Category Archives: This Modern World

Elegiac

It was a tough week to lose Padme.

Padme Pattertis Paddingtail joined the B-Ks in September 2002. We were living at 1005 at the time and reckoned it was time for a kitten, plus it was Jim’s birthday. When we went to the kitten foster house and Jim noticed an energetic li’l badass trying to sneak out of the room, the woman in charge told Jim, No, you don’t want her – she’s the bad one. Jim responded by scooping the kitten up in all of her terrible and tawny badness, and thus began our lives together. She put up with a lot in her almost-15 years, including a Star Wars name, a move, the eventual addition of 3 other cats, undignified nicknames such as “Paddles” and “Squeaks on a Stick”, watching her favorite young humans grow up and eventually leave, and the vacuum cleaner. She hated that thing.

Things Padme enjoyed included shredding paper, hopelessly messing up balls of yarn, drinking/grooming loudly, eating plastic bags, chattering at birds out the window, her humans (in order: Jim, Cody, Lilly, me), belly rubs, and the sun. That cat enjoyed the SHIT out of the sun and the breeze on her face. In fact, a few days before she died – we had just discovered she was sick – Padme suddenly appeared in the kitchen and made for the back door. She had shown zero interest in going outside for weeks, given the weather and her heretofore-unknown-to-us illness, but that day was a bit warmer and I thought, OK, you can go out, and opened the door for her. She stepped out and sat on the back steps. A few minutes later, I looked out the window and she was still there, gazing over the driveway and into the neighbor’s yard with the breeze on her face and a look in her eyes that can only be described as “faraway”. I let her back inside when she was ready, she looked up at me as she passed through the kitchen, and she went and resettled herself on the couch. That was Friday, January 13; we said goodbye on Monday, January 16. This is how I imagine she’s spending her time:

She will live on in our garden, amongst the birds she loved/hated so much.

It’s kind of a crappy week when it’s bookended by the death of a friend and a Presidential inauguration that most definitely ushered in… something. However, Saturday was a new day, and a good start.

Protest is an excellent tool of rebellion and resistance, but what comes the next day? The day after that? The day after that? The weeks, months, years after that? Yesterday’s protests were global and sent a very powerful message, but the day-to-day work is in our heads, homes, neighborhoods, and communities. Here are 10 totally free activities we can consider integrating into our day-to-day, if we’re not doing some or all of them already. I know I’m not. They’re really small steps that will help us get ready for bigger steps, should we need to/want to take them.

talk to a neighbor about squirrels, the weather, whatever, and check if they need anything | go to the library, if you have access, and see what they have to offer, because it’s a lot, and get a card if you don’t have one | take five minutes to breathe deeply, because most of us are not breathing to full capacity | appreciate a work of art – music, writing, painting, etc – seriously, take it all in | read or listen to something that makes you uncomfortable (see: library) | find out more about where you live, even if you’ve always lived there or plan to leave ASAP | related: get a bead on your local elected officials and ask them why, when, and how | pet and say hello to a dog or cat or guinea pig or gerbil or bird or whatever and look them in the eye while doing so | while vigilance is ever-important, step away from the news once in awhile | take a page out of Padme’s playbook and enjoy the goddamn breeze on your face

Love, and luck, to all of us. Oh, and…

Mourning in America

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Love and grief and pain and sadness and anger have dominated these last few days. The coming of Summer 2016 felt heavy even before this last weekend, but events both in Orlando and here at home, in lovely Urbana, IL, feel like the throwing of a gauntlet as the weather heats up and what is, in my opinion, a dangerous Presidential race gets underway. Communities (note: “community” can be defined in so many different ways) were completely leveled last weekend by overnight violence perpetrated by people wielding firearms and filled with… hate? Self-loathing? Grief? Will we ever know? Does it even matter?

