Thursday, October 29, 2009

Pay Day Lending (continued)

When a project takes on a life of it’s own, or even more to the point when design takes on a life of its own, the challenge is to recognize opportunity and embrace. It can hinge on disaster or true learning opportunity. It takes an ability and willingness for everyone to be open to new ideas. This happened with the an issue raised in my Fall 2009 Senior Seminar class in the Graphic Design department at VCU. My initial contact with The Virginia Poverty Law Center was an informative meeting with two individuals deeply committed to bringing about legislation to put restrictions on the practice of pay day lending in the commonwealth of Virginia. Pay day lending is a highly controversial issue in Virginia and other states in the US, a practice that the VPLC refers to as predatory lending: a practice that sucks individuals with fixed or limited incomes trying to meet daily expenses such as food, and rent and utilities (phone, heat) into a web of increased debt. Advocates of the industry claim it to be a legitimate business practice.

After my initial meeting with Jay Speer and Dana Wiggens at the VPLC I sympathized with their outrage and was motivated to see how my students might be able to translate this into a visual communication. Mistake one was that I assumed my response would be universal. I brought to the class a selection of taped interviews with individuals ended up with spiraling debt and victim of deceitful threats and harassment from lenders. In contrast I presented an ad from a lender offering the message that getting a pay day loan was easy, not invasive, and much more human that a “lending institution”. Jay and Dana were invited to the class to present to the group much of what they had presented to me. Jay showed one ad, presenting a lender with menacing teeth, suggesting that “these guys were nothing but sinister loan sharks”.

A common description of a loan shark is “a certain type of predatory lender. The lenders to whom these epithets were applied charged high rates of interest and designed their credit products in such a way as to make orderly retirement of the debt difficult. Borrowers became trapped by their loans and were unable to pay off the principal. The interest payments dragged on and many borrowers became virtual debt peons. As Cobleigh explains, "The real aim of loan sharks is to keep their customers eternally in debt so that interest (for the sharks) becomes almost an annuity.“

The first challenge to the case Jay and Dana presented arose when one student spoke with me after class about his discomfort with the project. He confessed he wasn’t sure he agreed with Jay and Dana’s view of the industry. I suggested that he might try another project as he found this morally objectionable. But it soon became apparent that he wasn’t the only with conflicts opinions about the issue. Several students began to do some research and question the responsibility of the borrowers. Were they spending money on luxuries and living beyond their means? Were they not educating themselves as to their options? “Why hadn’t Dana and Jay told us more about options, when we asked”, they wondered, with some suspicion. As the class discussions evolved there were varying opinions. Some were concerned that they were being pushed into conveying a message about the industry that wasn’t their own view. The discussion became emotional, many of these students were working jobs outside of school to pay for their own education and had little sympathy for folks in dire financial situations. At this point I recognized that larger issues were at stake. Issues of politics and economics and demographics. None of the students in the class had a direct experience with a single parent home, where when a kid comes home from school and says there’s “nothing to eat” they don’t mean there’s nothing yummy for a snack, they mean there is literally nothing in the refrigerator or cabinet.

At this point I had to reevaluate the direction I had envisioned. And listen to the group. We stepped back and began to exam our points of view. I introduced the concept of meta-cognition. We went through an exercise from my documentary studies classes that asks students to step back and examine their point of view, their assumptions and some of the assumptions of the group. We looked at an assumption that questioned a lot of our views of poverty and as we looked closer at the purpose served by such assumptions as, “people who are poor live beyond their means,” the issue of blame came up. This was a turning point for the project.

It no longer became an issue of “demonizing the industry”, as many students felt they were being led to do, and more an issue of problem solving. Blaming the lenders and blaming the borrowers was seen as “unproductive” and the class turned instead to looking at how to educate, inform and most importantly promote a discussion.

The critical piece of this was to bring this view back to VPLC and covey the discomfort and concerns of the class and to recognize the significance of this development. The students were looking at design in the way I had envisioned, but in a much deeper and richer way. They wanted to step back and look at the problem in a larger, more balanced way and in the end their view led us to a place of discourse rather than rhetoric.

Friday, September 11, 2009

sharks and sea birds

As I write, I can clearly hear the roar of the NASCAR trials for the Richmond Raceway, at least five miles away as the crow flies: across the river, over the highway, through many neighborhoods. We're heading out of town to the Rockbridge Appalachian old time music festival.

