Thursday, July 25, 2013

Those Places Thursday: Why Smithfield Market is Important in Our Locavore World

In 1993-1994, I was at University College London on a Fulbright Scholarship for the study of Victorian Geography.  After a key hotel in my first topic, Scarborough in Yorkshire, fell into the sea, I decided to come up with a second and more convenient topic.  I chose the Smithfield Market.

Today, the City of London and various historic organizations are struggling to determine a plan for the market building.  This is a question that, I think, is more broad than the structure itself.  Which is saying something - it is a LARGE building.

For my research, I was fascinated by how the urban depictions of the market and its participants evolved as London developed into an industrial city.  A market which started out in the 14th century as a natural part of the city became, by the end of the 19th, an object of ridicule and derision.  The farmers who came to the market, and their animals, were seen as fat, uncouth bumpkins who were dazzled and amazed by sophisticated urban London, even as the Londoners happily ate the products provided.

It was a microcosm of the industrial and post-industrial detachment from food sources, from farming, and from rural people.  But we are now learning, across the globe, the consequences of that detachment:  GMOs, pesticide-contaminated food supplies, wide disparities of food quality, and disregard for food production, from farmers to honeybees.

Smithfield is a symbol of the long-gone balance between urban and rural, the ways in which the two populations need each other and need to support each other.  We have lost that relationship, pushed the farmers farther and farther away even as our city edges expand, and we no longer recognize their importance.

In Denver, we have the National Western Stockshow, which comes to the city every January.   Hundreds of thousands of people go to the show, wearing their best cowboy gear.  The cattle are paraded through the downtown.  The Junior Livestock Auction is broadcast on TV.  For a week, we connect with the farmers and ranchers upon whom we depend.

Around the world, we are attempting to reconnect: the locavore movement, the slow food movement, the farm-to-table movement - these are all connection opportunities.  I think it's only fitting that while we are making these changes, we are also preserving the old connection points, like Smithfield.  There are always things to be learned by understanding our past, particularly in this fragile moment when we are just starting to recognize what we lost in between.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Wisdom Wednesday: What We Bring to Our National and Personal Stories

This week, stories on the Internet whirl around powerful issues - stereotypes, profiles, justice.  These are good conversations to have out loud, instead of in our respective minds and insular communities.  Because when we move these conversations into the open, we can examine the assumptions, expectations, fears and aspirations behind them, and that, I think, is good for both personal and global storytelling.

In a modern world where all of us can become storytellers to strangers, many of the filters set in place to moderate stories told by journalists and authors no longer limit stories we tell or read - lines between truth and libel, fiction and reality are increasingly blurred.  And with that lack of official filtration comes an ethical need to recognize and acknowledge what we are bringing to the tale - our assumptions, expectations, fears and aspirations.

One of my storyfathers is Dr. James Coleman, who wrote the book Black Male Fiction and the Legacy of Caliban.  I studied African-American literature with him, more than a decade before he wrote the book.  He was frustrated, when I was in class, by the national fascination with Alice Walker's The Color Purple. He felt that the book was popular among white readers because it fulfilled expectations about violent and animalistic black men.  He felt that these depictions of black men made white America feel better about years of oppression.  In the Caliban book, he argues that many male writers also fulfill those expectations, in part because the narrative is so strongly represented, and alternative stories are so rare.

Looking at The Color Purple through his eyes changed the way I read the story.  I didn't forgive the men in it, but I viewed them with  a different understanding.  I had to consciously choose to read them as complicated characters, who had their own untold stories of oppression, anger, and struggle, rather than as simple stereotypes.  This complexity came back to me a couple of years later when my fellow college students were harassed by police after the Rodney King riots.  The police took the LA riot narrative and made assumptions about young black men attending a little liberal arts college in Minnesota.

In our attempts to simplify the complexity of our world and the myriad people in it, it seems to me that in all the stories we tell - whether national news or personal narrative, we are doing a combination of these things:

1.  We are making assumptions about the story.  We are bringing our personal and cultural history into our hearing, our telling, our editing.

2.  We are bringing our expectations to the story.  We have an idea of how the world works, and we seek out the pieces of the story that fit those expectations.

3.  We are bringing our fears and aspirations to the story.  We have fears about the world and how it works, and we have hopes for how the world should be, and we seek out the pieces of the story that fit those visions.

In personal storytelling, this plays out in many ways.  The beloved grandfather couldn't possibly have committed adultery, so it isn't talked about out loud.  The angry uncle who never comes to Christmas couldn't possibly be his town's biggest philanthropist, so his family doesn't realize it until the story emerges at his funeral.  The war-hero cousin couldn't have PTSD, so she struggles alone, without family support, afraid to damage the stories her family tells.  Into our personal stories, we carry our aspirations for our loved ones; our expectations for their stories; our assumptions based on our own interactions with them; our fears of who they might be and what it would mean to who we think we are.

We do the same in our national and global narratives.  Right now, the nation focuses its attention on a single story and all of these assumptions, expectations, fears, and aspirations come into the dialogue.  Mr. Zimmerman brought his expectations of Mr. Martin into his decision-making, and ended Mr. Martin's life.  Many people rationalize his actions using the national narrative about young black men.  And in his acquittal, many other people see their expectations of a biased justice system fulfilled.

