Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Boot Making Cure

In which shoe making and Chinese medicine come together to reveal to me a new perspective on health and resiliency.

On the train to Portland I made shoes. 

"Are trains a way for you to access your subconscious," asked my friend Stacy. I had persuaded her to come along and get a hit of Portland while I was taking a boot making workshop. She was also eager to experience the famous Coast Starlight route. I did love train travel. It was a way to slow life down, feel the full affect of distance and be in motion outside of one's life and those chores which telegraphed me every time I sat down for three minutes. On a twenty hour train ride I had plenty of time to contemplate things. I did think it was possible that the rhythm of the train could put you into a theta state, much as a drumbeat allows the visions in a shamanic journey. I liked to think that JK Rowling had accessed this state when she was on the train where she had dreamed up Harry Potter.

And as I worked on my shoe project (a slip on shoe using bicycle inner tube pieces for trim) I kept seeing myself traveling to make shoes and living on the train, possibly having a shoe workshop on the train. It was such a strong vision I wondered what I was meant to take from it. I felt it so clearly that it seemed a part of my identity, much like making shoes seemed somehow so right, so innate to me. The shoe in my hand made me feel masterful and working with hand tools seemed so familiar. I felt compelled to make things with my hands to fulfill some innate need as primal as eating. Perhaps it was cellular memory passed down from another generation. I asked my mother what profession her grandfather had had for I had heard it mentioned that he was a harness maker. 

"Well it's funny you should ask," said my mother "because my family didn't want me to know. And I was scolded for playing with his tools. I was told not to tell anybody what he did so I thought there was something wrong with him." I reflected on her childhood spent in the north of England in Yorkshire.

Turns out my great grandfather was a horse shoer. And his children were so eager to better themselves that they didn't want to admit that their father did the work of a laborer. I thought it was cool though—an important part of history. I had seen a horse shoer at work. It was such a specialty profession now; they were part of the rich horsey crowd, paid well and in much demand. I knew how to pick up a horses foot and use a pick; like shoe making it was a similar feeling of getting to the bottom of things. I spent time wondering if those who loved to be crafty were expressing similar cellular memories of their ancestors making things by hand.


Healing Cosmology

Recently in the usual serendipitous way of my life I met an acupuncturist who saw me at Walgreen's getting into Catherine's electric car (the new Nissan Leaf) and he walked over to ask me questions about it. I didn't have all the answers so he gave me his card to e-mail him later. The card said that he specialized in ADHD, anxiety and depression. I was very intrigued. Weeks later I found his card still on my desk and contacted him hoping that he might refer some of his ADD clients to me. As it turned out I would be the one doing the referring because my mind was so much clearer after one session I immediately wanted everyone who had any chronic condition to see him, My mother went for her arthritis and so did a client to cut back on pharmaceuticals and her son for his allergies. I ran into the client in his office and she thanked me and told me how much he had done for her migraines. My mother too became so much calmer with the micro current technology he was using. And he told me how the micro currents enhanced serotonin levels. 

"Ah," I said, "so body chemistry can be changed without the use of pharmaceuticals." 

"Oh yes," he agreed, that being the whole point of his career.

After witnessing the assault of chemotherapy on Catherine when she was undergoing treatment for triple negative breast cancer I secretly believed that this poisoning of the body was incredibly wrong and have harbored hostile feelings about Western medicine ever since. (I was already acquainted with alternative medicine through my chiropractor and was intrigued by what he had introduced me to over the years.) During the time of Catherine's treatment I met a woman who had the exact same triple negative breast cancer only she had refused chemotherapy. She had her tumor removed surgically but then went to an acupuncturist to help discover what was putting her body out of balance and she adjusted her lifestyle accordingly. She herself was a Chinese medicine practitioner so she understood and believed in this healing art. I was naturally fascinated by this because here was a woman who had walked away from chemo and survived. All she did was focus on getting more sleep with the help of medicinal marijuana. She also told me that her oncologist had warned her repeatedly that the cancer would return within 18 months if she didn't do chemo so her warning to me was that you had to have great strength of mind to walk away. You literally took your life into your own hands. Which was exactly what I had in mind. I needed a new healing cosmology. (To be fair, Catherine also received acupuncture treatment to help her overcome the effects of chemo and has fully recovered from all her treatments. So these "alternative" medicines were slowly making inroads, but it was a given that only chemotherapy could actually "cure" cancer and I resented that assumption. I felt it stood in the way of progress.)

Dr. Kniskern, was not Chinese; he was a white American in his 50's who had begun his medical education at Stanford medical school (after he already got a degree in psychology and business). Given that the primary treatment tool of Western medicine was pharmaceuticals and after reading down the list of side effects he soon realized that he didn't want to practice medicine by pouring poison into people's bodies. A friend who was in Chinese medicine helped him enroll in another college where he could simultaneously study Chinese medicine. (Stanford, however, warned him sternly against following this practice saying that there were not enough studies to prove that it worked. Never mind that the body itself responded immediately to the techniques and provided a perfect feedback loop.) He graduated and set up his practice using what he learned from both disciplines then continued his education with a degree in nutrition & immunology and one in comparative medicine. Clearly a man in search of answers.

He told me how he had used these tools of Chinese medicine to further develop his own treatment for Aspergers and Autism. Considering the complexity of these conditions I was indeed impressed. No one else had devised much of anything that worked for these kids. He had written a number of papers on his discoveries and treatments but the gate keepers of Western Medicine were so suspicious of such deviation from the norm that they refused to even consider publishing his findings. He was eager to demonstrate how the treatment might help me as I had mentioned that I had issues with high blood sugar. In the first session I could clearly feel the energy pulsing through my body. And what Dr. Kniskern referred to as brain fog was lifted. After a week of treatment my ability to get things done became a staccato military march driving me to tick things off my to-do list just for something to do. No longer did I dither and procrastinate. My mind was beginning to cannibalize my life sucking up my leisure time.

When Dr. Kniskern next looked at my tongue he told me I needed to rest more. Take time out and let your mind wander he said. I had forgotten how to do that. He would also ask me what was stressing me out. Stress he pointed out would raise my blood sugars by using up my available insulin. I did a blood test daily when I woke up just to check if his treatments made any difference. It took a while but after three months my blood sugar levels are now consistently close to normal. After he told me about the impact of stress I began to see patterns. All kinds of things stressed me out including exciting things and what I read on Facebook when I woke up as when my Thai contacts had posted about the political shifts in my home country. What I posted to Facebook myself also had an impact akin to stage fright if something I said or posted was particularly risky. Things that I expected to stress me out did i.e. our renters not paying rent on time, Catherine being mad at me, and me not having enough client work. I discovered too that working with clients was so absorbing (and monetarily rewarding) it actually kept my mind from stressing me out. Shoe making and writing also calmed me.

A friend who follows my various diverse interests told me that Tolstoy had also made shoes having decided that the peasants mental ease was a result of a life of toil and he hoped to counteract his despondency by taking up shoe and boot making as well as farming. I enjoyed thinking of Tolstoy renouncing his aristocratic roots and taking to the fields to toil alongside the peasants while making shoes in his leisure hours. That he was a writer made this exploration even more cogent to my interest. I had taken up shoemaking as an intriguing practical hobby, but making shoes not only fulfilled my appetite to make things with my hands, but kept me in the mental flow state that is said to be the ideal for the creative brain. I felt it strengthened my mind against interruptions and distractions. It was meditative in the sense that thoughts could come and go without attachment.


Where The Shoemaker Lives

To explore the depths of this new craft I was now ready to go to shoe school; they were few and far between and none in California. When I arrived at the shoemaker's house the next morning, I was thrilled to find that his house, too, was of interest with its front yard vegetable garden, rain water catchment system, adobe oven, garage workshop, chicken coop and rabbit hutches all in a space smaller than our own suburban lot. His basement shoemaking workshop sported four different vintage looking leather sewing machines and numerous hand tools slipped into a strip of leather loops nailed to the edge of a shelf full of shoemaking supplies. He had a book case of DIY homesteading books and peak oil books. The posters on the wall were from his gigs as a musician. Like me he was on a path to take life and what sustained life into his own hands.

On the first day of class Jason showed us the five hand tools that were all we needed to make shoes—a pair of scissors, an awl to punch holes, a stitching awl, a skiver to shave off layers of leather and a channel groover to cut a groove in the sole where the uppers would be stitched into. He mentioned putting these tools into a backpack as he travelled. When I asked him later about these travels he said he used to hop freight trains and go to wherever there were art fairs, renaissance fairs or reenactment events where people would buy handmade shoes by artisans. He rode the rails! Now my vision of making shoes on the train made sense. I had been tuning into the traveling shoemaker part of his life. This was so remarkable I told Stacy about it that evening.  

