Friday, February 27, 2009

The Heart of Dixie

Town Square
Decatur, GA

Here I am in the heart of Dixie. This is where my mother was born, as was her mother, and hers.

I know the South. It helped raise me. All my young life we navigated the summer highways between TX and GA to visit relatives. The journey became second nature. Over time it went from a three day trip in the late 60’s to a one day trip when the interstate was finally finished through Birmingham – when I hit college and became newly prone to 13 hour road trips.

Since leaving Arkansas on this my latest driving adventure, I’m finding a new vibe in the conversations I’m having on Change. Constant is the essential interest people from all backgrounds are showing in the wellbeing of all Americans, our families, communities and the planet; but as I drive farther into the South there is a closer presence of the tension, the fundamental mistrust that has pervaded our nation in recent decades.

A white man in Jackson, MS spoke specifically of the noise of dueling ideologies – people on both sides bound and determined not to give an inch – to the point of sacrificing the wellbeing of the people of the country just to save their rigid positions and inflated pride. This frustration has been mentioned by Americans down the West coast and across the Southwest and Texas.

The new presence in discussions in Mississippi, Alabama and now in Georgia is a wariness – an expectation that one will be summarily dismissed and/or harshly criticized for stating her or his beliefs. Now that I think of it, there were shades of this tension already in Texas. A black man in rural Texas said this. “The primary change I’m looking for is to be able to trust my President. Right alongside that, I want to be able to disagree with my President of other elected officials without having my patriotism called into question.”

Maybe what I’m sensing rises out of exaggerated dialogue and emotion across the red/blue line. Maybe it carries the echoes of generational trauma from that long ago Civil War. Maybe it is evidence the suspension of “political correctness” – something that’s never been comfortable to conservative Southerners who see such posturing as a thin varnish that can render dangerously inauthentic and thus untrustworthy, the public statements of people in the rest of the country.

Whatever it is, this tension reflects quite accurately what happens in congress when rigid party lines predetermine votes and hold us so often socially paralyzed.

I can’t tell if people in the deep South aren’t talking with one another because of hatred or fear or both. I do know, however, that the stories we tell about one another when we are not talking are usually wrong. They’re wrong in their absolute and rigid adherence on both sides to versions of “the other” as being of ill will and bad heart – as being intractably absolute and rigid.

I’ll be here for a bit. I’ll try to listen across this tension to see if there are points of dialogue.

It sounds excruciatingly odd to many of my friends from other parts of our country, but I actually appreciate the opportunity this overt division provides. We are and have been a divided country. We like to gloss it over. The division embarrasses us. But the truth is, our vote this Presidential election was split 45.7% - 52.9%.

Many of the people I’ve spoken with who did not support Obama’s election have indicated sincere hope for his success. That magnanimity is bit less in evidence so far here in the deepest South. The fact of that tension may provide an opportunity. Listening across the strong feelings and words here in the South may give all of us a chance to learn in spite of our embarrassment from our most dearly held and explosive differences.

Two Things

A Starbucks near Jamaica Drive, Jackson, MS

In Atoka, OK unleaded plus is selling for $1.89 a gallon. A bit farther down the road in Savanna, OK there’s an exit off OK65 for the US Army Ammunition Plant, followed immediately by an exit for Indian Nation Turnpike. In Savanna, I pass the John Deer place. It’s on the same side of the road as Country Quilts. By the time I get to McAlester, OK the main roads are named Peaceable and Electric.

Between Atoka and Savanna I pulled off the highway, turned on my emergency flashers, rolled down my window and took a photo of the sky. In front of the sky were two billboards. One read, “Got Choctaw?” Just below, the other read, “Sitting on top of the world: David’s Trading Yard.” The first billboard had a huge photo of a child in traditional regalia and gave the url: The second sported a big green tractor. I liked them. So I stopped – proving, by the way, that going off the road south of Klamath Falls, OR did teach me a little about responsible highway photography.

The highway left Oklahoma and dumped me into Arkansas. With a strategic left, I made my way into the Ozarks hills around the Buffalo River and contained in the rural county of Searcy.

In keeping with the range of Americana evident through eastern Oklahoma, Searcy County has its own personality. The land was Indian Country – specifically, Osage – until 1808. Now, the population here reports itself as 97.26 white. One local mentioned, “There are lots of people with Indian ancestors here – Osage, Choctaw, Cherokee,” but except for some of the handshakes, that heritage was not much in evidence.

Later in our conversation, the same citizen of Searcy County pointed out the deserted lumber yard and cattle yards lining the narrow roads of Marshall, the county seat. He gestured toward modest one-story buildings and said, “This used to be a place of farms, ranches and timber. Now our most thriving economic force is Medicaid.”

As in much of rural America, the population of Searcy County is aging and the infrastructure is suffering from a small and shrinking tax base. Many roads remain unpaved, schools are under-funded, and there’s too little cushion for responding to the effects of destructive weather.

In the face of these realities, Randy, the high school teacher turned librarian who was raised in a family with generations of history farming and later ranching the Arkansas hills, emphasized again and again an obvious solution for his rural community. “We have to learn how to sustain ourselves on this land again – right here, with the families in this community. Our hope is in planting and eating with the seasons, turning off our TVs and looking around to see what our kids and neighbors need.”

Only days earlier, I’d sat in a Behavioral Economics class at the Hockaday School in Dallas, TX. The young women in the class were seniors – all of them anticipating college. Their instructor spoke of diminishing marginal utility, of saving and dis-saving. He referred to the assigned reading -- Thorstein Veblen.

These women will be leaders in the coming decades. They can have influence on economies – rural and urban. In a conversation with three of the Hockaday seniors after class, their honesty about their lack of exposure to the everyday concerns of many Americans was as striking as their anxiety about college applications. Consistently and without bate, they came back to wondering about, and really to challenging themselves to find ways to use their privilege to help solve the problems pressing on our country and our world. Their access to education hummed in the background – an invitation, even a mandate in their young consciousness to find ways to give back.

Pretty regularly I find myself writing about the “one thing” I’m noticing from day to day. The “one thing” from Highland Park in Dallas, TX to Marshall, AR in Searcy County is really two things. For every person I talk with life is very real. Circumstances vary radically but pain and joy, moments of confidence and moments of confusion are no less present.

Here’s the second thing. The Americans I’m talking with are concerned for the wellbeing of people beyond their families and communities. Everyone so far is talking about the relief, dialogue and sharing they want to see for and among everyone. This is new to me. Maybe it’s always been here. Maybe it’s newly being revived and spoken. For sure the media version of the American people can’t hold a candle to the large hearted essentially optimistic spirit I’ve been hearing down the west coast and on east from AZ to AR.

My friend Anthony has taken to sending daily inspirational quote from his current home in LA, CA. Today he sent this. I thought I’d pass it on.

If the only prayer you said in your whole life was, "thank you," that would suffice.
Meister Eckhart

Monday, February 23, 2009

Coffee Klatch as Foretold by Mayme

A hill in Searcy County, AR

Over the past month, I have listened to people in pre-arranged interviews and impromptu conversations. Both ways of meeting and talking have revealed American insights and wisdom richer than I could have imagined. Of the second kind – the impromptu chats – a good number have taken place in coffee shops.

[True confession: I’ve officially given up giving up coffee until I’m off the road and back home again. Anyway, could it really qualify as a full blown American road trip without coffee? (…This question, a pedantic but historically rooted excuse that might inspire smoky images of cowhands around the morning fire readying again to hit the trail). But, back to coffee talk.]

On January 29 in a coffee shop in Portland, OR Nick, a working class black man told me to make sure to get the voices of the working people. He said “Exchange is like this. It’s Ex + Change and it equals exchanging points of view. It’s communicating and doing. And it can’t be a one way thing.” Then he asked me to tell him what I think of change. I did.

