knee-deep in higher learning

Sunday, November 19, 2017

No, Thanks: A Special Story

It all started with a case of the hiccups.

George was riding the school bus home, as usual, but got off at an early stop, as unusual.

His reason? Hiccups. He had them and knew there was a public water fountain at an earlier stop, so he got off his bus to get a drink, planning to walk home from there instead, as it was so close to where he usually disembarks.

Except, when he exited the bus, and entered the public facility with the public water fountain, he was spotted by some caring friends who worried, seeing him get off his bus too early. They asked him whether his parents knew he was there. They called me in a meeting. They even went to his dad's place of work, interrupting an Algebra class to let him know his son was deviating from his after school routine. They insisted George stay with them at the public facility until his older brother arrived to pick him up.

Why did those friends go to such lengths to look out for a kid who is well over the age to walk home unattended, and who was literally only about 200 feet away from the usual place a school bus drops him off every day?

Well, for one, because they are the best kind of people to have in your community. It's pretty normal for them to care about friends' kids and be willing to go to great lengths to ensure their health and safety. Enjoying the privilege of raising my family in such a community is the kind of thing that puts a lump in my throat if I think about it for too long.

But there's another, more throat lump-inducing, reason. George is "on the autism spectrum," and they know it. His delightfully dry humor is delivered in a rather monotone voice. Math, logic, and memory are naturally easy to him, and unpredictability is a sort of hell.

So are intense social scenes, like buses and bus stop sites. There was a time when school bus routes and rides were especially stressful and confusing for George.  My friends who intervened that day are only part of a group who have all done anything and everything to help him over the last couple of years. For this, to each one of them, I am eternally grateful; even if in this case, it wasn't necessary.

         "George, why didn't you tell them that it's okay for you to walk home from there? That you're old enough and know the way..."

Yeah, as I asked the question, I thought I already knew the answer. Because, I reasoned briefly, in our complex world of grown up social cue-fusion, he resorted to silent and wide-eyed staring, like the little chubby-cheeked four year old who lost his voice every time he went to preschool, causing his first battery of assessments and meetings with specialists. Or more worrisome, he was emotionally unchecked, as he has always gotten when overwhelmed. But for only a second could I imagine those less mature versions of my special son. He quickly cut through my misconceptions with a pained sigh, and

       "Because it's hard for me to say 'No' to niceness."


Turns out, in all of that "looking out for George," George is also looking out for us, and taking me to school at the same time. Faced with difficult differences in perceptions and processing,  he couldn't bring himself to break it to his helpful village. He's got this. They did their job, helped him grow up, and now he can handle it.

"No, thanks." might be hard to say because it's awkward, or because a nice person being nice is too special to stop. Or maybe those are two ways of describing the same thing. I guess those of us who worry about George have to learn that this growing up thing is happening, and perhaps it will cause us to be absolutely clueless at times.

Lucky for us, he's going about it gently.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

From Knee to Shining Sea

Ah, the beautiful coast of Oregon, USA!
Sparkling waves of one of the seas to shining seas.

Purple mountains majestically falling over each other, tumbling to the sand, trying to be the first and last to be shrouded in lingering mist.

The nesting bald eagles have been around more and more.


The famous American melting pot of all the races, ethnicities, and ....wait.

Humanwise, the stunning Oregon Coast actually has a rather monocultured landscape: for the west coast, there is a surprisingly homogeneous collection of mostly white people.

This is not an accident. White people came here during a period of time in U.S. history when most other people were wrestling with matters of race, back east. The easy fix to racial tension, as most white deciders coming northwest saw it, was to prevent racial diversity in the first place.

The Ku Klux Klan got pretty big in these parts, which surprises most people who think the KKK is mainly a Southern thing The klan and their fans' dreams of a white utopia led to something called "sunset towns," which outlawed walking around outside at night, while black. I live in a town that was once a sunset town.

