Transcendence and Snowglobe(s)

boston at nightFor a moment pretend you are four years old, your nose pressed against the cold window pane, against the dark backdrop huge snowflakes fall and swirl in the street lamps’ golden halo, your tiny exhales fog the scene but magically it clears over and over again you are in rapture and you exist in this quietude of wonder for what seems like no time but in fact a half an hour or more has lapsed. Mom, or Dad or your favourite Aunt notices but doesn’t interrupt, distract or call you to dinner – as they are capturing this moment of your pleasure in their own memory to wistfully recall as the years slip by and you grow. The memory is palpable and shared, though you were blissfully unaware the gift your silent observation has provided. When your next birthday came around your tiny hands held the gift of a snow globe, and as you shook it the picture memory flooded back to you – because within the sphere was a small snowy landscape with a street lamp, exactly as you had experienced standing at the window as the snow and the street lamp merged into you and lit you from within.

33Bridges-Snow-Globes-Walter-Martin-and-Paloma-Munoz

See: http://www.martin-munoz.com/ for information about the artists of these contemporary snow globes

Some memories are more powerful, have greater impact upon us in the long term than we can even begin to comprehend. And when we draw upon these moments of our lives they aren’t remembered as a short film with sounds and words and precise lighting, no, I believe that they are recollected as the miniature scene in a snow globe. The swirling flakes of iridescence in water obscure the memory and then as the snow settles we are provided clarity – just a very tiny vision of what was, but perfect, absolutely perfect.

My girlfriend Jennifer had invited me to accompany her on a road trip to Boston and I admit I had trepidation over such because there is a more tenuous hold on adult friendships than those of our youth – perhaps because we realise the fragility and impermanence of life – it’s ‘reasonable’ to at least think about avoiding circumstances that could undo something which we hold precious. Once reconciled that all would be fine, it was with the experience of being a tour guide in Niagara Falls for three years that I planned and plotted – and while it’s hard to know how anyone will receive what you present them, easier perhaps with anonymous strangers than a dear friend, I approached this with nurturance and love. I was all in to map out ‘a gift’ and while I culled what I loved most about living in Boston and surrounds in the hope of providing a transformative couple of days of beauty, peace and experiences – I admit the anticipation of being back in Boston swamped my heart and head. While it would never be possible to share the gains of emotional experiences found in solitary activities (like a child standing at a window) such as riding my bike along the Esplanade, skating alone at midnight one bitingly cold night under a full moon on the (rarely frozen) Public Gardens’ lagoon, singing carols by candlelight and street lamps as Christmas Eve snow fell on Louisburg Square, swimming at Rockport’s Front Beach in pre-dawn waiting for the sun to rise, sitting in the courtyard of Harvard’s Fogg museum listening to viola de gamba and harpsichord, oh, yes, a very personal collection of ‘memory’ snow globes each impossible to share it was the essence of these experiences I wanted Jennifer to find ‘for herself’.

deborah's snow globe

Golagai 2 by Deborah Barlow

I appreciate, and I see, and I am moved to tears and reflection and joy, and contemplation over the creative endeavours of others – even when I don’t understand their work as they might have intended. I had the very great pleasure to stand before this piece of art last weekend in the dining area of the home of my new (old – turns out we both worked for the same tech company albeit a decade apart) friend Deborah Barlow and her husband David Wilcox. I won’t lie, the biomorphic nature of Deborah’s oeuvre is ‘over my head’ intellectually but mastery of anything can be felt if not understood. My immediate, non-edited reaction to this piece of art was it was a snow globe, newly shaken, and waiting to reveal its hidden secrets as the pearlised flakes swirled around in the space contained within the outlines of the frame and it made me happy – no, rather, nostalgic and happy and filled with anticipation of Jennifer’s experience of the ‘edited’ Boston I had selected for her (and for myself to walk again).