I wanted to make note of an issue raised in my Senior Seminar class this semester. We just completed the third week. I was a juror for a student art and writing competition for children in foster care, sponsored by the Virginia Poverty Law Center. During lunch we talked about possible collaborations for my Seminar class and the issue of payday lending came up as currently a lightning rod for both the press and the upcoming Virginia legislative session. Jay Speer and Dana Wiggens from the VPLC have been ardently fighting for laws to protect the consumer from this practice that can impose up to 400% interest on loans, and entrap borrowers for years in an endless cycle of increasing debt. The met with the class and presented their case. Students were asked to define and research the problem and create a poster that addresses the problem.

Here is the issue. One student stayed after class and asked to speak with me in private. He explained that he didn't agree with Speer and Wiggens' demonizing of payday lenders and was having real difficult doing the project. He also commented on how he was not interested in social issues. I let that last comment go, and address his discomfort allowing him the option of choosing another controversial issue with which he felt less conflicted. He proposed to do a project about Arctic Drilling. By this time I had presented several readings and as a group we had researched the issue of payday lending, including issues of culture and economics, and demographics and psychology. The student presented privately to me his preliminary concept for a poster about the the negative impact of arctic drilling. He had a stock photo of oilsoaked bird, a few paragraphs of dummy text and a tag line.

“Oh dear”, I thought. “Hmmm”, I said aloud. “Hmmmm. I'm not sure this is going to work,” I commented. He looked nervous and throughout the next few minutes he held that nervous/frightened expression. If he had done some substantive research, I might have been more generous but his poster was more a spin on some ad for Canon or National Geographic, or something like that. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought that it’s okay for this student to be uncomfortable. So I told him that. I told him that it probably isn’t okay for a college-educated person to be ignorant about social issues. I reiterated that several ways: that to award him a college degree I would hope that he be able to engage with an issue, learn, research and have an educated opinion rather than just an emotional one. In the back of my mind, I was thinking about the health care reform debate and how so much effort to derail President Obama’s agenda banks on misinformation and fear. I was quickly reaching the opinion that it was at the very least a civic responsibility, if not a moral and professional and ethical one, as an educator to deliver the message to this student that ignorance and apathy is not okay for an educated person. I told him he didn’t have to agree with Jay and Dana but he did have to come up with an educated position on the issue. He didn’t argue. This student is not the argumentative sort, unlike the 7th graders my friend Susan has spoken about. I hope this is an experience that opens him up. It’s my response to many blatant demonstrations of disrespect ( our own congressman Eric Cantor from Virginia on his Blackberry during Obama's address to Congress) for the President's effort to bring dignity to young people, and to his office.

Thursday, March 12, 2009


Still trying to record stories. This needs recording so that I can move on. It also needs revising, but here’s the first draft. Comments welcome.

After 6 days of steady engagement and constant interaction I took the second day of the conference off to write and walk and photograph. In dark jeans, converse all stars, and a dark long sleeved shirt I set out from the hotel with my black Leica to explore. The area around the hotel is a mix of commercial establishments with residential neighborhood. I saw no other women the times I wandered around the alleys across from the hotel. Closer to the souq just a few blocks away I would see local women in abayas and tourists in western dress, but in the area surrounding the hotel it would be very unusual see women among the service and construction workers, laborers and shop owners and employees primarily from the Indian subcontinent (India, Bangledesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal). Men in Qatar as guest workers aren’t allowed to bring female family members with them. My presence may have been conspicuous. I wasn’t conscious of it.

I headed left outside the hotel, away from the souq. I recorded a lot of stray cats, some eating off dishes beside rows of shoes lined up just inside doorways, others scrounging through trash piles or napping in the dust. I peeked into dark hallways to see bikes resting against the wall, towels and varying lengths of cloths hanging up to dry. At one doorway I heard what sounded very much like a nail gun and air compressor. Afraid of getting lost inside the maze of narrow streets I headed back out to the main road, stopping to photograph a pile of generators outside a storefront. I walked in a little closer to record the men standing around outside the shop. I continued down the road past an upholstery shop. I stepped inside and gestured to take a photograph. The man behind the counter gestured back in what I took as an invitation. (On my previous visit to Doha I had photographed the construction sites near VCUQ campus and after taking a photograph close enough to be a portrait, I would then show the recorded image in the preview mode of my digital camera. Often, others nearby would come over to see the tiny image and ask to be photographed. The men would smile or laugh and return to work, or their break.) Another man in the shop motioned for me to photograph him as well. I said what I thought was “thank you” and “goodbye” in Arabic (the few words I tried to learn) and continued on.

