Sunday, June 19, 2011

Forty And Looking Back

Today, I turn forty years old. Not bad, all things considered. Beautiful wife, two amazing kids, home in a town I love, a fecund backyard garden.

As I roll over another zero into the units digit of the odometer of life, something interesting happened that has caused me to reconnect with - and think about - a lot of the people I went to high school with.

That something interesting is Facebook. Over the the span of two years, my entire graduating class from Davis Senior High School seemed to suddenly show up and start friending each other. I kept in touch with very few people from home and so I've been reconnecting, after twenty years, with the people I grew up with. I've learned about their lives and seen photos of their kids and read about their travels.

And I mean your lives and your kids and your travels: because I'm talking to you, graduating class of 1989. And, to be fair, a few of you who graduated a year or two earlier or later who I was close enough with that I think of you as part of my class.

Back then we were, with apologies to John Hughes, brains, musicians, jocks, partiers, and goths. We hung out in our cliques and did our different activities. We crossed social boundaries sometimes, uneasily and tentatively. But it was high school and we all had our domains and our coteries. But we were also all a bunch of kids growing up in a reasonably affluent university town on the edge of some very good farmland.

We didn't know it then, but we were all so damn alike that the only thing we could focus on was our differences.

Fast forward twenty years or more.

What are we now? Who are we now?

We are fathers, we are mothers, we are married, we are single, we are divorced.

We are gay, we are straight, we are flexible.

We are conservative, we are liberal, we are undecided.

We are project managers, we are musicians, we are farmers, we are entrepreneurs, we are artists, we are lawyers, we are restauranteurs, we are law enforcement officers, we are opera singers, we are bartenders, we are writers, we are programmers, we are veterinary pathologists.

A staggering number of us are teachers.

Some of us are expatriates, some of us never left town, some of us have come back home.

At least one of us has been to war.

A very few of us have died.

So much diversity, so much variety of experience and outcome. And yet today I feel closer to a broader range of the people that made up my graduating class than I ever have.

What happened?

We all went on that strange, crooked pathway called life. No one took a path that quite matched what they expected or what anyone else expected for them. Some paths were radically surprising, some merely crooked. Some triumphant, some quotidian.

If there had been a yearbook category "Most likely to play in a major symphony orchestra," I think the predictions might have been pretty good. But I doubt that the eventual winners of "Most likely to raise backyard chickens" or "Most likely to post photomicrographs to Facebook" or "Most likely to become the leading academic authority on American Idol" would have been so obvious back in 1989.

In 2011, we all sit down at the end of the day and try to unwind from the stresses of an adult life, whatever form that life might take. We might worry about the economy or climate change or health care or school selection or taxes or bills or the future. We might have a glass of beer or wine or bourbon or tea or coffee to help us relax. We might unwind playing a LARP or watching a show or hitting a round of golf or going for a run or pushing through a Crossfit WOD.

But it is the journey, from a small town on the outskirts of Sacramento to here, wherever here is and whatever waypoints passed on the way, that has brought us closer. We've learned about ourselves and about each other, about what it means to be a man or a woman in the world.

Twenty years on, we are all now so different that all we can do is focus on our similarities.

Hello again, graduating class of 1989, it is a real pleasure to get to know you.

Monday, March 14, 2011

What Is (Or Isn't) Going On?

I've been watching the coverage of the events in Japan - the earthquake, the tsunami, and now the brooding risk of three cantankerous nuclear reactors - with a mixture of horror, fascination, and frustration.

Horror - obviously. The loss of so many lives and the irrecoverable changes to the lives of the survivors is the greatest disaster in my recent memory. Fascination - yes, I will admit it. There is a sort of twisted fascination with keeping abreast of a terrible event, something akin to the "oh, let me try that spoiled milk too" urge that we feel. I'm not talking Schadenfreude, that's what keeps us watching Charlie Sheen. There is no twisted joy in this, no chuckling man-that-dude-is-nuts, no self esteem boosting confirmation that our decision not to shack up with porn stars was a good one. But there is some urge none the less.

Frustration - that too, and that is what this blog is about. Frustration not with the events themselves or with responses to them, but frustration with the coverage itself. Some years back, I wrote a post about watching the invasion of Iraq, and feeling like I should be able to "reload the war" and get things to move along at the pace I expected. That post was about the pace of coverage, and about how or expectations as an audience had grown divorced from the reality of life.

