I stayed on track by following the thread throughout Walker’s narrative that I shared with him: the whys and wherefores of life and death. As a backdrop to his major theme, Walker describes his quest to discover the meaning of his adolescent girlfriend’s death more than a half of a century ago. His account, in the context of his major argument, provided a great insight to me. I could reconnect with Sparky by employing my consciousness (skeptics might say imagination) to observe him wherever he might be. So, for the next few weeks, there he lay–a slightly unfocused mass of pixels–at the foot of my bed. It was not long, however, before he let me know that it was time for me to let him go. And so I did.

The Dark is Rising

Complete Lunar Eclipse (NASA)

Complete Lunar Eclipse (NASA)

It may seem curious to entitle a blog, “The Dark is Rising,” just a day after the Winter Solstice, when I experienced a phenomenal lunar eclipse. Nevertheless, remembrances of the children’s book, bearing the same name, and written by Susan Cooper, keeps seeping into my conscious mind. It is a book that I read to my son Stephen, one Christmas long ago, when he was confined to my mother’s living room couch, while recovering from a nasty bout with pneumonia. My mother cooked and did her art work, while I read; no matter, we were both engrossed, almost as much as Steve. Given recent events, I realize that the story line of the second book in Cooper’s five part series–appropriately entitled The Dark is Rising–is very timely; there are, in fact, a number of eerie parallels.

the never ending battle between the forces of good and evil

Writing in the tradition of J. R.R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis, Cooper employs mythical symbols and tropes to depict the never ending battle between the forces of good and evil. Time shifts and magic play important roles as well. In the story, the protagonist, young Will Stanton, discovers on the morning of his eleventh birthday, which occurs evocatively on Midwinter’s Eve, that he is the last of the Old Ones–people who, having been granted supernatural powers, have used them across the centuries, to push back the dark.

Will’s entry into this realm is full of foreboding. He is destined to be a seeker. To do his part, Will must collect six sacred, ornamental signs, which, when joined, will defy the Dark. A looming atmosphere accompanies Will throughout his journey: for the forces of the Dark make themselves ever present in the guise of a tremendous chill and snow storm that paralyzes the town; birds attacking from the sky; a wandering madman called the Walker, lurking behind every corner, and the Rider, who, appearing dressed in black and riding a large black stallion, personifies evil. Fortunately, Will is rescued from these encounters by a host of Old Ones–some from many centuries ago–who share his mission on behalf of the Light.

First New York snow of 2011: Nolita from Dan Nguyen NY

First New York snow of 2011: Nolita from Dan Nguyen NY

Now, let’s consider this Christmas season. As in the time of Will’s brush with the Dark, these past few weeks have yielded some unusually tempestuous weather, with torrential rains in California and Australia, causing life-threatening mudslides and floods, not to mention snowy blizzards carpeting most of the East Coast. We must take notice, too, of the birds falling from the sky, and the dead fish washed ashore? More troubling still is the political climate of hatred exacerbated by media pundits and right wing politicians, such as Sarah Palin, who seek private gain at the expense of humanity. As we have seen in Arizona, the consequences can be catastrophic. What accounts for all of this? If you look at the Homeland Security report Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment, you can only conclude that THE DARK IS RISING.

Today, there are no Old Ones, as in the myths bygone. But some of us are “old” in the sense that we have lived through more civic–even if stress ridden–times, times when people reached out with a hand, and not with a gun. Like the Old Ones of the past, perhaps we need to work together to hold back the Dark, reconstructing a narrative based on trust and caring. As the neurobiologist Dr. Douglas Fields has demonstrated in his research, our brains are the product of our environments. Hence, those of us who grew up in better times can play our parts by reconstructing and retelling the magic inherent in our memories.

Who Turned Out the Lights?

