Archaic social media – Arts Wire uncovered

Imagine it is 1989

The internet is barely known, email is a strange and difficult idea, and the World Wide Web hasn’t been invented yet. But the censorship wars are raging, the AIDS crisis is hitting artists hard, and debates about public support of the arts in Congress and elsewhere are fiery. Artists and others in the arts need to connect as a community across distances. Arts Wire was created to meet that challenge and is now being rediscovered.

Banner headline for Arts Wire’s front page, the “Hub,” November 1992

What was Arts Wire?

In early 1989, I puzzled over how to spread the news and make the connections that artists needed. I soon learned about the “information superhighway” and found mentors in San Francisco and Washington DC. Named Arts Wire later that year, the network was built by a small group of us spread from coast to coast—Seattle, Ann Arbor, the Bay area, New York, Arizona, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and more. The New York Foundation for the Arts was its first supporter and its home base throughout. It got started through paper memos, telephone calls, occasional face-to-face meetings and went online on CompuServe, Sprintnet, and finally the internet. We made our own place online with help from a network provider in Arlington (VA) and later moved to Carnegie Mellon.

Arts Wire proselytized on behalf of this new tool, and its staff educated and trained new folks to use the then-baffling technology. The news on Arts Wire came from its staff, steering committee, and individual users—artists, arts funders, and staff of arts organizations, public arts agencies, arts service organizations, and arts advocacy groups. Arts Wire enticed associations to join and bring their members online—National Association of Artists Organizations, National Campaign for Freedom of Expression, Native Arts Network, CraftNet, VisualAIDS, Association of Hispanic Arts, National Assembly of State Arts Agencies, American Music Center, NewMusNet (led by composer Pauline Oliveros), and many more.

Despite the ethic of the day—Don’t use paper! Save it on floppies!—I just couldn’t give up my attachment to words on paper. While trying to be frugal, I nevertheless printed out many “online captures” of what we were doing. As we’ve learned 25 years later, ink on paper is much more stable than the magnetic coating on floppy disks…rusty paper clips aside.

 AND_NOW? Archaic Social Media

In 2016, Arts Wire came back into my life as I figured out what to do with my new role as Alum in Residence at the University of Washington’s School of Art + Art History + Design. For one, I thought, why not clear out my storage unit? It was stuffed with banker boxes of materials from a life of “projects.” Interns and I could inventory, discuss, and find a home for them.

Two undergrads signed up for fall quarter, two more joined us in the winter, for a total of two art students and two art history students. Arts Wire would be a good, discrete project to start with. All four interns—Karen Beech, Jessica Capó, Zach Heinemeyer, and Lizzie Trelawny-Vernon—have taken the project on with intelligence, imagination, and overflowing enthusiasm.

As the intern team digs into the 16 banker boxes of my print-outs and other materials, they’re creating an inventory and engaging in conversations with me and with special guests about what they’re finding. They’re learning about archiving, but also about how a new entity can be created and what the early days of the technology were like (before they were born). They’ve found things that make them laugh out loud and things that are completely puzzling. As importantly, they find sobering news of events going on in Arts Wire’s times and discover how related the news is to the news of our world today—censorship, health crises, discrimination, political battles, protests, media debates, and the impact of the latest technologies. They’ve mentioned gaining a new understanding of history with the advantage that they can talk with people who were there and are still alive now (many, even, still kicking!).

Lizzie, Zach, Anne, Jess, Tommer Peterson (Arts Wire publication director), and Karen, recording a podcast for AND_NOW?

Toward the end of February 2017, they produced and presented a series of public programs to start sharing what they learned. The series, named “AND_NOW?” after the opening prompt on Arts Wire’s first home page, included:

  • A week-long take-over of the art school’s Instagram account – #AND_NOW?
  • An exhibition, “AND_NOW? Archaic Social Media,” that drew on material from Arts Wire files and ran from February 23 to March 10 at Parnassus, the school’s storied coffee shop
  • A podcast series, “AND NOW? Archaic Social Media” <andnowpodcast.wordpress.com>, launched on February 24 that includes interviews with people involved in Arts Wire as well as wide-ranging conversations that investigate, through today’s eyes, ideas found in Arts Wire files.

My files only go from early 1989 through about 1995 when I bowed out. Other people, in other parts of the country, can continue the story, post-1995. One person who has written much of this history is Judy Malloy, an early social media poet and arts writer, and an important Arts Wire staff member. Recently she wrote a chapter about Arts Wire for a book she edited, Social Media Archeology and Poetics, published last year.1 One of my favorite quotes from that chapter comes from Kenny Greenberg, who, in a 1994 review of Arts Wire for Internet World, observed:

As with art—Gophers, SIGs, and HTTP sites notwithstanding—it is the human spirit that makes Arts Wire special. The voices behind the information and the personal reactions to the data make Arts Wire a lively place.

1  Social Media Archeology and Poetics, edited by Judy Malloy, published by The MIT Press, 2016.

This work is possible because of support from the Jini Dellaccio Project.


“Office hours” carry on in 2017

One way I’ll be “carrying on” in 2017 is through my “office hours” with Artist Trust as part of the Jini Dellaccio Project. Every month I continue to reserve the second and fourth Wednesday afternoon at 1:30 and 3:30 for these conversations. You can sign up here.