This frustration is more about the quality and accuracy of coverage - and how the same infrastructure that made reload-the-war expectations possible also makes massively divergent coverage possible. Take a look at this little snippet of Google news, captured at 12:42pm Pacific Daylight (uugh) time:

Ok, which is right? Is the disaster risk fading or escalating?

Now contradictory headlines are nothing new. I'm sure that if you brought up Fox News and MSNBC and simply looked at what they had to say about the President, you'd find some very contradictory interpretations. Even in the pre-internet days (remember those?) different news agencies would have different spins. Most cities had a Republican newspaper and a Democrat newspaper. That is until the general demise of print news changed this so that most cities now just have a newspaper, sometimes.

But of editorial license, selective coverage, and yellow journalism, none of these are new.

Timeliness, that's what is new. No longer do we wait for a news source (paper, 5:00 broadcast, whatever) to amass, collate, analyze, and summarize. We can go direct to Twitter and Facebook for our own personal updates on what that-dude-with-the-camera-phone-saw. Such reports are obviously snapshots (no pun intended), highly localized, and biased. To satisfy our reload-the-war pacing, however, those news agencies that used to be responsible for amassing, collating, analyzing, and summarizing events increasingly rely on the same firsthand observers, passing along tweets and chat room comments and in so doing imbuing localized, biased snapshots with an air of authority.

Of course this isn't helped by rush-to-a-headline coverage, sensationalism, and general ignorance of the subtleties of a very technical trade. Even when news agencies are amassing, collating, and all that other stuff, they can display very different results. Nuclear energy makes great news fodder - it has a sort of brooding-menace, a mysterious ability to harm from afar, sits astride a highly politicized divide, and frankly is poorly understood by enough of the public and the news media that it is easy to fill dead air with speculation and gossip and not risk getting called out fudging, exaggerating, or just not knowing what the hell you are talking about.

My case in point being the two articles form Reuters and The Guardian. Both are legitimate press, written my (presumably) legitimate reporters. Both, let us assume, trying to do good reporting and to accomplish all those goals of traditional media. Yet here are two wildly divergent assessments(or at least headlines) sitting right next to each other, both showcased as "new" news. So what is going on?

Part of this is simply the confusing time compression of real-time access to news. Some news sources are updated with the latest to-the-minute information. Others update a little behind the times. Why? Who knows...better effort at confirming sources, an ill-timed bathroom break, different editorial update policies, the intrusion of night-time. News scraping engines like Google may catch both updates as "new" news while one really reflect the situation six or eight or more hours ago. Which one is current?

In such situations, people tend to believe the news that agrees with their preconceived notions and expectations of what is going on. Convinced nukes are bad? Then a meltdown is right around the corner and that is very, very bad. Confident in man's ability to tame the atom? Well then that meltdown risk is totally under control and wouldn't have been that bad anyway.

Of course media outlets, determined to keep you watching and/or clicking, are going to choose to feature whatever details imply the most rapidly evolving don't-miss-a-minute situation possible (good or bad, but bad things really do tend to keep people tuned in a whole lot more). By the time the situation settles down it will be, well, settled down. Charlie Sheen will, yet again, be an F-18 and so no one will bother to report (or to pay attention to, if it was reported) what really went down. Bad things happened or they didn't, it'll all depend on the mind of the beholder.

We are at a point where our ability to access information is nearly instant. We can get the latest news that is available at a mouse-click. But that doesn't necessarily mean that it is the latest development. This adds to that unhealthy obsession to get the latest. Because the rippling waves of update create a further false impression of development.

Oh good, the plant is getting better!

Oh no, the plant is getting worse!

Oh really? Perhaps nothing has changed and we are just seeing the illusory dynamic of waves of news, some moving at different speeds, propagating outward from the source.

It is enough to drive you nuts. Skepticism, patience, and some sort of ability to perceive the moving average of the drama, to sense the error bars surrounding today's median how-fucked-is-the-world-ometer reading is the only way to stay sane.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Confessions of a Tomato Hater

I grew up in a tomato town.