Who Turned Out the Lights? from Jim (jaytay)

Who Turned Out the Lights? from Jim (jaytay)

My father could not abide waste. To encourage my sisters and me to consume each and every crumb on our plates, he not only told us about “all the poor starving children”; he went much further, instituting the Clean Plate Club. Each time we finished a meal, we received a badge of honor–that is, a medal that he made by wrapping the cap of the milk bottle with tin foil. Sadly, the scales testified to the success of my father’s endeavor.

My father’s campaign to induce us to turn out the lights had far less impact, however. Exasperated by our failure to respond to his admonitions, he resorted to bribery. Leave it to a banker!

My father as a young man.

My father as a young man.

Leave it to a banker. He offered us a deal.

Here was the deal: If my two sisters and I would only turn out the lights, he would give us the difference between what the electricity bill was, and what it would have been had we simply clicked the switch. A no-brainer to be sure. My father’s efforts, however, were to no avail. Speaking for myself, it wasn’t a disregard for financial rewards, nor for that matter laziness, that fueled my resistance. No, at an age when one’s imagination runs wild, I found it reassuring to be ensconced in light.

Today, I feel the same way. Wherever I look, there are dark clouds overhead–the depressed economy, the BP oil spill, the war on terror, the rise of the Tea Party and the mid-term elections, and, oh yes, the slaughter of the bears in my beloved New Jersey. It’s time to turn on the lights!

Washington Revels (revelsdc.org)

Washington Revels (revelsdc.org)

However, having absorbed my father’s penchant for efficiency, and my husband’s concerns about the environment, I certainly don’t advocate wasting electricity. No, my recommendation is far brighter: a performance of the Washington Revels. A yearly event in Washington, the Washington Revels have used song and dance to reenact, according to one traditional narrative or another, how mankind has, over generations, endured the Winter’s darkness by celebrating one another in a spirit of good cheer and benevolence, as they await the return of the light.

So too, in our own lives today. Accompanied by a glass of good cheer, my husband Brock and I, rejoice in in the song Drive the Cold Winter Away. Verse seven is most enlightening, as well as one of my favorites. We’d be happy to have you join in.

This time of the year is spent in good cheer,
And neighbours together do meet
To sit by the fire, with friendly desire,
Each other in love to greet;
Old grudges forgot are put in the pot,
All sorrows aside they lay;
The old and the youth doth carol this song
To drive the cold winter away.

Getting Back to Speed~~The Road to Recovery

Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary 058 from Michael Dawes

Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary 058 from Michael Dawes

It’s commonplace to note the ups and downs in life. As they say in Spanish: la palma sube, y el coco baja. And yet, when we find ourselves at our own nadir, or in the midst of a deep recession, we often despair. The way back up seems so steep, and the recovery so slow. Worse yet, to garner hope, and seek a way out, we need someone, or something, to blame.

As I read the news each morning, searching for the slightest positive signs, I too am discouraged, but not so much by the slow pace of economic growth, or even by the slanderous attacks made against President Obama. Far more disheartening to me are the pontificating pundits,’ who, once having heralded Obama’s ascendence, are now unrelenting in their criticisms of him for failing to get it right.

Economic indicator from jakekrohn

Economic indicator from jakekrohn

One need only consider Elenor Clift’s recent piece in Newsweek, “The Problem With the Cult of Obama: Halfhearted Soul-Searching at the White House,” in which she calls upon the President to reinvent himself in accordance with voters’ aspirations. As the Jungian analyst Lawrence Staples, author of the book, Guilt With A Twist: The Promethean Way, might point out in response, winning praise–or an election, for that matter–is not the best measure of success. After all, Prometheus outraged the Gods when he stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals, but, in so doing, he greatly enriched humankind.
promethea.org

promethea.org

In like fashion, the Democrats poor election results might not reflect Obama’s inability to track the pulse of the American people, but rather his willingness to nonetheless take a risk, and diverge from the game of politics, in order to achieve what he believes to be overriding societal goals. (See, for such an argument, Ari Emanuel, “Forget the Carter Comparison: Obama is Following in the Footsteps of Harry Truman–and That’s a Very Good Thing.)