Last summer “office hours” was a fairly unformed and open-ended idea. The notion was based on amazing conversations I’ve had over the years with people who just wanted to talk and on a vague sense that seven decades of life and work experience might prove useful or at least interesting to others. I also imagined the conversations would be two-way exchanges and that I’d be a primary beneficiary.

Artist Trust and I started this experiment for real in September, and it’s proven to be just as amazing as the conversations that inspired it. The conversations have given me the opportunity to meet extraordinary people I hadn’t known before and to spend time with old friends, the kind of focused time that feels luxurious but that we give ourselves so seldom.

People – both women and men – of many ages signed up – some early in their lives, some in the middle thick of it, and others, like me, enmeshed in life’s upper layers. Some came with a specific question or project in mind, and a few said, in so many words, “I’m not sure why I made this appointment.” Regardless of what prompted it, in the end each conversation seemed to matter. Sometimes an experience from my past proved useful, many times we discovered something new or the beginning of a solution through our back-and-forth discussion, and other times it seemed that the simple chance to talk with someone who was interested and listened closely was enough. Each one took its own course, and the form remains just as open-ended as it started.

“Office hours” sounds more formal than they are, and they tend to last more than an hour. We meet at Artist Trust and usually walk down the street to a nearby coffee shop, or we simply take a walk and talk while walking. Come use me as a sounding board, pick my brain, or try out new ideas. Office hours are open to anyone.  Let’s talk!

Sign up by selecting a slot here.

 


“Office hours”

Office hours at Artist Trust

As part of the Jini Dellaccio Project, I’m holding what for now we’re calling “office hours.” Tea time, coffee break, happy hour, chitchat, heart-to-heart, or even consultation – these conversations can take many forms. Artists and anyone else can use me as a sounding board, pick my brain, or try out new ideas. One-to-one or in small groups, we can talk about anything. I’ve reserved two afternoons a month for “office hours” at Artist Trust.

You can sign up by selecting a slot here. (Thanks to Artist Trust for setting up this scheduler.)

Like so many other people my age, I seem increasingly to be asked for advice, for stories about the “old days,” or simply for the chance to puzzle over a problem together. I think of these as two-way exchanges because I always learn something in the process. Let’s talk!

More coming

I’ll soon be setting up “open door office hours” at the University of Washington School of Art + Art History + Design. Information will be posted in “office hours” under the References menu on my website’s main page.


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Returning to my alma mater…half a century later

“Half a century” seems SO long ago, much longer than 50 years. “Five decades” feels closer to my experience; after all, I can count up to five on one hand. No matter how it’s put, though, that’s about how much time has passed since I received my undergraduate degree in Art History from the University of Washington. It was 1967.

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In the intervening decades, I’ve been an invited guest in a few college classes here and elsewhere, edited writings by wonderful scholars, attended events on college campuses, and donated papers to Special Collections at the UW Libraries. But I haven’t spent any real time in an academic setting – not taking classes, teaching, or doing research.

Alum in Residence

All this is why it’s such a special opportunity to have been appointed Alum in Residence* at the University of Washington’s School of Art + Art History + Design for the coming school year. It’s exciting, if a little daunting, to walk through the front doors of the School, knowing that I have an office upstairs and that pretty soon the halls, empty now, will be filled with students and faculty and staff.

1st floor corridor

“So, what will you do?”

When I’ve mentioned my new role to friends, their first question is almost always, “So, what does that mean? What will you do?” And, as I usually say when venturing out on a new project, “Well, I’m not completely sure yet. I get to help make it up!” Which doesn’t mean, of course, that we have no idea what I’ll do or that we don’t have some plans. But my enthusiasm comes partly from knowing that we’ll be learning what the position can be as we go through the year. I’ve been given considerable flexibility in the way I use my time, partly because it’s an unfunded position. I’ve been encouraged not to feel pressure to take on everything that comes my way. As someone who often tries to do everything and all at once, this will take some self-discipline. I’m already learning that the School is a very busy place.

Although we know the program will morph and change over the year, here’s what’s planned as the year begins:

Archives. Over the years I’ve lived through a lot of history. Perhaps as a faint echo of my art history education, I’ve accumulated many documents and ephemera from that history – and/or, Artist Trust, Artech, Arts Wire, early artist fellowship programs nationwide, Grantmakers in the Arts, and more. Some of this is already in Special Collections at the UW Libraries, though much more is in my own storage. My position as Alum in Residence gives me the opportunity to offer internships to students who might want to work with me to examine this history, organize materials, and perhaps find homes for some of it. We will also view the materials through a contemporary lens, as a springboard for discourse and writing on topics of relevance today.

Open door office hours. I’ve been given a nice office – with a window even! – and I’ll establish specific times when I’ll be there with the door open, welcoming anyone who wants to talk about just about anything. You can use me as a sounding board, pick my brain about the past, try out a new idea . . . whatever. No scheduling needed. As I’ve said about my office hours with Artist Trust, I think of these as two-way exchanges. They could be called, “mutual mentoring”. I’ll learn a lot, and I hope it will be mutual. Specific times will be set as soon as I understand more about the flow of activity at the School once it gets underway in late September.