Within an hour of arriving in town we were at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, within two hours I was reaching a (desired) state of grace and white light in my solar plexus sitting in quietude in the MFAs Buddhist Temple. Jennifer sat on the opposite side of the main entrance and when I got up she also did, her eyes brimming with tears, in that moment incapable of expressing words she could only repeatedly nod her head as she looped her arm through mine to steady herself against the wave of emotion and peace the various Buddha’s had gifted her. rasha-flying-solo

Memories come at us hard and fast and when we least expect them to, art is like that – or should be; we are transformed by being ‘present’ for the experience of someone’s gifts of artistry, how these affect and have effect on us. I might have initially connected Deborah’s work as a “snow globe” but now, forever, it will linked to the gift I hoped for Jennifer, transcendence.

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cherry

Dearly Beloved We Are Gathered Here Today – a love letter to Boston

mateDearly Beloved,

The vows we make to love, honour and cherish are often thought of as the point of commitment following a courtship, sometimes – without realizing how or why – we make a commitment long before we even meet the love of our life.  This love embraces us, carries our burdens when we are weak, makes us stronger, gives and receives, become intrinsic to our psyche, this love becomes ‘home’ in every sense.

Me, age 17, September 1978, senior year picture

Me, age 17, September 1978, senior year picture

At the beginning of our senior years in high school (at least in the United States) we are asked to not only synopsize four years (including a school year not yet ‘lived’) but also to frame our dreams and life goals and it’s not lost on me that my personal summary read:

DSCN9825

First, please note, I had never traveled to Boston as a child, I didn’t have relatives that lived there, no personal reference point to have expressed this life goal. In fact my first sighting of the Boston skyline was via the Mass Pike as a 23 year-old newlywed bride when we stayed with a friend in Newton en route to Portsmouth, New Hampshire where my husband had a job interview. In 1998, divorced with my former husband’s words echoing in my ears “I am keeping you from being everything you are capable of becoming”, my new tech employer gave me the option of working out of the headquarters at 55 Broad Street in New York City or ‘geek center’ off of Alewife Brook Parkway in Cambridge; the location was a no brainer as I actually loathe NYC, and not just because I have long been a proud member of Red Sox Nation - this was my rebellion against my hockey-loving father who “would rather watch paint dry” ~ I was Boston bound!

Map copyright and more info at: www.emeraldnecklace.org

Map copyright and more info at: http://www.emeraldnecklace.org

Boston. And surrounds. Separate but entwined, each better because of the unique characteristics of the other, a rich tapestry, a complex piece of music, a gorgeous piece of art, red brick and puddingstone, slate sidewalks and iron fences, arcing spans to walk across in the ‘Emerald Necklace’ or on “The” Charles – oh, my ‘self’ and my love. charles

For a decade I lived with you, was defined, made whole and existed as the best person I have ever been intellectually.  I (inadvertently) found sanctuary in Emmanuel Episcopal with its exquisite music and thoughtful, inclusive and very progressive community, every week you offered up lectures about things I didn’t know I needed to know at the Boston Public Library, Harvard, MIT, the Theosophical Society and Swedenborg Chapel and chamber concerts with BEMF and Boston Philharmonic, at Sanders Theatre, Jordan Hall, and the acoustically perfect Medieval courtyard of the Fogg.  I was left breathless and renewed swimming in Cape Ann’s icy coastal waters as well as inspired by the collections at the MFA, Peabody Essex, the Sackler, Fogg (which with the Busch-Reisinger will reopen this fall as one museum as designed by Renzo Piano) and the Isabella Stewart Gardner  Boston, my beloved, you gave me life as if I had crossed the driest desert to find an palm oasis with a single cup hanging from an ancient hand-wrought chain affixed to a stone surround protecting an artesian spring of pure water from which to drink without abatement. Sustenance. Oh Boston, thank you.

Photo by Raymond Britt

Photo by Raymond Britt

I have been back and forth since 2002 when life forced me away from you and all you give. And when, last year this time, two young men who you also embraced betrayed you and then set out to destroy all of your beauty and turn you and your surrounds into a war zone my heart twisted in wretched agony and I cried copious and unrelenting tears. Oh, my love, oh, my dear Boston.

A serendipitous gift brought me back to you this weekend, and what I carried now as part of my being was renewed in your energy in places as familiar to me as the shape of my own lips which I used to metaphorically kiss you with tender spoken memories created together and to express endearments held tightly in my heart but always shed in tears of gratitude to be back with you if only fleetingly.

cherry

Boston Public Garden

As I walked with my best girlfriend (whose wanderlust made this re-connection possible) through my former ‘front yard’ of Boston Public Gardens (explaining what she was seeing and my history laid against the backdrop) the memories of a decade of pink confetti falling from your 100 plus year old cherry trees fell through my mind as if I were inside a snow globe, in this moment of transcendence the scar tissue ruptured.  Not a helicopter heading for Mass General but most clearly a surveillance one broke the rapture, and then another helicopter two minutes later – I was undone.  Our hearts are resilient, our psyche’s mend, but still scar tissue reminds us that to love sometimes means that we will also be hurt, and that when our beloved is hurt it scars us as well.

I came home to you dear Boston for the purpose of sharing you with someone who needs your love as I once did and in incremental steps from Brookline to the Back Bay, to Longwood and the Fenway to Cape Ann and back to Cambridge to Beacon Hill – you did exactly what I hoped you would, you embraced, and nurtured and sustained with the deep refreshment of your very existence. Thank you my beloved, but you had one more gift – for me, thank you. You reminded me that home is not where you live, or where you were born, it’s not the objects which surround you no, truly, ‘home’ is where the heart is.  We carry ‘home’ around with us and breathe it in like an asana and Boston you have been my home longer than you know.  On this trip, at every intersection of my old life with my current one, you seemed to anoint me with blessings. Against your refined beauty you also brought me (utterly incongruent) Croatian messages, making it clear that my new lover whose spine curves along the Adriatic languidly awaits, ready to embrace me.

I will always love you, my darling Boston, I will miss you but you will always be my hearts’ home.

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authority

Comms 101: You won’t hear the message, if you don’t respect the messenger – Earth Day

Anyone around teenagers for 20 minutes will recognise that nothing creates a impenetrable wall of resistance faster than talking down (or worse, raising your voice) to a person – and yet authorityso much of the most critical information we need to make informed decisions is mired in incomprehensible rhetoric, charged with alarmist emotions, divided along preconceived ideals or coming from a talking head.  For all of our sakes we need to stop, now.

In the business world the sole function of marketing and communications is about getting the message ‘right’ and having it resound with its targeted audience to bring about action on their part and yet, the peril of the Earth, something critically important to each of you reading this and all the oceans and animals and plants and insects and birds, hasn’t garnered the kind of action so needed.  A WHOLE BUNCH of reasons exist for this, let’s start with greed and end with indifference, and the hundreds of variables to be found in between. But there are two basic components which serve to explain our (very nearly) collective lack of actions: the first is that the audience must identify that the messenger is ‘like me’ but be regarded as a respected authority and the second is pope-francis-selfiesthe inability of ‘real smart people’ to craft their stories (and yes, they are all stories even when non-fiction) and cut through the noise to create resonance.

First example, I don’t believe that there is a credibility issue with those represented on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (more likely an awareness or priority issue) which just concluded its Fifth Assessment Report – it isn’t happy news (the press release is also available Arabic, Chinese, Russian, French and Spanish use navigation at the upper right side of this page). The press release is long and dry – no surprise given that the two report(s) which the press release supports had to be written to ensure multinational agreement (by all participants) and publication in a marathon 28 hour session recently held sciencein Berlin. And while NPR did a fabulous job reporting the IPCC results the uber-right believes that NPR has a left bias, thus not a ‘like me’ trusted source. And so, unless you are a policy wonk, climatologist, or eco-warrior you probably are not going to read or listen to these two outlets.

In terms of successfully conveying complex science and culture, in succinct language easily understood and embraced by large swaths of the English language speaking populations the folks at the National Geographic Society have no peers.

“The world is not ready for the impacts of climate change, including more extreme weather and the likelihood that populated parts of the planet could be rendered natgeouninhabitable, says the planet’s leading body of climate scientists in a major new UN report.”

But if you are an Evangelical Christian (roughly 13% of the 32% of the worlds’ population who identify as being Christians) you are not going to put credibility in the painstakingly researched and documented science offered by Nat Geo scientists ~ all of the climate shifts, Polar Vortex, drought, earthquakes and tsunamis are the direct result of an angry God.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu speaks ‘the same language’ as this Christian population: “It is a responsibility that begins with God commanding the first human inhabitants of the garden of Eden “to till it and keep it“. To keep it; not to abuse it, not to destroy it.”, and this should guarantee resonance, comprehension and action – will his call for a universal boycott of the companies which most severely violate our planet actually happen? Or is the dominion of money still too compelling for such sacrifice?

The use of common language spoken by a respected member of a specific community is why I was particularly interested in the way that the producers, the director and the very high profile actors and journalists have come together in Showtime’s new 9-part series entitles Years of Living Dangerously.  I watched the first episode as a result of an email from Upworthy – they thought it important to share (as I do) and went a step further by including the Grist’s exhaustive effort in coalescing the counter-attacks presented in various op-ed pieces. Striking is the genuine effort put forth to listen and to speak in languages (various core audiences) that would be UNIVERSALLY EMBRACED and understood – and I do mean natural-disasters-7650127universally! – around the most complex issues our world is facing:  food and water security, climate change, war, natural disasters and those made by man and his greed and indifference.

If I have one fear about its viewership numbers, of the seven billion people on the planet, they are based solely upon the immediate impact  of those cozy and warm as well as those already overwhelmed and trying to cope.  Yes, it’s an hour in length, and no, it is not entertaining.  Actually it’s rather exhausting and painful but the contrast to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth is palpable; most of us who watched Inconvenient Truth in 2006 were already aligned with the message whereas Years of Living Dangerously the respect for differing opinions, those in denial or attributing our planet’s destruction to an angry God are given a gentle hand in guiding them toward enlightenment.  Successful communications (and marketing) doesn’t ‘talk down’ to or yell at constituent audiences and in this Years of Living Dangerously embraces the model of a trusted best friend, devoid of real or perceived bias the value proposition of this first hour (seems to me) conveys exactly what it needs to regardless of what side of the issues presented you might stand. multiracial_planet

We are one.  There will be no need for a vengeful God bringing forth the Rapture if we don’t stop screaming at one another and really begin to listen beyond our personal filters because our ignorance, apathy, and intolerance will be successful in our own undoing, destroying the fragile Earth we call home and all life as we know it. It really is time for unity and action of the most passionate and positive kind! Earth Day must be everyday.

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marshmallow_peeps

Nostalgic and guilty pleasures found in marshmallow Peeps, honouring Mrs. Dwyer

I am a hypocrite in my food choices for the span of time each spring that it takes me to eat one four pack of Just Born (always the yellow ones) Peeps. I succumb to this guilty pleasure to remember and honour Mrs Dwyer.

Argh, sugar, corn syrup, gelatin, and various food dyes – but I don’t care (though I wish I KNEW IF the sugar was GMO-free). 

Mrs. Dwyer was my 1st grade teacher.

Easter-time 1967, I was 6 years old and had a stabbing pain in my right side and a slight fever. Mrs. Dwyer sent me down to the nurses’ office. I remember hobbling the seemingly endless distance over the terrazzo floors, wincing with every step. Within the hour I was in carnation chairthe Emergency Room and headed for surgery to remove my appendix which they later told me had nearly ruptured. When I woke up Mrs. Dwyer had sent a bouquet of flowers – peppermint striped and white carnations, a couple of red and white paper straws bent to ‘take a sip’ all served up to resemble an ice cream soda. It was the first time (and obviously memorable) I had received flowers! I remember that they smelled like cinnamon, and to this day I can’t see red and white striped carnations without having my heart clench, getting a lump in my throat and thinking of Mrs. Dwyer. I have a chair that I reclaimed and refinished in my early twenties that I finally recognised years later was a tribute to her love – I am about to sell it after living with it since 1983 – but what is in my heart and head ties this to her and who she helped make me.

In retrospect there is no doubt in my mind that I was one of her favourites (after all the woman also came to my wedding and rushed the altar to bestow her blessings and kisses and hugs when I was pronounced a married woman at 23) but then, I was a scared little kid with a huge bloody incision laced with cat gut  who had just been soothed and affirmed as special by someone I thought (still do) extraordinary.

When I came home from the hospital three or four days later Mrs Dwyer magically appeared with an enormous (to me, at the time) Easter basket and amidst the floss grass were speckled eggs, jelly beans, a chocolate bunny and PEEPS!  I am pretty sure she had taken the Peeps out of their cello wrapper because I remember their being just a littlemarshmallow_peeps crunchy on the outside. The yellow sugar coating and the evaporating moisture of the gooey middle forming a crust. It is still the only way I can eat them – poke a hole in the package wait 24 hours and devour! Each one makes me 6 again and knowing fully and completely that someone (outside of my family) loved me. I was (and still am) the single yellow Peep in the sea of pink, purple and blue Peeps, utterly unique and special because Mrs. Dwyer made me so!

Our childhoods are filled with such sweet pleasures that we rarely recognise for just how special they are at the time (or later) and whilst I don’t live in the past, sometimes these extraordinary moments appear like a rainbow with all the associate blessings and I am so very grateful.

Recently another iconic brand of my childhood has been making quite a bit of social media noise for its “Wholesome” ad campaign launched a month ago (today). Honey Maid Snacks produces the ubiquitous graham cracker used for S’Mores and cheesecake crusts (like my Aunt Wanda Novak made) and made so famous (for a certain generation of us) by Bill Cosby in his routine on Kindergarten (timestamp 2:00). And, like many of the nearly 6 million people who have watched the commercial on YouTube and witnessed the ‘haters’ response to it, I applauded and cheered (and yes, Tweeted) when their response to the ugliness of a (very loud) but narrow minded minority hit the circuit about a week ago – entitled LOVE. But to the two artists whose efforts turned all the comments on the Wholesome ad into art – a special shout out. I noticed that the ugly comments you rolled inward, while the beautiful responses you rolled outward, yeah, I noticed. Love, should be should always be radiated outward and (though it pains me) let the ugliness destroy itself in its own shadows. We are one, and your art united all of our hearts – thank you.

smeepssmores

 

 

 

bunny smore

 

sugar mountain

 

 

I know it seems like I got off track from Mrs. Dwyer and Peeps – I have not, I assure you. Because while I have been thinking about graham crackers and Peeps, and the joys of childhood and nostalgic longings for what ‘was simpler’ I found a S’Mores recipe – made with Peeps! Coined S’meeps! And I thought OMG that is SO COOL – so I Tweeted that out as well!  Now, a tower of smushed, melty chocolate and Peeps is a far cry from Bill Cosby’s Kindergarten but truly, emotionally anyway, as intrinsically innocent and perfect as my long ago Easter basket.

peepssmores2

No Peeps or Bunnies were harmed in the writing of this blog post!

I wish you beauty in everything that touches your life, and hope that today (and every day) you will find a way to bring some memorable sweetness to your own and someone’s life who least expects such. Go forth and Peep!

Sending you love in Heaven Mrs. Dwyer, and an enormous heart filled with gratitude.

 

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Whores, courtesans and the rest of womankind

First, let me be clear, every woman has a brain. She has overt or subtle sexuality and her own unique way of expressing her sensuality. She can be celibate, a seductress AND a mom madonna-whoresimultaneously (so please throw the Madonna/whore perception out with the bath water). And, despite the current assault of radical Christians and fundamentalist Muslims alike, we do not need to have our bodies regulated by legal framework, shaming (and stoning or beheading) or in the courts.  A woman should be able to walk around topless, as men are often seen, should she so desire without fear of molestation. She should certainly never have to worry about being raped as many as 40 times a day (please sign the petition to right a still festering very old wrong) – simply because she is a woman!

I am spurred on by watching the most recent season of the American reality TV show The Bachelor where I was struck by the fact that two women (Renee and Cassandra who are single moms) were consistently referred to as “my special ones” by the bachelor Juan Pablo Galavis, other women, Andi and Sharleen, were clearly respected for their brains while others fell into the hot, hot, hot category and frankly seemed to be taken merely for their sexuality.  I am not buying into the damage control storyline that Juan Pablo was linguistically challenged (to explain his repeated faux pas) in English but I do believe that he both loves women and can also be a horrible misogynist at times.  Every woman comes across a guy exactly like Juan Pablo at least once in her dating career – eye candy but lacking in so many ways – but the contrast between him and sean-lowe-catherine-giudici-desiree-hartsock(super respectful)  Chris Siegfried and Sean Lowe of previous seasons was so astonishing that Disney-owned ABC’s producers must be more than a little embarrassed for getting their choice so wrong.

So I am writing about my gender, unified by our having vaginas, differentiated by how men have perceived and treated us over thousands of years, (the rise in female genital mutilation #FGM is a whole different post to be written), and the distinction between whores, courtesans and the rest of womankind that has sex (however frequently or infrequently).

For the sake of argument let’s assume that the hypothetical whore in this conversation has chosen her own path, that she was not abducted, sold via the global human trafficking networks, nor was she a child runaway with a pimp that keeps her on drugs and beats her on a regular basis – a woman such as Heidi Fleiss (or Pretty Woman prostitute as portrayed by Julia Roberts) I think ‘the idea’ that a woman, any woman, could sell her body by HER Mary-MagdCHOICE (despite the very real dangers involved) is what has scared men senseless since Biblical times (perhaps earlier).   A whore exists strictly to accommodate the demand for sex, in all its various permutations, another commodity in the world’s economic systems (umm, wrong) but she can be morally redeemed.  The tie of our feminine wisdom, ability to bring forth life that we know is our own child (never any doubt of who the mother is) as well as healing capacity dating back tens of thousands of years combined with the fact that women have twice as many nerve endings in our genitalia as men has caused us no end of difficulties with males.  That we still find men attempting legislate when and with whom a woman has sex only serves to underscore this fear of the ‘first original sin’ somehow (these) men would punish us for not loving them for all their inconsistencies and foibles or for our being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And then,

“I am like a guy, sexually,” I’d told a therapist I’d seen a couple times the year before – [...] “What’s a guy like?” he’d asked. “Detached,” I said. “Or many of them are, anyway. I’m like that too.  Capable of being detached when it comes to sex.”

~ Cheryl Strayed, describing herself, page 131, Wild

A woman who can (seemingly) treat sex as casually as (some) men do I think is generally being driven to such behavior by one of two scenarios – to feel something, anything (to be validated if only briefly) or to numb some kind of pain perpetrated in childhood.  In other words, she makes risky life choices rather than to become whole by doing the hard work necessary to overcome something quite horrible in her past.  I have witnessed ‘the hunger’ for having a lover and the pursuit of sexual attention most of my adult life (I have ever been the girlfriend you take along to get you out, keep you company and make sure you get home if you don’t “get lucky”) and it is painful.

venice

Modern Courtesans by http://tynesphoto.zenfolio.com/

I have two very dear girlfriends both highly intelligent and attractive women in the 40s at the cusp of their individual professional successes who give off palpable hunter energy (the goddess Diana, without the virginal aspect). One of these two women expresses (if only figuratively speaking) that in a past lifetime she was Veronica Franco.  (I am also writing a book about love that includes historical examples of these extraordinary women) – let’s be clear, a courtesan, and likewise the Geisha, was amply compensated for the delightful company which her brain offered, her ample hostessing skills, her ability to play a musical instrument or recite poetry and the salon which she maintained. She didn’t necessarily have sex (she decided who she wished to take as a lover, not her male guests, and sex was an option financially negotiated for exclusivity often with a lifetime annuity at termination).

In an way, these women, such as  La Païva (Esther Pauline Thérèse Lachmann, Mme Villoing, Mme la Marquise de Païva, Countess Henckel von Donnersmarck), whose circumstances might have forced them to become demimondaine were also the ultimate feminists of their day – always the height of elegance in speech and manner, erudite, well read, pamela harrimanmultilingual, well dressed (including jewels), very, very wealthy, acutely aware of international politics and intrigues, and often times orchestrating world events Pamela Harriman might be the most well-known example of such a woman in recent history (her life boggles my imagination! Read the biography).

A woman can love men without taking them as her lovers or of thinking of particular ones if she masturbating (and her ability to be on intimate and satisfying terms with her own body surely makes some percentage of the male population uncomfortable).  But, should she leverage her knowledge of a man for her pleasure it is hers alone.  As a male friend once expressed the fantasy of making love can be as fabulous as our imaginations, and reality is often a very different thing.