Turning the pundits’ criticism back upon themselves, one might ask: What have you done lately to stimulate recovery? To be sure, negativism is not the answer. Think about recovery from disease. Do you blame the sick person; do you lash out against God? These are self-defeating strategies. I know from personal experience, having been caregiver to my husband, Brock Evans, as he successfully battled stage 3a multiple myeloma. Most unhelpful were the doctors who slinked along his bedside, rolling their eyes behind his back, and cautioning him that “people in his condition don’t do very well.” On the other hand, what made all the difference in the world–that is to say, in addition to his own courage and fighting spirit– were the mailbags from well wishers reaffirming their love and cheering him on. One turning point came when he received a song, written for him by Carol King, appealing to him to “Hold On, Hold On.” It went like this:

You ask yourself the question
What am I going to do
How can I go on when life has let me down
You know it won’t be easy
But time will take you through
You can find your courage in the love inside of you

Hold on, Hold on . . .

So, as in the words of Hal David, it would seem that “What The World Needs Now, is Love Sweet Love, “ or, at the very least, some very enthusiastic cheerleaders.

Gone Fishing

Tom Sawyer (courtesy of kidsblogs.nationalgeographic.com)

Tom Sawyer (courtesy of kidsblogs.nationalgeographic.com)

My blog has been so dormant over the summer, one might wonder where I have been. To borrow a term from Tom Sawyer, I would simply say that, this summer, “I went fishing.”

The place was our family’s summer cottage on Hawthorne Lake, a community in the New Jersey Highlands established by my great grandfather, H.P Dillistin, together with his friends and relatives. Dating back, in fact, to Mark Twain’s days, it shares much in common with St. Petersburg, Mississippi, the town along the river where Tom Sawyer had his adventures.

Grandaddy Dillistin

Grandaddy Dillistin

Like the people in St. Petersburg, Mississippi, we have lived together in close proximity for over five generations, experiencing good and bad times, intermarrying, sharing common lore, befriending and sometimes feuding with one another, as in one big, extended family.

My own recollections of Hawthorne Lake are very vivid, dating back to the Second World War, when we spent the summers together with the wives and children of my parents’ male friends who were off at the front. So sparsely populated was the Lake at the time, we shared the waterfront with deer, beavers, muskrats and otters. And we children were much like Tom Sawyer and his friends, preoccupied with the adventures of exploring, frog hunting, cooking mud pies, turtle trapping, and looking for hidden treasures, totally oblivious to the raging events around us.

As in Tom’s case, one special past time was fishing; for the lake is home to many good fish–bass, pickerel, perch, and the sunnies that nip at you as you dip your toes in the water. As a young girl, I often accompanied my father fishing, rowing the boat as he wound reel and cast his line. It was a way of sharing with him, drawing him out, and perhaps getting hints about what was really going on in the world beyond the Lake. But my father was reserved with his children, and said little, as he waited for the fish to bite. I sat there patiently, watching the ripples wrap around the oars of the boat. But–not liking to eat fish, much less to skin them–I secretly hoped the fish would not take the bait.

No wonder I have come to believe that fishing is not so much about catching fish, as it is about capturing our thoughts and our daydreams as they float on by. So this summer, even though I was not sitting on the river banks, as Tom was inclined to do, I was fishing for ideas as I sat with my husband, in our wicker chairs, on our screened in porch, observing the world around me. Energized by LIFE, I am–as we used to say–now ready to roll.

Up, Up, And Away!

up-up-and-away-susan-roberts

up-up-and-away-susan-roberts

Up, Up and Away in my beautiful machine. Remember that song from Sesame Street? Driving to the lake in our new Ford Focus, I felt like I was flying high. Off we were to our summer cottage in the New Jersey Highlands, with two cars in tandem, both stuffed to the brim with our treasured possessions–our books, are tapes, our CDs, our cloths, and of course our dog Sparky.

A new car you say? You are environmentalists, non-materialists! How did that come about?