I grew bolder as I continued. In the next shop several men sat behind sewing machines. One man, who I guessed to be the owner stood talking with a younger employee cutting strips of red fabric with scissors. I walked in and asked to photograph. The owner spoke to me in English, invited me in, asked where I was from then offered me a cup of tea. I hesitated then accepted his offer, afraid of insulting him --- and also curious. (My hotel reception desk welcomed quests with a complementary bowl of dates and sweet Arabic coffee with cardamom.) He handed a bill to an employee and sent him off with instructions in a language I couldn’t understand. As I photographed one worker behind a Singer sewing machine, I remarked that I had a Singer as well and glanced at the unlabeled machine next to it. The shop owner claimed that machine could sew through rugs and pulled out a piece of leather and demonstrated by stitching together two then four layers. I commented to my host that his English was very good. He disagreed then listed for me the many languages he spoke: English, Arabic, Banglali (explaining he was from Bangledesh), Urdu, and Farsi. He then pointed to each employee and introduced where he was from and what languages he knew. Each spoke at least two and most spoke three or more languages.

I enter into someone else’s space and take a photograph, always aware of an ethical conflict. Especially when I’m in a foreign culture and don’t speak the language. Am I recording for others— or myself—that I was here --- displaying some place or some one very different and exotic? Does it make my experience, and me, remarkable? Is it a way of distancing or connecting? I know this is part of a much larger dilemma of the ethnographic gaze, but on a personal level I am aware of the boldness I assume using my camera as a way to explore and cross barriers.

The tea was sweet, milky and spicy. Grateful for the generosity of their time and friendship, I wanted to give something of myself back and was suddenly inspired to run back to my hotel, get my fiddle and play a tune. I asked if that would be okay, it seemed so and I left promising to return shortly. As I was returning with my fiddle on my back, a woman — obviously a westerner — with grey hair and white slacks approached in my direction. We stopped, greeted each other. Immediately recognizing each other as American. She asked what I was up to with my fiddle and when I told her she looked dismayed and maybe a little shocked. She warned me that I would be committing a “cultural violation”. As “a woman in their shop”, “a woman in pants”, and “a woman paying them so much attention”. She claimed they would be “terribly uncomfortable”. My heart sunk and then I was embarrassed by my naivety. But I wasn’t completely convinced she was right. I was weighing something my friend Halim, originally from Lebanon living in Doha, remarked during my previous visit: that Americans are so afraid of connecting—afraid even to make eye contact— that they treat the locals rudely. I tried to get more information. Was she a trustworthy source? She told me she lived in a gated community with her husband who was “in construction”, and that she had low regard for Doha (a “cow town”, compared with Kuwait where she had lived previously.) I wasn’t sure if she really was an authority on cultural violations or whether she was expressing her own discomfort. The more I spoke with her, the less I was willing to accept her assessment. I declined her offer to join her for a cup of tea and decided to return to the shop as I had promised, feeling the pull to do doing something I had said I was going to do.

I returned to play a tune then offered the fiddle to both the shop owner and the younger man cutting strips of fabric, who I had learned was his son. The son helped his father hold the fiddle correctly under his chin. I left shortly after both had a chance to make some sounds with the violin and bow. I was unsure whether I had done something deeply inappropriate, whether I had gone too far.

I’ve told this story to several friends, including Halim who I met later in the week for lunch, and friends who live there now or have in the past when there was even less traffic from westerners. None seemed to think that what I did was odd or inappropriate. This story is less about my photographing and more about the barriers we cross to engage, connect, and take risks. My son asks me why I speak to strangers even in Richmond. I tell him that we share the same space, and that makes them a friend. Not a friend like the next door neighbor whose comings and goings we are intimately familiar with. But some one who shares our life – our space and place in time. Halim thinks I should bring this back home and take on a project he called, “A Tourist in My Own Town.”

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Doha/Mousharaka Charette: Day 2

Picking up where I left on with the post from a few days back: Reflections From The Gondola. On the second day of the charette Barbara, Frank and I met briefly at lunch to sketch out a plan for the afternoon. They had generously encouraged me to take a primary role in the conception and planning. I learned later that this wasn’t true for the other groups. Most of the other workshops were clearly led by the invited speaker, with the VCU faculty more as support than collaborators. With only three hours to finish what we began the previous day at mall, we drafted a loose plan to somehow compile whatever documentation the students brought in: written notes, drawings, photographs. Barbara said she was interested in what patterns might emerge. My interest was in identifying where impressions and interpretations converged, and where they diverged. (A simple framework I learned from Sharon Poggenpohl in grad school two decades ago, although I can’t remember the context or application.)