So my point is that without any commercial aspect (and in this regard whores and courtesans fall into the same category) involving men and women alike we really must cease distinguishing women by categories. A woman, because she has been placed upon an illusionary marble plinth, in exercising her passions, for having normal sexual desires, should never experience a fall from grace – that is someone else’s problem, not hers.

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cover art by Iain Clark, Glasgow Scotland

Copyright The Cousteau Society

Like Jacques Cousteau

A red hat
on your head
like Jacques Cousteau

Copyright The Cousteau Society

Copyright The Cousteau Society

huge camera observing
people, buildings, flora
Winter’s end, Spring
still cold but
blue sky, sunshine
twittering birds, squirrels
out running errands
wearing bad combination
of safety orange
a red scarf
and my smile
dear photographer man
in red hat
what was ‘it’
that compelled you
to
take my picture?

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Currency and banking innovation – Bitcoin, microfinance, plastics – inspiration in a tea tin

Earlier this afternoon I was making myself a cup of tea and pulled out the sweet remnant of a DSCN9898birthday gift, the empty tea tin of something wonderful and fruity that my girlfriend Jennifer had bought for me, for a couple of Sugar in the Raw packets and found $20 I had stashed in there at some (unremembered) point in the past. This seemingly mundane discovery reminded me of the recent mother lodes of gold coins found in CaliforniaIsrael and those of the Staffordshire - buried treasures of the American Gold Rush as well as Iron and gold coinsMiddle Age era ‘safety deposit boxes’.  What we trust, insofar as currency for transactions, has certainly evolved over the course of human history.

The creation of new currencies, or protecting assets and still making them available to their owners, most notably rests with The Knights Templar.  Their efficient network and managed holdings ultimately created such wealth, and jealousy and covetousness as to foster the political intrigue between Philip IV of France and Pope Clement V resulting in their condemnation, and destruction to allow the ‘legitimate’ confiscation said assets. Our modern banking system might have been modelled on The Templars but 1000 years on, it’s time for innovation and to cast off the shackles (and fees, and bloated salaries) that come with what has become conventional and its resulting hotbed of resentment.

A brilliant, passionate man I met, (virtually within the dynamic social entrepreneurial world of which I am part), Shaun Frankson works for The Plastic Bank (title: The Dot Connector). The truth is I promised Shaun months ago (sorry for the delay!!) I would write about their ground-breaking efforts in monetizing Ocean Bound Plastic waste, in fact The Plastic Bank is the only organization on a global basis to do such, (please also sign their petition) Buried Treasure.  What’s so impressive to me is how their efforts aim to solve catastrophic environmental issues simultaneously with raising up the world’s disadvantaged populations by collecting and trading in plastic waste as a currency – hidden treasure indeed. The Plastic Bank has had some recent successes worth mentioning as synopsised in this post to Shaun’s Facebook wall on 25 February (but not yet found in Google’s news feed): “2 countries, 3 cities, 8 meetings, 8 flights, 1 historic train trip, and 20,000 ton of social plastic… Mission accomplished.” What did that net? The Plastic Bank is now only months away from making plastic waste a bona fide currency in Latin America during Q2 2014!

While I am on the subject of “plastic currency” I can only hope that all this innovative thinking leads to a deal with Innovia Security. The Bank of England just announced it will spend 1 billion Gbps bank-notes($1.67 billion USD) over the next decade on materials and printing of its new banknotes and the integration of Ocean Bound Waste (OBW is intercepted rather than reclaimed from the oceans’ various gyres, let’s hope that it is in the future) as the raw material used to create the polymer substrate in printing currencies, currently in 23 countries, would have incalculable positive impact in the eradication of poverty as well as the mitigation of environmental pollution; two very different types of currencies each servicing its unique population.