Conversations with purpose. I’ll host informal but focused discussions that build on my 15 years or so organizing conversations in different forms and in collaboration with others. I look forward to extending this practice to the School and to making connections between the School and the community.

One event is already on the books: on Monday, November 21, the UW’s entire undergraduate art history class of 1967 will host a conversation – all two of us. The other graduate in my class, David Mendoza, remains a friend today. We’ll talk together about those years (as far as we can remember them) and about what we’ve done since then with the preparation our art history degrees gave us. Our conversation will then spill over and involve anyone who joins us.

Class visits. As possible and at the invitation of faculty, I’ll participate in classroom sessions or other activities. (A past example from another school is briefly described here.)

“How did this come about?”

A second question friends ask is, “How did this happen? Did you apply? Did they seek you out?” As with many new things, the beginning point is a little fuzzy. Perhaps it’s like the headwaters of a river. Does a river start with this little stream or with that one? with the confluence where they come together or with a whole drainage basin? I suppose that’s why the word is usually plural, there’s almost never just a single source.

From my perspective, the Alum in Residence started with many of the same questions I ask in other contexts. Since someone my age today will live, on average, 30 years longer than someone did 100 years ago, what are we going to do with those extra years, so many of which are past the official age of “retirement”? If we aren’t completely undone struggling for money to cover our costs, how do we stay active, keep learning, and continue to be engaged, contributing members of the community?

Wanting a home where I could explore questions like these but not wanting to create a new organization, I looked around for compatible institutions that might house experiments to find and try out answers to these questions. Good conversations with several people in institutions both in and out of the arts yielded some declines but gave me good solid start. Artist Trust was one place where the idea stuck. I’m so glad to have the fiscal sponsorship of Artist Trust in a collaboration that is developing the Jini Dellaccio Project. (See more about this project here.)

While exploring possibilities with Artist Trust, I was also paying attention to new energy bubbling up at my alma mater. So, as part of the same search, I sent a query to Jamie Walker, director of the School of Art + Art History + Design, expressing my interest in the possibility of establishing some kind of “chair” or residency within a sympathetic organization that would allow me to pursue this experiment and share my decades of experience with others in a mutual exchange. “Since a position like this doesn’t seem to exist at this point,” I wrote, “I’m doing what comes naturally, making it up.”

As it turned out, my focus on the work and contributions of older people along with my history at the School resonated with Jamie’s interest in developing closer relationships with School alumni and, as he said, “taking possession of our own history.” The timing was right, it seems, for our respective ideas to meet, bounce around, adapt, expand, and come together. The process, he said, is “fortuitous and that’s different from luck.” As we talked about how we each get things done, he said he likes “to encourage things to happen that haven’t happened before,” and he often does this essentially from the side. Which, in my lexicon of such things, means exactly what we were doing: listening to each other, nudging, getting little obstacles out of the way, letting initial ideas soften and meld together. So, through our conversation, along with his doing all the necessary administrative work inside the University, we’ve come out the other side of these conversations with this Alum in Residence program.

I love watching and being part of a process like this – one idea bouncing against and intersecting with another, within a specific set of circumstances, adapting and shifting to find what’s shared, resulting in something that can look as though it were planned that way from the start.

One last quiet aspiration. In the past month, I’ve received many helpful introductions to the school and its people. In one of these, I heard someone fondly described as the “resident hipster.” If I try hard, perhaps by the end of the year I’ll have earned a similar status as the “resident geezer”…and in the process break down a few stereotypes of just who gets to be a geezer.

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* About the word “alum,” to quote Merriam-Webster: “Many people are comfortable using the word alumni to refer to someone who was a student of a particular school. However, others feel quite strongly that this is an error and that the following Latin forms should be used: alumnus (for one male), alumni (for multiple males, or for a mix of males and females), alumna (for one female), and alumnae (for multiple females). The shortened form alum and its plural form alums began to be used in the 19th century. Initially, alum was widely viewed as highly colloquial or informal, but is increasing in use as a gender-neutral alternative.


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Aging & economics: a simple equation

“Are aging and the economic slowdown linked?”

A news article forwarded by a friend carried this headline. Without reading the piece, the headline immediately reminded me of a story I’ve tossed around informally for some time. I tend to pull it out in conversation whenever I or someone else in my general age bracket expresses concern about whether or not our money will last as long as our lives will.

As an equation, it might look like this:

My equation crop

I’ve never expressed it quite this way before, but here’s how I tell the story:

Using round numbers, I say, imagine that I started earning my own living at age 20. I was actually older than that, but it’s close enough and saying I was 20 makes the equation easy to figure out. Then suppose that I decided to stop working for pay at the societally-assumed “retirement age” of 65. I didn’t, but again I’m not quibbling about details. The kicker comes when we add the final assumption, that I might live to be 90. The average life expectancy for a woman my age has been going up and is currently about 86.5 years – again, the number is close enough for the purpose of my storytelling.

The simple arithmetic of the story suggests a conclusion.