One man's utopia can easily be another man's dystopia. Especially if the first guy is in the KKK.

But that's the past, right? Now is not then, we are not them. Now Oregon is a hippie wonderland, plus Obama, so racism must be just like Nazis, a thing we only see in scratchy black and white footage.





Which reminds me of.

It's almost like we are doomed to repeat some sort of history. How could that have been avoided? Didn't someone once say something about that? Oh well, history is old, right?

Who cares?


Who cares?

She cares. And her concern is taking a form that really could teach and create possibilities for something new for the future, which requires being unflinching and unrelenting when describing what is happening around us now, and in our recent past.

Here's what LaNicia Williams did (and this is just lately!)

She came to a place where she gets to live with the wearying daily reality of standing out, and kindly leads its most innocent little residents through their ignorance.

She's looking out for local kids, particularly kids of color.

In short, she teaches the wider community how to be inclusive, not only with her, but for everyone living here who has a different "label." She knows good intentions do not mean that there aren't still some who tragically don't appreciate what it's like to be not-white, young, living in Nehalem, OR and see this sprayed at a place that's supposed to be a safe haven for our youth in our community.  

I am so grateful to her for speaking out and not letting up. Thanks to that, there is now a big $1000 reward and the community of Nehalem is talking about something we obviously need to discuss: race, diversity and inclusion in the USA.
Because,if we are serious about being the best mixed collection of people whose great great grandparents probably came from other places, we're going to have to be able discuss things sometimes. Not just discuss, but listen.
The art of listening to each other could go a long way toward avoiding situation where people who have, recently, been trotted out to perform patriotic gestures, feel no other recourse but to refuse.
It's also what will help the average U.S. citizen not have to think about what it's like to be all kinds of things they aren't. Each of us doesn't have to consider all the things if we are listening to people who walk through this life and world differently than we do.
When black people tell white people that racism, the systemic oppression of a race of people, is a real and unacceptable problem, it's possible for white people to believe them before literal writing on walls.
If all of this only made you want to read more, stay tuned, because LaNicia isn't only single-handedly leading this county's most important overdue conversation. She also participated in the little project that never quits, The Food of the Future, by teaching local kids to make soul food.

For hours, she directed, explained,and invited participation; a paragon of ability, humor, and wisdom. A video presentation of her work that evening is in the works .

As she guides our neighbors through these times of racial revelation, I imagine her employing the skills I saw at work in my kitchen when she was here. I know she is treating her students' weak moments as opportunities to know and teach them better and also learn from them.

LaNicia is currently working with other like minds at Oregon Coast Love Coalition. Check it out and read more, in LaNicia's words, here.
Quite a legacy, LaNicia! And that fried chicken haunted my dreams for weeks afterward.

Written by Rebekah Laszlo and LaNicia Williams

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Keeping the Code

Check her out. A beauty, ain’t she?

Though we don’t crank that handle nearly often enough, our living room has been a more beautiful place thanks to the presence of this death-defying time machine. Oh? Just looks like a no-tech antique to you? Well, turn the handle and set a needle in the grooves of one of these babies, and you’ve got yourself a room full of people from the past, their voices and talent captured in one magical moment, for which they practiced all their lives. Their bodies are soil but their love, their passion, is ours forever.

Except, we are not forever. We are soil-bound too.

The more I live through that reality, and face what it means, the more my mind’s eye is drawn to those things about us that remain with others, which are passed on, and reverberate after our exit from this mortal stage.

A good friend died yesterday. This is where I am supposed to talk about her in the past tense. She was this, she was that, but some people live with a force that outlasts them in my mind. She still is more brilliant, beautiful, unique, and fun than any words can describe. She brought those things to every interaction with such force, they could never vanish as easily as a human body succumbs to aggressive cancer.

Death makes me stubborn, it turns out. I feel determined not to let go, to crank the handle and listen to the breath and lightning fast fingers of ghosts, and delight in the fact that their song got another printing, in my head and heart.