To be 100% clear, I stand with Orlando, LGBTQ, and all affected communities worldwide, full stop. I am not into hate, “phobia” of any kind (including Islamophopbia), violence, and/or guns. My daughter eloquently offers her perspective here. Both of my kids are complete fucking badasses, beautiful and so intelligent and full of love – same as the people who died in Orlando the other night and who are dying all over the planet. That hate and violence still cut such a swath in the world in which my kids and Yours and Theirs are children/teenagers/young adults trying to make their way is boggling. What are we doing to each other, to ourselves?

As life would have it, Jim and I attended an amazing wedding and reception Saturday night. The entire evening truly reflected the bride & groom’s love, beliefs, styles, families (bio and chosen), and communities. I felt privileged to be there, to see such honest and heartfelt actualization articulated in this way. It was a beacon, a lighthouse. It was affirming.

Then we woke up Sunday morning to Orlando, and a couple of hours later, as I drove through my neighborhood and down a street I take either on foot or on wheels several times a day, I became aware that something terrible had happened overnight just a few blocks away from 909. I saw cars, and police, and – as I slowed down – yellow tape creating an unthinkable perimeter. I knew the intersection very well, and I knew the house where people were gathering very well, and I hoped that the yellow tape read CAUTION and that there was a tree in the middle of the street, perhaps a broken water main. Instead, the tape read CRIME SCENE, and the house in question somehow looked like a shell of what it had looked like just the day before, though nothing had changed in its structure. I stopped and asked a friend what had happened. It was grimly relayed that they did not know, but that it was bad, and as I went on my errand, I tried to convince myself that, perhaps, maybe… it wasn’t bad. I couldn’t keep going. I turned around and went home, avoiding the intersection and the house whose light had seemingly been utterly extinguished.

It was bad. A young man named Matt, the son of my late friend Mel, had been shot and killed overnight, a victim of domestic violence at the hands of his father. The details are still not yet completely known and I’m not sure I ever want to know them. This absolute tragedy resulted in the loss of a much-loved young man from his family (my heart especially aches for his awesome sister, DeDe), and has left a family and community to struggle with the uniquely awful aftermath, like so many other communities have done, do, and, apparently, will continue to do until we address the root causes of this violence. I ask again: What are we doing to each other, to ourselves?

Mel was strangely heavy on my mind in the days before Matt’s death, so in response I finally drafted a long-overdue post about Mel to eventually publish here. I’ll post it in its entirety another day, but here’s the last paragraph:

She spoke often of her children, and I always listened closely. She had mothered two creative, beautiful, singular children into adults, and I knew I could learn from her example, benefit from her wisdom. But I did not know all the details. If there was hardship, or sadness, or frustration, she never spoke of it – but as a mother, you know that nothing is perfect, that your journey with your children is yours; when she talked, I knew many things were left unsaid, and I acknowledged that, and so I joyed in it, the good and the not-as-good.

Yes, but. There is nothing to joy in anywhere in this story. There is nothing to joy in anywhere in Orlando’s story. Is there? I can’t see it, not right now. In the meantime, we do what we can to help, whether it’s offering moral support or financial support to DeDe, and moving forward with our lives while remembering those who are so suddenly gone by advocating, STRONGLY, for equality, understanding, and peace.

Seriously. What are we doing to each other, to ourselves?

Quaint

Basements: Shelter from severe weather, repository of the detritus from a bygone era.

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In the case of the B-K basement, that bygone era is little more than ten years ago. Looking around at stacks of CDs, magazines, books from the homeschooling years, boxes of files filled with magazine clippings from those same years, the knitting stuff, the piles of thrifted crap I meant to sell on eBay – it’s all kind quite unbearably cute and earnest and analog and quaint and very 20th century, as though my grandmother had kept all that stuff for us.

I think I like the idea of preserving this archaeological dig of a basement – FOR NOW – because the evidence of a decade-plus of change is in my face every day when I  a) look at my family and b) how I spend my days. (I’m also lazy-busy.)