I also asked him how he came to make shoes and he told me he started by repairing his own clothes, so often that the patches upon patches became works of artisanal art. Then he made clothes and learned to tan leather so he made pants from leather. It was only a matter of time before his shoes wore out so he made shoes from the leather too. At first the shoes only lasted a year or so, but bit by bit he learned how to make them last. Eventually he met another shoemaker and hung around at his workshop learning from him. This shoemaker was coincidentally the same man who started the shoe school in Ashland that I visited in Spring—the Bonney & Wills School of Shoemaking & Design. The school was beautifully appointed in a commercial studio full of natural light and a line-up of new looking sewing machines. It cost four times what Jason's workshop did and evoked too much the high end specialty consumer. I preferred the cottage industry feel of Jason's basement workshop tucked into a neighborhood of like minded homesteading neighbors where he made shoes to the sound of chickens using medieval designs that had a home spun ageless quality to them.

I envisioned well fitting shoes that were available to everyone on a localized village level. In Oregon and especially in Portland there were many who shared these off-grid thoughts. But in the Bay Area, the land of high tech and innovation the very idea of making shoes seemed so odd that it stopped people in their tracks. I enjoyed their astonishment. It was anti-consumerist yet the way I was executing designs, my shoes were still a fashion statement. I was wearing my Roman sandals with metallic copper accents that included little Hermes wings on the sides that I made for my travels to Thailand last Spring. They were a big hit and no one once laughed at me for making my own footwear. When he saw them Jason immediately asked who had made them.

My compatriots in boot making class were edgier and younger; one woman sporting scenic tattoos and large gauge ear piercings. A regular do-it yourself crowd—the two men were in the trades and the women well versed in DIY crafts and classes in pioneer skills. Next to them I felt downright mainstream in my wide brimmed white summer hat and a floral print summer shirt I'd made. I looked like I might shop at Nordstroms. I was intrigued by their sense of style as much as by their skill level. Hana (who had the tattoos and piercings) was a hydrologist working for the U.S. Geological Survey and Thadeus our farmer and handyman both made elegant work books of tobacco brown leather that wouldn't stand out. Andy who worked at his parents awning shop picked matt black leather bringing to mind Folsom street leather bars. He then trimmed them in silver grey edging which reminded me of a football team. Sara an art student who designed her own clothes picked the red leather and lined them with apple green. Pictures here.

An entire day was devoted to making our pattern from duct tape casts of our own feet. Another was devoted to cutting out the heavy bison leather and prepping the pieces for assembly. I couldn't believe I spent three hours struggling to skive off the edges of the leather so the seam wouldn't be so bulky. I was hoping I would learn how to minimize my time. I would have given up right there, but it turned out that my tool had a crack in it that made it almost impossible to get it to work even though Jason could manage it. Then the sewing machine ran away with me and I broke a needle. Hand sewing the uppers to the sole in the stitch-under method was also challenging, but I managed a workaround by making the sewing holes slightly larger.

I thought a lot about my design. I too wanted to use the red leather with its richly textured grain. I paired it with the chocolate leather to make a two toned boot like a saddle shoe. Then when I saw some yellow pigskin lining material I could use for piping across the top of the boot it really made the colors pop, while the natural leather of the sole still made it look like a shoe. Once finished with chrome eyelets and brown laces they looked like a real design reminding me of European children's shoes—butch, but playful. And the shape of the wide toe box were so pleasing to my eye that it gave me a curious sense of recognition as if I was seeing my home after a long time away. It was my feet I was seeing reflected in the shape of the shoe.

Jason said that after we had made many pairs of shoes and were practiced in our craft these first pair would look crude. But though the stitching wasn't parallel and the seams were so bulky it looked like I could stand on the edges of the leather, I was awed by how nicely they turned out. This finished pair of boots made by my own hand gave me such satisfaction that I was filled to the brim with happiness and the awesomeness of it all. How was it that this four day accomplishment could be as satisfying as love? I marveled at this feeling of utter happiness having been harvested with my own hands and a few tools as if from the ground itself. 


The Red Shoes

I wore my red shoes to the restaurant where my hosts Don and Jerome took us after class and they were admired by the wait staff. My friends were equally impressed and later Stacy and her partner Peggy also wanted to try them on. There was something about them that compelled people to want to see what they looked like on their own feet. 

A couple of weeks later a masseuse, Catherine's new friend Kyna, came by to give us both massages. As I lay on her table in front of my bookcase she mentioned one of the books on my shelf and how much it had helped her long ago. I asked which story was it that most spoke to her and she said "The Red Shoes". So I took down Women Who Run With The Wolves which I never had the patience for before and read about the little orphan girl who made her own shoes and how she was adopted by a lady in a golden carriage and taught to dress properly and have manners. Turns out the little orphan girl was perfectly happy with her handmade shoes and when they were taken away from her something shut down inside her—the capacity to do things for herself, that wild self sustaining creativity. And out of this "soul famine" she yearned for the red shoes of her past and got herself into trouble with a new pair of red shoes that called out to her and were enchanted so that she eventually went to her death with her obsession with them. This soul famine sounded like something I had tried my damnedest to avoid. And then again maybe not. But I was glad I was again making my own little red shoes.


The handmade life, this off grid attempt to become self sufficient I could see was also a form of mental self-healing just as my acupuncture sessions were making my body quicker to bounce back from stress. The term emotional resiliency comes to mind. Tolstoy was onto something. I let my mind breath in this resiliency and took a mental celebratory pirouette as I contemplated a life prioritized around the things that nourished the soul and healed the body. What a different world that would be.

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Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Mud Hut Building Cure


Details of my trip to Thailand, the political angst therein, my own life path at a crossroads and the all women mud hut building workshop I attended.

To The North

The only people who take the sleeper train to Chiang Mai are tourists, monks and government officials. This Victorian mode of transportation now ranking higher in charm and nostalgia than the faster deluxe motor coaches that ply the new highways or plane for those really in a hurry. I could think of no better way to travel than to be lulled to sleep in my own bunk with panorama window overlooking the rice paddies after enjoying a meal brought to me from the restaurant car. 

On this leg of my journey to Northern Thailand I shared my compartment with a young Czech woman traveling alone. We had so much in common regarding off grid living that I was soon showing her pictures of my homemade composting toilet I kept on my iPod. These days I seemed to have more in common with young people than my own peers. It is the young who realize that our modern Western way of life is no longer tenable.

The women's adobe building workshop I was headed for would draw similar seekers of sustainable living solutions both Thai and foreign. I heard of the workshop through Pun Pun Farms a sustainable outfit I had discovered through the international earthen building network Kleiwerks six years ago. I had already taken an adobe workshop from Peggy and Jo her Thai farmer husband who had brought adobe building techniques to Thailand after viewing the pueblos of Arizona. This cross pollination of interracial couples fit right in with my own world view. Together with the International Women's Partnership for Peace and Justice we would build a house for another non-profit that served to support ethnic minorities students. What I used to know as hill tribe people. Still marginalized by not being granted full Thai citizenship they were also teased by fellow students for their accents and tribal background. And, being far away from home, lacked a supportive living arrangement. It was the aim of this organization to offer such support and thus the house we would build.

In Chieng Mai under the clock tower I was to meet my ride. Beneath the clock two woman sitting at a coffee shop table looked at me expectantly and that was how I met Jeab whose house we would be building. The other woman Nuch, also Thai, was a workshop participant too. Soon we were joined by Tanya, a Russian living in Bangkok and Susanna who arrived by tuk tuk dressed in the traditional clothing of  her home in Malaysia—a tunic over pantaloons—which she would also wear while building topped with a wide brimmed army hat. 

We jumped into the back of one of the ubiquitous red pick-up truck taxis of Chieng Mai and were on our way. Along the way we picked up more Thai women—Noi who had a compassionate face and was retired and Pom a young woman accompanied by her mother who sported a natty pork pie hat. Mother only stayed with us for a day or two, but Pom would throw herself into this workshop with a notable work ethic. Building a mud house was on her "bucket list" she told me later. I soon learned that Susanna was an avid bird watcher as well as a writer. While our Russian companion merely laughed at every question I asked her before finally offering that she was an architect. She would also sleep a great deal. She had not been able to sleep in Bangkok, she said during a meeting at the halfway point of our workshop. Indeed she would soon move to Chieng Mai.

Amidst the Rice Paddies


An hour outside of the city we arrived at a small farm of rice paddies with a humble wooden house on stilts such as my grandmother had lived in, but not quite as big. On the edge of the first rice paddy were two tiny wooden houses built in modified Thai style which appeared to be quite new. It was there that we were to stay and being the first to arrive we had our pick. Without discussion Susanna, Tanya and I settled ourselves in one house and three of the Thai women took the other. The remaining guests would stay in the two houses at the adjoining farm and have a bit of a walk to their meals everyday. 

The farms had been bought by rich Thais from Bangkok, Jeab told me. The flood of 2011 had prompted many city folk to think of investing in both an out-of-town getaway house and a source of organic rice. Now these new houses were no longer occupied as the city people became busy again and did not find time to come so far north. Jeab had arranged with the owners to rent the houses for the duration. She and her crew of Karen hill tribe students had spent many hours cleaning and setting up beds in preparation for our arrival.

Late that afternoon we had our first meeting to learn everyone's name and a little of their story. There was  Lek and I-tim (ice cream in Thai) who were an adorable mother daughter team from the south of Thailand and wore matching outfits everyday. Nodoka from Japan who said this was the nearest mud house building workshop she could find. Sonya from Hong Kong who was a weekend farmer. Ard, a farmer's daughter from Thailand living in the UK and married to a Kiwi. Khin and Wawa two Burmese women. Rung a yoga teacher from Bangkok who would hold our early morning yoga sessions. Non a documentary photo curator living in Chieng Mai. Knot whose good English she attributed to her love of American movies. The quiet but thoughtful Puk. Eh a writer and teacher who taught a class in local self reliance. Lisa an American woman from Chatanooga living in Bangkok and Molly from Sonoma, California whose parents had grown up in Bangkok. We were joined by three Karen girls Om, Pao Chah and Pegk who wore matching brimmed hats of a floral print and our teachers Peggy, Lisa from Scotland who was married to a Karen and spoke a smattering of border languages including Burmese, Jeab, Ginger and her French girlfriend Laetitia. Many of the paying participants spoke of wanting to work with their hands. So immersed were they in modern jobs.

Each morning we would rise for yoga, followed by breakfast, work on the house until lunch, then resume at 2 p.m. after the midday heat. (Later we had to forego yoga in favor of working during the cool part of the day and take a longer lunch.) The first day we learned to make bricks from mud and rice husks with a little sand added mixing it all together in mud pits with our feet. There were already 3,000 bricks ready to go that had been made by Jeab's students so we lost no time making bricks. And were soon laying the first course right on the cement foundation using the mud mortar from the mud pit. Bricks were passed along in a fireman's brigade and mud was carried in sturdy rubber buckets. We all helped each other.

Someone spotted a snake; I saw it too and we chased it into the bamboo grove by the stream. And I realized that I had lost my childhood fear of snakes. That dread that gripped and paralyzed me. Later I remembered the integration work I had done with my soul retrieval. In returning to the land of my childhood in this visceral mud covered way I could now truly inhabit my adult life.

On the second day of wall building, Khin the Burmese woman suggested that I stand on the oil drums to get to the top of
the wall and she would hand me bricks. "I am fat," she said by way of explanation and so I climbed up onto the barrel. On another occasion I worked with Wawa who gamely placed the bricks while I felt compelled to coach her on her technique. And as we worked together we got to know each other.
There were no shirkers. Everyone showed up and did their part. Some with more talent than others, but nothing was so difficult that we couldn't do every part of it. And though I thought that I was working very slowly the walls were going up amazingly fast. At the end of every day we would take pictures of what was accomplished usually with a pair of women in the foreground doing a yoga pose. There was something very feminine about this choice of presentation. And no one had to care how they looked. At the end of the day we washed ourselves and the buckets in the stream using handfuls of straw as a scrubber and then went for a swim in the pond.

Random Angsts of Existence

The temperature got hotter as the week progressed and one day I came to a dead halt halfway down the path to the stream. The 100° heat had leached out every last thought I had and left me with a sort of existential blankness. What exactly was I doing with my life I had been wondering? What could I be doing with my life going forward? But nothing came to me.

Back home the recession had given my business such a pummeling that 2013 was my worse year yet even with the emerging recovery. And my relationship had essentially been stamped expired (though we would continue to make a companionable life together). While some of my long time friends were planning on leaving the Bay Area given that the high cost of living had squeezed out all but the moneyed elite of Silicon Valley. In this atmosphere my life had somehow run out of meaning and my contributions deemed monetarily trivial, nothing more than a series of antiquated analog hobbies i.e. dressmaking, carpentry, bicycle repair, gardening, storytelling in various mediums and now shoemaking. Skills geared towards an obsession with a post-industrialized society that never came. (I had attached myself to this peak oil narrative in order to feel useful until I figured out how to weather old age and die without lingering. Starvation being my choice.) 

Thailand, the country that had given me Buddhist serenity, pride as an uncolonized nation and resourceful self reliance, was in trouble. Some of my contacts in Bangkok used the term "failed nation" in reference to its possible futures. I had come to Thailand to figure out what would emerge from the now five months protests aimed to shut down Bangkok. But the Thais I met had no more clue than I did what would be the outcome. 

The State of Emergency status invoked in February, after some minor violence between opposing sides of the protest, had given me a nice discount on my plane ticket though and the plane from Taipei to Bangkok was only half full, mostly with young Thais. It had been a pleasant time to visit. The traffic in Bangkok was noticeably diminished and the streets devoid of tourists leaving the restaurants and shopping malls half empty. Without the distractions of business, the occupants had been left to themselves to think things over, but seemingly with no words with which to think. 

Graced with the longest ruling monarch in world history—a King so revered that he brought to mind the Dalai Lama—and a political profile largely influenced by royal patronage and marked by military coups, nothing in modern Thai history had prepared the people for the compromises and negotiations of self rule. All that was known was unity under a benevolent King with Buddhism as a moral compass. To be Thai was to be gracious and avoid conflict for karma had determined one's existence and nothing was really worth fighting over—until now. The Thais I knew felt threatened that the Shinawatra family in power  were vying to depose the King as a unifying figurehead while changing the laws to allow ever more concentrated power for the prime minister, currently the sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, who was self-exiled in Dubai to avoid corruption charges incurred during his term as prime minister. In their separate camps the ongoing rhetoric in Thailand was marked by the loud voices of extremists, divisive jokes and insults delivered to each other by a polarized populace favoring different cable TV stations. 

It was in fact not unlike what had become of democracy in America, but at least we had had two centuries of dialogue and history that had offered some sense of what was possible, some agency in this thing called democracy. And we also had state rule which could break down further into city ordinances. The banning of plastic bags from a city was enough to keep its citizens engaged in the democratic process. A process we learn at a young age in the electing of a class president in high school and in the decision making of after school committees. But not in Thailand where such lessons had not existed, at least not in my day, and centralization meant that every last policeman throughout the provinces reported to Bangkok, as did every other government official.


From an economic perspective I saw it as a struggle to transform what was essentially an economy of slavery to that of individual prosperity. For the price of rice on the global market had kept those in the provinces poor. So poor that they had essentially, until the last generation, remained peasants with little hope of upward mobility. This gap between poor peasant and the upwardly mobile city dweller had allowed Thaksin to earn the loyalty of the poor by offering progressive policies (badly executed and straining limited resources). With his ultimate goal being to concentrate power as prime minister so he could further privatize Thailand's resources for his own gain. I was reminded that this ongoing struggle with the pitfalls of democratic capitalism giving over so quickly to corpratocracy was happening all over the world. 

The Hand Made Future

In the heat of our workshop days, I stood on an oil drum looking out into the rice paddies and the hills beyond. All these thoughts of the future pushed to the edge of my mind leaving me with a vague feeling of existential angst. Eh, my building partner for the hour, looked up at me and asked cheerfully in English "What do you need? 

"I'm looking for the meaning of life," I told her. 

"Oh that you can find everywhere," she said with a smile as if it were in the very air we breathed. 

I would soon learn that Eh and I had more in common than I had thought possible—a sense that the solution lay in localized self-sufficiency, a desire to teach others, tarot cards and New Age spirituality. The world having gotten smaller she had just as much access to the same books and ideas as I did. I would continue to be surprised at what many of us had in common—a desire to experience a handmade life, an eco ethic of anti-materialism, a willingness to work together and get along with peoples of all nations. Each day we worked together, ate together and shared living space as we devoted our efforts to this single task of house building. 
Photo by Lisa Thom

By the second day the walls were finished and on the third we installed the doors wedging them in with a cob mixture of mud and straw. Once the windows were installed we could plaster the walls inside and out then apply an earthen paint. All in 8 1/2 days with few tools and the hands and feet of 30 women.

