Standing on substrata, not at the summit

Substrata crosssection image
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?

Bateson making pt 2 crop

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.


* 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.


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?”


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.


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.


Time away 3, a rolling retreat

Amtrak ticket jacket crop, text onlyMy ticket jacket expressed my ambition, even though I didn’t actually notice its message until a few days before leaving.

Amtrak ticket jacket crop 2

Too many years had passed since I’d visited good friends and family in California. It was time to go – I missed them. When I realized the trip could also include four rolling days of time away to write and read and daydream, the decision was made.

working in roomette 1 color adjI splurged on my Amtrak ticket and got a “roomette” that comes with wide seats that make into a bed, a little table, meals, “room service” if desired, and a power outlet to keep my “devices” charged. It’s a quiet, private place with a constantly changing scene out the window.

river through a passing freight

Scittery skySanta Barbara wall 2Sunset by bay 2

From Seattle, my first stop was Oakland, the Bay area station, one full day and night on the train. My second stop was the Los Angeles area, another full day farther down the tracks. My assigned room wasn’t on the “scenic” west side of the train in either direction, though on the way down I talked my way into a spot on that side for the most classically beautiful stretch right along the California coast from Pismo Beach almost all the way into Los Angeles.

Calif coast at distance 2The train was full. I liked being able to move back and forth between my own quiet little cubbyhole and lively spaces shared with others – the “parlour” car, dining car, observation car.

I spread out my papers and books and computer in my roomette or took my computer and a few papers to a table in the parlour car or propped my notebook on my knees in the observation car. I didn’t write as much as I’d fantasized I would, but that’s almost always true of my “times away.” The reading and especially the daydreaming filled hours.

working in roomette 2 color adj

working in parlour car 2 color adj

I woke early on the last morning of my trip and intended to roll over for a few extra minutes of sleep, but thought I’d take a quick peak out the curtains first. And there was Mt. Shasta, high above us just before sunrise. Sleep vanished as an option.

Mt Shasta 1


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Gossip and the “power supply” for change

Against today’s backdrop of one tragic news story after another, I constantly ask myself what we can learn from events around us and how we can find ways to move forward to something better. Several speakers at Town Hall Seattle recently offered both specific and distressing insights into the state of our economy and our democracy, but the same speakers also expressed hope for the future, hopes that lie in similar places.

Robert Reich believes that with knowledge, people could ally themselves to form a new “countervailing power” — “The vast majority must regain influence over how the market is organized.” He also places hope, he said, in young people who surround him in his teaching and who are interested in public service, to which the young African American woman standing next to me responded by smiling widely and nodding vigorously.

In their talk, Robert McChesney and John Nichols told us that what’s needed to make the necessary structural change in our political economy is “an army of aroused and informed citizens.” The “power supply” for change, they said, is “the great mass of Americans, many of them already active, many more ready to be engaged.” “There is only us,” they say in the introduction to their book, People Get Ready. “We the people are the only force that can make a future worthy of our hopes and our humanity.”

As a first step in sharing my own response, I offer the following piece, written a few years ago. Its connection to the challenges identified by Reich, Nichols, and McChesney may seem like a stretch, but in part it’s about breaking down an impression I hear again and again, the sense that everyone, especially young people, are just holed up, wearing head phones, staring at their screens, unconnected to other, live, breathing human beings. In the piece I ask whether an active culture of conversations with a purpose and a new sense of the commons can play a role in creating this “countervailing power” and “army of aroused and informed citizens.”

Written in 2013, the piece was part of “Get up!” – my contribution to “Chamber Music,” an exhibition at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum. “Get up!” had several parts: a wall piece, historical documents for “the living library,” and a series of conversations and new writings. This was one of the writings and a theme of a conversation.


A gossip chair at the Frye
A gossip chair at the Frye

Conversation, gossip, and the commons

Positioned in the middle of the Chamber Music exhibition*  is a three-armed, specially designed and built piece of museum furniture. The inspiration for it is the pinwheel-shaped, antique “gossip chair” long found at the Frye that suggests the gallery was meant for talking, not just solitary contemplation. Similarly this contemporary, extra-large version of a “gossip chair” proposes conversation as an integral part of the show. With this inclusion, the show itself reflects a trait curator Scott Lawrimore sought in the artists included: it both celebrates “individual mark making” and offers an opportunity to strengthen community ties among all who show up – artists and others. Built into the big chair’s arms are benches for sitting and cubbies for artists’ materials designed to spark ideas, conversation, and maybe even gossip.

Chamber Music, exhibition at the Frye Art Museum

Lately I’ve been intrigued by how often I hear or read about yet another conversation, and more than that, about another series of conversations or gatherings with some intention or focus. I know that this observation could be affected by the phenomenon that causes us to start seeing red cars everywhere once a red car is called to our attention. But the sense of being surrounded by the desire for conversation feels bigger than that.

Names of specific gatherings come to mind, some more formal than others and all in Seattle: Art Klatch, What’s Up?, John Boylan’s Conversations (which recently took “conversation” itself as a topic), Thirsty Thursday, Poetry Potluck, Civic Cocktails, Think & Drink, Canoe Social Club, Penny U, Melting Seattle, Transpartisan Salon on Art & Creativity, Geeks Who Drink, Thought Shop, Cheap Wine & Poetry, Conversations on Creative Aging, Soup Salon, City Table, Table Talk, One Pot, Aging Your Way Gatherings, Conversations that Matter, and more. We’ve also recently seen the rise here of “co-working spaces” and the Seattle Collaborative Space Alliance – seventeen co-working spaces including the Hub Seattle, Makers, and Office Nomads. All this is set against a backdrop of book and movie clubs, all kinds of meet-ups, “communities of practice,” and civic and business breakfast clubs. While not discounting the role of digital forums or the possibilities of interaction between digital and live exchange, my interest here is in-person, face-to-face exchange, gatherings with focus and intention. And, of course, it doesn’t even begin to include all the Seattle activist groups organized with specific causes in mind.

A few names given to conversations in other places or at other times include the Back Room (Portland), Creative Mornings (Vancouver), Philosophers’ Café (Vancouver), Zócalo Public Square (Los Angeles), and the Long Table of artist Lois Weaver, as well as more structured versions like National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation, Fierce Conversation (a kind of career counseling), and a real favorite of mine, the Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs of New Orleans.

This country’s history is full of gatherings with a purpose, from town hall meetings, quilting bees, camp meetings, and barn raisings to the voluntary associations and free expression that Alexis de Toqueville identified as being at the root of American democracy when he visited in the 1830s. Longer ago, Scottish coffeehouse culture in the 1600s is credited with establishing key foundations of civil society, and, farther back still, the Lyceum in ancient Greece was a place for philosophers such as Aristotle, who engaged students in cooperative research and walked as he taught.


Over the years, I’ve wanted to understand the concept of “the commons” as part of searching for whether and where we can find common ground today. I’m interested both by what the concept of the commons has meant historically and where we find versions of it in our lives today. One of the best short descriptions I’ve found is from Elinor Ostrom and Charlotte Hess. “Commons,” they write, “is a general term that refers to a resource shared by a group of people.” They say:

Historically, in Europe, “commons” were shared agricultural fields, grazing lands, and forests that were, over a period of 500 years, enclosed with communal rights being withdrawn by landowners and the state.

Historically, in the United States, “commons” has most often referred to shared spaces that allow for free speech and the democratic process…The U.S.-type commons underscores the importance of shared spaces and shared knowledge in fostering viable democratic societies.

A friend and colleague, Peter Pennekamp, has been actively involved with communities in northern California for over twenty years learning how people in the region come together in what he has called “living, breathing, on-the-street democracy.” Among the underlying principles of this “community democracy” is an essential requirement for community commons. “Space is necessary for a rich public life,” he writes, “space where people come together to build and experience civil society in an environment that assertively values community knowledge and where the playing field is level.” And he says:

In an era focused on private ownership and rights, such space is declining as is recognition of its value. When people speak with passion about community it is often the value of the commons that they are referring to. Community “commons” is where innovation and community change happen. It is the place where the individuals, groups, and networks that make up a community come together to spark ideas, develop agreements, and build trust for common action.

These places are essential, he says, to “countering hierarchies, static power structures, nonproductive decision-making processes, and official sources of knowledge that suppress improvement.”


So with thoughts of Scottish coffeehouses, de Toqueville’s observations about associations and free expression, community democracy, and the commons in mind, I wonder whether all the conversations going on around us now might in some way be laying groundwork for a new or revitalized sense of the commons in our lives, or of civil society and democracy. And I don’t mean “democracy” as it’s played out through all the layers of our representative democracy, as important as those are, but rather something closer to Peter’s “living, breathing, on-the-street” democracy.

All this leads to a few comments and questions:

  • A good conversation goes beyond where you thought it would, said someone at John Boylan’s Conversation about conversation. It is an improvisation or a collaboration in which one is changed by the exchange, by listening. There’s a moment when the questions stop and the real conversation begins.
  • At the same time, John’s conversation considered almost exclusively the exchange between two, with some in the room feeling that real conversation among three or more is very difficult. So how do we come together in creative or community commons, in a group larger than two? Do some of our conversations create the “shared spaces and shared knowledge” that Ostrom and Hess claim are needed to “foster viable democratic societies”?
  • To be a “community commons” that encourages the innovation and change Peter mentions, people with different experiences and perspectives from one another must be in the mix. And differences often cause tension, something I consciously or unconsciously avoided most of my life, perhaps as a learned response in childhood. We need conversations among people with whom we share values and experience, but how well or how often do we move beyond a fairly homogeneous group? Where are opportunities for conversations in groups that are heterogeneous and prone to tension?
  • While I’m interested in conversation that isn’t monotone, I’m not convinced that the only way to avoid simply talking to ourselves is to bring in the most extreme, opposing view, though that can be invigorating. Despite today’s polarized public dialogue, things are often – or even usually – more complex and multi-faceted than can be explored through black-or-white, either/or positions and point/counterpoint debates.
  • I also doubt that many of us, on whatever side of an issue, are converted in public by a single event. Rather, understanding and change more often come over time I think, through listening and gradually letting trust grow. I’d love to know of conversations where that happens, or to work with others to establish conditions where it could.
  • Another good point made at John’s conversation is that meaningful conversation takes many forms besides talk and that, for one, the physical side of an exchange is really important. One of the best ways to build common understanding is to work together, to cook or garden together, to move or sing together – those barn raisings and quilting bees. The World Dance Party that started a few years ago in the south end of town seems much to the point, with 100-250 people of many cultures and ages coming together for an evening of “just food, dancing, and community.”


These thoughts have drifted a long way from the art show that prompted them. Considering the context – that is, an arts exhibition – makes me wonder whether my perspective on the commons and conversation and gossip is affected by a life spent at least partly immersed in the arts and also by some understanding of myself as an artist, an identity this show has encouraged me to consider again. Artists certainly know something of gossip, and conversations are all around us. But how are we, or could we be, part of establishing living, breathing community commons as vital, collaborative forms?


And referring back to the 2016 introduction to this writing, what kind of role can we play in creating an “army of aroused and informed citizens”? How do we add to the power supply for change? 

*   More information about the exhibition Chamber Music is here. And elsewhere on this site I’ve posted another essay I wrote as part of the exhibition, “Am I an artist?” where I give a little more background on the show.

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