Eleven years ago, I was feral in the backyard with my children; Neither they nor I had a smartphone or social media since they basically didn’t exist. Ten years ago, everyone went back/off to school because I was working full time at the Foodbank and wearing dress pants. Five years ago, I was preparing to spend my 4th season running the Market and building its social media presence. Now I do something else entirely.

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[The guy in the photo, Ryan – while interesting – was not the interviewee. The actual interviewee was running a few minutes late, so Ryan decided to hang out. My other colleague, Tim, must have taken this photo. Or did I?]

This trip was the second of three total we’re taking to Chicago within eight days to interview people for a project we’re working on. The first trip was to WYCC’s studios on the south side, this trip was to Lincoln Park, and this Thursday’s interview is downtown. As we left the city yesterday at sunset, I admired our view and felt feelings about my years there.

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About the project itself: There are lots of logistics around equipment and overall planning on the front end and back end, but that’s largely the purview of my colleagues.

Since I’m doing much of the writing and am conducting the interviews, my main role is to decide on the topics of conversation as they pertain to the project. Then I begin intelligence gathering. Read articles and books. Listen to podcasts, watch videos online, follow people on Twitter, read their tweets and digest their retweets. Cross out and rewrite. Order and reorder. Add and delete. Later on, Tim and I (mostly Tim) will color in the shapes we drew at the beginning of the project – we edit everything down into 26 minutes that hopefully gets the story right while also moving and inspiring viewers and/or listeners.

Projects like this aren’t my “real job”, but I consider it my favorite work. I’m so very glad it found me/I found it. I think 25 years of reading voraciously, teaching myself Internet, going to shows, working in music, nursing babies, blogging, facilitating my kids’ early education, planting gardens, taking photos, selling thrifted stuff on eBay as a side hustle, keeping file folders full of articles as “inspiration”, collecting vintage aprons, preserving food, wearing dress pants, strolling the aisles with my clicker at the farmers market, and always (always) talking and listening – all of that led me to doing what I’m doing in 2016. The evidence is downstairs.

Jim and I face an empty nest in less than 6 months. Our basement is like the late 1990s/earlyish 2000s preserved in amber for our family. I am loath to disturb it, so I’m not gonna.

Yet.

Tell It

Head space: In canning, one must leave some in order to get a good seal. In life, one must to leave some in order to gain perspective, which is basically the same as getting a good seal. I mean, you want to be able to enjoy what’s in the jar, you know?

The Autumnal Equinox approaches – it’s this Wednesday. I’ve taken the day off and am giving it over to whatever (Canning tomatoes? Power napping? Writing?). The moon should be waxing under mostly clear skies this entire week, which thrills me. The signs of the change in seasons are everywhere in central IL – leaves starting to turn, squirrels acting stupid and running out into traffic, and the last of the peaches at the farmers markets.

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There’s nothing finer than the ultra-blue skies we get this time of year. ANYTHING thrown against that sky looks awesome, even (especially?) withering walnut trees.

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When I was a kid, I loved ladybugs and yellow was my favorite color. My love for ladybugs is now more about respect, and I’m not a huge fan of the color yellow… EXCEPT this time of year. I mean, look at it.

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It’s also a really birthday-heavy time in my circle of family and friends. Jim, Lilly, and I have birthdays between mid-September and early November. Our friend Douglas had a birthday yesterday, and invited people to his workspace in Tolono (he relocated Uptown Concrete there this summer) to check it out, play parking lot games, and witness a shopping cart bonfire.

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I made a rather sloppy carrot cake, per his request. I learned that it’s really important that the cream cheese frosting act as serious mortar to the bricks that are the cake layers (this is a TERRIBLE analogy), especially if you’re transporting the cake ten miles over bumpy and twisty county roads, so more powdered sugar is critical. It didn’t matter – it was delicious and it looked pretty with candles on it.