At the north end of California's irrigated agricultural wonderland, the Central Valley, we grew a lot of tomatoes. Fields of them ringed the town. Cropdusters buzzed low keeping them pest and disease free. Trucks of them drove in to town, to the local cannery and processing factory.

Every summer, tomatoes, spilled off the top of overloaded trucks, lay rotting in the gutters all through the July and August heat.

When someone says "the smell of boiling tomatoes" to you, it may conjure up the image of a nice tomato sauce or soup, simmering away on the stove. To me it conjures up months of steamy emissions from the plant, drifting in to town, an indecisive miasma, unsure if it was sweet or savory.

Sometimes, when money for our family was tight, my mom would take seasonal work at the factory, working on the line and later at their paste processing facility. She came home redolent of tomatoes, the smell impregnated into her clothing.

So perhaps I have a love/hate relationship with the tomato. It, after all, brought in a non-trivial part of my family's income through some tough years. My grandmother was a bookkeeper at the plant, and my grandfather flew some of those cropdusters for many years until he wrecked and was relegated to golfing and reading about the Civil War.

Out in my own garden, while we try our best to raise a decent crop, I'll rail against their overly-hybridized fussiness. I'll complain about their sprawling untidiness. I'll jump on any excuse to get these unnatural things, never meant for the maritime northwest, out of the garden.

But I must be honest with myself and acknowledge a couple of things about the tomato. First off, it is all those things - hybridized to the point of absurdity and totally ill suited for where we grow it. But these very characteristics are the source of the challenge, a sort of backyard agronomic "because it is there" factor, that forces all of us gardeners west of the Rain Shadow to test their mettle against this thing.

Because if you can grow it, get your crops to ripen up into something more than pickled, fried, or salsafied green tomatoes, then you have truly shown what you are worth.

You are a gardener, you have not shirked from the greatest of challenges but embraced them. And you have come away the champion.

And after a few years of perseverance (or of head-into-wall-beating, if you prefer) a good crop will come up. Tomatoes are a heartbreak crop, in the words of my brother in law - they reward you just on the edge of abandonment, dole out a good harvest to keep you going. Those good crops, when they happen, are so good and so worth it. Romas, big slicers, cherries and grapes, crazy heirlooms in all variety of colors from tacky lipstick pink to the deepest of purples. The thousand and one flavors, not the giant soggy slicers of supermarket burger filling fame.

So remind me of this, next time I'm standing ankle deep in rotting tomato flesh, pulling fungus dappled vines out of the ground, raising my fist at the sky and reliving every tomato-stinking summer of my youth. Remind me that sometimes they do work out and when it happens, the rewards are rich!

Footnote: while researching this post and looking for photos, I found out that the factory in question was demolished. I knew it had closed, and good riddance at this point, but as much as my memories of it are of bad smells, night-shift-working-mom, and traffic snarling trucks, a part of my youth is now gone.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

My Urban Homesteads

I live in at least two different Urban Homesteads.

One of them is the one that I return to, every night, at the end of a dead end street in a small town just north of Seattle. It is the homestead that grows most of our vegetables, that does not yet have chickens, that often smells of slowly simmering stews or reducing sauces. Erica writes about it, I brew beer in it, we raise our family in it.

It is home.

But I have another urban homestead. It is somewhere on the banks of a fast moving river, a couple of acres of fields growing organic garlic to sell on the farmer's market circuit, some raised beds for our own veggies, a stand of hop vines trellising a dozen or so feet into the air, chickens running underfoot, a detached garage for the tractor.

At this second homestead, nothing ever breaks or needs maintenance, not even the John Deere. The weather is always just challenging enough to test our agricultural mettle but never so threatening as to actually spoil a crop. At this homestead, I've traded my high rise job for something virtual - perhaps I've finally sold a novel or parleyed my occasional speaking gigs to some sort of guru position in the business intelligence world and now sell online consulting time and the occasionally well compensated keynote.

By now you may realize that this second urban homestead doesn't really exist - not anywhere you can find, at least. And isn't all that urban, come to think of it. It is the homestead of my dreams, my escape and my folly, a happy place that sustains me when the here and the now bring their dull, unrewarding, tedious best to bear.

That first homstead, the one with an address, the one you can spot on Google Earth, is a great place and every night it welcomes me home.