On February 10 in a coffee shop in San Diego, CA a bicultural 25-year-old senior at SDSU named Todd took a break from pouring over his finance text to say, “I don’t really know why I changed.” He went on, “I mean, all through foster care and even adoption the adults all said that I would never be anything but a loser. But here's the thing; I’m not living that prediction. I have changed and I’m committed to building a real life for myself.”

The next day in a coffee shop in Tucson, AZ a 65 year old woman named Cheri agreed to an interview. Cheri wants a government for the people – not for business or for bigger government. She wants freedom. She is a retired law enforcement officer who’s lived in Tucson 55 years. She raised her children to be bilingual and herself learned Spanish because “It’s only right to have both languages if you want to do any job well in this city.” Cheri is a practicing Muslim having been raised in the mosque by her Iranian father and Euro-American mother. She says, “I’m Islamic. That means I’m devoted to God. It also means I want all people to be well and at peace.”

February 19 I was leaving a coffee shop on the banks of the Guadalupe River. I had to make it to Ft. Worth in the next 5 hours. Then I overheard David and Tommy talking about their Sunday school class. They were willing to stop their conversation for a minute to talk about change. David and Tommy, both devout Christians, spoke with pride of their church community in Kerrville, TX. They spoke of the 200-300 youth in their youth ministry and the evidence in a recent personality inventory that these kids are ready to be active in making their community a more peaceful and kind place. Both men emphasized the importance of family and the necessity of shifting values from greed and materialism to concern for one another and for the environment. Tommy, the older of the two, said it was time for Americans to get over being hung up on our differences and to start working together on the urgent matters facing our country. “We’ve been majoring in the minors and not in the majors,” Tommy said. “Wow – that’s really well said,” said David.

Yesterday, February 21, I drove north from Dallas into Sherman, TX. In my little car I was very aware of the strong west wind, a familiar harbinger of a downshift in winter temperature for Grayson County. I made my way through an entirely unfamiliar scramble of new commercial outlets to a newish building back from the highway where my beloved teacher is now receiving special nursing care.

I lived in Sherman, TX for 13 years. Got a BA in the college here, met my husband when he came as a new faculty member, pursued advanced degrees, and birthed my daughter. Mayme Porter, the angel fairy godmother mentor sage of a woman I came to visit today was a constant source of wisdom and comfort across those years. In fact, she has been a guiding light in my life since I was 19.

Late one spring afternoon in Sherman when I was toward the end of 20 or beginning of 21 we sat in Mayme’s shaded backyard. We talked about family and happiness. We talked about health and education. Somewhere in there, Mayme said to me, “Mary, you ought to consider going into some kind of work where you can interview people – listen to their stories and give them back to the world.”

I thought she meant journalism. I ended up choosing to be a psychology professor.

Then last month, I started talking to people in coffee shops. I met Nick and Todd and Cheri. I met David and Tommy. I joined in the Ex:Change.

Today, for about half an hour, dear Mayme brightened up from the fog of Alzheimer’s that too often lays siege to her daytime thoughts. She said she wanted to comment on this thing, change. “Change,” she said, “is taking everything we have and listening to it so we can know where to go next.”

She’s right. Mayme was right all along.

And these days I’m listening and listening.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Cattle Trail

Kerrville, TX


The interstate from Albuquerque, NM to Kerrville, TX is … well … long. On either side the land is vast and mostly empty. Exception springs from the brief chorus of rush hour and billboards in Las Cruces and El Paso – fraternal twins of Mexico and the Territory of New Mexico (what we’ve known as the state by the same name since January of 1912).

In the 1950’s, the Eisenhower administration began stamping in this solid band of asphalt where it stretches now like a well-worn cattle trail. All day and all night herds of semis trundle across these deserts and on through bayous and farmlands to convey commerce among the communities rooted to the southern soil between our shining seas.

Dodging in and out of the procession of giants are little cars like mine. In NM we of smaller wheel-bases can get away with 80mph. In TX it nudges up to 85, but drops to 74 or so after sunset when the black signs with white lettering read “NIGHT 65.” The rule: 9 miles over the posted limit usually passes, but don’t even think of cresting 10. The word ‘usually’ and the signs showing lone leaping dear are worth taking under advisement. Driving records can be seriously impaired by being lax in attention to either. And, for all you aspiring road trippers out there, six dark hours of this requisite level of attending, albeit vital, gets mighty wearing.

I’d never pushed my little car into the 80s before yesterday. But the combination of time, distance and a bit of an achy heart served to be all the rationale needed. Environmental sensibilities notwithstanding, I pushed the limit across every mile. And despite its bruises from early in the month, the Mini rose to the occasion without complaint.

Just before noon yesterday, I left my one-and-only at the Albuquerque airport – right where I’d picked him up the evening of Valentine’s Day. I could have stayed in town another night. I was learning my way around the area near the university. There were very fine people who would feed and house me – who would join me again in that rich tumble of conversation exchanged in rooms beneath stars. But the miles of road between Albuquerque and Kerrville offered something more necessary. So, I chose the road.

Love is one of those precious privileges in a lifetime defined necessarily by paradox –by ever increasing measures of joy and pain that pitch me consistently beyond every earlier understanding of either one. Delicate as a sigh, relentless as the contagion of calendar dates and more reliable than the ground beneath our feet, love in any form keeps inviting us to show up.

Time and distance unrolled beneath me for the 11 hours. Strains of country music mixed with news of the day:

"Obama signs a stimulus package in Denver."

Here’s to the trains I’ve missed.

"Stock market deflates toward 7000."

Chasin’ that neon rainbow, livin’ the honky-tonk dream.

The achy heart part of this day and its night fit well with the persistence of highway and the vastness of sky – plenty of room for every song and circumstance, for showing up to love and to every other possibility.

Tomorrow time will empty into its next stream and I’ll wake up to learn from the words and wisdom of Texans.

Trees, Minerals, Water and People

Albuquerque, NM


This morning I had the great privilege of spending time in interview and conversation with Margaret Randall (http://www/. Her thoughts on change rose and fell from the deep well of her 72 years of living the word. As a prolific writer, a passionate activist, an American and a woman of the world (having lived in Cuba for 25 years, and also in Nicaragua), and as a mother, a grandmother and a life companion. Following her time in Cuba, Margaret found herself facing rejection by her home country whose policies were being interpreted as justifying denying her re-entry. Things got straightened out – both at great emotional, physical and monetary cost and with a story of courage and uncompromised honesty in a woman whose life has been devoted to social change

After our time together, I went for a walk through Albuquerque neighborhoods near the UNM campus. I took a photo of a quintessential adobe home. It is on Silver Road. Silver Road parallels roads named for gold, coal, lead. This house was at the corner of Silver and Pine. Pine paralleling Oak, Maple, … until, a bit farther north where the theme shifts – the ores begin crossing with names of esteemed institutions of higher education – Yale, Bryn Mawr, Tulane, Stanford. I walked in this poem: Miles of city streets organized around the intersection of trees, minerals and the institutions that support study for variously understanding, sustaining and exploiting them.

Tomorrow I’ll talk with Luis Vargas, longtime clinical faculty with the Child Clinical Psychology program in the Psychiatry Department of the University of Mexico’s School of Medicine. Luis is a completely gentle and completely incessant activist for the wellbeing of people on the short end of the social justice stick. He was raised in El Paso by parents who, in the mid 1920’s, were activists for freedom of religion in their homeland, Mexico. “The values that raise us matter,” Luis says, “They tell us who we are and how to live.”

Then I’ll talk with Bruce – a Native American activist for water. At 28 he’s already given over half of his life to supporting the well being and conveyance of indigenous traditions. His advocacy for water brings him often into interaction and conflict with the mining companies in the Albuquerque area (

Ores cross with trees cross with water and people – all of it cross with citizenry and with the land that Margaret Randall says is forever a relative.