Someone living according to my equation would have an earning life of 45 years – just half of a full 90-year lifetime. Hmmm . . . that seems to imply we’d have 45 years to generate 90 years of living expenses, two years’ worth for every year worked. Applied to real life, the equation seems crazy. The equation is all too simple, I know, since it doesn’t account for many things. Obviously, it works well now for a certain segment of the population. For many others, though, the economic life it points to is difficult if not impossible, and on the scale of an entire society, it’s hard to believe that the formula could possibly work.

My equation comes from thinking about the connection between aging and economics in the life of an individual, that is, it’s focused on the “economic slowdown” (or steep decline) in the lives of many older people. The news story I started with, on the other hand, considers the slowdown in the economy as a whole, a slowdown that a new academic study traces to our aging population. Written by Robert J. Samuelson for the Washington Post, the article begins with this sentence:

“An aging United States reduces the economy’s growth – big time.”

The study, out of the Harvard Medical School and the Rand Corp., a think tank, claims that: “The fraction of the United States population age 60 and over will increase by 21% between 2010 and 2020.” Then, Samuelson reports, the study estimates that this aging cuts the economy’s current annual growth by 1.2%, which is approximately the difference between the growth rate from the 1950s to 2007 (about 3% per year) and the rate of growth since 2010 (about 2% annually). This leads Samuelson to conclude, “If other economists confirm the study, we’d probably resolve the ferocious debate about what caused the economic showdown. The aging effect would dwarf other alleged causes…”

Samuelson discusses reasons for why an increasingly older population would reduce economic productivity. It’s partly because there are relatively fewer workers left to support production, but that accounts for only about a third of the slowdown, according to the study. One theory for the rest, Samuelson says, is that older societies may be more cautious with their spending, valuing stability and being more restrained, less experimental and optimistic. On this point, my equation would suggest their “cautious spending” is not necessarily about their sense of adventure but rather about their pocketbooks.

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You’ll find the Washington Post article, which appeared in the August 21, 2016 issue, here.


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Standing on substrata, not at the summit

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When he turned seventy in 1905, Mark Twain spoke at a lavish party thrown in his honor at Delmonico’s restaurant in New York City.

Twain image crop col adj“The seventieth birthday!” he exclaimed. “It is the time of life when you arrive at a new and awful dignity when you may throw aside the decent reserves which have oppressed you for a generation and stand unafraid and unabashed upon your seven-terraced summit and look down and teach – unrebuked.”

Even at 71, I’m still far from throwing aside “decent reserves” and taking a fully “unafraid and unabashed” stand. But I’ve still got time – 70 is no longer the summit it was in Twain’s day. At this point, I prefer to think of the seven decades of my past as many-layered substrata to stand on* or even a springboard for what’s next rather than as a summit. We live in an extraordinary time historically speaking, when it’s possible for many more of us than ever before to imagine a life beyond 70. In 1905, when Mark Twain turned 70, the average life expectancy in the United States was 47 years for men, 50 for women. Today the average is 76 and 81.

CavanaughJini at 97 at home crop2

In the next several years, I’ll be exploring with some intention what this longer life might mean for me and others if we’re among those who reach a life span of “average” or above. Specifically, I’ll be developing the Jini Dellaccio Project – an experiment named for a remarkable woman who lived into her late 90s mastering a unique and powerful photographic vision. The project [described more here] celebrates Jini’s lifelong curiosity, engagement with others, creation of a life in her own way, and a work ethic that continued into her tenth decade. She did not understand the word “retire.”

Living into one’s 70s, 80s, and 90s is nothing new, of course. Although accounts of exceptionally old people can be found throughout history, it’s definitely becoming more common today thanks to modern medical advances and the huge increase in knowledge about health and aging. On average, we’ll live 30 years longer than people did 100 years ago, and as a group we also have unprecedented levels of health, energy, time, and sometimes resources. But culturally and economically we’re really not prepared. If we do live into those “extra” years and aren’t completely undone scrabbling for money to pay for them, we have to ask ourselves, how will we spend the extra time when “retirement age” comes so early?

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Our society isn’t organized to know what to do with us, and certainly not for as long as many of us are apt to live. As anthropologist and author Mary Catherine Bateson told a crowd at Town Hall Seattle in 2010, “We can’t think of our extra 30 years as just tacked on to the end of our lives; thirty years is much too long for that.” She urged us to see these extra years as a whole new period in our lives, saying that we’re becoming a different species. “I can imagine playing golf for a year,” she said, “but not for 30 years.” And if golf isn’t your thing any more than it’s mine, her sentiment applies equally well if you’re not inclined, or can’t afford, to travel the world for 30 years or if keeping your body tuned up just doesn’t fill the days. Bateson called this time in our lives, “the age of active wisdom.” The Jini Dellaccio Project builds on this spirit.

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* Substratum (pl. substrata): The material of which something is made and from which it derives its special qualities.


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The Jini Dellaccio Project

The Jini Dellaccio Project, a fiscally-sponsored project of Artist Trust, focuses on possible roles that artists and others can play as they inhabit the mostly undefined stage of life beyond “retirement.” The project complements Artist Trust’s existing program on artists’ legacy and estate planning, but rather than being focused on artists’ property (tangible, intellectual, financial), the Jini Dellaccio Project emphasizes the living person in their upper decades. It explores ways to enhance their ability to continue as engaged, contributing members of the community while they’re still alive. Financial support for the project – its fuel – comes from individuals who have the ability to give and are interested in where it will lead.

Jini Dellaccio in 2012 by ML Sutton and self-portrait from the 1960s
Jini Dellaccio in 2012 by ML Sutton with a  self-portrait from the 1960s

As I enter my own eighth decade, I’m excited to be developing this three-year project, and I’m inspired by the spirit of Jini’s life. She chose her own course, right through her last decades. Born in 1917, she died in 2014 at age 97. She toured the country as a musician in an all-girl swing band in the 1930s, studied painting at the Art Institute of Chicago, and took up freelance fashion photography in Los Angeles in the 1950s. After moving to the Northwest in the early 1960s, she began photographing young rock and roll musicians like the Wailers, the Sonics, and Merilee Rush and the Turnabouts, often in lush, natural surroundings. These, along with iconic images of national musicians like the Who and Neil Young, defined her career. After caring for her husband through the last years of his life, she picked up her photography again, adding a digital camera to her repertoire in her late 80s. You can learn more about her here.

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The intention of the Jini Dellaccio Project is to do reconnaissance into the phase that anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson called the “age of active wisdom” and to identify and provide a picture of the possibilities of life after Mark Twain’s “seven-terraced summit.” Like Jini, many of us aren’t ready to stop when we reach the “official” retirement age, and often we can’t afford to. We still want to participate, create, and contribute to the communities and world we live in. Simply by virtue of living as long as we have, we have perspectives that can be useful launching points for contemporary thinking.

Jini Dellaccio and Paul Rucker, 2011
Jini Dellaccio & Paul Rucker, 2011

In 2010, Artist Trust invited me to moderate a panel discussion, “Better with Time: Creativity and Aging,” where I met Jini for the first time. At the same event I met Sarah Cavanaugh, who stood by Jini’s side through Jini’s last years and has been a co-conspirator on this project from the start. The panelists that day also included choreographer Donald Byrd and sculptor Akio Takamori. The session announcement identified the panelists as “artists who have continued to create new work through the tides of personal and societal change,” and it posed a question that is among those I want to pursue: “Does society benefit from artists who create art throughout their lifetimes?”

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So what will actually happen?

Beginning this September, project activities will include but won’t be limited to the following:

“Office hours.”  Tea time, coffee breaks, office hours, happy hour – these conversations can take many forms and can involve artists and anyone else who wants to use me as a sounding board, pick my brain, or try out new ideas. One-to-one or in small groups, we can talk about anything. I’m reserving two afternoons a month for “office hours” at Artist Trust, and they’ll be available by signing up or, if the schedule’s empty, on a drop-in basis.1 Like so many other people my age, I seem increasingly to be asked for advice, for stories about the “olden days,” or simply for the chance to puzzle over a problem together. I think of these conversations as two-way exchanges because I always learn something in the process. By being a little more intentional about them, I expect to learn more about the value of having a long view and of offering that perspective to others.

Group discussions and public conversations. Group discussions play a big part in how I learn and how I share my experience and interests. I’ve hosted conversations in various formats for a long time, usually organized with others. Always informal and participatory, some will be single stand-alone events, others in series; some are public forums, others small and held in safe spaces that allow deeper exploration of ideas. Conversations already underway may continue, such as “Penny U” begun in the fall 2014 with Town Hall focused the changing nature of work, with its implications for both artists and people beyond retirement age. In hosting these, I expect to collaborate with others, from individual artists to Artist Trust, Town Hall, and the University of Washington School of Art + Art History + Design.

Personal and public writing. I will write. I’ll make time for it and use it to capture what I hear, connect it to what I already know, and make the ideas hold still long enough to see what they might mean. Themes won’t be limited to age and aging. My time as an editor and “translator” between fields convinces me that big ideas can be put in plain language so more of us can understand them, argue with them, or put them to use. And I’ll find ways to share what I write. I’ve laid groundwork  with this website, but the effort may expand to other forms – such as broadsides and chapbooks, or as the focus of conversations and groundwork for a book.

History through today’s eyes. With assistance from students and others, I’ll sort, organize, and find homes for original materials that I’ve accumulated over the years. Currently in storage, these include documents and ephemera from and/or, Artist Trust, Artech, Arts Wire, early artist fellowship programs, Grantmakers in the Arts, and more. Much of the material comes from a period of change in the art world. It covers, for instance, a time when artists decided not to wait for others to offer them opportunities but to take an active role in creating the conditions they wanted. (Sounds a little like today, doesn’t it.) Along with simply bringing some order to it, we’ll consider the relevance of this history in today’s world. The results will be fodder for more writing and conversation.

Although we’ll start with these activities, the project will be malleable and we expect it to change in response to what we learn. We’ll design it as we go.

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1 Beginning in September, my office hours will be 2-5 pm on the 2nd and 4th Wednesdays of the month. Sign up by sending an email to Artist Trust.


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Home – a confabulation

A “confabulation” provided one beginning point in a two-decade-long inquiry into what kind of space I want as a home and what relationship I’d like it to have with other people and the larger world.

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Confabulate: to talk informally; chat. [Latin confabulari: com-together + fabula, story, conversation]; informal, confab.

In June 1997 a group of friends received an invitation to a confab, a chance to spend up to a week together in a beautiful natural location an hour and a half outside the city to consider “Home: Arrangements for living and aging.”

The invitation included this about the theme:

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The confab was a chance not only to be part of discussions that could spin out from these ideas about home but also to simply try out our individual ideas by living them, together, in a cluster of small houses. Everyone invited was welcome to stay for all or some of the time to . . .

talk together (the “confab” part)
have time for yourself
share a few meals
sing or play or hike or . . .

Five cabins at Fort Worden State Park served as our home base. Located on Washington state’s Olympic Peninsula on a high bluff overlooking Puget Sound, the park covers 434 acres with over two miles of saltwater shoreline. Originally designed as a military base in the early 1900s, it never saw active fire, and many of its historic buildings and battlements remain. In the early 1970s, it became a state park and a home for Centrum, a center for arts and education.

Fort Worden map1 cropWe occupied five of seven buildings that are collectively called, for reasons still mysterious to me, the “Suds” houses. Over the course of the week 21 people participated, including four children of participants. A few of us were able to stay the entire time, others were there for as many days as they could manage. I was given use of the houses as part of a deal I made with Centrum in exchange for services I’d provided in planning and reshaping their artist residency program in the Suds.Fort Worden, suds map crop,jpg

A focused time for conversation was scheduled each day, with many of us taking turns identifying talking points. Our discussion ranged widely: the relationship between the place where you grew up and the place you make for yourself later in life; balancing time alone and time with others; asking ourselves who we want to live with; distinctions between private and public space, or maybe better put, between private, public, and social or shared space. For some, work is an important part of “home,” as it is in artists’ live/work spaces. Would common spaces be too distracting for concentration? For some “a shared space should begin with a stove!” but others felt 50 years of experience would make sharing a kitchen really difficult. We need new language – “commune” doesn’t work; perhaps proximity rather than communal better describes the aim.

Photo of suds houses 1 (fm above) crop

We considered city/country and urban/rural preferences and getting beyond the stereotypes; the importance of wildness; relationships between home and landscapes; the desire for a long view and for close-up views and a sense of enclosure.

Ideas about “a place to age and keep on living” from the invitation wove in and out as a theme (and we were 20 years younger then!): the anxiety about how we’d sustain our lives after “retirement;” our dissatisfaction with the isolation of today’s retirement communities; our role as the advance guard of the baby boom; the desire not to segregate ourselves according to our age; the value and importance of connections with the “larger world;” the importance of a place being “kid friendly” as well as questions about how a single person would fit in a multi-generational setting. We heard both of a desire not to be a burden to others as we age and also of the joy generated by caring for an older friend.

We described individual fantasies about what this might look like: a lodge; a hotel as a place that’s inviting not just to its residents but to outsiders; spas, resorts, and other escapes; sustainable eco-resorts; Buddhist retreats; taking over a whole city block that faces outward on the street fronts and inward into more private central spaces; W.S. Merwin’s description of a region in southern France.

Photo of suds house 260

Specific examples and stories added to our ability to imagine the possibilities: the Western Front in Vancouver, BC and its rural extension, Babyland; Chevy Chase on Discovery Bay; the Linger Longer Lodge in Quilcene; the Mountaineers’ lodges; Project Row Houses in Houston; and examples from co-housing projects and Seattle’s Anhalt apartments to clusters of homes built of a shipping containers.

Over the course of the week we also shared at least one meal together each day. Notes from the week refer to: “a wonderful dinner of David’s fish soup,” “a special meal of Laura’s cabbage rolls,” “Lynn and Rita’s salmon dinner,” “pasta from Jim,” “soup and sweet potatoes from Marcie,” “Norie’s pasta and Anne’s roasted vegetables,” and pizza from a Port Townsend cafe. In addition to solitary walks, time for reading, and pick-up games on the lawn, shared experiences punctuated our time: “a walk on the beach and sitting around a bonfire,” “Hillela’s banged up knee,” “Tomo playing nearby on the beach as it got dark,” “a sunny morning at low tide and a rainy afternoon visiting Port Townsend’s Secret Gardens.”

By the end of the week it felt as though we’d only just begun. We didn’t reach a conclusion about a specific future direction and didn’t resolve the many, often contrasting thoughts and stories. The week’s experience, however, did spawn more confabs that included more people and continued for four years until mid 2001. During this time, interest in the idea spread, and my mailing list for notes from the confabs grew and stretched across the country.

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That first confab marked the beginning of a conscious exploration of the meaning of “home” – the particular configuration of physical, social, emotional, and creative space that altogether means home for me and for others. Deep in my interior somewhere, home has always been both a private and a social place, shaped as I was by the first home I knew.


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“Gee, you look great!”

Helen G + me, by cv cropAbout a decade ago, not long after she turned 80 and I turned 60, Helen Gurvich and I made a lunch date, something we enjoyed doing whenever we could get our calendars lined up (hers was often as busy as mine). When she walked into the room that day she looked especially beautiful, just glowing with energy. My immediate reaction was, “Gee, you look great!”

My exclamation was followed by what seemed like a very long silence as she looked directly at me. “You know,” she eventually said, in that slyly smart-ass voice only she had.

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“There are three ages in life – youth, middle age, and, ‘Gee, you look great!’”

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Increasingly, I find myself on the receiving end of that phrase, and, understanding the intent, I take it as a compliment whenever it comes. But with a mental nod to Helen1, who died in 2013, I try not to use it myself.

Evidence of the struggle to find ways to name the gee-you-look-great age is all around us. Around the country, some senior centers are “rebranding” themselves by dropping the word “senior” and taking names like “the 50+ Center,” “The Heritage Center,” and “The Center for Balanced Living.” As long ago as 2003, the Hartford Courant suggested that names like “Center for Healthy Aging” or “The Wisdom Center” might be more appealing to “aging baby boomers.” And the national trade group for senior housing, once known as the Assisted Living Federation of America, is changing its name to “Argentum,” Latin for “silver.”

People of ‘a certain age’

Here’s a far-from-complete list of descriptors from a variety of sources. Let me know if you’ve got any good ones of your own.

  • Old timer, oldster, crone, hag, codger, coffin dodgers
  • Golden-agers, silver surfers, wrinklies
  • Oldie but goodie
  • Elder, mentor, sage, wisdom-keeper
  • Grumpies, old fogies
  • The living dead
  • Time-worn, decrepit, out-of-date, fusty, wizened, senile
  • Well-preserved, seasoned, weathered, antique, tried and true
  • Wise, wise hag, venerable, vintage, classical, enduring, traditional
  • Time-honored, well-established, mature, immemorial
  • Ancient, old-fashioned, over the hill, timeless, archaic, venerable
  • Gray-haired, practiced, skilled, veteran, centenarian, long-lived, gettin’ on
  • “You may refer to me as well-seasoned or experienced.”
  • “My mum ‘n dad, both 73, call themselves ‘recycled teenagers’.”
  • “Young at heart and still kicking a**”
  • “One-foot in the grave!”
  • “In London they’re ‘Twirlies.’ This is because when they try to get on a bus before their free pass allows they are told, ‘It’s too early.’ (twirlie)”

“Baba Yaga – the Arch-Crone, the Goddess of Wisdom and Death, the Bone Mother. Wild and untamable, she is a nature spirit bringing wisdom and death of ego, and through death, rebirth.”2

“Old”

Then, there’s the simple word, “old,” claimed by Carol Miller3 in an article, “Looking Old Age in the Eye,” published by Real Change, Seattle’s weekly street paper. A woman of “80-some years,” Miller wrote: “In America, I have found being old
 and admitting it a challenge.” In a longer excerpt she says:

This is the face I grew into, the face that I earned, a 
face of character and feeling, the face of time — my
 time. Of course, it is not the face I had at 18. I didn’t much care for my face then. We didn’t seem well acquainted. No matter how I felt, I looked fine. I remember suffering from a splitting headache and finding no change in the bathroom mirror. I realized no one would believe my complaint and decided I would have to go to work. Sometimes I would cry in frustration and my tears, when dry, would leave no trace. I had the classic poker face: Emotionless, unresponsive and unrevealing. I suspect it cloaked an equally under-developed heart.

 Now I have the face of felt experience. My face and feelings mesh; I look the way I feel. I am pleased with my looks and wish others were as well. I would like to be accepted wearing this face without having others express remorse or pity or being metaphorically patted on the head. I particularly want to be acknowledged as a person of value and, at the same time, as old.4

I want to earn a face that’s clearly as old as I am with a spirit that can give a comeback as lively as Helen’s to “Gee, you look great!”

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1 Helen Gurvich, Seattle Times, 4/21/13

2 Ivan Bilibin, “Baba Yaga,” OldRussia.net

3 “For 30 years, Carol Miller, an anthropologist, studied a Romany (Gypsy) tribe, initially in Seattle and subsequently in California. She wrote a memoir of her experiences, Lola’s Luck: My Life among the California Gypsies. Real Change byline, 12/23/14

Carol Miller, “Looking Old Age in the Eye,” Real Change, 12/23/14 

Photograph credits:

Helen Gurvich and Anne Focke, by Cathryn Vandenbrink

Two stills from “Round Table with Helen Gurvich,” a video by 911 Media Arts Center, 10/1/09


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Plaque & tangles and burdens that matter

“You work too hard. You should take time to have fun, to relax and enjoy life!”

This advice from caring friends has been a kind of refrain through much of my life. Especially after turning 70 and venturing into my “eighth layer,” I find that the culture we live in assumes we will, even urges us to, slow down, stop working, or at least stop working so hard. There are many good reasons to do all these things, by choice or necessity and at various times in our lives. And I do slow down … sometimes. While over time my pace actually has changed from time to time, I can assure you that I do have fun and enjoy life. It just might not always look like it.

Over breakfast one morning I was reinforced in my apparently aberrant ways by a New York Times article I’d set aside to read weeks before.1  “Jonas Mekas Refuses to Fade,” it declared. The piece by John Leland is part of a series that looks at the lives of six New Yorkers over age 85 and how they “navigate their life at the upper end of old age in this city.”

I’d known of Mekas since the late 60s, early 70s. From afar, I learned of his life as a filmmaker, poet, organizer of avant garde film showings, and a founder of Film Anthology Archives. His life seemed tantalizing, exciting. Stories from his world fueled my own late-60s interest in the Northwest Filmmakers Co-op, the Seattle chapter of E.A.T. (Experiments in Art and Technology), and exhibitions of art using new technologies at the Henry Art Gallery.

“Mekas Refuses to Fade” showed that, even now at age 93, Mekas is still going strong. Check out his website, especially his Diary with his short video “Welcome!” at the top.2 In the New York Times article, author Leland writes:

This year [2015] alone, besides the Biennale installation, he is completing work on two books, sorting through several unfinished films, compiling his materials on Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground for an exhibition in Paris, continuing to post video diaries on his website, and trying to raise $6 million to build a cafe and library at Anthology Film Archives, the financially struggling nonprofit institution he helped start in 1970. In between, there have been readings to give, openings and screenings to attend, new friends to meet, old ones to revisit, preferably over wine.

What motivates him to keep moving and working like this? Where does his energy come from? Leland quotes Mekas:

Something is in you that propels you. It’s part of your very essence, what you are. Like, go back to Greeks and muses. How they explained that, the muse enters you at birth or later, and you have no choice. It becomes part of you. You just have to do it.

And a little later:

I don’t feel like I’m working. It’s fun. I’m just doing what has to be done.

From Mekas's welcome to his online Diary
From Mekas’s welcome to his online Diary

The science

So is there any science that might explain why Mekas is more engaged and seems more resilient than we might expect of people at the “upper end of old age”?

Leland wanted to know. So he spoke with Patricia Boyle, a neuropsychologist and researcher at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center at the Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. Like others in her field had, she and her research team “observed that people who felt their life had a goal or purpose showed lower rates of memory loss and other diseases associated with age.” Doyle wanted to know why.

Their long-term study of 1,400 people, started in 1997, was designed to quantify the actual neurobiological conditions in the brain that link a sense of purpose with a lower risk of cognitive impairment like memory loss.3 They examined the brain tissues of 246 people who died during the study. The results surprised them.

alzheimerscasestudy.weebly.com3

Two of the most important markers of Alzheimer’s disease in brain tissue are an accumulation of plaque and what neurologists call “tangles” in the pathways of the brain. The researchers didn’t find any difference in the level of plaque or tangles in the brains of people who had a strong sense of purpose and those who did not. As Lane Wallace in a 2012 article in The Atlantic, put it, “A strong sense of purpose does not, in other words, prevent the accumulation of potentially harmful material in the brain.”4

What the results of the researchers at Rush indicate, Wallace writes, is that having a strong sense of purpose in life, especially beyond the age of 80, can give a person’s brain the ability to sustain the harmful damage of plaque and tangles, and to continue functioning at a much higher level. I like to think of this as our brains’ ability to develop work-arounds; the researchers call it, “neural reserve.” As we learn more and more about our brains, my sense of their amazingness just continues to grow.

Wallace’s piece for The Atlantic opens with a prayer from The Egyptian Book of the Dead: “May I be given a god’s duty: a burden that matters.” Toward the end of her article, she refers to other research (specifically, work by Dr. Carol Ryff, published in the Institute of Aging):

The kind of protective effect that purposeful living offers does not accrue from mere happiness, or what researchers call “hedonistic well-being.” It would appear that humans are hard-wired a bit like working dogs – we may dream about a life of ease aboard luxury yachts, but we are at our best when we are gainfully engaged in meaningful work.

Jonas Mekas told John Leland:

My time is limited, I choose art and beauty, vague as those terms are, against ugliness and horrors in which we live today. I feel my duty not to betray those poets, scientists, saints, singers, troubadours of the past centuries who did everything so humanity would become more beautiful. I have to continue their work in my own small way.

A few more prayers from the same passage in the Egyptian Book of the Dead, are apt:

May I create words of beauty, houses of wonder. May I dance in the gyre and draw down heaven’s blessing. May I be given a god’s duty, a burden that matters. May I make of my days a thing wholly.5

 

from Dancing with Water
Photo from Dancing with Water

 And as a mission statement that Mekas wrote for a friend and that hangs on a wall in his loft says:

Keep dancing. Keep singing. Have a good drink and do not get too serious.

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References:

1.  “Jonas Mekas Refuses to Fade,” John Leland, New York Times, October 16, 2015.

2.  “Diary,” from <jonasmekas.com>.

3.  “Can a Sense of Purpose Slow Alzheimer’s?” Lane Wallace, The Atlantic, May 9, 2012.

4. “Effect of Purpose in Life on the Relation Between Alzheimer Disease and Pathologic Changes on Cognitive Function in Advanced Age,” Patricia A. Boyle, Aron S. Buchman, Robert S. Wilson, Lei Yu, Julie A. Schneider, David A. Bennett, Archives of General Psychiatry, May 2012.

5.  Egyptian Book of the Dead, a new translation by Normandi Ellis, Red Wheel/Weiser, 2009


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