While innovators are realigning our core values and responsibility to the planet (and hat’s off for the positive start but) San Francisco is currently only concerned with single serve plastic bottles of water yet hasn’t banned any other beverages (maybe the beverage industry successfully blocked the inclusion of soda and juice and milk – again?). Redemption monies from bottle bill legislation serve as a currency of sorts for the urban impoverished across America and Canada, still all plastic bottles and containers have not earned the distinction of 5cents (or 10cents) per to ensure recycling.  Why? (More on that particular rant in the future, I promise.)

pilgrim map

Matthew Paris, maps from the Historia Anglorum and Chronica Maiora, St Albans, c. 1250.
Route-Map to the Holy Land
The St Albans monk Matthew Paris (died 1259) never made the journey to the Holy Land. He did however draw a fascinating map of the pilgrimage route from England to Jerusalem. The route begins in London and progresses from the bottom to the top of each page. The final destination is the Holy Land depicted on two leaves.

I have been dealing with things tangible, that any one of us can hold in our hand, from grocery bags and plastic containers, to currency made from the same polymers – what about the intangibles? When Medieval pilgrims to the Holy Land first put their trust in The Knights Templar to ease the stress over carrying the funds necessary to make such a journey and for protection it was with the blessing of the Pope in Rome, faith notwithstanding trust was implicit and quite literally sacred.  There wasn’t profit involved as usury was considered a sin:

 …though he be a stranger, or a sojourner; that he may live with thee. Take thou no usury of him, or increase: but fear thy God; that thy brother may live with thee. Thou shalt not give him thy money upon usury, nor lend him thy victuals for increase (Leviticus 25:35-37).

So monies were deposited with the Good Knights and the same monies were returned (using those funds in the meantime to offer loans at interest to sovereigns who overspent was something else).

The Greater San Francisco Bay area has been host to technological innovation since 1939, anyone using a computer should know the story of William Hewlett and David Packard, but no one REALLY KNOWS exactly who is behind the brilliant currency innovation known as gold bitcoinBitcoin. While Bitcoin’s buried treasure is worth about the same amount as the gold coins in the buried Californian tincan should the $9m USD in value harddrive be found in a hundred years’ time will the digital code supporting it still exist? Because while any innovation in currency deals with hiccups (and thefts and counterfeiting) as well as the means to protect those assets we are moving forward so fast and away from traditional, and even digital currencies, that it’s hard to grasp how humankind will ultimately conduct its transactions in even five years time.

In the meantime, in global terms, there are 4 billion people who live on less than $2.50 USD per day – surely the contemporary equivalent of Medieval pilgrims to the Holy Land where innovation and trust platforms are critical.  Clearly the likes of JP Morgan (net income for the fourth quarter of 2013 of $5.3 billion) are not going to service those earning such insignificant amounts (even as their greenwashing efforts for WaterAid ease the conscience (?) of those top 100 London based JP Morgan top earners gaining average of £2m each in 2012 and Goldman Sachs disclosed its high flyers received £2.7m on average). Smart people have been tinkering around with servicing this underserved population for a couple of years with crowdfunding on low cost smart phones, but even policy wonks agree is microfinance designed to raise people out of poverty or provide equal access to financial services? Why do they have to be mutually exclusive? And even experts agree that the success of Grameen Bank and its microfinancing model is 20 years old and ready for the next round of disruptions (or innovations). Forbes magazine (back in 2007) indicated that there were more than 12,000 microfinance institutions operating across the globe, 900 are currently registered with the Nigerian Central Bank alone.  

Let me expand on the nominal introduction previously offered of Oradian.com because as I see it what they are doing is critical to the successful disruption of microfinance and could provide the bridge to both lift people out of poverty and provide financial services in due course.  They are not an NGO, they are technology geeks – four CIOs actually – with a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) model which has two distinct client bases, the institutions providing microfinance services and the end customer whose transaction is being processed; in other words they are “development tech” and very much like the actual Knights Templar both interfacing with the pilgrims as well as holding the assets (albeit very temporarily) on their trust platform – well over 100,000 transactions to date spread amongst their (current) three customers, not bad for a company that didn’t exist before June 2012.  A two year contract with Development Exchange Centre (DEC) in Nigeria provides Oradian credibility, income and expansion of their client base much the way that Templar founders Godfrey of Bouillon and Hugues de Payens were able to grow in a mere nine years to having expansive holdings all over Europe and the Levant.  We still are impacted by their decision to provide, protect and disrupt the status quo of the 12th century, and today four billion people stand to benefit from the disruptive efforts of The Plastic Bank and Oradian.

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