Fundamentally, the jury selection process is supposed to be an act of separating people from their stories - finding the people who can look at the stories told by defense and prosecution, and bring nothing of their own to those stories.  As a citizen, I hope it's possible.  But as a storyteller, knowing how deep these stories run in our history and in our souls, I worry.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Tuesday's Tip: Using Protopage to Organize RSS Feeds and Replace What Google Took Away

I didn't use Google Reader much, but its discontinuation has clearly thrown a lot of people off.  I did use Google home page, but that was discontinued several months ago.  So for those of us who loved those tools, my Tuesday Tip is to use my new favorite:

5 Things I Love About Protopage:

1.  It allows for customizable tabs, so I can easily organize my feeds by topic.  All my genealogy feeds are on one tab, all my art feeds are on another, all my cooking ones are on another, etc.

2.  It keeps track of which articles I've read by crossing them off on the page, so it's easy to scan for new entries.

3.  It allows for non-RSS widgets as well - comic strips, games, and even To-Do lists with checkboxes, which I find very handy.  I have multiple to-do lists for home, work, etc.

4.  It is easy to set up and customize with colors, etc. and offers customization at the feed level - how many headlines appear, whether there are pictures, etc.

5.  I can choose to make my page with the feeds I like public or private.  Because of the to-do lists I choose private, but there may be value for many people in using pubic instead.

So give it a try.  I think you'll find it's a great replacement for what you think you're missing now that Google has moved on.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Wisdom Wednesday: Mrs. Petra Fogelberg and Her Love Lessons

When I was studying at Macalester College, I spent a few months earning extra money as an assistant for an old woman who had lost her sight.  She had gone to Macalester as well, and so advertised at the school for help.  She died about five years later.

She had been married for decades, but had no children.  I can't find her in online records.  I don't know if she had family members who remember her.   Though I spent several hours with her for months, I am sure there is a lot that I don't remember.  For me she is a tall, white-haired story collection.  And in a way, twenty years on, maybe that's not a bad thing to be.

Here are some of the stories I remember her telling:

  • She remembered going to college in World War I, and watching all the men disappear from campus and go off to war, leaving the college barely able to sustain itself. 
  • Even though she went to college herself, she didn't work outside the home, but seemed to thrive on being a doctor's wife in small town Minnesota, getting paid in chickens, getting up in the middle of the night to attend to expectant mothers.
  • In the little retirement apartment she lived in since her husband died, she had a whole closet full of what she called her 'mad hats'  Whenever she and her husband fought, she went out and bought herself a hat, and she kept her favorites despite the downsize in home.  If I described a particular hat, she could remember what it looked like, where she bought it, how much she paid, and what the fight was about.
  • She never forgave the Mayo Clinic for the death of her husband from kidney cancer.  She felt they sent him home knowing how ill he was, wanting him to die off their books.
And the most telling story was this: half of her bed was piled with boxes of papers.  I asked her once if she wanted me to move them, and she said "No, I was married too long.  Now, I can't sleep without weight on the other side of the bed, so I keep all my husband's letters to me on his side of the bed."

Ultimately, many of her stories seemed to come back to her marriage, the strength and complexity of their relationship, the pride in their teamwork, the ferocity of how much she missed him.  I know she told me how they met, but I can't remember it, and that saddens me.  But I knew I wanted a relationship like hers, despite the difficulties she went through.

Not everyone who has a legacy has children.  But they do have powerful, inspiring, riveting relationships, and from those relationships can come great stories.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Wisdom Wednesday: The Storyfathers

There are people who are related to you by blood - and those relations are important.  But there are also those people who are related to you by the stories they tell, stories that move you, stick with you, and change you.

My father taught at Colorado College in the chemistry department.  When I was little, there were three other professors who often came to dinner and cherry pie at our house.  None of them teach there anymore.  But the stories they told about their incredibly different childhoods gave me insight and perspective that changed my world.  In my head, they are my storyfathers - my early teachers in the art of agenda-free, moral-free, relaxed, and fun-filled storytelling.

Storyfather One - a white religious studies professor from Georgia.  His stories were full of cottonmouth snakes and Baptists.  I particularly remember a tragic story of his disillusionment when a tent revivalist couldn't help an ill friend.

Storyfather Two - a hispanic Chicano studies professor who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley.  His stories were full of farming and struggle.

Storyfather Three - an African-American literature professor who grew up in the rural South, in a house without electricity or plumbing.  His stories were about being a young man in the middle of a changing culture, and the challenges he faced.

Storyfather Four - my dad, who grew up in Oregon, whose stories were full of my grandmother's antics, car repair, and family.  I remember his story of the whole 1st grade going to his friend Steve's house to see the first TV in town.

Storymother - my mom, who also grew up in Oregon, on a farm with limited resources.  Her stories were full of goats, walnut trees, and architecture.  I remember her story of getting up early in the morning to take Russian lessons through the radio, so they would be ready for the invasion.

While we watched and listened, they would sit and eat pie and talk back and forth for hours.  They could remember the moment they learned to read, the moment they heard about Kennedy's assassination, the moment of the moon landing.  They shared huge events and little ones, and through them, my sister and I came to understand the differences in their histories, the diversity that made up the United States for all of them.

As storytellers, you may not know which of your stories are good and eternal and which are temporary, or only valuable to you.  You may not know their significance, but you owe it to the children around you to give them a chance to find out.  Talk more, talk often, risk being dull or vulnerable or cliched.  You never know which story will expand their world.