My Life with Squirrels

Today Cathy sent me alink to this amazing photo of an albino squirrel near Jamaica pond taken by cottenmanifesto and posted at Loving Nature While Living in the City. Apparently its existence dominated the lunch conversation at her work today.

The life of a squirrel can be a precarious one, as I witnessed earlier this evening when I walked out of my office and was met by a red-tailed hawk standing on the sidewalk, talons firmly around a squirrel it had just killed. After a few moments, it flew away, leaving a small pool of blood on the concrete where it has been standing.

I didn't realize until reading Kevin's blog this week that bikes can also present a fatal hazard to squirrels, as this photo demonstrates:

These incidents reminded me of the rather conflicted relationship I've had with squirrels over the years. I got to know them quite intimately when I llved in Allston, or more precisely, when we lived together in Allson, since they occupied the walls and attic space around my room most of the time I was there. It wasn't an amicable relationship, I'm afraid; they kept me up at night, gnawned on wires, and chewed through my belongings stored in the attic, so finally I had to begin trapping them so that pest control could pick them up. Ultimately, it was the landlord's fault since he wouldn't fix all the holes in the house, and I resented being forced into this antagonistic relationship with animals that under normal circumstances I'm confident I could get along with quite well.

But these are the lessons we learn, living together in the city, and I hope to have more pleasant encounters with my neighbor squirrels in the future.


JP Neighborhood Summit

Yesterday I attend a JP community summit at English High (the oldest public high school in the US) sponsored by the Jamaica Plain Neighborhood development corporation, an event which helped give me a better sense of what's going in the larger JP community. I've been getting to know my immediate Stonybrook neighborhood during the last year by attending neighborhood association meetings and getting to know my next-door neighbors. But I was amazed to learn of the opportunities to get involved in JP at almost any scale, from street to neighborhood to city and beyond.

There is a long history of grass-roots activism here that has helped revitalize the JP into a healthy urban neighborhood, but this success has also brought some of the problems typical of gentrification–many of the people who worked hard to improve JP now can't afford to live here and the diversity that many people value is changing as new people move in. This summit was meant to help community members share ideas about how to make JP an equitable place even as it continues to develop and change.

As one of these newcomers, it's easy for me to feel like I'm part of the problem–just another bearded white guy buying a condo in a newly converted building–but the summit helped me see that I can also be part of the solution if I'm willing to understand how JP got to be the way it is and then get involved to do my part in keeping it healthy. I still have a lot to learn, but I feel lucky to be in a place that seems to be a good teacher.

In Memoriam: Kurt Hanson

This morning Andrew sent me an email with no subject line or content except a link to following Chicago Sun Times report:

Man fatally struck by Metra train identified

April 11, 2008

WHEATON — A male pedestrian who was fatally struck by a Metra train in west suburban Wheaton Thursday afternoon has been identified.

Killed was Kurt Hanson, an adult of an unidentified address, according to a spokesman for the DuPage County Coroner’s office. Hanson was pronounced dead on the scene at 1:01 p.m. Thursday at the Union Pacific railroad tracks near Chase Avenue in Wheaton, according to the spokesman.

The man identified by the coroner’s office as Hanson was struck by a train about 12:30 p.m. at Chase Street on the Union Pacific Railroad, according to Wheaton Police Deputy Chief Tom Meloni.

“At this point, it remains under investigation whether or not his death was accidental,” Meloni said Thursday.

A westbound Metra train struck the man, according to a Wheaton police release.

Two westbound Metra trains were delayed after a body was found on the tracks near west suburban Wheaton, according to Metra spokesman Tom Miller.

The Metra is the commuter train that we used to ride into Chicago from Wheaton College when we were students there, and Kurt was Andrew’s high school friend who hang out with us fairly often because he lived in the area. He became a fixture in our group, the guys who lived together our senior year, even after we went our separate ways and only gathered for the occasional reunion.

kurtKurt had a way of floating in and out of our lives, showing up unexpectedly to just hang out, whether in our dorm rooms, in my apartment in Chicago after graduating, at Andrew’s 30th birthday in New Haven. Last time I hung out was in Chicago about a year and a half ago when we went to Moody’s for dinner and Heartland Cafe, near where I used to live in Roger’s park.

Though I didn’t know Kurt well, it seemed that his life often was difficult, burdened as he was with mental illness. We feared we  might hear news like this someday, but he had a remarkable resliency that gave us hope that he would always reappear. I’m haunted by seeing his name and his cause of death stated in such a distanced, impersonal tone, and I now realize that I’ve gotten used to wondering, however subconsiously, when Kurt would drift in to my life again. Tragically, this time he floated too far from us, and now that he won’t be able to show up again, I am diminished,

Sweet Finnish Closed

Yesterday I was rode to my regular dissertation coffee shop, Sweet Finnish, on Centre St., only to see that it wasn't opened yet. In the interest of time, I decided to continue down to JP Licks, my other writing spot. Just I was leaving, one of the Sweet Finnish regulars came in and informed me that it had suddenly gone out of business.

It's always sad to see a good coffee shop go down, especially when it had become part of my writing routine. I liked the quiet, Scandinavian feel to it, with the smells of the bakery in background. JP LIcks is a great place as well, but I'll miss having the chance to enjoy both.

Drupalcon Boston 2008

drupalconlogo200It’s been more than four years since I began using the open source appliction Drupal at the end of 2003, and it’s come a long way in that time. This week more than 800 folks from around the world gathered in Boston to Drupalcon 2008 to geek out with fellow Drupalers at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

Though I could only be there for one day, it was great to experience the friendly, generous OS vibe that’s such a big part of this community and feel all the enthusiasm for what’s coming next for Drupal.

It was particularly encouraging to see issues of user experience design being emphasized, since this is something we’ve been working hard on this year at BC. On Thursay I gave a talk called “Building Capacity Through Good Usability: Lessons from Instructional Design” and it was helpful other people with a similar interest in improving the usability resources for those designing with Drupal.

Writing By Bike

Earlier this week, I took out my keys and discovered that one key inexplicably had become wedged in the ring of another one such that I could not for the life of me untangle them. It was like one of these mechanical disentanglement puzzles that I was never very good at solving. All week I wrestled with them every time I took them out, alternating between reasoned calculation and frustrated acts of force, but with no success.

Yesterday morning after finishing a rather unproductive session of dissertation writing at the coffee shop, I put the pointy ball of keys in my pocket for the ride to work. When I arrived and took them out to lock up, I noticed with some amazement that they were no longer tangled. Apparently, my peddling for 25 minutes was smarter than days of conscious effort, but at this point I wasn't complaining.

I took it as a metaphor for writing, reminding me that sometimes writing happens best when I'm trying the least. Of course, a good deal of writing happens with deliberate, focused attention on the task, but I should never discount the subconscious work of writing that often gets me through the knottier periods when I can't seem to untangle a particular ball of thoughts. Quite regularly the real writing of the morning happens either on the ride to work when the ideas are still warm from a couple hours of writing or on the ride home when thoughts re-animate themselves once I've relaxed my white-knuckled grip on them.

Writing is not a brain-in-a-vat activity; it is as embodied as anything else, even though it's easy to forget when I'm in the mode of writing that involves putting words on the page. Biking is my favorite way to write when I'm not at the computer, but running or walking or taking a shower often can work just as well–whatever method let's the body do some of the heavy lifting for a while so the mind get the sweat out of its eyes and tie its shoes before making its next sentence.

Learning to Be a Big Spender

It's one thing to not follow your own advice; it's even worse when you've forgotten what that advice was in the first place. I used to dispense insights about writing to my freshman writing students; now I feel like getting back in touch to see if I can borrow their notes (yes, let's pretend they took notes, just for the sake of illustration).

It appears that not only has being a graduate student in English squelched my love of literature, but it also has undermined my ability to write, which is a problem when you're supposed to hand in a large, dissertation-shaped document in order to graduate.

A couple weeks ago I woke up one morning and did a little math. This isn't normally my strong suit but this calculation wasn't too hard to figure out: 1998 = when I started the program; 2008 = now. What I came away with was "10 years = I've become one of those guys."

It's not quite fair to be hard on myself, I guess, since I've been working at real job that enjoy for a couple of years, and I'm not planning to look for academic positions. But it did bring on an existential crisis of sorts, one that helped me realize that I need to either finish this thing or move on with my life.

I realized that I did have a choice. Plenty of good friends have decided not to finish and have been better people for it. I finally allowed myself to imagine who I would be if I stopped, and I decided could live with that person.

So now I've given myself a small window in which either to give this one last college try or to graduate with a masters and move on. Which means I've had to begin remembering how to write, and write quickly. Not to take notes, or find a better way to organize my notes. To write.

I've dusted off Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, and Peter Elbow's Writing Without Teachers for old time sake, and it was good to find some inspiration, however basic the principles might be. Two quotes from Elbow have provided the basis for my writing mantras:

1) No thinking without writing.

"Think of writing not as a way to transmit a message but as a way to grow and cook a message. Writing is a way to end up thinking something you couldn't have started out thinking. Writing is in fact a way to free yourself from what you presently think, feel, and perceive."

2) "You have to be a big spender. Not a tightass."

"I know perfectly well that the more I utter, the more I'll be able to utter and–other things being equal–the better I'll be able to utter. I know I can. Noam Chomsky knows I can. But it doesn't feel that way. I feels like the more I utter, especially the more I write, the more I'll use up my supply of meaningful utterances, and as the source dries up, they will get worse."

I've spent all day today writing, more than I've done for a very long time. And I have one big document where I've been making sentences and putting them into paragraphs. And I think I might still have a story to tell about place blogging, about Fred and the Ecotone gang, about finding our sense of place in digital networks.

So there it is. I'm putting myself out there. My last stand. Either way, it will all be over soon and that's something I won't let myself forget.

Why Bike to Work?

"Why bike to work?" Because you might see something interesting along the way, according to Phillip Barron at Phillip emailed me with link to this great slideshow of photos he's taken while biking in the Durham, NC area. I like the way he includes a bike in each image, as if to remind us that the bike not only transportation that gets us around but a vehicle for seeing the world on a daily basis.

View Phillip's photo gallery: