Friday, July 24, 2009

A Monthly Dose of Ideas and Insights

Last weekend I sat down and did something I don't do very often - read a magazine, cover to cover. The magazine that held my attention this well was Utne Reader, which used to bill itself as "the Reader's Digest of the alternative press". (I still think that's a pretty good description.)

It's not that this was my first time to dip into Utne. In fact, we've been subscribers for years, probably for decades now. It's just that, as with other magazines, usually I pick it up and read an article or two, then get distracted. Eventually the most recent issue joins the piles of other magazines parked around the house and I've only taken the time to "input" a few of the interesting ideas that each issue presents. (Need I say that, once a magazine joins the others in a pile, its chances of getting read go down appreciably?)

Whatever my excuses and my normal, somewhat delinquent, method of approaching magazines, I read the July-August 2009 issue in a timely and complete manner. Here are the fascinating things that I learned a bit about from reading that single issue....

The Living Library - This is an organization that lends "human books" representing different lifestyles and beliefs, such as The Atheist or The Old Man or The Immigrant, out to other people so that people can ask the "human books" questions and learn about the subject that the person represents. For example, The Buddhist could be "checked out" and would show up at your home or get-together. You would be free to ask all sorts of questions about his/her faith that you might feel awkward asking a regular social acquaintance, let alone someone on the street...or, indeed, that you might not know anyone at all you could ask.

Wouldn't it be awesome to attend a function where there were "human books" representing all of the different faiths living within the confines of a specific community? Community members could ask each individual about what is important to them, what makes them different from other faiths, what their "take" is on current world events, what makes them feel uncomfortable, etc. Talk about a way to learn about other groups in our melting pot culture!

A Warning about White Supremacists and the Military - This came out of an excerpt from Southern Poverty Law Center's publication Intelligence Report. Apparently white supremacists have been joining the military to get training in combat and weaponry that, when they leave the service, they can then take on to further their own political agenda. It actually makes a great deal of sense, but this scares the living daylights out of me.

Writing Advice - from an excerpted interview with author and undertaker, Thomas Lynch, in Willow Springs, a literary journal. " 'I'm a writer, so I don't wait for something interesting. I write. Period. And if there's nothing interesting, I'll make it interesting.' "

And... " 'The reason poets aren't read is that we don't hang any of them anymore. We don't take them seriously; we don't think that poetry can move people to do passionate things. ...Before there was so much contest for people's attention, poets were the ones who literally brought the news from one place to another, walking from town to town, which is how we got everything to be iambic and memorable and rhymed and metered, because the tradition was oral before it was literary.' "

Also from that same excerpted interview with Thomas Lynch was this Social Commentary About Death and Modern Funerals - " 'Our culture is the first in a couple generations that attempts to have funerals with no bodies. We just disappear them.... But the way to deal with mortality is by dealing with the mortals. And you deal with death, the big notion, by dealing with the dead thing. ...[C]elebrations [of life] are notable for the fact that everybody's welcome but the dead guy. This, to me, is offensive and I think perilous for our species. There is an intellectual - an artistic and moral - case that can be made for not only fruit and flowers in a bowl on a table, but also a dead body in a box.' "

This last comment reminds me of the way most of us see our food supply too. We think of it as very sanitary and wrapped in plastic in a supermarket. Most Americans don't make the connection between that and the feed lots and the farm equipment mired in mud and the pesticides & herbicides and the overcrowded factory poultry operations and the migrant laborers and the millions of gallons of gas that are used to provide that food and bring it to our supermarkets.

We are getting amazingly good at fooling ourselves; avoiding reality, however, rarely has good results in the long run.

Books I May Want to Read -
Less is More, by Jay Walljasper (New Society), on simplicity issues, supposedly without oversimplifying the issues at stake.
The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum, by Lawrence Rothfield (University of Chicago Press). I've never understood why, when our country precipitated the Iraq War, our leaders didn't plan to protect irreplaceable cultural artifacts and institutions when they made their invasion plans. The blurb about this book points out that the 400,000-600,000 artifacts that were looted and lost during the first few years of the war represent humanity's collective past, not just Iraq's past.
The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics, by Riane Eisler (Berrett-Koehler). We say that taking care of people and loving them is important, but we don't value it monetarily at all. Consequently, caring for people (or the Earth) is pretty much systematically being removed from our culture. This book is an attempt to think through reworking our economic system to value the things we say we truly value.

