Making Mistakes and an Update

A big thanks to Erik Volkman who let me know that I had accidentally re-released episode 127 of the podcast (an interview with Fr. Mark Kowalewski on apocalyptic thinking) instead of episode 128 (an interview with James Heard and Ashton Hamm of UXO Architects). I’ve fixed the problem but due to the kludgy way that podcasts propagate your podcast app may still play the audio from episode 127 instead of the interview with the architects. You can hear episode 128 on the blog here. We’re also experiencing problems with editing blog posts and posting images, a situation our web czar and book designer Roman is working on.

And an update: the Silver Lake Progressive slate that ran for the local neighborhood council won in a landslide. They now have a slim majority of the council and will have their hands full fixing the damage done by their predecessors (who are busy holding last minute meetings in order to spend the last few dimes the council has left after blowing most of their budget on a dubious study). A more important task will be to lay the groundwork for taking the city council of Los Angeles which, according to a recent study, is the second most corrupt city government behind (of course) Chicago. Shake a palm tree here and a lot of rats fall out.

Thinking Local

If ever there was an example of how we can’t seem to all get along these days it would be our infamous Silver Lake Neighborhood Council. Considering the organization is only advisory, has no power and a tiny budget, it’s remarkable how deep its potentates have gone into Machiavellian maneuvers and the minutia of Robert’s Rules of Order. The Council’s drama has involved everything from threats of physical violence to false flag operations to virtuosic Orwellian double speak. If you’d like to see just how bad and petty things can get at a meeting of an organization with no actual power just take a look at this or these stunning meeting minutes. If I didn’t have better things to do I’d leverage my music degree to write a five hour opera about the council, mostly recitative, mostly from text from the afore mentioned Robert’s Rules of Order. Even less would happen than in the first part of Das Rheingold–my Silver Lake opera would just be endless meetings.

For the locals that read this blog I urge you to come out and vote tomorrow, Saturday April 6th from 12 to 6pm at St. Francis of Assissi 1523 Golden Gate Ave. Anyone who lives, works or belongs to an organization in Silver Lake is eligible to vote and I urge you to vote for the new Progressive Slate of candidates who promise to, so to speak, drain the reservoir of its current swamp creatures.

For those of you not in Silver Lake, the problems with our council, I think, are at least in part part of a general inability to work in groups, a byproduct of the triumph of individualism and consumerism. In the past most people belonged to some sort of community group such as a club, synagogue, church, lodge etc. In those groups we used to see each other socially outside the closed domains of our homes, making the kind of meanness and dissension we’ve seen here in Silver Lake less likely to happen. This is not to say that things were perfect when we had more affiliations. You could also get groups like the KKK. And the demands of households where both partners must work means that we have less time to gather in the evening. But these are not a reasons to live lives of lonely desperation playing video games and waiting for the next Amazon package to arrive. If we’re to get out of the mess we’re in here in Silver Lake and everywhere else in the world it’s going to be a team effort.

May the Work I’ve Done Speak for Me

Who would guess that a small Episcopal church tucked into an unremarkable residential neighborhood could become such a hopeful example of community building here in Los Angeles? Kelly and I attended a tearful sendoff yesterday for Father Peter Rood whose leadership at Holy Nativity Episcopal Church is an example we should all consider emulating. Fr. Peter is taking a job in Oak Harbor, Washington and LA’s loss is Washington’s gain.

Holy Nativity is in Westchester, a 1950s era suburb of Los Angeles bumped up against LAX, the second busiest airport in the U.S. I grew up in adjacent Culver City, where we used to refer to Westchester as “Deadchester” for it’s unremarkableness, though it’s hard to see how one could consider Culver City to be any more exciting. Like many LA suburbs, Westchester lacks non-commercial gathering spaces. Fr. Peter saw this as an opportunity. He always referred to Holy Nativity as a “community center that just happened to have a church attached to it.”

Over the years he collaborated with Joanne Poyourow of Environmental Changemakers to transform a large unused area of lawn into a community garden. Part of the parking lot became a community bread oven. When the city couldn’t find a location for a child’s playground he offered another large part of the church’s property for that project. He taught regular yoga classes, hosted Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, provided space for music and dance groups and home schoolers, and built a meditation space open to anyone who wanted to use it. Along with Joanne, he generously hosted several book promotion events for us, including lectures, a beer making party and pickling and bread classes. He nurtured deep relationships with other faith traditions and hosted ecumenical lectures and events.