Well, we had been thinking about it for a long time. Although our 20 year old CRX si (the last of its make) had served us well, it had seen better times. As well, we were beginning to creak, just like the CRX, so it was harder and harder to take advantage of its sporty appurtenances. Nonetheless, we procrastinated, not wanting to let go of the happy memories and associations that our CRX evoked. As importantly, negotiating a car deal is intimidating; much as in the case of birthing a baby, we had to wait until the pain of the previous experience had subsided before trying again.

We had to wait until the pain of the previous experience subsided, before trying again

What helped to overcome our inertia was our desire to bring all our stuff with us on our vacation to Hawthorne Lake. No doubt, it would take two cars. Did we really need all this paraphernalia? Most likely not! But, as one might well imagine, even though we could not possibly read all the books, wear all the cloths, nor listen to all the CDs that we had packed, together they comprised a web of connections and affordances, which made it easier for us to carry out our routine away from home.

so many choices

so many choices

The subject of things continued to preoccupy me even after we had unpacked our cars, put everything in its place, and settled into our cottage on the lake. For once I was ensconsed in the old wicker chair at the end of our long screened-in porch, the first book I drew from my grand pile was Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton’s The meaning of things: Domestic symbols and the self.

Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton’s perspective on the role of things is quite unique. Unlike most sociologists, they are not focused on the relationship between things and status. Nor do they take an especially critical perspective of things, bemoaning the evils of consumerism. As significant, the authors rise above the technology determinism vs. social constructivism debate. Instead, grounded in the symbolic interactionism of George Herbert Mead, and the philosophical pragmatism of John Dewey, they view the interactions/transactions between people and and things as a two-way street.

Generations of Things

Generations of Things

Embodying past associations and psychic investments, objects convey symbolic meaning to those engaged with them. At the same time, the users of objects can extend that meaning by investing their own psychic energy in the object to pursue their own individual goals. Growth occurs in the process, with respect to both the object and the individual. As importantly, because objects embody meaning at three levels–the self, the community, and the cosmos–the network of objects with which we are surrounded help us to orient ourselves to function both as individuals as well as participants in a larger whole.

Our home at the lake epitomizes the narrative that Csikszentmihayli and Rochberg-Halton lay out. As they point out:

One of the most important psychological purposes of the home is that those objects that have shaped one’s personality and which are needed to express concretely those aspects of the self that one values are kept within it. Thus the home is not only a material shelter but also a shelter for those things that make life meaningful.

Crossepatch

Crossepatch

Built by my grandfather in 1908, our house at the lake is home to prized possessions that span five generations–the deer head over the fireplace, first edition books, the mission oak furniture, blackened cast iron pots, my mother’s rolling pin, my father’s fly rod, my childhood toys, my son’s tools, my grandchildren’s paintings, and–last but not least–our new car. They serve not only to link me back through the generations that preceded me; they instill in me the insight and impetus to keep our house and its environs in tack for the generations yet to come.

Right, Left, Right

Left....Right....Right Bird March (Ananth's)

Left....Right....Right Bird March (Ananth's)

Several weeks ago, I read an article reporting that Dick Cheney feared the rise of the Tea Party. The reason? Focusing on Rand Paul’s politics, the news story claimed that Paul was too conservative for Cheney. I tried the idea out for size. But deep inside, I suspected otherwise. Was it possible, instead, that Rand Paul might be too radical for conservative republicans, as we now know them?

Might not the Teaparty be too radical for conservative republicans?

At first, It was only an impression, inspired by books I had read years ago. Intrigued, I decided to revisit them. First up was Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, an elaborate story featuring classic Dickens characters that builds upon and derives its intrigue from people and events that traverse the shadowy backdrop of the French and English revolutions. Recalling a germane passage in the novel, I now sought it out.

Like most other Dickens novels, The Tale of Two Cities is a cliffhanger. So I read it transfixed until three in the morning, when I finally came across the key scene that I was looking for. You may recall it.