Fresh Picked Oranges

Tucson, AZ


“The rise over there to the left – hazy in the distance,” Rudy Suwara pointed out the window. “Yes, I think I see them,” I said. “That’s Tijuana. That’s Mexico. And over there about midway up the horizon on the right; that’s where the original mission was. Oh, and right there behind the parking structure – see it over on the university campus? That’s where the plane went down last year.”

Rudy and I stood in the living room of the house he and his wife have lived in for 30 years. The house sits high on a hill in the eastern part of San Diego, CA. A few hours earlier I had rolled over in bed in to glance out the expanse of glass across the western wall of the Suwara’s guest room. My still sleepy eyes opened to the tentative pink of early dawn giving backdrop to the city still sparkling from night. Quiet and profound in the center of the sky was February’s full moon.

After our visual tour of the San Diego valley Rudy, Colleen and I sat with freshly picked oranges and coffee to talk of change. Later, Rudy would harvest avocados, also from among the trees he’s planted and tended on the steep hill beneath their home. He put them in a bag and tucked them in the foot well of my back seat to ripen between San Diego and Albuquerque.

The Suwaras have lived lives as exceptional volleyball athletes and coaches. He an Olympian in 1968 and 1972 – a coach for the Olympic Volleyball team in 1996. She a nationally recognized coach at the community college level. They are teachers, they are parents and grandparents, they are children. Rudy was raised by first-generation immigrants in Spanish Harlem. Colleen is an accomplished guitarist. She also has a greeting card line from which all profits go to “animals in need.”

As I was leaving the Suwara’s home, two women were arriving. They have a contract with the Suwaras. Every two weeks they come to the house to clean.

Rudy and Colleen were excited to introduce me to Maria and Marta and to tell them about the EX:CHANGE project. In new English, Maria said, “This is good. Working people have a lot to say. We are not stupid and I think it is sad to miss our ideas because we have less money or less English language.”

Her words echoed in my awareness as I made my way to the SDSU campus. There I ran into a 25 year old coast guard reservist and finance major. Todd’s quick and welcoming smile punctuated his willingness to speak with a stranger about the change he’s known. As a child removed from his biological parents at birth – as a foster child and later as an adoptee – as a boy the schools could only see as a problem – as a man who is determined not to succumb to the stereotypes and low expectations thrown his direction – and as a man devoted to his family and community in spite of, and even because of the soup of negative circumstances in which he was raised.

“We are not stupid. It is a waste to miss our ideas.”

Later in the afternoon, Khris met me on the sand of Ocean Beach – the community at the far western selvedge of San Diego. Khris is an architect. He is a skilled musician and mountaineer. He is a dear friend of my dearest friend. Khris and I didn’t have time for a full interview. We did have time to get it that both of us had in the other the giant gift of a brand new friend. As I got in the car to head east, Khris said, “I’ll see you soon.” He will. Then he gave me a quote: “There is no progress without change.”

From San Diego’s rush hour to midnight in Tucson, there was pretty much nothing but change. The stars insistent in the twilight sky, the giant orange moon lifting out of the earth over central California. The miles and miles on either side of the line we accept as the separation of land called California from land called Arizona.

Within and around the change I also felt constancy – in silent exchange of day and night, in connection to the people I met today, in the endurance of love and the way it stretches beneath circumstance and distance to hold me together with my family (nuclear and solar). In constancy, nothing is happening. Under the moon and its stars silence and love simply and reliably are.

And across this stage, just as reliably, we appear to change and change.

The Buzz of LA

Irvine CA


The buzz of LA comes in part from its paradoxes.

There’s the manic aggression of drivers on the roads that drape the curving hills – the drivers competing for time and space, the roadways dipping and gliding like strains of Strauss’s Blue Danube.

There’s the local sheriff who is proposing gun control measures to resistant citizens of a county considering cutting funds for both criminal justice and emergency health care.

Then there were this morning’s fashion statements. Adornments of incomprehensible value covering bodies that stood patiently in line at the Starbuck’s off Beverly Drive at Mulholland. And, only hours later, the precise social commentary of uniformed high school students who hope to be the first in their families to attend college.

Yesterday in Santa Barbara, a small side conversation with the veterans tending Arlington West made poetry of paradox. Steve brought up the relationship between solid matter and life’s most agonizing challenges. To have a table, an ocean, or a flag there must be negative and positive atomic forces binding to sustain solid form.

It wasn’t a particularly comforting side conversation – it didn’t make death and war any more palpable. And, we all agreed that paradox seems to typify human experience in and as the natural world.

On her way out of the room today, one of the students in Kathy Goodman’s Advisory said, “Sometimes it’s only when things get really bad that we can see the good stuff we’ve taken for granted.”


48 Hours

Thousand Oaks, CA


Wow, these hills. And then there’s the narrative running its marathon through my head. I’ve now pulled off the road because I can’t go another mile without some kind of brain dump – that crass-ish new-mil term that seems oddly consistent with the sound of the word blog.

In the past 48 hours:

I’ve spoken with a single mom – soon to be 23 – who chose to keep her pregnancy 5 years ago, was unable to stay on to finish highschool, and is raising her son in the Bay Area of San Francisco with a job as a receptionist for Mike’s Autobody -- I must say, I’m lovin’ Mike’s Autobody! Tara is a simply vibrant young woman. She asked her 34-year-old friend Brett to join her in the interview. Brett “barely finished high school” and has, in the meantime, pursued his own style of education by navigating many of America’s waterways by kayak, raft, etc. Brett makes his living fixing dimples in cars (the kind, for example, that hail can make). As Tara and Brett spoke about change, they articulated very different values. Still, they listened to and supported one another. In that, they not only revealed the strength of their friendship, they demonstrated the room strong friendship makes for openness to differences in ways of understanding and navigating the world. Quite naturally, Tara and Brett show what it looks like to be open to learning from one another. With that openness and free of the least touch of self consciousness, they give us all a model for respect, dignity and cooperation in real life – for citizenry of a very high order.

Very early this a.m., I drove south to Santa Barbara to make the appointment for speaking with the Ackermans – an 84 year old WWII veteran and the brilliant woman he’s been married to for 60 years. We met in their home. They live high in the Santa Barbara hills, the ocean variously yawning, shimmering and churning half way up the sky beyond their windows. The Ackermans have a long and esteemed history in the publishing world. Marshall started the well known health magazine, Prevention. Carol is a retired mental health professional. They have seen a lot and, these days, are feeling both the comfort and the wear and tear of their history as successfully enterprising people and as Jews in America.

Then there was Gary, the extraordinarily gifted commodities trader who gives and gives to public causes that tangibly support people who have not been as fortunate in their lives as Americans – as citizens of the globe.

And this morning I listened as two psychologists spoke of change, personal and national.

Finally, this afternoon I stopped on a whim to see what the veterans had to say as they sat next to the magnificence of the Pacific Ocean and in front of an overwhelming stretch of white crosses redefining the beach with their neat rows and columns – precision in grief – in protest. Every Sunday since November 2003, these veterans have tended this spot. The crosses specifically represent the deaths of American service people serving in Iraq. The men and women caring for “Arlington West” have profound words for the high cost in lives of American service people and of the extreme numbers of Iraqis, military and civilian.

The voices of these Americans catch my attention. And, in between voices is the constancy of the land that holds all of them. In its variety and reliability, the land speaks, too. It is true that this part of the continent sits atop faults in tectonic plates that live and occasionally move below. But in the hours I traveled between Mike’s Autobody and this coffee shop in Thousand Oaks, as in most hours of most days, the length of earth we call California remained undisturbed by tectonic movement. Instead, this time on the land has been marked by the heartbeats and circumstances of the millions of Americans making their lives at the breathtaking edge of the Pacific Ocean.

In the everyday routine of that movement, the insights of a few of these Americans have found their way to my recording equipment – and into my lucky awareness.

We’ll see what the next days bring. On, now to LA and San Diego. Then I’ll take a left turn and head for Tucson.

Btw…thanks to Brett and Tara, I now have a beautiful new windshield. It is good to have that clarity on things. I don’t want to miss one inch of this generous landscape we all call home.