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It has not been the easiest 6+ weeks in the world. One of the hardest things for me to wrap my head around has been the death of my friend and neighbor, Mel Farrell. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor in spring 2015 and immediately started kicking its ass, but toward the end of the summer, her body tripped her up a few times, and at the beginning of this month, pneumonia claimed her life. She was a rock star in so many ways, and readers will likely be finding more about Mel later, but I’ll say this for now: Though I’d known her for about 10 years, and of her for 5 years past that, there was much I didn’t know about Mel. Since her death, I’ve come to realize that she was quietly expert at filling up any gaps in her life with more friends, more fun, more food, more… and it was the quality aspect of more, not the quantity. She was so very thoughtful and truly believed in the basic conviviality that goes missing from so much of modern life. Her laugh gave serious body to so many gatherings. And… and! She had stories. Sure, the whole legitimately-at-Woodstock thing was awesome, but I was electrified when she told me a few years ago that, when she was a kid growing up in NYC, her mother’s day job was, if I recall correctly, working for James Beard. That wasn’t my favorite part of the story, and I don’t think it was Mel’s either. No, we both loved the fact that her mom came home from working all day for Chef Beard and often had the following dinner, feet up: An onion sandwich (2 pieces of white bread slathered in butter with sliced onions in between) and a beer. I figured Mel and I had all the time in the world to eventually get some of these stories saved. We did not. I do wonder if she saved any of them herself.

Seriously. If you have food stories to tell – and we all do – write them down. Tell them to someone. You know what, though… don’t stop at the food stories (you don’t have to start there, either). Stories, period. Histories. Get them onto paper, or make some audio – just talk into your smartphone, if you have one. I truly fear real storytelling – the passing along of the big stories and the quotidian ones, the bare facts and the tall tales – is going the way of ultra-curated social media (which I feel sadder and sadder about with each passing day): Cropped and filtered just so for maximum effect, negative or positive, spun emptily one way or the other. We all seem to crave the unvarnished truth (witness the popularity of Storycorps), but we seem ever more reluctant to tell it.

Tell it.

Social Needia

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I don’t know what to do about the internet.

Part of my day job is to maintain my organization‘s social media, and I reckon I’m pretty good at it. I also use it to find inspiration for video and podcasting topics and ideas for pitch meetings in the WILL newsroom. I’m nosy, so checking the analytics for the station’s website and social media is fun for me. [Analytics are a busybody’s wet dream. They’re interesting and insightful and far more powerful now than they were ten years ago, are getting more powerful every day, which is terrifying, etc etc etc.]

Backyard Industry relies on social media, primarily to notify people about blog entries or new videos, but sometimes to share things I find germane to the BYI conversation. But beyond that, it gets tricky. Like “everyone else”, I keep personal accounts on various platforms, and I feel like I live in those spaces, and lately (lately?) it’s become a problem.

I spend an inordinate amount of time on Reddit, for example. REDDIT IS THE BEST/WORST PLACE ON THE INTERNET, but I love it. I’ve learned a lot about salad-in-a-jar and free fonts and improperly attributed quotes from Pinterest. I’ve read about the myriad trials/tribulations/tiny victories/political opinions of friends of friends on Facebook. Gaining this knowledge has often come at the expense of creating my own work or vacuuming or napping or cooking or planting or just sitting with myself. When was the last time you just sat with yourself for an hour? May I ask how you did it?

So I had to ask myself: Is personal social media worth it for me?

No and yes. I hate that I look for “likes” and “retweets” and “repins” and “reblogs” – the list of ways I can actually account for my online existence seems endless. Analytics are no longer page hits. They now tell me so much more about who’s paying attention to me and from where and for how long and which pages and which social tools or search terms they used to find me and if they clicked on any of my links… and from this I can surmise whether I’m a big deal on the internet. Or if I’m not. It’s up to me to decide whether or not I care. I find myself caring. I find myself hitting “refresh”. I’m always “just checking”, especially on my phone. I’ve become social media’s tool, and as an oversharer and voracious consumer of information, stopping myself entirely from using it would be difficult at best.