But when I can't be there, the other homestead that helps me through, the fantasy homestead. So when the conference calls are particularly boring, the traffic across the bridge particularly tedious, or the speaker meandering on far too long, there is always something to do:

Shopping for tractors on the John Deere website.

Reviewing organic garlic production techniques put out by the NSAIS.

Choosing favorite breeds from Hnderson's Chicken Breed Chart.

Catching up on reading from the local agriculture extension program.

Yes, I'm a dreamer. But anyone chasing the urban homestead dream is almost by definition a dreamer. Even my real urban homestead has a place for dreams - chickens, more cheese making, more trees, the next batch of beer I'm brewing, tree selection for the expanded orchard, a rainwater recycling system. So dream on, urban homesteaders. Dreams go with the territory.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

An Open Letter to the Dervaes'

Well it is a mighty fine mess you have created. Yes, Dervaes family,, you have really managed to do something profound to the community you helped create.

You have chosen to trademark a whole host of terms, ostensibly seeking to protect them from those who would misuse and abuse them for their own profit. I’ve got some respect for this – after all, it is easy enough to imagine the Monsanto Urban Homesteader collection of seeds or the Lowe’s Urban Homesteader Twice-A-Year Sale.

Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems with this.

First off, you weren’t there first. A quick bit of online research finds the phrase “urban homestead” in some variation or the other dating back to the 1970s or before. But the legitimacy of your claim isn't the greatest issue here.

The urban homesteading movement (by whatever name you wish it to go by) is a tenuous thing. We are decentralized. We come from a range of social, political, and moral backgrounds. We’ve come to this for a variety of reasons: health, environment, economics, survival, enjoyment. We practice in varied ways as suit our varied natures and regions: poultry, fruit, vegetables, livestock, dairy.

We run the risk of appearing as freaks and finding ourselves further marginalized just as we are gaining traction and awareness.

So here we stand, not on the cusp of victory by any means, but on the cusp of moving to a greater playing field. The values we espouse are being picked up by authors, chefs, and social commentators and spreading to an ever broader audience. The tools and supplies we need are available more easily as more and more people show an interest in a backyard orchard or some raised beds or a chicken coop. Laws are making it easier for us to practice what we believe in (I’m talking about how my town repealed a ban on backyard poultry last year…but I’m sure there are others).

Just as things start to take off, do we really want to risk going from respect to mockery? Think of it this way: which headline would you rather see CNN or The New York Times run next week?

In yards around the nation, Urban Homesteading taking off!


Urban gardens taking off, but don’t call them homesteads!

Do we want to risk drifting into that part of the news day usually called “the lighter side” where mainstream America pokes fun (often deservedly) at people who lie just a little too far outside the bell curve or normality?

Perhaps even more critically, do we want to see the common idea that binds us together torn asunder because of the lack of a word, an all important linguistic thread that weaves between all of our diverse backgrounds, motivations, and interests? For words have meaning and power well beyond their superficial sounds and definitions. They provide identity, meaning, and community. They define and establish boundaries of inclusion and exclusion. Their proper use is a Shibboleth demarking true believers from tourists and pretenders.

Do we want to risk Balkanizing ourselves into urban homesteaders, city farmers, metropolitan agronomists, backyard growers, and the hundreds of other permutations I could devise, each one separated by a shade of meaning, a subtlety of belief or background or motivation? “Oh no, I’m not a city farmer, those are people with apartments. I’m a metropolitan agronomist because I practice square-foot techniques outside of the city core.”

Hyperbole on my part? Yes, but exaggeration and humor to make a point.

So perhaps, Derveases, we misunderstood you and your intentions were pure if ill communicated. Personally, I don’t think you were trying to shut down the use of the words Urban and Homesteading. I think you were trying to drive site (and store) traffic by intimidating bloggers, libraries, and authors into offering you a credit and a link. But my suspicious are beside the point.

Your blog posts and tweets profess surprise at the community’s reaction and accuse those of us with some spleen to vent of misunderstanding your intentions. They read accusingly, saying that this misunderstanding is our fault. They make us feel bad for the hurt they have caused your family, the tears brought on by our impassioned words.

Then why, I ask, were your first attempts to control the use of these terms targeted at a library and a blogger? Why do you respond with a series of defensive tweets and a blog update that cries out how hard this has been on you?