Insect Art - a single page highlighting the work of an artist whose medium is insects, real (but dead) insects. I find myself both drawn to and disgusted by this art. It's gorgeous and intricate and interesting...and a pathologically human-centric reason for killing a whole lot of insects. Still, how cool it looks!

New Magazines to Search Out - Utne puts out an annual "Independent Press Awards" in various categories every year. From the list of this year's winners, I was particularly intrigued by...
Lapham's Quarterly: Piloted by Lewis Lapham, longtime editor of Harper's, each issue of this new magazine focuses on a single topic. Writings and artwork for each themed issue are selected from a huge range of sources, beginning with historical figures and classical authors through to the most recent of today's commenters. I found the Summer 2009 issue at one of the local bookstores - it's expensive, $15, but looks intriguing enough that I picked it up anyway. It's 221 pages long and has 89 entries, not including the "Program Notes". The theme is Travel. Included authors range from Apollonius of Rhodes telling about Orpheus and the Argo (c. 1200 BC) through an excerpt from Marco Polo's notes, Don Quixote's start to his adventure, Dorothy Parker, Christopher Columbus, Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, and Lewis & Clark to Billy Collins. And I haven't even mentioned the range of quotes and illustrations scattered throughout.
The New Republic: a classic for political coverage.
Psychotherapy Networker: for exploring behavior, my own and other people's.
Miller-McCune: I'm really excited about the potential of this one. It's a new magazine whose purpose is to "bridge the divide between academic researchers and journalists", presenting current, solid research results that have bearing on the problems and issues of our times. (I was also able to get an issue of this locally, but I haven't read through it yet.)

The Necessity of Shifting Our Emphasis from "Save Newspapers (and Magazines)" to "Save Society" - the point of this article was that what's important is actually well researched and timely information about current issues, not the survival of newspapers per se. Good information allows us, as a culture, to make informed decisions about solutions to current problems. This article discussed what's not working (and why) as well as what's working a little bit (and why) and what the stakes are overall in this ongoing cultural change.

How Water Issues Seem to Be Fundamental Enough to Encourage Fighting Humans to Rise Above Politics and Religion in Working to Solve Them - with specific examples from the last 20 years, including some negotiation techniques that have worked.

The Need to Change Psychotherapy to Include a Person's Place in the Human and Physical Community - Humans are social creatures. We need to look beyond "What do I need?" to "What is my place in the world?" I love this quote from the article,

"As human beings we have a need for place - where we can be connected to a community of people, plants, animals, and the land. Without this, we feel lost, alone, and alienated. The world also needs us to belong to it, since it is only when we inhabit a place that we care for it and assume responsibility for it. If we regard the world only as a place we are visiting, we have little interest in protecting it." (p. 71)

The Taboo of Speaking About Our Money Isolates Us and Allows Us to Be More Easily Manipulated - The Depression was made somewhat more bearable because everyone was in the same boat and their money issues weren't private. Sharing our money stories helps us gain perspective by hearing about and learning from others' experiences; being secretive isolates us from each other and makes us more subject to manipulation by moneyed interests such as advertisers and employers.

A Call for "Community Earth Councils (CECs)" - "[groups of people] working together to address global environmental and social issues at the local level. CECs build community, helping young people find meaning and purpose, while providing elders with a way to give back, inspire, and impact the future." I wonder what the Clearwater City Council would think if I were to propose such a thing? Or whether there are any others in the Clearwater area who would be interested in putting together such a council?

So that's what I found interesting enough to highlight, dogear, or otherwise think about in the July-August 2009 issue of Utne Reader. It was a banquet of ideas, and I didn't begin to share tastes of all the dishes it offered. Some of the ideas I read inspire me, some support thoughts I've had for a long time...or clarify those thoughts a bit, and some of the ideas are simply interesting commentaries that may lead me to make different choices in the future.

It would be fascinating to hand copies of this month's Utne to a group of my friends (or any other group of people, for that matter) and see what captures their interest. After all, I left out 3 of the 4 cover stories ("Why Accountability Matters", prosthetic design, and an exploration of yoga), as well as articles on jazz, Louis Armstrong, the role MBAs played in the economic meltdown, media literacy, Polish poster art, "The Tao of War Photography", food for entertaining during the recession, etc., etc., etc.

Utne could serve as an inkblot, recording a person's interests at a certain point of time. For that matter, it could serve as a record of my own thoughts at a particular time! Well, before I get too convoluted, I probably ought to sign off for now. If anyone else has read this issue, though, what caught your attention?

No comments: