What I learned at Occupy Seattle

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The Occupy movement in the United States  has been the subject of lavish praise and the most severe criticism, yet it’s everywhere.

A couple of weeks ago, as I weeble-wobbled to my yoga class near Westlake,  Seattle, I inadvertently walked right through what a few moments later be billed as one of the most iconic movements in the Occupy movement.   Just a few minutes after I walked past a small group of people huddled in the middle the Pike and 5th intersection and surrounded by bike cops,  a priest, an 84-year old woman and  a pregnant teen would be famously pepper sprayed by the Seattle Police.   Images would be seen around the world.   In the meantime, I was curled up in my first child’s pose of my practice in the warmth and comfort of my slightly upscale yoga studio.

Sure, I flung around opinions about the movement in little sound bytes and plagiarized mainstream-medial catchphrases, but I really hadn’t done too much homework on it.  So last weekend, I decided to do some real homework.   I went down to the Occupy camp at Seattle Central Community College and, encouraged  and accompanied by  Nick,  to talk to people and take some pics.

The camp was surprisingly well organized and clean.   No noxious smells or obvious grime reported in other cities.  No druggies or used condoms.  The tent city boasted a makeshift library and activity center with an organized itinerary of community activities.    As we walked through, we noticed a small group of around 20-30 people circling up.   A man was explaining a plan to march to an abandoned house and then “occupy”  the space.  As they set off down the street, yelling “Get out of your tents and onto the streets,” we decided to walk in their general direction and learn more.

Contrary to what many cities reported, the Occupy Seattle participants looked like a group of ordinary, concerned citizens…not drug addicts, hoodlams, and drifters portrayed as participants in other cities.   Some of them carried homemade signs, others professionally printed signs.   They went through a number of different chants,  “______, we don’t need em’! all we want is! total freedom,”  “whose streets? OUR STREETS!”    “We! Are! The 99%”  “Banks got bailed out! We got sold out!”   “Revolution has to come!  Everything for Everyone!” Sometimes, they just chatted among themselves.

The march collected people as it went along, and only a few blocks in,  a Seattle Police car started tailing a hundred feet or so away from the marchers, headlights on,  effectively preventing the marchers from getting run over, whatever else their purpose.  The group erupted into a chant of “Hey Hey! Ho Ho! Police Brutality’s Gotta Go!” and occasionally an individual lobbed an insult at the police car.  (“Hey!  You’re a tool!”)   The tensions, just a few days after the famous Westlake confrontation, were understandable.   But whatever SPD’s reasons for tailing the protesters, at no time on that day did  I see SPD interfere or do anything but shield the marchers from oncoming traffic, effectively protecting their right to effectively protest.

As we marched, an occasional marcher would stop and lyrically chant bit of history, or policy.  One man explained that the term “skid row” originated from the working classes skidding logs down Yesler Way.    One woman encouraged people to think of the youths (this precipitated a detour to a youth detention center and chanting “Our Passion! For Freedom!  Is stronger than your prison!”  until the youths started pounding on the windows.)

On the road we talked to a retired  older man who lived with family members and wished his food stamps would buy him a pizza and that he could have a cell phone to call his brother, who lived and worked nearby.   One bright, articulate young woman railed against the inability of privileged white men to understand the plight of minorities.  Two older women whispered amongst themselves about what their big-law employers would think about their participation.   A few well dressed young people stood at the outskirts of the march, looking on in approval.

On the road, we  talked to a gorgeous elderly woman who watched the march from an intersection, and in very broken English asked what the ruckus was about.   We tried to explain in a dozen different ways.  Finally, her face lit up and she said “they want make better government?”  We said yes, and she left, looking hopeful.   Another woman came out of her home and told us that after her husband’s death, she discovered that they had had an adjustable-rate mortgage and was stuck with an exorbitant monthly mortgage payment.  A foreclosure soon followed, and she was left  valiantly adjusting to widowhood and raising two grandchildren in transitional housing.

After a long uphill climb, the marchers reached an abandoned, half-built home.  (Presumably, the house had been foreclosed on before construction was complete.)  Some of the younger marchers rushed into the abandoned house, ran up the stairs, and clambered out the windows and  onto the roof,  cheering and chanting.

After the marchers had settled into the property,  some crowding on the sidewalk outside (avoiding the potential crime of trespassing), and some sitting on the eaves and the roof or hanging out the windows,  a lull settled.   Some made spoke about occupying the house and using it as a youth center or homeless shelter.   A young man wrote “OCCUPY IS HERE” on a piece of cardboard,  put it on the old, derelict, long-fallen  for-sale signpost, and secured it outside where it  could be seen from the road.   The police shift changed, with a seamless swap from one patrol car parked half a block away to another.

It got darker and colder, and eventually, we walked away, leaving a group of shushed, cold people huddled in a wooden frame of a house.

I learned a lot from my day tailing the Occupy Seattle movement.  Here were my takeaways:

1) There is nothing more American than the 1st Amendment.   The rights of Americans to assemble & speak freely should be treasured and protected as one of our most important national values.   Having lived in not-as-free countries,  scenes like Occupy Seattle, whatever its flaws, are especially moving to me.

2) Understanding some of the movement participants’ aversion to hierarchy, it’s clear that a lack of strong leadership and a unified message in the movement prevents a clear, strong message from reaching those that need to hear it, and an inability to ensure that all participants demonstrate in a peaceful and respectful manner.   The result of these factors is reduced credibility for the movement.  Contrast with the strong leadership of Martin Luther King in the civil rights movement, who was able to encourage the majority to adopt a strong, simple message and embrace peaceful, meaningful, relevant, demonstration and  civil disobedience in the face of circumstances that would have otherwise provoked widespread violence.   Leadership and a message would probably dispel the myth that only “hippies, the chronically unemployed, druggies and anarchists wish for positive change in society and would encourage more people from more strata of society to get on board with producing change.

3) Based on the many economic and social ills affecting people in the U.S. & around the world today,  I am shocked that more people aren’t on board with the Occupy movement.   But then again, see #2, above.

Did I miss anything?  Have you been part of an Occupy movement?

* All photos mine & Nick’s 

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Everything I needed to know in life I learned from improv class.

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Jollity Theatre

This fall I signed up for Improv 100, one of the classes available from the Seattle improv group Unexpected Productions.   It was one of the most enriching and entertaining things I’ve ever done.   Every Tuesday night, I could count on bonding with complete strangers, laughing till I cried (I think I got abs from laughing so hard at this class), and having at least  three Oprah-style “aha moments” about art and story and life.   Improv class is both a playground for adults and a high-velocity lab where you can see truths about life and creativity unfolding and developing before your eyes.

Danielle LaPorte once said that taking an improv class “could teach you more about innovation, relationships, success, and sexuality than any therapist or self help book.”  After having duly experimented, I conclude that she’s right.  Everything you need to know in life you can learn from an improv class:

Be present. If you listen, you don’t have to think so hard.   Never underestimate instinct.  But you do have to be totally present, grounded, and ready for that  killer instinct to kick in.

It’s always better to be told to scale it down than scale it up.  Start by giving  things 100% energy & enthusiasm, the best, boldest, brightest you have.   You can always chill the eff out later.

Say yes, and…to other people’s ideas. Don’t block them.  One of the fundamental rules in improv is to say yes…and!  If someone in a scene says, “hey, let’s steal this car!,” you’re not supposed to say,  “No, you idiot, that’s a terrible idea.  Let’s go to the movies instead.”  That makes for a boring & negative scene.  What you’re supposed to say is “YES!  And let’s break all the windows and hot-wire it!”

Your life experience is an incredibly rich source of imagination rocket fuel.  Nobody has a boring life.  I thought I did, then I realized how based on the little I’ve seen and experienced, I had a bottomless source of off the cuff ideas.   And so did my classmates.   I realized I never have to be afraid of running out of ideas.

You don’t always have to be the star of the show.   Sometimes, you need to be a supporting character.  Sometimes, you need to be a tree. 

Learn all the rules first, then break them.   But just because you’re gonna break the rules doesn’t mean you don’t have to learn them first.  How are you going to know what rules to break (or why, or how) if you don’t know them?

Have you taken an improv class before?   If you haven’t  what are you waiting for?   If you have, I’d love to know what you thought of it & what you learned.

Paint Dancing

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As part of my ongoing exploration of all things daring & dancy,  I decided to check out Seattle’s monthly paint dancing party.

Paint Dancing is a painting party that devolves into a dance party.   Paint dancing parties rock 13 different cities, but the original was started by abstract artist Matt Jones at Gasworks Gallery in Seattle.  For $15 you get tempera paints, brushes, paper & snacks. For an extra $5, you get wine (but don’t let people dip dirty brushes into your wine.)  Proceeds go to MashedPotatoes.org, a non-profit that gives potatoes & other easily stored food items to food banks around Washington.

There are a lot of primary colors,  party songs everybody knows, and friendly people of all ages.    People make everything from finger-paintings to masterpieces, and everybody dances!  There are paint-brush-armed conga lines,  people decorating each other’s faces and clothes, and even limbo (scroll down) Verdict:  Highly Recommended! 

Here are some shots from my paint dancing experience.

December’s Paint Dancing Party is December 9th from 8-10pm at Gasworks Gallery.  It’s  Crazy Hat Night.

The Power of Asking Well

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Ask and you shall receive.   Uncontrovertibly true, but also hard.   Why?  Because as children, we’re taught that asking is wrong.  Don’t be greedy.  Be self-sufficient. Good girls don’t want things.  Real men don’t need help.  Don’t inconvenience people.  We don’t take charity in this family.  It’s a dog-eat-dog world.   You don’t want to owe anyone anything.  If you ask for things, people to think you’re weak or needy.   Did you grow up with any of these beliefs?  (I did.)  Do you still believe these things?  (I do, sometimes.)