On the bus ride out to the mall, I had suggested to the students that they begin by jotting down notes about their expectations. I thought this would be necessary for building a frame of reference: to evaluate their impressions, to make a critical assessment. I thought it would provide some direction for drawing conclusions about the experience, and for finding meaning in the place, something we had discussed the previous day in the briefing. This is something I bring from doing documentary work in preparation for fieldwork: carefully addressing assumptions and expectations as a way to be conscious of my reactions and to distinguish preconceptions from fresh perceptions. I thought about this as I began to examine my own responses to the experience: if I went into the place believing I would hate it, would I be able to stay open to what I was experiencing in the moment? If I was able to recognize that this was less a fixed reality and more an expectation or assumption, would that allow me to be open-minded? Hard work, being open minded in a mall.

I digress.
I suggested to Barbara that to begin the session we would ask the students to bring their chairs out from behind the tables, and form a circle. She replied that she often did this as well but always felt a little silly, like something children are asked to do kindergarten. I laughed and agreed. But now as I write this I’m wondering what’s so silly about that? Maybe what’s silly is that we feel adults no longer should be asked to listen and engage fully and personally with the group, and that building a sense of community in the classroom is not among a facilitator/teacher’s highest priorities.

I’m eager to hear Barbara’s impression but I felt this circle time the most successful aspect of the workshop, with students’ radically different experiences (from Oman, Kuwait, Qatar, Brazil, and the U.S.) sharing their impressions of a place.

I began taking notes on a white board with the heading S L O W K N O W L E D G E, a primary issue in the presentation Barbara and Frank gave earlier in the day. One student talked about safety, how he felt “safe” from the elements —the harsh Qatar climate (sand storms, for example and the very reason we switched our plans from the outside souq to the mall). Another student responded by saying that rather than feeling safe he experienced confusion. I commented on this “divergence of experience”. Others agreed and gave concrete examples: the acoustics in the food court made it hard to discriminate voices and other sounds. Another student agreed and described the sounds as contradictions. Others nodded their heads. I listed the terms “reverberation” and “distraction”. Someone described it as “sound absorption“. Another student described feeling “irritated” by the lack of silence. I asked if silence was desirable. She nodded. I remarked how some find silence frightening.

Someone mentioned the term “artificiality” and when I asked if this was a positive or negative quality, the answers were mixed. Some equated this with the safety of a controlled environment, others saw this as undesirable. One of the Qatari women had told me the day before that she went to the mall every day. When I asked her how this visit was different, she very articulately reported how she was able to “concentrate” and “focus”. Where she would normally be thinking about purchases, and looking at the mall as a consumer, she transformed into a designer: observing colors and patterns.

The next step was to try to assemble materials on a 60” x 76” (or close to that) canvas consisting of four sheets of white paper taped together. Somehow the process broke down at this point. At this point, it became less of a collaboration and more of a separation of ideas. It was decided that each student or group of students would assemble their images; these would be photographed separately, compiled on one digital file ( in In Design) and then printed out on one surface. The final result looked polished, but I find it disappointing that the designers (Barbara and Frank, and Don and I) took over the charette, working well into the night to complete the digital files while the students were welcome to take off early.

Charettes are fast and intense. It is ironic to try to convey something about slow knowledge—about wisdom and knowledge and observations accumulated over a long period time—through a charette. I’m not sure if we were able to succeed with our intention, but I’m hoping we can do this again. I’m hoping Barbara and I, or I, or Barbara can continue this work. Maybe the work is for us to build up knowledge about this process. Or for there to be a follow up. Or for someone else to take on this project and report back to us and for there to be an accumulation of experiences.

quick update/notes

Didn't have time/space to write last night. Completed the charette, concluded conference, trip to the I.M. Pei Islamic Art Museum (even more extraordinary than you thought). Back to the hotel. Needed time/space to let it disperse, filter, sink in. All of that. I have copious notes and promise to write later about the conclusion of charette. What I thought worked. What didn't.

Took the day off to write, think, explore. Wash off the air from the Villagio with local Doha dust. I'll take a shower shortly.

Notes about today to be written up later.
- images of stuff, junk, dust, upholstery shops, air compressors + generators jumbled outside the generator shop.
- a cup of tea with an upholsterer
- an encounter with an American ex-pat
- the falcon souq

Will write later.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Reflections from the Gondola

The plan was to go to the (new) old souq (second two images): a labyrinth of narrow stone hallways under a traditional woven-bamboo ceiling. Vendors in crowded shops (some not much larger than a small bus) sell cloth, spices, housewares, tools, clothing. The souk was one of the oldest market places in Doha and much of it was torn down and later rebuilt to resemble the original structure. I saw this as an opportunity for them to observe and experience intimacy with each other, with the materials. Where the space is much like a retreat from the city outside and there might be hightened awareness of sound, color, light, and texture. An invitation to sensitivity. I think of what it feels like when you've been on a silent spiritual retreat and the world seems amplified when you reenter. Birds screech, the sun is blindingly brilliant, people shout. All the senses are re-sensitized, retuned to a sharper awareness.

But as we began to gathered in our classroom after lunch, Don and Barbara were concerned about the sand storm raging outside. It came up suddenly while we were at lunch and some were concerned about breathing the sand, especially those with breathing problems. Some argued that the project we proposed, to build slow knowledge about a specific place by carefully isolating the senses and recording our perceptions, could be conducted anywhere. I argued for the souq but eventually it was somehow decided --- I could see it was time to give up my attachment to the souk --- to go instead to the indoor luxury mall, the Villagio. It left me with dread, aversion, a little anxiety, regret, apprehension. I had been excited about the possibility of bringing the students into a quiet, dark, intimate space. The mall was anything but. I thought about the controlled recirculated air, enclosed vaulted caverns of shiny marble surfaces, seductive window displays. My opposition was less a moral issue about conspicuous consumption, more of a sensuous issue. Arguing that designers exist so much in the analytical part of their minds that how could we possibly learn to reconnect with a more visceral, tactile, and sensitive awareness of our environment, from such a sterile, artificial environment.

As much as I entered the mall with a sense of disdain, I was struck by Barbara’s obvious delight and excitement to open up to the space. Explore the faux painted clouds in the sky. The ersatz village shop facades. I complained about the acoustics. Don Crow said he loved them. Rick wandered across the bridge over the canal (over the replicated mini Venice canal complete with gondolas for hire), seemingly lost in a peaceful escape from the hectic conference. On our second pass under the bridge a student waves cheerfully. It was marvelous to see my friends transformed in this space, and so I was forced to confront my own fears and aversions, to reconcile my wish to control the situation and present an environment that was comfortable and soothing for me. I thought about the project I am working on with Sabot pre-school and the way Marty Gravett writes about one of the objectives of the school:
thought and the disequilibrium brought on by new ideas and familiar ideas made unfamiliar
are given time and importance.
In the presence of these values deeper understandings develop.

The first image is of the gondolier taping a video of Barbara and me, Barbara photographing the gondolier, me documenting the both of them.

I learned about reflection today. This is just the beginning. Tomorrow the project continues.


Doha, Qatar February 2009
Mousharaka is translated as collaboration. Yesterday Barbara Sudick + Frank Armstrong, Don Crow and I joined minds as we formulated our workshop for this weekend. BS and FA are invited presenters and set the foundation for this workshop based on their own presentation (tomorrow). The issue explored circles around Fast Knowledge and Slow Knowledge. This is fast knowledge. Slow knowledge evolves over time. What I write now will be slightly more integrated than what I may have written last night after several hours of engagement, questioning, dialogue. “Fast knowledge Frank writes in the brief,“is often acquired quickly and amplified by technology.” I would qualify this as expressly modern technology. He notes that, “Slow knowledge is a primary component of indigenous knowledge (systematic information preserved in oral tradition)” Does this include fiddle styles? weaving techniques? dance? Yes.It is the continuation of a deeply integrated knowledge that goes beyond the sort of mental processes that connect us to our laptop. Like right now. You use a very different part of your brain right now than you do when you’re swinging a hammer (for Jon and Don), or playing a tune, or drawing (which might include everyone else). There is deeply integrated knowledge that we draw upn when we are physically engaged with the making or creating of sound, mark, gesture. I write this as I think about playing music last night. It ground me after a jet-lagged day of connecting, responding, transformation. What happens when we come together for these intense few days (new connections, old connections). It's hard to sustain it, and I am grateful to all who encouraged me to pack my fiddle (and Don for that very nice lightweight case).