Peter is of the “ask forgiveness not permission” style of leadership. In keeping with this he says “yes” where others might hem and haw and wait to check with the higher ups or fret about insurance. He speaks often of addressing the “low hanging fruit” in our communities, things like planting a garden, mulch and compost. Many years ago he banished paper and plastic plates from the church’s kitchen, installing a commercial dishwasher and accumulating a supply of ceramic and metal utensils. Along with Kelly, he’s also the survivor of a harrowing aortic dissection.

There are a number of lessons to take from Fr. Peter’s example. Faith communities should consider opening their doors to the community and find ways to collaborate especially since many sit empty during the week. It should also be noted that Joanne was never a member of the church and that didn’t matter. Another lesson is for community members: don’t be afraid to approach faith communities with an idea as Joanne did. Some might say no, but many will be happy to help. I’m willing to bet that most won’t proselytize or ask for anything in return. Schools, of course, are another place where this sort of collaboration can happen but faith communities can be more nimble and often have a leadership continuity that stretches back hundreds or even thousands of years. In our time of ecological crisis we might just need to lean on institutions that have this sort of long range perspective.

Rumor has it that the folks in St. Stephens in Oak Harbor are already talking about a community bread oven. If you’re reading this and live in Washington please give Fr. Peter a hug for us. We sure will miss him down here.

For more detail, I recommend listening to this lecture by Fr. Peter explaining the history and approach he took to Holy Nativity’s community collaborations.

Urban Homesteading: What Went Wrong

As I cast a critical eye towards the sustainability movement of the 1960s and 70s, in a previous blog post, I think it’s only fair to take a look at the movement we played a role in, the “urban homesteading” of the late aughts. In a series of future posts I’d like to look back at the ideas in our two books The Urban Homestead and Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World. I’ll consider both the broader ideas in the books as well as what might have changed in terms of specific methods in subjects such as gardening and beekeeping.

First let me peel back the curtain for those of you have have never written a book and describe how awkward and weird it can be to read your own writing after the passage of ten years. That said, after a casual glace this morning though the introduction to The Urban Homestead and Making It, I still think they are mostly solid. What I’m more concerned about are things I may have said in book appearances, blog posts and press interviews after the books came out, specifically that the changes we need to make to avert crises such as climate change and healthy food systems are all about personal choice. While I never said we could save the planet by learning to make jam, my studious avoidance of political controversy may have left that impression.

Along that line, I’m concerned with our brief promotion of stoicism though a series of blog posts and an essay in a book published in 2014, Stoicism Today: Selected Writings. While I think everyone should be familiar with the stoics and even read the very readable Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, G.K. Chesterton takes down the musings of these two Roman billionaires in just two sentences. Chesterton says, “Notice that Marcus Aurelius insists, as such introspective moralists always do, upon small things done or undone; it is because he has not hate or love enough to make a moral revolution. He gets up early in the morning, just as our own aristocrats living the Simple Life get up early in the morning; because such altruism is much easier than stopping the games of the amphitheatre or giving the English people back their land.”(1)

Stopping the games at the amphitheatre and giving the English people back their land are both messy problems that involve working with disagreeable people, attending boring public meetings and, worse, the chance of getting nailed to a tree. For a writer it involves staking out controversial positions and taking a stand on thorny issues. For the past ten years I’ve studiously avoided controversy in favor of making jam and attempting to grow arugula.

But what if we made jam, grew arugula and worked to stop those games at the amphitheatre? I don’t think it’s an either-or proposition. This integration of domestic artistry and politics is why I’ve been so obsessed with William Morris in the past year. He spent many long, frustrating years working for the rights of working class people. His art was not a distraction from this political work but was instead an integral part of his attempt to make the world a better place and to warn of the horrors that were to come.

So what might the urban homesteading movement contribute to politics? I think that as people who are engaged with work with our hands we have a more grounded, realistic view of the world, particularly when it comes to the issue of climate change. What tangible ideas could we contribute to the formulation of the Green New Deal, for instance? Certainly, we’re going to have to work together, not as disconnected individuals. This collectivism is another thing that I think I could have done a better job of expressing.

Next up I’ll take a look at some of the specifics in our books such as, ugh, double digging.