The first problem with these beliefs is that they keep you from asking for what you want and need.   That’s bad because  if you don’t ask, you don’t get.   

The second problem with these beliefs is that when you believe that you are unworthy or wrong or out of line in asking for something,  you tend to make a sorry, ineffective mess of that request.  You grovel, apologize,  avoid eye contact,  or don’t ask for things directly.

The root of all beliefs about asking is the fear that we’re asking for something that we don’t deserve, or that we shouldn’t have.   I’m not going to tell you you deserve everything in the world because nobody does.   We don’t want to go around asking old ladies to give up their subway seat for you, or asking your parents to bail you out of gambling debt for the fifth time this month.   But these are not the kinds of requests we’re talking about.   It’s everything else;  a raise, a date, a small kindness, a military discount, an interview.  If you can look someone in the eye and ask for what you need with kindness, compassion, and  honestly,  and without  apologizing, then you don’t need to worry that your request is out of line,  or wrong, or an abuse of trust or relationship.    All you have to worry about is mustering up the courage to ask,  and asking well.

When you ask well—honestly, directly, kindly–two things will happen.   First, you’ll start trusting yourself when it comes to asking for things.    You’ll trust that those things you can ask for well are totally yours to ask for.  Second, people are a lot more likely to grant a direct, kind, unapologetic request than a babbling,  rambling, sorry one.   A win on both fronts!

Homework: 

This week, practice asking.  Practice asking well.   Ask the thrift store clerk for a discount because a button’s missing.   Ask someone you admire to mentor you.  Ask your spouse to make dinner tonight.   Ask your friends to donate for an upcoming charity race.    The first step is to practice having the courage to ask.   The second step is to practice asking well:

  • Look the person in the eye.
  • Smile.
  • Ask kindly
  • Ask  simply and directly.  Do not make the person read between the lines or guess what you mean.
  • Do not apologize.
  • Do not give the person an out  (e.g.,  I totally understand if you say no, but….)
  • Do not give excuses, stories, or white lies to elicit sympathy.   Trust me, this doesn’t work in your favor.
EXAMPLES: 

WRONG: (fidgeting and avoiding eye contact)  Sir,  excuse me, I’m sorry, I was thinking, maybe,  if possible,  I could, please,  next week, take a personal day , because (white lie) I have doctor’s appointments and to see my 90-year old grandma,  but if you can’t I totally understand, its ok.

RIGHT: (Eye contact).  I would like to take a vacation day on Wednesday, please.

WRONG:  I come home from a long day’s work and you’re sitting there picking your toes and reading a magazine  and expect me to serve you  dinner on a silver platter.   You haven’t made dinner in three days.  What the hell is wrong with you, you lazy turd?

RIGHT:  I would like you to cook dinner  tonight,  please.

Go forth and ask!   And then share what you asked for & how it went….

When to Let Go of the Pomodoro.

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Source: reddit.com via Brittanie on Pinterest

 

The Pomodoro Technique is a tool to help overcome procrastination & get things started.   The pomodoro works exceptionally well for routine work.  It also works well for creative work when the artist or writer needs ass-in-chair time.   Knowning that you get a break every five minutes or so helps you get started, avoid distractions & get things done.   When you’re doing something especially intense,  the five minute breaks and longer breaks remind you to get up from your chair and strech, or do a mini-workout, or drink water.

The Pomodoro Technique doesn’t work well when you’re inspired, or in flow.  Nothing kills flow faster than trying to control or interrupt it.

Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity. Proposed by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, the positive psychology concept has been widely referenced across a variety of fields.

According to Csíkszentmihályi, flow is completely focused motivation. It is a single-minded immersion and represents perhaps the ultimate in harnessing the emotions in the service of performing and learning. In flow, the emotions are not just contained and channeled, but positive, energized, and aligned with the task at hand. To be caught in the ennui of depression or the agitation of anxiety is to be barred from flow. The hallmark of flow is a feeling of spontaneous joy, even rapture, while performing a task, although flow is also described (below) as a deep focus on nothing but the activity – not even oneself or one’s emotions.

Historical sources hint that Michelangelo may have painted the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel while in a flow state. It is reported that he painted for days at a time, and he was so absorbed in his work that he did not stop for food or sleep until he reached the point of passing out. He would wake up refreshed and, upon starting to paint again, re-entered a state of complete absorption.

If you want to do great work, you have to put the time even when you don’t feel inspired, day in and day out, keep going.   But when inspiration strikes like lightening & you’re flowing and grooving, surrender to it.  Smash the timer against the wall and write or paint or scheme all night & into tomorrow.