There is something, for our intents and purposes, that is permanent. A code. We pass it along, for better or worse, to everyone around us, some of whom will outlive us. Like an analog data storage spiral of notches and grooves pressed into fresh vinyl. The code lives on and on and on.

When someone I love dies, my thoughts search for their influence on the code of my life. The parts of them that live on in me, and which I hope to leave with the impressionable around me.

With Julie, I don’t have to look far. The Backyard University ethos comes from basic tenets I learned in the same years I became friends with her. Notions like being adventurous, driven, inclusive, kind to animals and people, willing to embrace the edges that come with looking at all of life’s jagged sparkly beauty and ugliness: these have been important to me over the same period of time I have been friends with her.  Either I learned it from her, or felt reinforced by how well she embodied those values. One way or the other, that is her code in me. It’s what she made that I can carry and pass on.

If you get to live many years, you will say many good-byes, some of which will leave your heart a little broken forever. Here’s what is unexpected: you wouldn’t have it any other way.

You wouldn’t trade that rough lace for a smooth uninterrupted heart that was never impressed upon; not in a million years. You find a needle to play those rifts and crags left behind by the love and loss, a way to sing to the beautiful pattern dug into you.

You might find it is your favorite song.  

Monday, August 7, 2017

Food of the Future: Part II: Lettuce Be Inspired

This is how it went each day: Juan, Marcela, and I would clean and prepare our space for class.

To fill the air and up the energy, Juan would play a CD he selected from our combined collection.

I'd make my way to the living room, where I would wait to hear that friendly little beep of the Fundación Niños de los Andes van, full of kids, some of whom got out and waited on the sidewalk for whatever was next.

Little eyes were uncertain.

Where am I?

Who are these people?

What is happening here?

We offered the warmest greetings, and welcomed all inside, to have a little chat at this table.

 Here is where we said,

Welcome! Thank you for coming and participating in The Food of the Future!

Why is it called that? Because you are the future, and whatever you eat will be the food of the future. In a way, the future starts now, because what you do tomorrow will be a result of what you learn today.

Today, we will learn about the life cycle of a lettuce plant, as well as how to sow and transplant lettuce.

We will also make bread!

And create delicious works of art, which we will then photograph!

If there is time (and there is always time) we will paint display art for our table presentation later this month.

We did those things until the van returned, and beeped, at which point we would hug good-bye and they would be on their way.

For us, providing this workshop was an experience full of discovery. Through conversation and finished sentences, we found out which children had experience with plants and making their own food.

Little impulsive hands showed great control when trusted with sharp tools.

Big strong boys were as gentle as little lettuce seedlings needed them to be. All were spoken to with respect, and all took full advantage of the chance to learn and do for themselves. At the end of each day we heard, “When am I coming back?”

We longed to spend more time together, but had to bid farewell each afternoon, and clean our space for the next day.

Five days, twenty five kids, fifty hands and eyes, a million shy smiles and proud greetings over the next few weeks. “Teacher! He doesn’t believe me! Tell him I made bread at your house!”
“Mami! Did you bring more lettuce seeds yet? I have permission to plant them!”
“Look, how much my plant grew in just two weeks!”

It is not some space age nonsense to say that those moments felt like all points in time were happening at once. That, in a way, it feels like people live forever in the people around them.

Choices to harm or help create an impact that far outlasts one human lifespan.

These moments we call past, present, and future flow into each other as a series of causes and effects, from one of us to another.

A familiar peace and elation, seeing the accomplished smile of a child who has surprised himself, is presently as close as I can get to hanging out with a friend who taught me how to grow little food eaters. The light in those young eyes makes me think of Shelly Bowe.

ALS ended her life, but couldn’t touch the beauty of the way she chose to live it.

She grew a community around the basic human need to feed ourselves and each other, co-founded Food Roots and made everyone feel like that kid, discovering new capabilities.
The passion she cultivated will only grow, as she made sure to sow it in the hearts of people around her.

To teach the children from the Fundación Niños de los Andes with my friends, who have also been inspired by Shelly’s work, felt like sneaking out a sly message in a bottle, that we never wrote. We just found it, memorized it, and threw it back into the water, hoping it will float through time to some day when all that’s left of us is information, hopefully well-conveyed. Lessons taught, lived, and maybe even learned.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

The Food of The Future: Part I

Don't mind me, 

I'm just browsing photos of historical buildings in Colombia, thinking about the future. 

What comes to mind when you think of "the future"?

Who knows whether we will need to operate ever more minuscule and intuitive technology, or fight the roving hordes who come running when they smell you roasting a radioactive squirrel in a hubcap oven? Or both?  It's the stuff of stories, and really, it's anyone's guess.

Except, I am going to make a wild-eyed prediction about the future. Something I say with all the zealous certainty of a tin foil cap wearing conspiracy theorist, or an old mom who took too many years to realize that dinner is a thing you really do have to make daily: in the future every living human is going to eat or try to eat, maybe even several times, everyday.

I know, kooky, right? But, I am willing to bet on it, which is why I believe in feeding kids well, and equipping them with the values and skills they will need to feed themselves and others as they grow up, because whatever the future looks like will be a result of what they do. And, what they do will be, in part, a result of what they learn now.

Whitney Houston was right!

"I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way."

So was Albert Camus,

"Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present."

The present is where I find myself, currently typing out this blog in Colombia, a country with a sensational food culture which comes from its vibrant history. When I consider what I wish the future of all the little food eaters would hold, I can't help but think of the past.

It seems that, in order to follow the teachings of Mrs. Houston and Mr. Camus, now is the time to strengthen the link between yesterday and tomorrow. For my friends and me, that is the purpose of today.  Well, this month, really.

Meet my friends, Juan Camilo and Marcela. We may just look like three dorks with a Subaru and a selfie stick, but in our minds, we are a gang of food rebels, trying to infuse the food of the future with, perhaps fading, skills from our past.

Thanks to an opportunity granted us by the Fundación Niños de Los Andes, here in Manizales, Colombia, 25 kids will be participating in a comprehensive workshop, where they get their hands dirty, sticky, and covered in paint, all in the name of eating better in the years to come.

Like the legs of a dining room table, this workshop has four principles upon which it stands.

1. Plant dinner: Dinner doesn't really start in the kitchen, or at the store, it starts with the soil.

So that's where we started, with rich soil for seed-starting and transplanting.

It makes sense to want our food to eat well too.

2. Intergenerational Culinary Instruction: that's just my lofty name for kids learning kitchen skills from adults.

Without hands-on familiarity, something like the lettuce we just planted seems pointless, and bread? Well that's just magic. Who can make that? While I would love to spawn a whole generational of crusty little artisans, that is not the goal here.

We want to spark who knows what in all the little brains by showing them that these skills are easy, well within reach, and too valuable to lose. What else might be possible?

3. The Art of Presentation: they say you first enjoy food with your eyes, which is why the best-tasting stuff will be passed over if it looks unappetizing. Not important when you're feeding yourself, but what if you want to enter the food system as a producer?

Aesthetics matters, so all Food of the Future participants are taught basic plating principles and invited to photograph their dish in our Caja de Luz (light box),

to diffuse light and bring all that high res yumminess into crystal clear focus.

4. To Market: later this month, we will complete our lessons with a day at the local farmers market, selling fare produced in our workshop. Participating kids will interact with the wider community, describe their work, and hopefully see some glimpse of the potential they possess while helping man a table for a Saturday.

We have just started, and already enjoyed many rewards from our first couple of classes. As we look forward to the days ahead, planting seeds and skills from the past in this fresh crop of people, we plan, prepare, involve, include, communicate, and share.

So keep watching this space, because who knows what wonders may grow!