In the evening we would gather in the dining area under the main house where the wifi signal was and log onto Facebook. Facebook had become so ubiquitous that we were all thoroughly addicted, eager to post our updates for the day. It was the only thing about our little community that I questioned. Here we would work together all day, but at night we still wanted to trade comments with people back home. I missed the distance I could get by leaving home. I missed the long discussions I remembered from evenings at previous workshops and the visibility of books everyone was reading and how both created a group understanding of emerging new perspectives. That was only five years ago. 

By the middle of the workshop we had begun to friend each other on Facebook. And with all the tagging and posting pictures of each other, I no longer felt a need to report anything since my friends at home could see me happily posing with all my new mud covered friends. I could wait to report my experience and give it the perspective of time. This skill left largely undeveloped by so much breaking news reporting. Only Susanna with her feminist training and writer's mind could beat me to these bigger perspectives which she now applied to the story of the missing Malaysian airplane duly analyzing all the speculations and conspiracy theories in terms of our own wishful thinking. Some even checked their phones at the building site. When one of my Facebook contacts watching her stream came to realize that a childhood friend from Chatanooga was in fact attending the same workshop as I was I was duly photographed and posted as proof. This coincidence somehow leaving me unimpressed; so often did this happen these days. Facebook, which had been my life for two years, was now somehow an ersatz reality next to our daily immersion in mud. Mud that I spread over my skin instead of sunblock. "Clean dirt" I told Lisa from Chatanooga who did not like getting her feet dirty. Every day I washed the mud from my clothes and dried them on the line.

In the last two days of the workshop we adorned our building with feminine touches. Jeab pressed ceramic medallions into the walls—round tiles painted with floral motifs. In the front bedroom Knot and Rung created vines of cob plaster climbing the walls. And on the curved walls of the exterior Tanya, our Brutal Russian artist as she called herself in a photo caption, fashioned a full size tree out of rocks and colored tile that she labored over to the end when we had all packed our bags. 

In the wrap up at our last meeting it was obvious that people had been profoundly moved by the experience. Awed that we had managed to complete a viable house in so short a time for people we knew who would actually live in it. Wawa said she was surprised to discover her own strength and ability though she had never done such work. Lek commented that she was now confident that her daughter could look after herself in the world. Om, one of the Karen girls, thanked Molly for teaching them to swim. And Molly offered thanks to the earth and the pond, the cooks and everyone who had made the workshop possible. Nodoka was so overcome by emotion she could only offer a syllable then gave up. Khin mentioned that she had worried about her sick puppy at home, but had enjoyed learning to build. Tanya said that she was not normally impressed by non-professional architectural work, but in this case she was. Susanna spoke of how so many of us likely came to this workshop with unresolved problems and issues, but in this community experience together, we would likely go home and find some shift had happened. This prompted me to say that I had already benefited and been filled with hope for Thailand after seeing how so many from disparate classes and levels of experience and education had been able to work together in harmony. I had made many friends with my little dances during the break, my yearning in Thai for barbecued chicken and my confidence at building. 

When I got home to Bangkok I showed my Auntie Ah Pahdt the pictures of the house being built; she already knew of the
coolness offered inside an adobe building and she told me she had bought land in the very same province where the workshop had been. This seemed too serendipitous to be mere coincidence.

"Would you like me to build you a mud house?" I asked her ratherexcitedly. She didn't say anything but she did seem to hear me. My hands, already hardened by a lifetime of making things, were burnished like polished wood from the textured mud; my feet too had benefited. Mud hut building agreed with me. The weight of the bricks and the stickiness of the mud had worked its way into my tactile memory so firmly that I would think of the house as a part of me and I of it when I saw pictures of the roof being put on after we had left. The profound satisfaction of having done something real lingered with me. I could well imagine building more houses. 

Three days after I got home to California I had my Honda wagon loaded up with about ten boxes of books from a client job. Driving home in stop and go traffic I had to slam on the brakes as the SUV in front of me stopped at a light. But my car was so heavy it skidded into her bumper dislodging her muffler and leaving the hood of my car a mess. After we pulled over and exchanged information I wired her muffler back up for her, but I knew my car was toast. It was too old to be worth fixing though I had before gone to great lengths to keep it on the road as part of my frugal stubbornness even after Catherine had offered her Prius to me to drive (after she bought herself the new all electric Leaf). But curiously that little bump seemed to detach me from everything I thought of as my identity and my life. I saw clearly that all aspects of life were temporary and I would benefit from treading lightly. 

Just as Susanna had described I did feel a shift in my personal landscape. A restoration perhaps of the serenity and grace I had grown up with. Somehow the house that was now a part of me and my own labor on it in the climate of my childhood had cured me of an existential homelessness I had felt since I left Thailand at ten. I felt curiously light of being. It no longer seemed important what stories people were telling or the counter stories I told in self defense. My world had expanded and I was able to detach myself from the many narratives I had been wrestling with and replace it with a globe trotting, mud hut building sensibility that restored my self-value and opened up a miriad of possibilities. I returned immediately to my shoemaking and a little gardening. And soon missing my new friends I watched them on Facebook.

Photo by Jeab Sena

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Wednesday, February 12, 2014

The Anarchist's Shoes

In which I learn why manufactured shoes are bad for you and how to make your own.

At Thanksgiving dinner the Anarchist was admiring the black ankle boot moccasins I was wearing with my sarong pants and I announced that I was going to make my own shoes. 

"I'd be very interested in how that goes", said the Anarchist who was a self designated non-conformist who had, during a discussion at one of our parties, announced that she was an anarchist. A term that fits well for this story. 

Her desire to join me in my shoe odyssey further intrigued me and she told me of her feet woes. How the combination of bunions and toes now curling up over her feet made it increasingly difficult to find footwear to fit. She didn't have good feet to begin with, she explained, but years of forcing them into heels and of being on her feet all day while working at a Hallmark store did them in. Only then did I realize that she always wore Ugg boots even in summer and now she could only wear the right boot of two pairs of Uggs. I showed her the work of a shoemaker who had blogged about making a pair of shoes for a woman with severely swollen feet. This gave us the confidence that we too could solve our shoe problems in the same manner.

I had my own reasons for wanting to make my own shoes. My daily dog walking was wearing out my shoes faster than at any time in my life. The soles of walking shoes did not seem to wear as well as they once did. I was shoe goo-ing them repeatedly (glue used to fix holes in tennis shoes). Then I read an article brought to my attention by a newsfeed I subscribe to called the Village Green Network which usually concerned itself with food and recipes for making something simple like laundry soap. 

The article was by a woman who had decided to make her own shoes because most shoes caused her pain on the long hikes she liked to take. She referenced another article that described how shoes compromise the natural gait of the foot. I was shocked and then not at all surprised. So often did a single assumption lead to misinformation never investigated. Shoes were still built on the same too narrow lasts as they had been for centuries under the belief that feet had to be supported. They were also too heavy, inflexible, reduced surface area of the foot and since they were drawn with a curve rather than on a straight axis forced the foot to an incorrect orientation.

The referenced article described how the footbed of shoes have an indentation under the ball of the foot designed into the shoe to make the foot look smaller. Sure enough I checked all my shoes and every one of them had that indentation built into the footbed. This slight dip compromised the natural arch of the foot especially when other areas of the footbed were compressed with wear. This combination put three important bones out of alignment. The reason arch support was needed turned out to be to raise these bones back into place. The turned up toes of shoes, the lack of flexibility in the sole, the stiffness of the uppers all interfered with the natural ability of the foot to grasp surface area, expand and move the body. 

The article also pointed out that you can tell by the wear pattern of your shoes that the natural gait was being compromised. I looked on the bottom of my shoes and sure enough all of them were worn down on the outside edge of the heels and on a spot in the middle of the ball of the foot as described. I thought it was because of my bowed legs causing my shoes not to land properly. I read the article several times before I could believe that shoes were not helping at all (apart from protecting the foot from pointed rocks) and were more likely reducing the foots flexibility and strength. Feet would be better off in a pair of moccasins the article concluded. 

Earlier in the year I had been similarly astounded by an article claiming that the brassiere seriously compromised the ability of the breasts to get rid of toxins and did not in fact keep a woman's breasts from sagging over time, but had compromised the muscle structure of the breasts to take care of this themselves. Given my personal minimalist topography I could happily give up the brassiere, but I could not do without shoes. Thus I embarked on my shoemaking education and found a book at the library with full color pictures that convinced me of what wonderfully colorful and interesting footwear I could make for myself. This led me to find the author online where I found the aforementioned blog about making shoes for swollen feet. She had also posted an article from the New York Times a bit more readable and less technical that said the same thing—shoes were bad for you.

I consulted my chiropractor and he told me about the body's remarkable ability to adapt. How bones that had been badly set would over time correct themselves. So feet would also adapt to shoes. And he himself would not be giving up the support of his hiking boots no matter what the claims of the new minimalist trends in sport shoes. One could simply train oneself to walk properly he claimed. I in turn told him how I had learned from a masseuse that the Asian squat was not a body position that one could learn in adulthood. That this act of folding the body up and squatting on the heels actually changed the angle of the hip sockets so only those who had practiced this sitting position from childhood could accomplish it so easily in adulthood. So wouldn't a person who had spent most of their time walking barefoot be similarly suited to unconstructed shoes? He agreed that I had made a convincing hypotheses for my new shoe wearing preferences. And given his theory of adaptation it is likely that others who adopted a barefoot lifestyle could over time strengthen their feet too. My karate class was, after all, filled with newcomers learning to exert their body for peak fighting performance while barefoot.


Shoemaking

I had been a seamstress all my life and I once made jester slippers from wool felting, but I hadn't a clue how to choose
leather or what a millimeter in thickness felt like. In order to become acquainted with the medium I ordered a three pound box of leather scraps from e-bay for $30. And what an assortment of cowhide did I receive. I picked over the fake crocodile in unnatural colors, the fake pink ostrich that came in lime green, red and turquoise, some shiny red metallic gold and copper pieces, floral embossed ones and weird ones that looked like flocked wall paper. I was both repulsed and intrigued and spent an afternoon art date putting together combinations of blue crocodile and lime green ostrich. Most of the scraps came in pieces too small to use so I would have to make a crazy quilt shoe.

I felt more compelled to meet the needs of my Anarchist friend for her need was greater and I still had shoes a plenty. Plus the caveat of making shoes for a "customer" excited me with visions of a new shoe making add-on to my services. Who could resist custom made shoes? Another of my clients also had problems with bunions gradually eliminating all but men's running shoes for her. She said she could have had an operation to correct her feet, but there was no way she would have been able to be off her feet for six weeks. (My Anarchist friend had said the same thing. It occurred to me that the abuse of women's feet in heels and the failure to correct them surgically was probably quite common among women, especially those that took care of others as women so often did.)

I watched a video on my shoemakers blog on how to make a last upon which to build a shoe and went to visit the Anarchist with duct tape and homemade play dough in hand. The play dough was for filling the spaces over the toes to make a shoe like shape. I had her slip on a pair of knee high nylons I had brought with me and she stood on the cardboard soles I had made with a little wall of duct tape around the perimeter. I went to town ripping off pieces of duct tape and wrapping them across her feet attaching them to the side wall.  After I was done I carefully cut the duct tape boots off down the top of the foot. The results looked like a pair of boots left behind by the Tin Man after a thorough beating.

Instead of flattening out my duct tape pieces to make patterns for a last as instructed, I decided to skip that step and just drape the leather over the duct tape forms themselves. I cut up an old black t-shirt to make a prototype. The Anarchist loved the pixie shape I had devised to accommodate the unusual shape of her feet. My challenge was to make the shoe for the more normal foot look the same as this high profile one. It would not be possible to make them identical, but I could mimic the same shape and hold the foot with a hidden piece inside the shoe. I had brought my bag of leather scraps so she could choose what kind of leather she wanted her shoes made from. She admired how soft and flexible some of the pieces. As they were to be her first pair,  were and chose black which would go with most of her outfits and hats for she was a snappy dresser.

She then showed me the pair of shoes she had had custom made by a professional shoemaker. They hurt her feet she
said and cost $500. They were so stiff and ugly they made me angry. There was no flex to the sole at all. Whoever constructed these shoes had decided that her feet were too crippled to be of any use and had made what was essentially the foot part of a wooden leg.

I ordered more leather from e-bay—remnants from upholstered leather sofa making. And I made adjustments to my t-shirt mock up until we were satisfied with the fit. Then I took apart my model and used the pieces as a pattern to cut the shoe parts out of the black leather. Next I had to learn how to sew leather together with the prescribed synthetic sinew. I bought myself the proper needles, a stitching awl, sinew and some non toxic cement. I could use my sewing machine to make holes in the leather that could then be enlarged by the stitching awl; the hand sewing went much easier once I made the holes large enough.

Hunting down material for the soles would be a challenge since this was a material only available to professional shoe makers in bulk rolls. My shoemaker blogger suggested going to Home Depot to look for rubber floor tiles used in workout rooms and garages; they were made from recycled automobile tires. The pack of 6 tiles I found would be enough for 12 pairs of shoes, but they were the right thickness. I was very pleased that they were a recycled product. 

The insoles were also challenging because my customer's feet were of such a shape that no conventional insole from the drug store would work. So in the end I used some square sheets of rubber I had on hand that came as knee pads inside gardening pants. I covered these thick pieces with scrap upholstery material I had gotten from FabMo a non profit that collected samples discarded by interior design stores. For shoe laces I decided to use gross grain ribbon from the fabric store was in order. These ribbon ties along with the pointed pixie toes made the shoes look magical. 

I had the Anarchist try them on. The problematic right foot was a bit loose in the toe. She got her canes out and took a test drive walking fast into her room and back. The pointed soles on one foot would catch a little as she picked up her feet so I took them home and cut and sewed the toes into a rounded shape. Now they fit better and were easier to walk in. She also commented that they were very comfortable and the soles offered plenty of arch support. That's funny I thought, I didn't build any arch support into the footbed. But the thickness of the insoles afforded enough cushion to feel like it and protected her protruding bones from the hard floor. She was pleased with the that they looked dressy too. 


Stepping off the Grid

Such off the grid journeys, I realized, usually started with a revealing piece of information. Shampoo I found out made your hair grease up which led to hair washing every other day when I really didn't need to wash my hair more than once a week if I used baking soda and an apple cider rinse as was done a century ago. Not to mention that some of the ingredients in shampoo were toxic. 

When I started reading up on what caused my blood sugar to spike I learned that our food supply was compromised by the misinformation of the medical institution creating a world wide aversion to saturated fat. The processed food industry then capitalized on cheap ingredients some of which the body was unable to digest. But as long as a package said low-fat or vegetarian any frankenfood would sell as a health food. 

My interest in electric cars taught me that automobiles could be built much simpler and lighter if it weren't for the demands of long distance travel and the crash test at freeway speeds. Crash test regulations kept other alternatives off the market even if you never intended to drive on the freeway, but at a much slower speed appropriate to neighborhoods. Housing was also controlled by regulations not necessarily for safety but to keep keeping them large. Too large to afford. I had believed that these first world regulations created a superior society, but I now see that it is more about upholding a standard of living. One that would continue to feed the profit margins of industrialized products made with machinery so large it required huge amounts of capital so only mega corporations could compete. Not to mention creating a society where shoes, cars and houses had become status items under designer label brands. These designs were so conventionally limited that there were only minute differences between brands and models creating a sea of choices that really offered no choice at all. Anyone wanting a different concept altogether was out of luck. Likewise anyone with abnormally wide feet or feet already ruined by fashion trends had no shoes at all. 

I too had been taken. Years of reading advertisements specifying the technical improvements of shoes in the sports industry had convinced me that a highly "technical" shoe corrected or at least enhanced the performance of feet. Now I saw that industrially made shoes were coddling feet with padding while undermining their natural ability to function. (Plus the overseas sweatshops with their underpaid labor and toxic work environments to produce these shoes always irked me.)

Others had also realized how the emperor had no clothes given all of the above revelations being passed around and I
was aware that a movement was afoot. More and more people were interested in old ways of doing things—cooking from scratch, finding ways to live in tiny homes, getting kids to school in Dutch cargo bicycles, investigating ayervedic medicine, massage, yoga and other ancient techniques of living healthily. But despite all this re-skilling as it has come to be known, not too many people had taken up shoemaking. In fact leather work as a hobby seemed to have fallen out of favor along with macrame plant hangers. I had found only the one out of print book in my library system. Even on the internet very little information was being offered. Those who had had taken up shoemaking were mostly moms and grandmothers looking for healthy shoes for children that would allow the foot to develop naturally. Shoes for adults were likely more subject to fashion demands and fitting into conventional work settings.

It was also a skill that pushed beyond most people's ability requiring sharp tools, a bit of strength to push needles through leather and thick rubber and an imaginative design sense plus an ability to visualize three dimensionally. Just the sort of skill set I had been cultivating since childhood. And the potential for recycling and making unique fashionitems would entertain me for some time. What better way to upset the paradigm than to make one's own shoes? A village cobbler could help turn a community away from exclusive designer brands to unique one-of-kind efforts in a locally made product. 

It is the Year of the Horse an kick ass time to manifest new ideas. And the horse is the only animal on the horoscope to wear shoes!

May ye all be well shod.

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Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Amanda Dances Christmas

As inspired by a year of much transition, healing and recovery I have danced for you in this riveting and unpredictable, masterpiece of spontaneous video shot live today at my home. It could be said that you cannot truly know me until you have seem me at my goofiest.


With much gratitude for the readership, comments and ongoing support found here. I wish you a Happy Christmas and holiday season.

Amanda

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Tuesday, November 12, 2013

And Now For Something Completely Different

Sometimes you have no idea you can do something well until someone gives you a prize. The first time I won a Zoomie for my student movie The Artful Bodger I saw that I clearly had an advantage over my fellow classmates because so few people actually finished their class project. With only ten days to do so you really had to hustle to not only shoot your movie, but edit it as well. The Zoom-In course sponsored by the Media Center is taught by Doug Kreitz and covers basic equipment operation, how to set up Hollywood lighting, how to handle sound. The lighting did indeed make an ordinary person look like a star and when he taught us how to interview a subject I understood the power of television. I had volunteered to be the interviewer.

"What was the first film you remember seeing in a movie theater?" I asked him and he was off and running telling me the story of seeing Boris Karloff in Frankenstein I think it was. And how he was so frightened he had to call his mother half way through to come and pick him up. The formality of filming a person for posterity, I realized, gave this process a ceremonial quality; people presented themselves in a different way with more attention to what they were saying. And there was historical information embodied in their answer too. On the receiving end it gave me an authority I was unused to receiving. I was entranced. 

I asked my mother if I could interview her about what it was like to be in a mixed marriage in the '50s. She agreed to the interview and dressed up for the occasion. I set up the lighting kit and a lavaliere mike I had checked out from the Media Center equipment library. But the lights were so large that they overwhelmed the tiny space in her sitting room. I threw something over one light to dim it somewhat. My mother sat in the chair and I rolled camera and started asking my questions, but when I listened through my headphones the sound was full of static and I couldn't figure out why. It was alright in playback mode, so I was good to go, but between figuring out if the camera was on or off, I had already lost quite a lot of my mother's story. Then the gel I had thrown over the light started to smoke and the situation was fast becoming a comedy of errors. And not all that interesting as a movie I realized since you can't just have a talking head for the whole film and my idea to cut away to photographs from the family album wasn't all that dynamic.

Luckily I had a fall back subject—myself making something. And I was using power tools, always an exciting visual given the chance of cutting off a finger or two. All I had to do was film all the steps of making the project and a little bit of context to show how I picked materials then tie it all together with a voiceover.  Doing a voiceover was not all that easy. You had to get the timing right while you read the script live into a microphone as the video was running. I didn't have it as perfect as I would've liked, but I did want to finish my project since Doug was as excited as I was that my movie was coming together. By this time class had run overtime by an hour or so with just me and another filmmaker. No wonder so few students finished their film. 


The Zoomies

At the 6th biannual Zoomes The Artful Bodger won the audience award against 5 other contestants. 
During the Zoomies awards night Becky, the Media Center coordinator interviewed the filmmakers under the bright lights in the broadcasting studio. The setting made it feel just like a television show and Becky asked questions about the making of my film as if it was a significant contribution to the world. Naturally, I loved this part even though the audience was all of twenty people. 
Photo by Doug Kreitz

Sixth months later I had another film to submit to the Zoomies and this time I invited any friends who might want to come (and my mother). Partly because I wanted them to see what meager beginnings was the start line for filmmaking. How those first student efforts were not even close to the simplest bit of news video they might see on TV. How many skills were actually needed to make a movie interesting. How even the graduate category submissions were tepid. This time I was ecstatic to win, not only the audience award, but the overall excellence award which got my name on a plaque displayed in the lobby. I had never had my name on a plaque even in school. 

Still I had to ask myself what gave me such an edge over the competition? With all those videos on YouTube I thought there were tons of people making micro films who were savvy navigators of the technology. This was supposed to be the medium of the digerati, the youth culture. But it turns out that you can't just set up a camera and expect to see a story unfold. No matter what the medium, stories don't tell themselves. Could it be that old age and experience trumps youthful energy and technical expertise? Plus I had all those years of watching movies critically to sharpen my eye. 


The Making Of Squirming Buckets of Id

My film began not with an idea for a film, but with the realization, after nearly a year accompanying Catherine to the infusion lab for cancer treatment, that vitality is a temporal thing. And it dawned on me that there were things I wanted to do before my own vitality was diminished. I didn't know then what exactly that was, but once I had a camera in hand and my new video making skills I knew I wanted to start capturing my friends in motion before we all grew old and feeble. I had also made a list of significant contributors to my life because it was such a person who had inspired me to get a movie camera in the first place so it seemed only fitting that I give back in some way.

I met Cristina,  during a lost mixed up time of life in my early twenties. She worked at the library where I had my first job shelving books in high school. I had returned while still in college to do data entry in that era of moving from card catalogs to computer catalogs. Cristina worked in the basement processing the new books that came in. We shared a love of movies and could talk endlessly about them. She was a graduate of Stanford—the writing program. This impressed me greatly, first because it was Stanford and second because I was awed by people who could write stories. Cristina told me stories of her writing professors and her two best friends. The three friends were the most talented in the class. I was envious of such friends. 

The following summer, Cristina and I went to England together with a friend who had good travel karma and an uncanny sense of direction. We went to seek out literary touchstones visiting the homes of the Brontes, Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy plus a stop in Tintagel, King Arthur's place. Every night I duly recorded my impressions of our day in my journal until finally on the last leg of the trip Cristina wryly commented on this habit after an unsuccessful attempt to distract me.

"You're the writer," she said, "only a writer would be so dedicated as to stay up late recording every day of a vacation." Then she made me read what I'd written. I had had no formal training apart from high school English and a creative writing class. And though I was an avid journal writer, I had not made the leap to fiction so had decided my best bet was to finish a degree in graphic design. Cristina picked out passages from my entries that were marks of good writing. "That part you wrote there, that's a good transition; that's hard to do well in writing," she noted. After that evening I felt duly accepted as a member of the club and I carried on writing. When I wrote and published my memoir "Diamonds In My Pocket" nearly 30 years later, I listed Cristina as one of the people who had believed in me as a writer. 

Cristina, meanwhile, went on to get her Masters of Library Sciences and became a children's librarian. We kept in touch over the occasional lunch a few blocks from the library. One day she showed me a carrot suit that she was going to wear for her storytelling session. Costumes always intrigued me. At another lunch she told me she was retiring. I suddenly remembered this when I made the above list and realized I had never seen her do a storytelling session. I quickly wrote and asked if I could come and videotape her storytelling. As it happened she was only going to be doing one more. 

"I feel like a rock star," she wrote back and told me I'd be welcome to bring my camera. Watching her from behind my tripod, I was quite surprised at all the schtick she put in to teach children how to use the library and how to take care of books. I had no idea, in fact, how to talk to children, not having any of my own, so it astonished me to what lengths she was willing to go to keep them on point. I made sure to get lots of "B" roll of the kids looking at books, talking to Cristina and standing at the check-out desk. My experience posting how-to pictures to flickr had taught me that it helped if each step of a story was photographed to complete the story.

Later over lunch we discussed what she might talk about in the video and in her final week at the library I went to her office at the main library in Redwood City to do an interview. Having learned from class that good sound is more important than polished video, I had bought an inexpensive lapel microphone that plugged into my little Canon Vixia camera (bought used on e-bay). We picked a spot in the back room that had enough light and something to look at in the background. Then I asked her questions that would lead to the information I wanted. As instructed in class I made sure to remind her not to answer my questions directly, but to use full sentences. It was a jumbled collection of information, but I was confident that after 20 minutes of interview I had captured the highlights. 

Afterwards I hung around and got "B" roll that would provide me with lots of transition action. I now had about one and a half hours of video to use to build my movie.


On The Cutting Room Floor

I looked through all the footage and gathered together in a file just the clips I needed to tell my story, about twelve minutes in all. Then I showed just those clips to Cristina to discover if she had any preferences for how I edited the movie. With her own knowledge of film she agreed with me that the carrot suit was the most arresting piece of the action and that the story she told about bringing the community to the library through author nights had no B roll so would be irrelevant to our movie even though it had been her greatest achievement. And though she cringed watching herself on a bad hair day wearing an unflattering summer reading t-shirt, she allowed it as long as I included footage of her on a good hair day in her normal clothes.