This workshop is an effort to engage. To invite the students to more fully engage their sense in the design process. Design can be rigorous, analytical, prescriptive. (as Keven Wooley just said when he sat down to chat) Especially graphic design which is so abstract. Especially as a print designer, we deal with a fixed object. As I sit in this space (I just stood up to take a photo. Image is uploading now as I write.) the light changes, color shifts. We respond to a physical space with our sense in a way that we cannot with implied or abstract space - a page.

That's nothing so new. You always want to ask, “What is new about this? what are we doing that integrates ideas, concepts, experience?“ In keeping with the thems of teh conference we are hoping students will first, com to a different way of knowing the souq (the market which will be the location for our study today). Asking them to concentrate on a sense: sound, smell, texture, sensation. To draw, notate, photograph, record WITH their senses if they can. And then to compile these (which we'll do tomorrow) ideally with a view to building knowledge as a shared activity. (Something I saw ALOT about documentary work).

More later. It's lunch time.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Brief Report

First day in Doha. Arrived last night and could not sleep after Skyping with Don and Henry. Took my fiddle and sat outside the hotel and played tunes for an hour. On a white plastic chair not more than fifteen yards from the sidewalk and the street. Little foot traffic but a few men in dishdashas (the long garment worn by Arab men) of varying colors and styles. Most white, the local color. Of cars. Or dust and sand. More dust on the streets, on the leaves of the date palms, the limestone and stucco buildings. Some stopped to listen. One man held up his phone and recorded the odd circumstance of a woman in pants playing a fiddle outside a hotel after midnight on a Thursday night.

Asleep by 2 am, but awake again at ten minutes before 5 am to the chanting of the first call to prayer of the day. Later, after breakfast, Stephen Vitello and I went out to walk and explore. I recorded/documented images, he recorded/documented sound. Men in robes and head scarves, some wearing sarongs, many in western clothing. Stray cats. A lot of them. No women out, especially in this area of the city of predominantly guest worker housing. I can see from my hotel window into the courtyard and perimeter structure where the men live communally. Men in sarongs and towels washing up, preparing for the day.

After winding through the narrow streets in the nrighborhood across from the hotel we found our way to the souq and sat at a cafe drinking something with green tea and ice, listening to the calls echoing off buildings, a muezzin chorus from loudspeakers mounted on minaretes. Across the way someone is sorting silverware, preparing for the swelling crowds later, after sun down. The souq is closed today, Friday their holy day, but will reopen at 4. Just a few tourists, wait staff at the restaurants, a couple locals in their shops. The image above is at a mosque on the way back to the hotel. Men gathered outside the mosque. Some rushing in even after the prayer had started, dropping shoes, washing feet, and standing beside the others, or tossing down a prayer rug.

Back at the hotel. A another change of shirt. Images are just now being uploaded to Flickr.

We gathered together again and drove out to VCUQ to meet the speakers with whom we will be conducting a charette workshop. I met Barbara Sudek and Frank Armstrong, and Don Crow. We began to strategize about the charette and took the meeting out to dinner.

Friday, January 23, 2009

images and the imagination

My neighbor (a teacher and someone I respect for her political savvy) and I were sharing our experiences of the day, on Inauguration Day. Henry was home from school. Her five year old had kindergarten as usual that day and the little ones watched on TV the ceremony and the speech following. The self-aware five year old confessed to her mom she didn't understand a word of the speech, and her mom questioned the value of her having seen it. I reported to my neighbor that when Obama stood up to take his oath I urged Henry — woozy with the flu, lying down with his head cuddled up in a blanket — to sit up and SEE the event.
I repeated this story to my Documentary Studies class the next day.

There are certain events that define a generation. So much is written about the Vietnam War as one of those. More significant to me is the knowledge of JFK's assassination. I often call this “my first memory”. I would have been just three at the time. I have an image of myself sitting on the stairs leading to the second floor of our house in Monroeville, Pennsylvania. I can see the door just in front of me and the banister to my right, and the living room beyond that. The is some discussion of who shot Kennedy. This may be a conflating of several events. Maybe I was sitting on the steps getting ready to go to the Pittsburgh Zoo with the water fountain in the whale's mouth. (Do I really remember being there or is this a memory recreated from photographs?) What is significant to me is that I have an image—a visual picture—that allows me to verify that I WAS THERE. The chronology speaks for itself, so clearly this event happened during my life time and that it was a defining moment for our generation. The loss of a hero. The loss of safety. I could write at length about any number of interpretations. On Tuesday afternoon I am sitting on the guestroom bed where we hide our TV and I am juxtaposing the image of JFK slumped over in the blue convertible next to the image of Barack and Michele Obama out of their armored vehicle walking down Pennsylvania Avenue---("is he really doing this NOW? Am I really watching live coverage?" I am stunned by the message it sends to us: that he is safe in his country and that we are too. More than that, I am very anxious and notice I am holding my breath.

It may be that the girl next door and all the kids in her class listened to Obama's speech with no comprehension of such things as "petty grievances", but they did SEE Obama looking out onto the Mall packed with a crowd that stretched back to the Washington Monument. Living as close as we do to D.C., many of these kids have probably been to the Mall (and they know how long a distance it is even from the obelisk to the dinosaur museum) but never looking as it did that day. And as we know that we are visual before we are verbal, I am confident that they will store some image
that will afford them the privilege of owing this event as their. As belonging to their generation. I am so happy for our children to be part of this.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Intelligence of Boys

Shortly before the Christmas break there was a parent’s forum at my five-year-old son Henry’s (he’s the one not in camo’ making shooting noises) school, Sabot at Stony Point, a Reggio-based program. There’s a decent description of the Reggio Approach at and some reference points of departure at I realize now as I write this entry that I haven’t written here about how fundamentally my exposure to the Reggio approach has shifted my views of my role as a teacher and the culture of the classroom. I’ve published papers on this but have neglected to write more informally here. I’ll put that aside for the moment to talk about an issue raised in the community that opened up a difficult and very important conversation about weapon play initiated by the children in school. Some schools have an outright ban on guns. By this I don’t mean real guns—of course—for these preschoolers, but the use of sticks and the construction of guns and weapons from legos and toilet paper rolls, or any other materials that inspired an imaginary gun. One parent was adamant that allowing this sort of play at all was entirely unacceptable. For the rest of us, there was a grey area with most of the parents (maybe even all the parents of boys) accepting this as a stage that needed to be guided and allowed so that children, in keeping (I believe) with school philosophy were able to work through issues of power and aggression in a safe and supportive way. The teachers at this meeting cited a lot of current research suggesting that an outright ban of guns only increases a child’s fascination and fear and confusion, creating a deeper impulse toward this forbidden avenue for play.

I was disheartened when Henry began to fixate on camouflage last year. I envisioned a boy glorifying the military, with visions of his choosing this as his career goal. It embarrasses me to write that now, but it may be the first confrontation I had with the possibility that my child might choose paths I don’t approve of and that conflict with my own commitment to such values as kindness, generosity, and an opposition to military action as the solution to a dispute. My way of dealing with his pleas to buy a camo' shirt or pants was to say that I didn’t feel comfortable and that when he was older and could buy his own clothes he could choose to wear whatever he wished. This issue became a moot point when I came home from school one day and saw him in a pair of camo' shorts his dad had bought him at Target. They both seemed happy, Henry especially and I didn’t want to chip away at his delight so I smiled and said they were great. He knew I didn’t really like them and was trying to figure out why I would say that and I honestly explained that it wouldn’t be my choice to buy them but that it was between him and Don, his dad, and that was okay. Other moms suggested it really was not about an extension to the military but really about just what it was: camouflage. I realized this when I gave in and bought him a camo’ shirt and was surprised how innocently he believed he could hide by backing against a tree. I began to recognize that my reading of camo' was wrong and my projections were silly.

He was aware of my position on guns (“Some people like them, but I don’t” and the military “It wouldn’t be my choice but it is no doubt a good choice for others.”) He would question me often about this when he picked up a stick on our walk and point as if to shoot --- at a rock or a tree. He began to ask me what I thought about guns and we would repeat parts of the script, about how I didn’t like them but that I understand that some people did. Not outright saying they were bad but that I didn’t like guns. Sticks and guns didn’t hold much interest for him eventually. Drawing in the gravel and collecting trash in the alleys was more engaging. I did make him a bow and arrow from a stick and string and acquiring the skill of making the arrow fly a long distance was exciting to him. He would eagerly show off.

I forgot about this casual interest in weapons until the community forum that evening a couple months back. Dialogue, and co-construction are critical components to the Sabot philosophy and this extends from the classroom to the conversations at pick-up and in the playground and at birthday parties on weekends. Every parent I spoke with seemed to believe that there were certain stages children needed to go through and the best way for them to do so was in an environment that supported the intelligence of the child, and that gave very close attention to guiding and supporting the ways children learn to interact and respect each other.