But I also adore what social media can do. I love that my father, who doesn’t get out much, can play Words With Friends with people all over the world and reconnect with old friends from college, some of whom come to visit him where he lives. I love that people use Twitter to gather in protest, to educate, and to share in real time – especially during protests or other breaking news where what people share on social is an absolutely necessary companion to the narrative being created by the media. I have a Pinterest board that is a powerful antidote to Mondays. And how else would I see James’ gorgeous goals for Real Madrid without social media? Or watch Union Carbide Productions videos?

This is not middle-aged grousing about something I don’t understand or participate in – on the contrary. If there’s one thing I deeply get, it’s two-way communication – the desire to hear and be heard, to tell and be told – on all the platforms. Old ones, too, like print media and radio and stuff. I’m very curious about why people use what they use. It’s part of my job to figure that out. But, man – social. There’s literally no end to the ways social media can be used to push or digest information; new ways are being hacked all the time. Now that all of it is optimized for mobile, social media is always with those of us who opt in. So are our friends. And their friends. Maybe some enemies. The organizations and businesses and causes we follow are in our pockets – and so are many that we don’t – and we’re always with them. There’s never any down time unless we opt out.

It feels weird. For me personally, social media is no longer paradise, but I’m not sure what I’d do without it. I get something out of it, for sure, but I can’t gaze out over it at the end of the day and be like, yeah. I made something. Or, hey, look at those freaking beets, just growing away out there! I’m not sure it’s a paradise for organizations, either. We spend a lot of time being yanked around by changes in algorithm, experimenting with new tools, competing with other organizations to capture figurative eyeballs, and sussing out how to be everywhere at all times, ready to engage.

I’m not wringing my hands over the state of the world. This technology is awesome. Great things happen EVERY DAY because of social media, and it’s incredibly useful (and fun – I love livetweeting my daughter’s soccer games using the hashtag #UniHighSoccer, so the team can read the tweets later and their parents and friends and fans can follow along). But in the past week, I suddenly understood that I spend too much time being used by social media and that I don’t feel good about it and that it’s not really sustainable. I’ve reached personal peak social. I probably reached it a year ago. I’m embarrassed it took me so long to make such an obvious observation about myself. I’m not sure what the trigger was – probably the desperate eye I gave my 2′ pile of unread books and magazines a few days ago. Or it was noticing the unfinished projects I don’t have energy to work on after a day of reading what hundreds of other people think. Actually, it was likely the mortifying number of times that day I caught myself thinking in terms of my activities’ tweetability and held myself back from posting anything anywhere, just as an experiment. (True story. And I was quite agitated.)

I know I’m hardly the only person coming to this conclusion.* I also know I’m hardly the only person who’s not sure what to do about it. Device discipline is hard, especially when your personal and professional life is built around two-way communication. So I’m guessing that, like most people do once they understand the concept of peak resources, I’ll keep using social media, but feel kind of weird about it.

PS: I was getting ready to post this when this week’s horoscope from Free Will Astrology came through:

LIBRA (Sept. 23-Oct. 22): According to the three science fiction films
collectively known as *The Matrix,* we humans suffer from a fundamental
delusion. What we think is real life is actually a sophisticated computer
simulation. Intelligent machines have created this dream world to keep us
in suspended animation while they harvest our energy to fuel their
civilization. Now as far as I can tell, this scenario isn’t literally true. But it
is an apt metaphor for how many of us seem to be half-asleep or under a
spell, lost in our addiction to the simulated world created by technology. I
bring this to your attention, Libra, because now is a favorable time to
diminish the hold that the metaphorical Matrix has on you. What can you
do to at least partially escape your bondage? (Hint: A little more contact
with nature could do the trick.)

*Cody did a social media break for a week recently, and then the guys at the Invisible Office Hours podcast, which I was catching up on over the weekend, took turns late last year doing social media breaks. Hearing about their experiences confirmed my suspicions and made me try sitting in the coffee drive-thru lane with my phone in my bag. It was difficult.