As quickly as possible I assembled the story working in iMovie on my laptop figuring out how to split the sound from the video to use as a voiceover. Then I showed it to Catherine, my go-to reference for video critiquing since she had once had her own video company and had made a documentary that was shown at the LGBT film festival. She pointed out a shot halfway through my video that was clumsily moving to the floor and told me to cover it up with footage of the audience. On the interview of Cristina she suggested I to let her laugh all the way through and then fade to black. I had more to learn on iMovie to make these adjustments, but once I figured out how to insert a cut, I started listening to the narration and seeing that the footage was telling its own story and a rather disorganized one at that. So I rearranged several clips, added more and organized them into the subtext of the story. It felt like I was editing a piece of writing. No wonder I had a jump on the competition. Years of writing had translated to film giving me an edge over my fellow filmmakers who saw only one layer of story and presented things at face value. The footage I had reorganized turned out to be what carried the emotional thread while Cristina herself was revealed to be a charismatic subject. I put 14 hours into the editing of my little movie with all that I had to learn. Some of my essays might take that long, but most take half that. 


A video has its own merit as a finished product while a piece of writing is more like a letter that deepens (or complicates) my relationships in life. Filmmaking revealed my artistic sensibilities in a very different way from writing. And some topics lend themselves more to film, while others are definitely the realm of words. But much also depends on my audience. While film was a collaboration with my subject, writing was a conversation with my readers. Whether the conversation goes on depends on who responds, who seems to be listening. I often write simply to save my own life, sort it out in the mirror of writing, but to post it publicly asks the question "is this useful?". In this era of viral YouTube messages and photo memes, the written word has fallen out of favor and film is the shiny new thing, but as one of my readers wrote me "writing takes us to a very fundamental place in our species-specific consciousness". And for those of us willing to read that may still be useful.

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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Climbing To New Heights

In which I fulfill the role of conference chair for the Institute for Challenging Disorganization, pulling off an event more successful than my wildest expectations.



The conference chair's job is assumed to be over once the speakers are booked and all the arrangements made with the hotel to facilitate the smooth running of the program, but to me arriving in Denver two days before I was to appear at the podium for this annual conference of the Institute For Challenging Disorganization, I felt my job was only just beginning.

At the networking mixer the night before the program was to start, a handful of long time subscribers and board members thanked me for the quality of speakers that I had put together for the conference. They had come to this conclusion based on the write-ups and the bios of the speakers in the program. Our theme Climbing To New Heights inspired by our Denver location, had also helped. Their acknowledgement allowed me a measure of breathing space and I could relax a little. Later I would wonder what combination of luck or skill had helped me put together such a program.  

What for instance had allowed me to pick the speakers for programming with such confidence? "Beginner's luck," I had said to the board president when she first saw the line-up several months ago. 

It helped that I had no reputation to uphold so I did not feel I had something to prove. The board had already placed their confidence in me by asking me to take on this role. I could proceed with some calm based on my experience as program chair for my chapter meetings. I had made so many mistakes in my two year stint, I at least knew what didn't work. My predecessor Marci Katz had taught me how to approach and negotiate with potential speakers during my two years on the ICD conference committee. She left me a few leads and a sample of a letter to write to prospective speakers. Then she retired from the committee leaving me to it. 


It's lucky that I like to read, I thought. In the last decade I had read enough to answer most of my questions about how the world works in the political, sociological, psychological and spiritual arenas as well as in the practical realm of carpentry, plumbing and gardening. I liked ideas prompted by bio-mimicry and ecological systems. I liked how social science could be reframed with new theories and discoveries. I enjoyed new studies about how the brain worked and theories about how it could be retrained. I had also read enough inspirational material and entrepreneurial fluff to distinguish between an original thought and one borrowed and dumbed down to fit a particular marketing approach. 

For the conference I had gone in search of authors who had the educational background or personal experience to develop enough original thinking to fill a a book on a subject that might interest my colleagues. Which meant that I had to know my colleagues in the context of ICD. And having attended every conference since it's inception I felt that I did. It was the brain trust of the organizing profession as one colleague put it. Given all our past conferences and our monthly tele classes, we were well versed in the basics of hoarding research, ADHD, depression, bipolar disorder, brain damage and the practical impact of a slew of other diagnosis on people's ability to function. At our conferences we moved as one hearing all the same speakers and discussing them at the breaks together. We also did not live on theory alone; we wanted practical applications for the knowledge being given.



The Speakers


Speaker suggestions had come in from subscribers and committee members, but many of these speakers were too famous to afford or so popular they were already booked out. Many were also cribbed from other conferences and so had a professional veracity to them rooted in traditional therapy that were certain to be acceptable, but I found them less than fresh. 

From these suggestions, I picked two I thought were different in their focus. One was Lee Shuer who gave his presentation from a recovering hoarder's perspective and introduced the fairly new development of peer responders stepping up to help their fellow hoarders take the first step to recovery. I saw him speak at the Hoarder's conference put on by the San Francisco Mental Health Association. (My colleague Kim, sitting next to me prompted me to go after him.) There was also Dr. Suzanne Chabaud who was a clinical therapist focused on hoarding and lately on the impact of hoarding parents on children. She was eager to connect with organizers. Therapists so rarely acknowledged the role of professional organizers that I was intrigued. She had also appeared on 29 TV hoarding shows although that was not a venue that readily impressed us.

To fulfill CEU credits for our new certificate on aging, the committee agreed that we needed to find a speaker on dementia. It so happened that the San Francisco chapter had had a panel on aging at our own regional conference. I had not seen it so I asked the colleague who had moderated the panel, to recommend someone. Diane Judd and I had worked together on a conference once before. She also happened to be a dedicated ICD subscriber and was eager to bring us Laurie White, an expert on dementia, elevating her from panelist to presenter. Diane even invited her to lunch in her own home along with me and two other colleagues to make sure Laurie got to know our full professional scope. This made me feel lucky indeed and immensely supported by my own chapter members. 

The board also cut me some slack by agreeing with Kate, my board liaison, that it would be a good idea to have an Ask The Organizer panel so we could put our own people up on the podium to provide the increasing number of newcomers with opinions of veteran organizers. They also agreed to us having a gig we tried before at conference several years ago which was to have one of our own people moderate a case studies discussion. This had been the brainchild of my long time friend Denslow Brown so I was happy to facilitate a revived session with additional twists she wanted to add in.

For my own picks, I was inclined to take risks with material I found provocative. And so I had chosen three who pushed the envelope for me. One was Dr. Thomas Armstrong. His refreshing perspective on ADHD from the perspective of neurodiversity rather than the medical model of a disease to be treated captured my attention. I put him as our first presenter. He turned out to be a dynamic and practiced speaker who was quite funny about stepping outside of the mental illness model in a way that completely tickled my anti-authoritarian, anti-psychotherapy view of the world. In addition he also engaged us in exercises that would test for some of the nine intelligences he offered as part of the neurodiversity package. 

"Pick a partner," he said. "Now decide who will be A and who will be B".
 "I'll be B," I said to Kate sitting next to me. "You be A."
"Okay," she said.
"You're done," said Dr. Armstrong and we laughed having expected more to it. Then he pointed out the people skills needed to settle such a negotiation. Kate and I congratulated ourselves on the efficiency of our exchange. 

I easily failed the math intelligence, but there were others I had never seen listed as intelligences before and those included knowing oneself and the desire to find answers to existential questions—the big Meaning of Life questions. I instantly felt a great deal smarter having spent so much time on both. Plus he had mentioned shamans twice and shown a picture of an indigenous shaman as part of his point about how other civilizations worked with the messages of aberrant behavior and non ordinary psychic phenomena.

"One day I will bring shamanism to an ICD conference," I had said to Lenore, my shamanic counselor. 

"You already have," she said and I realized she meant me.

Another speaker choice from California had created a company in Marin County to give workshops on eliminating stress. His approach was just the right mix of science and a slight mystical component. I read his book Mystic Cool just to make sure. His graphics were clear and beautiful and we could all remember his point that you have 90 seconds to extinguish thoughts and judgements that might escalate your brain to full fledged fear. Fear being the heart of a disorganized brain, he said. To distract ourselves from the fear response of the reptile brain, he taught us to press a finger into the palm of the opposite hand, imagine it connecting to our heart, take a breath, then count to 3 and visualize the numbers in colors—red for 1, blue for 2 and green for 3. This he called the clear button.