Welcome to the big time, Urban Homestead. Success is a bitch, that high profile you’ve worked to build up means there are a lot of people watching you – but that’s what you wanted, right? You came across as the big bad, swinging a legal claim, no matter how indefensible it may be, to get your way and get your due credit. People reacted in a way you didn't expect (really?), in a way that hurt you.

And the result has been bad, very bad. Whether you intended to deny use of these terms to the community at large or not, that is how we have understood your actions. And that is what is driving our reaction.

The point is that your actions, however they were intended, have jeopardized the movement you helped spawn. Your intentions are irrelevant. The results of your implementation and the broader community’s perception of that implementation are what matter – and the perception of that perception, but I risk losing my way. You have children and so know that intentions count for only so much. Results, whether those intended or expected or not, are what matter. And so you must choose your future actions based not around your professed or actual intent but around the reality in which you find yourself – an unpleasant reality with no easy choices.

And it is by those actions that the rest of us urban homesteaders, who owe you so much, will judge you and assess your intentions.

How should you react now that you’ve enraged a good portion of the community? Your blog and tweets profess surprise at this reaction, accuse us of misunderstanding your intentions.

I’m going to assume that you genuinely believe in the movement of which you have been such a part and that you have the best interest of that movement at heart – and you should, for to try to put your own business success ahead of that of the movement at large is to jeopardize not only your relationship with the movement but the very success of the movement itself. And I hope that you recognize this relationship and do what is best not for your own short-sighted gain but rather for the continued growth of this community and your relationship with it.

What you need to do is take charge of this situation. Yes, I said take charge. After accusing you of heavy handedness (intentional or not) why do I say you should take charge?

Because you have a window of opportunity to try and save some face. You will never regain the full respect you had in the community, but that’s done. Time for damage control, time for clear words and clear actions. Time to do things that will not be misunderstood (again).

Cede the word to the community.

Stand up and in clear simple words admit that you erred:

Say “we never intended to deny the broader use of these words.”

Say “but unfortunately our actions were misunderstood.”

Say “we never anticipated the depth of feeling our actions would arouse.”

Say “but observing the passion of the community we helped foster is as gratifying as it has been troubling.”

Say “and so we waive our claim to these trademarks.”

Say “we recognize that these phrases are something larger than our family and our farm.”

Say “these words are our movement and they are your movement.”

And then shut the hell up.

We will have our community. There is the risk that these words will get misused, co-opted. But we do not need your protection and we know what an urban homestead really is without your oversight and editing.

As it stands right now, your website leaves you an opening. Make that promised press release a thing of nobility, of admission, and of generosity. Play it right and you might even come out looking pretty good.

I fear that you will take one of the easier paths. Perhaps you will take the easiest, that of stepping away from the issue, never following up on your letters, of hoping that things die down. And they might. Your reputation will never rebuild, not with those of us who live at the core of this movement. We’ll make jokes. We’ll refer to someone as “pulling a Dervaes” when they try a petty trade marking or some cheesy legal intimidation.

There is another path I fear, one that is harder for you and worse for the community. It is the path of pride, of stonewalling and digging in. Of perceiving the community’s response as some sort of a threat to some position of hierarchy that you believe you deserve. This is the path that leads to mockery of our movement, of factionalized collapse into urban homesteaders vs. metropolitan farmers vs. city gardeners. This is the path that leads to a legal fight you will not win, that will only drain your finances and threaten your very livelihood.

So I ask you, think it through. Make a decision, a tough decision. Retake what you can of the leadership you had in this community. Give us that community, without a fight, without shame, and without guilt.

As I write this, your latest blog entry is "we are urban homesteaders." I do not deny that. But so are we.

UPDATED 2/18/2011

For starters I want to thank everyone for their kind comments. I'm glad I could help lend some voice to everyone's emotions.

I deliberately tried to keep the issue of the legitimacy of the Dervaes' claims - whether legal or moral - out of this. For starters the two are quite different - they might legally be able to maintain control over a trademark that we do not feel they morally should be able to. But more than that, I'm no lawyer and while my experience around issues like this gives me some opinions and expectations, I don't want to put my foot in it by delving into idle speculations.

In the meantime, as well, the promised press release is out. It offers (a little) more information about their intentions, but generally continues the theme of "we didn't do what you are saying we did" that permeated the output from on 2/17. Granted, it is in nicer language and they fixed some of the grammar problems (yes, I get irritated at tweets with grammar or vocabulary mistakes, that's one of the side effects of having a BA in English).

It still, however, misses a crucial point: what do you INTEND to do. They deny filing legal actions, however "informational letters" are typically a prelude to some other sort of action. They do not mention the DMCA requests to Google. It continues a disingenuous attempt to portray them as victims of a disproportionate response to innocent actions. It will do little, if anything, to quell the communities reaction.

What is made clearer is that the Dervaes family views the growing popularity of this movement as a threat to their perceived position of leadership. Too soon, guys, too soon. Yes, the time will come for squabbling and internecine fighting, but that time is not now. We are still in the "a rising tide lifts all boats" stage where supporting the greater cause will build the market. This attempt to gain control may help build market share but controlling a larger portion of a smaller or more slowly growing market is not advantageous in an absolute sense.

Pyhrric victory, anyone? A scorched earth retreat across the burning fields of urban homesteads is not the way to maintain position.

Right now we are still growing, still need to build community and identity. I work in an industry that is at market saturation and so we see crazy legal actions all the time, companies claiming too have invented whole ideas. Why? Because everyone already wants a cell phone. Every one knows what they are. Everyone wants one. So the bickering begins.

But imagine if, in the 1970's Bell Labs had trademarked the phrase "Cell Phone" and variants and then, in the 1980's when the devices started to become popular, chosen to protect that trademark. Things might have turned out differently if we had lacked a common phrase to describe that thing that we hold up to our ear to talk on when we aren't at home. Granted, there are dozens of synonyms (including bizarre new ones like "converged device"...I mean...really?) but the term "cell phone" got us started.

On Facebook, I've contrasted the Dervaes' attempted actions with Charlie Papazian, one of the founders of the American homebrewing movement. His first book came out in 1976 - homebrewing in the US wouldn't be legalized until two years later, by the way. For a couple of decades, he had the only continuously in-print book on the topic. Of his seven published books, the canonical The Complete Joy of Homebrewing
has run to thee editions and nearly a million copies sold. And then there are the six other books he wrote... Papazian is revered as a guru, a founder, an inspiration. I actually don't particularly care for his writing (a little too 1970's "relax and have a homebrew for me...I like a little more microbiology in my beer books) but if I ran into him at a convention (and if I could get through the rings of people looking for his autograph, opinion, photo op, etc.) I'd shake his hand and know I'd touched someone without whom my hobby may not exist.

Yet he, despite having at least as much right to claim ownership of homebrewing as the Dervaes' do of urban homesteading, never made any move to protect that claim. Perhaps it was that 1970's "relax and have a homebrew" attitude. Instead he threw his weight into growing the movement as a whole, founding organizations, writing books, promoting the entire idea. And now, like I said, guru status and a million books out there.

Compare and contrast. And remember, a rising tide lifts all boats. Take care of those around you and they will take care of you.

You, Dervaes' are in the unenviable position of needing to react to a situation that is now well and truly out of your control. You are dealing with a cluster f@ck you did not intend to create. But no one intends to create a cluster f@ck. They just happen. By definition, this is a self destructive situation with no easy, cost free solution. No outcome will wind the clock back a week. No outcome will be to everyone's satisfaction.

Perceptions are reality and you cannot continue to react to the message you intended to send , whatever it was, with your informational letters and DMCA requests. You must react to the message that was perceived by the community at large. Only by doing so can you bring this situation back under control.

So I ask you to make the tough call, show true leadership within this community, show that your intentions have the best interests of the community at heart, regain as much respect as possible within this community. Take the path I outlined, cede these trademarks. Let your actions be ones we can celebrate as a growing community - not ones that are derided and mocked to our shared suffering.

But now with that said, the blog does make the point that we've all got crops to water, goats to feed (I don't, not yet), eggs to collect (ok, I don't actually have eggs to collect either...yet), retaining walls to build (I actually DO have that on my project list) and all the rest.

I appreciate all your kind comments on the original version of this open letter and, as with many of you who have commented, hope that it finds a receptive audience in those who most need to read it.