Madame_DeFarge_I_by_Goldenspring

Madame_DeFarge_I_by_Goldenspring

In this scene, the character Sydney Carton, who although he is about to take the hero, Darnay’s, place at the guillotine, is inspired by a vision of a peaceful Paris, a heaven on earth, in which many of the bloodthirsty revolutionaries–including the irrepressibly vengeful Madame Defarge–will share in his same fate. I wonder, is this what Dick Cheney had in mind?

 Day 152/365: Searching for Clues(from weboricam(

Day 152/365: Searching for Clues (from weboricam)

In search of more clues, I turned to historian Crane Briton‘s classic analysis, The Anatomy of a Revolution, a book I had first read while in graduate school at Columbia. Employing as his lens, the course a fever runs, Brinton compares the French, English, Russian, and American revolutions in terms of the following stages: precursor situations and events; the rise and rule of the moderates; the accession of the extremists; the reign of terror, and the thermidor reaction. It is uncanny how many parallels Brinton was able to draw, but even more so when we compare these parallels to our own situation today.
Pillar10-History-French-Revolution-Delacroix

Pillar10-History-French-Revolution-Delacroix

Consider, for example, the rumblings leading up to all of these revolutions. As Brinton notes, there was growing resistance to excessive taxation; increased outrage about injustices and inequality; a loss not only of government legitimacy but also of the rationale for government itself. While catalytic events may have set the revolutionaries into motion, the driving force that sustained them was a radical utopian vision–much like that held by Sydney Carton–of what a post revolutionary future might be like. Does it sound familiar?

To hear echos of these phrases today, one need only listen to the metaphysical tone that underlies much of the Tea Party rhetoric. As journalist J.M. Bernstein describes:

The seething anger that seems to be an indigenous aspect of the Tea Party movement arises, I think, at the very place where politics and metaphysics meet, where metaphysical sentiment becomes political belief. More than their political ideas, it is the anger of Tea Party members that is already reshaping our political landscape.

Look Homeward America

Look Homeward America

If you need further convincing, take a look at Bill Kauffman‘s Look Homeward America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals, a sympathetic, and somewhat nostalgic, perspective, which not only puts the Tea Party’s philosophy in perspective but also aligns it with some of the idealistic anarchism of the past.

Granted, Former Vice President Dick Cheney is not known for his academic erudition. But let’s take a leap of faith, and assume that he has read Dickens and Brinton in the past. Might he have good reason to be afraid of the Tea Party. I would think so. As the 17th/18th century revolutions show us, entrenched, traditional authorities have always sought to remain in power by reaching out to the moderates; the moderates have overtaken the traditional conservatives by reaching out to the radicals; whereas the radicals have toppled governments with the help of the mob. If the Republicans build their future political campaigns on the foundation of the new reactionary radicals, are the Tea Party gang likely to do otherwise?

My Husband, The River Hero

Brock Evans-River Hero

Brock Evans-River Hero

TOM’S OF MAINE AND RIVER NETWORK ANNOUNCE 2010 RIVER HEROES AWARDS
KENNEBUNK, MAINE – (June 11, 2010) – Protecting and restoring rivers and other waters is vital to the health of our country and communities. At River Network’s recent annual National River Rally conference, a pioneering group of clean water heroes came together to collaborate on innovative new ways to protect the nation’s water. In addition, this year’s River Heroes Awards ceremony, sponsored by Tom’s of Maine, celebrated six remarkable water protectors and the victories of their campaigns.

Included among this year’s River Heroes is Brock Evans, president of Endangered Species Coalition, Washington, D.C.

For more than forty years, Brock Evans, a former Marine, lawyer, former director of the Sierra Club’s Washington office and National Audubon Society’s Vice-President for National Issue, has worked tirelessly to protect and lobby for the environment. Brock’s efforts have helped gain wilderness protection for the Pacific Northwest’s North Cascade Region, defeat the damming of Hell’s Canyon, and found the Green Wave Movement for environmental justice. He currently serves as the President of the Endangered Species Coalition, an association of 450 environmental, scientific, and religious groups dedicated to protecting and strengthening the Endangered Species Act.

“It’s a tremendous honor. I spent 45 years working in environmental organizations and the River Network is one of the most vibrant, exciting groups,” said Brock Evans, honoree of the James R. Compton Lifetime Achievement Award and president of the Endangered Species Coalition. “To receive an award from a group who is doing so much themselves, is humbling. Each one of them is a hero.”

The World Turned Upside Down

my mother (left) preparing-the-beans

my mother (left) preparing-the-beans

My mother was a fine artist, always painting, sculpting, or making woodcuts. Although she maintained a studio-like setup in our basement, she and her work always seemed to make their way upstairs, giving rise to a world of clutter.

Worse still, as a youngster, I wasn’t sure my mother was presentable: knock on our door and you would fine a handsome women, wearing her red plaid flannel work shirt atop a pair of well-worn jeans, a pencil behind her ear, and the remains of paint and printers ink lodged under her nails. If that wasn’t enough! Just consider what was, perhaps, my most embarrassing moment, when I brought a school friend home for lunch, only to find my mother “cooking” her etchings on the kitchen stove.

I wasn’t sure my mother was presentable. 

Given my mother’s interest in art, one can understand why, as children, we spent a lot of time in museums, as well as browsing through the numerous art books that my mother collected. Whereas most parents spend a lot of time reading to their children, my mother spent much of our quality time sharing her thoughts about paintings and art.


The World Turned Upside Down (Jan Steen ca 1660)

The World Turned Upside Down (Jan Steen ca 1660)

One of these paintings is still vivid in my mind–The World Turned Upside Down, painted by the Dutch Master Jan Steen sometime around 1669. Relating it to my own family life, and envisioning my world falling apart, I was horrified by it, so much so that the painting is still engraved in my memory. Of course, I now know that I needn’t have worried. As with most of Steen’s works, this painting not only characterized daily life in Holland; as importantly, it employed humor and allusions to proverbs, symbols, and myths so as to depict a moral parable. In fact, this particular painting became a trope in Dutch life, as burgers came to describe a lively, untidy home–such as the one I had been raised in–as a “Jan Steen Household.”  Still very young at the time, I was too innocent to appreciate the duality in Steen’s painting: I saw the chaos, but I failed to see the spirited activities that gave rise to it.

The World Turned Upside Down

The World Turned Upside Down

Revived during times of trial, this schematic of the world teetering on the edge of chaos has endured for centuries. Not surprisingly, it accompanied the revolutionary era, appearing first in England and then in the United States. (See Chris Hill, The World Turned Upside Down; radial ideas during the english revolution, Penguin Books 1991.) In 1643, for example, a broadside first published the English ballad The World Turned Upside Down, whereafter it was sung as a protest against Parliamentary policies, which sought to outlaw traditional Christmas Celebrations. Rumor has it, moreover, that American troops also played this tune during the American Revolution, when General Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington at Yorktown in 1781.
The World Turned Upside Down

The World Turned Upside Down

Most recently, the author/journalist Melanie Phillips has borrowed on this theme, attributing todays absurdities–such as climate change, the war in Iraq, fraud, bank failures, etc.–to a world run amok. According to her, science has been overturned by ideology.
Network Economy Dinner (courtesy of Isaac Pacheco

Network Economy Dinner (courtesy of Isaac Pacheco

Having become far more cosmopolitan over the years, I can now see the world in complex terms. What to earlier generations was considered a world upside down, now looks to me like a phase transition. Fortunately, for me, growing up in a bohemian household has helped me to deal with ambiguity, such as is depicted in the paintings and tropes I have mentioned. Better still–although there is no paint or printers ink under my nails–the way of life I learned from my mother has prepared me to follow in her footsteps, and enjoy complexity to the fullest.