And finally there was the highly animated and attractive professor of film I had so looked forward to meeting. I had inherited Melinda from my predecessor Marci based on the recommendation of another artist who had done a presentation on art and hoarding at a previous conference. Melinda lived in Boulder which was flooding just as we were coming up to the week of conference thus adding the suspense of natural disaster impeding her arrival. But arrive she did by bus less than two hours before she was to speak elegantly dressed in a shimmering vintage cocktail dress. The conference committee had been split about whether to invite her; the ones opposed felt her topic was too far removed from any practical application or knowledge. We would not however have to pay hotel or transportation costs to have her so I went ahead and booked her. She in turn tailored her talk on women collectors to the specifics that I emphasized would be helpful for us. Mainly how do collectors give up parts of their collection? She added her own. Could squalor be elevated to an art form?

Women she said tend to collect treasures that have stories attached to them. And given that women had not been able to legally own anything until quite recently, her point that women collected objects that reflect back to them their own identity made quite a lot of sense. She also mentioned the concept of having the right to gaze at an object; this right having been chiefly granted to men. Thus collections allowed women the right to gaze. As for the relinquishing of possessions this was akin to experiencing loss or death in some way. Thus death had to become part of collecting perhaps in a symbolic ritualistic way. For to live was to be willing to let go of something, to die over and over again. 

This admittedly was a little precious for some, but it did evoke the heavy emotional burden that many of our hoarding clients carried about their possessions. And her slides had numerous photos of famous hoards, pithy quotations and film references; it gave people a lot of entry points. And I made a friend. Melinda took one look at my white cowboy hat, lime green vest, purple pants and cowboy boots and decided that I too was a sympatico soul seeking to collect an identity that stretched into the realm of artistic expression.

The Outfit

I loved the limelight, but public speaking still terrified me. Given all the hardworking and highly credentialed colleagues who came to these conferences, I did not have a high enough opinion of myself to stand at the podium in "business attire" as it is worded and speak to our organization as a peer. I didn't' really get me in a business context. I had spoken to this group before at a previous conference as part of a panel and they had found me funny. I never knew quite why. I was just being myself. It was the same with my chapter meetings. Some combination of my English accent, my use of language and perhaps a certain racial and gender bending essence had created an unexpected personality. (One that warmed up with the attention of an audience especially an audience that was predominantly women). But it was not professional in the traditional sense. 

For what I was attempting to do as conference chair, I needed a role to play, part emcee, part ringmaster, part wrangler. A character who would hold the group together in celebration as they experienced the most important event of the organization. In short I wanted everyone to have a terrifically good time. And having a good time was one of the last remaining things a live event can offer in this day of online webinars, tele classes and copious free information, not to mention recordings of the conference onto CDs which could be listened to while driving and didn't require the expense of airfare and hotel fees.

We had recently changed the name of the organization and got a new logo so it had become popular to wear the ICD logo colors of purple orange and green. Many evenings I drew with the colors various designs for a vest. Eventually I decided to simplify it to a green vest with orange piping which would be a good way to play down the most difficult color—orange. When I found purple jeans on sale in the Macy's boys' department I knew it was confirmation for my design. To dress up the vest I searched for textured fabric and learned from a book, on decorative vests, that I could create texture with ribbons woven into a fabric. I had found ribbon to match the logo green. It took longer to track down the right width and buy up all that was available—five spools of ribbon—than it took to weave them. The orange covered buttons was the final touch. I also needed a light weight shirt to wear under it since it would likely be warm. I had a pair of cool-to-the-touch, silky, white farmers pants from Thailand wide enough to cut up and sew into a pirate style shirt so I did that.

And since Colorado was the heart of cowboy country I longed to bring my two toned Tony Lama boots. Which naturally meant a hat which I happened to find a week before conference. But I could not fully embrace this iconoclastic Cowboy symbol until I had brought in a Native American piece to it as well (to reclaim the damage done by the Cowboys). That I did with the two braids in my hair that I had been wearing of late and my hair pipe choker I had made as a teenager. These Native American touches also evoked the intuitive shamanic work I had been doing with my spirit guides. I had brought my shamanic rattle for the purpose  of calling them in to help me. (It was given to me by a friend who got it at a climate change event in the Brazilian Amazon.) All this brought up that crazy making topic of cultural appropriation of minority symbols. Was it exploitive? 

While in Denver I visited the Denver Art Museum with my pals and stayed longer so I could see the Native American collection which occupied an entire floor. I took in the "spirit shirts" of painted and beaded fringed buckskin and read the description of how Native Americans used clothing and artistic expression to draw power for ceremony or hunting events. I too was creating a spirit outfit to help me step into my full power. I also saw the military jackets from Victorian era uniforms that had been given as gifts; the recipients had incorporated into these samples of the white man's power clothing, their own decoration. This cross pollination gave me a more fluid definition of cultural exchange. I was borrowing two elements from American cultural symbology to help me make a business event my own even though none of it was part of my own heritage. It was pushing the envelope, but I was willing to risk claiming it. 

I did however get the skin test for explosive residue as I traveled through SFO with my white cowboy hat. An Asian cowgirl carrying a backpacker's soft sided luggage on a vintage luggage cart was just way too suspicious.

From The Podium

I memorized my opening remarks wondering if any of it would be funny. Just before I left my room, I thought of something absurd to say. I went on stage, I introduced myself and showed off my outfit. It was cautiously admired (but simultaneously complements were tweeted). I told them it took me 7 weeks to design it because all the details of conference had been so well worked out that all that was left for me to do was to guild the lily. This was not a common enough phrase to be funny, but the character that I continued to bring out at the podium was indeed something of a ring master. The language of hyperbole fell from my lips. 

"It is my great pleasure to stand before this august body of intellectual and intuitive boldness," I said seeing in their faces the sense that I was trying to woo them. "You inspire me," I declared. Did they believe me? No I was clearly trying to flatter them. "This shirt used to be a pair of pants," I pointed out holding up an arm. The room burst into laughter. Yes that was an unexpected juxtaposition. The fun could begin. The rest of the conference was a matter of getting people on stage to introduce the speakers. I was merely the tour guide. But there was a piece of the action I could still claim. It was left to me to thank each speaker after each presentation and I was able to insert just a few words of summation into that space that took paying attention to what was their overall message. Most were simple enough to sum up, but there was one that defied definition.

"Thank-you Dr. Barlow for that fascinating intersection of stuff, art and death," I said widening my eyes as I tried to think of something more explanatory, but I was stumped and that got a laugh. Then I was free to do schtick. 

"This is your captain speaking. We have now gained a little time in our journey and as a result are ahead of schedule, but please come back in ten minutes anyway."

By the second day, still wearing the same outfit, I had nothing new to show off so I decided I must sing. This was bold of me considering that music was not one of my intelligences. But I had the microphone, hummed a note, looked at my buddies in the front row and sang that rousing little ditty from Singing In The Rain appropriate to the 8:30 am hour as people took their time coming in. 

"Good morning, Good mo-o-or-n-ing. We're so glad to have you back. Good morning, Good morning to you…." "Now you know why I don't do musical comedy," I quipped, but they seemed to appreciate it. 

The first speaker Dr. Chabaud brought with her a guest, a poised younger woman who turned out to be of equal interest being an adult child of hoarding parents, but she wasn't scheduled to speak. Marci came up to me at the break and suggested I try to fit her in any way. This is the sort of in-the-moment challenge that gets thrown into the lap of the designated driver. So I figured out the logistics with the help of Jim who headed our management company and announced that we would have her speak during the lunch hour and answer questions that had come up with her introduction. We were having a box lunch so it worked out perfectly.

Coming into the home stretch we had to make a room change just before closing. These logistics took up so much of my bandwidth I could hardly think in the case studies session, but I was so in the groove by then that nearly everything I said was funny. I did get my closing remarks in and thanked everyone I could think of (remembering late that night that I had forgotten to thank the 40 or so volunteers who were running around taking photographs and handing off microphones). But finally I could hand off the role of program chair to the next year's person along with the hat which looked great on her and would be just as fitting in Nashville, our next conference city. 

"And whatever you do don't say what a hard act to follow," I had told her beforehand (because that's what everyone says when I do schtick with a costume). She nodded saying "We'll just go with the positive, then". "Yes" I said. We were after all members of the same team.

And when it was her turn at the podium she simply said "Didn't she do a great job" as I hopped off the stage. When I looked up again everyone was standing up applauding. They were giving me a standing ovation! I was so dumbstruck my jaw dropped open. (This was one of those finishes that you just want to live over and over until you figure out why it worked.) The new chair turned on a music video she put together to drum up interest for Nashville; Jim came to the front of the stage in his orange polo shirt and did the wave to the music getting everyone to join in. It was indeed a celebratory finish.

When I got home I drove around for a week in silence, laughing at my own jokes and hearing in my head bits and pieces of things speakers had said. I had stepped into my power. Where do I go from here? I wondered.

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