I’m writing this now in response to an event last weekend. My friend and neighbor Melissa has a son Calder a year older than Henry. Henry and Calder have known each other for several years and they have rarely connected amiably. Henry tends to get extremely territorial around Calder and it has rarely been enjoyable to hang out with my friend and let the boys play together. Recently they’ve been less combative with each other and on that day last weekend Calder followed Henry in the house after a walk around the neighborhood. They were amiably engaged and Melissa snuck off to get ready for a Buddhist meeting at her house. I was in the kitchen when Henry ran in and had behind the door jam holding like a gun some Lego construction. Calder appeared with some large construction (as you can see) that he called his bazooka. The kids ran around the house and pretended to shoot and hide and then retreated back to the playroom where they had built a fort. It was the most cooperative play I’ve seen with these two. I didn’t see the predicted behavior when Henry acts out with Calder seemingly aware of how easily he can push the younger boy’s buttons. I’m not a psychologist but this is how there previous relationship appeared to me.
In a while, they finished their peanut butter sandwiches and we dropped Calder off at home on our way to deliver diapers for one drive and canned food for another. I explained to Henry about Obama’s call for a day (or weekend) or service. I think he understood.

Sunday, January 11, 2009


I’m looking for some hook, some way to introduce the first assignment in my Print class. I just want them to remember how to think visually. To reenter the semester feeling open and inspired. So I scan the shelves in my work space upstairs and don’t see what I’m looking for, even through I don’t know what I’m looking for. I scan the bookshelves downstairs in the livingroom. James Hillman’s “The Soul’s Code” catches my attention. Then Natalie Goldberg’s “Long Quiet Highway”. She writes so vividly about waking up: about writing and Zen practice (“Writing Down the Bones”, if you”re not familiar with her). I was prodded and reminded that there is something underneath why I teach. Something beyond making graphic design or teaching young people how to do graphic design. But I don’t know what that is. Or, I can’t say. Or, I’m afraid that I won’t be believed if I write it. Or, that I shouldn’t be so open, so exposed. Or all of the above. To wake up and engage with something so deeply that it changes you.

A run this morning around the swamp in Forest Hill Park. Cool damp air, blue sky, hear nobody else but robins and a kingfisher.

A visit this weekend from a niece in whom I see myself, my sister, my son and herself all in one.

Waking up from so much that clouds the mind. I want that for myself and to draw that out in my students. It’s not that complicated.

Thursday, January 8, 2009


My colleague John DeMao just wrote he is “working on a paper on the intersection of creative thinking and design thinking - Can you tell me in about 30 words or less -
When you get what you think is a creative idea, what is usually the primary spark for it?“

My response: a visceral response of joy. inspired by deep connection to person, or nature. elevates, humbles and dissolves self. leading to an impulse to make something, to share that initial visceral experience.

thank you for asking.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

The Dance Continues

I take a break from writing to engage. In the end of the semester, in preparations for my birthday party - the square dance ( we play music, we all danced: kids families, lots of dancing, swirling bodies filling the dance hall)
- christmas, new years. Friends and family visiting. Writing is a stepping back and observing and naming. To name is to know and understand and Becky (Becky Heaver, sister-in-law)and I were considering last night at diner. I think about the start of the semester and the exciting possibilities. How to engage my students in a way that excites them as much as music, or dance, or my connection to the river excites me and feeds me. I am about to fax to my sister (for use, maybe, in a project she is giving her students at Ole Miss) a few pages form Rufuge, by Terry Tempest Williams. She writes about her observations of egrets at the Great Salt Lake. "we have lost track of time in a birdwatcher's trance," she writes. "Egret plumes like French lace billow in the breeze and underscore their amorous play. One egret rises, the other follows. ... The egrets stagger their leaps—one lifts, one lands, one lifts, one lands—and the dance continues.”

Another writer Ester de Waal (I will check on this later but I write quickly while my guests are in the kitchen. Voices float up through the floor boards.) speaks of walking as a dangerous practice. We pick up our foot and momentarily are balanced on the other. We reach forward and are momentarily out of balance. Then in balance again as we transfer out weight. Gracefully we remain upright. Grace keeps us from falling. Then we begin this whole precarious process again. And repeat it again and again. In balance then out of balance. In balance. Out of balance. In balance...