Wake Up Call

Walnut Creek, CA

I’m standing at Mike’s Autobody in Walnut Creek, CA. This wasn’t in the plan.

Yesterday there was a road that, as roads go, qualifies certainly as beautiful. Highway 97 drops out of Klamath Falls, Oregon and onto the long northern shoulders of Mt. Shasta and the state of California. The blue sky was seamless and the mountain, thus unburdened, revealed every inch of its majesty and power. Shasta is said to have a particular and mysterious vibe to it – a presence to be profoundly respected, listened to, and learned from. Yesterday it stood white in its February robes, still in its endurance, indifferent and benevolent all at once to the collection of beings we know as humanity.

The road was straight and empty when I pulled out the flip camera to get one more shot -- one more taste of the mountain’s splendor. The power clicked on. The tiny screen was ready. I turned it to the mountain and spoke. “One more view of Shasta.”

Then there was the sound of gravel beneath the tires. There was a pole bent and crashing across the top of the car. No doubt, a few choice words, but more significantly an extreme calm and presence of mind that lent itself to every nerve and muscle that was needed to guide the car back onto the certainly beautiful road.

“Wake up call,” I thought immediately. I spoke it. “Wake up call.”

This is driving alone on the highways of America. This is the responsibility and it is the opportunity. To pay good attention – to stay focused – to endure boredom and the excitement of magnificence when it moves by the window without giving way to temptations to multitask. For two days I’d been letting myself variously dig through bags in the back seat, reach too far for a new CD, practice my fledgling skills with text messaging, take photos…. Bad idea. How lucky I am to have had a wake up warning this relatively minor.

The Mini is a little the worse for wear. Now George, the supremely genuine and knowledgeable appraiser for Mike’s Autobody, is telling me it will take at least 5 working days to repair the windshield – on account of the dent just above in the roof and window lining.

I’ll wait until Atlanta.

Before I began this trip, I knew it would change me. That’s the metaphor of the hero’s journey – and any journey is a hero’s journey. At the same time I did not (because I cannot) know how the change would and will look. It was the same thing with the birth of Sara – my now 22-year-old daughter. Being a psychologist and all, I was quite confident in the sophistication of my understanding that having a child changes one’s life. I had no idea!

It’s all finally art and improv, this movement through a lifetime.

Yesterday evening, I called my next-door-neighbor, David. We hadn’t had a chance to see one another before I left town. We talked recycling bins, yard needs and identifying characteristics of the people who would be tending my house while I’m gone. Then I told him of the incident on highway 97. I told him of the bruises sustained by my too-cute car. David said, “Sounds like Change to me.”

Yep. That about sums it up.

Change and the great good fortune to pay attention – to learn.

It is all improv. And, in that, there’s a huge range of options for taking responsibility. Attending to wellbeing, as it turns out, only increases opportunity for experience. Duh, huh? If the body isn’t here, the experience isn’t either.

I’m fine. I’m here. I’m into it. I’ve even got a date for an interview with the receptionist at Mike’s Autobody tomorrow morning.


Groundhog's Day

Ashland, OR


Tonight the stars in Ashland, Oregon swan dive earthward out of their blue-black air. A half moon drips westward along this curving stage. But the stars steal the show. Orion looks hotter than ever, his warrior vibe spangling the night. The Big Dipper, Cassiopeia and all the others whose names I’ve known and forgotten too many times, glisten beyond the capacity of any descriptor.

I stepped out of my car a few hours ago and looked up. The magnificence overhead, a small finale on the month-long preparation for beginning today on the American Road Trip at the center of the EX:CHANGE project.

The day dawned with a sweet good bye – the kind of goodbye that guarantees return because it cannot possibly forge any real separation. A dance instructor of mine spoke years ago of a term he’d learned from Hawaiians pronounced ‘akha.’ ‘Akha’ describes the profound and enduring connection between those most dear to one another. It attaches at the full center of the chest and, like an enormous rubber band, it stretches any direction – any distance to maintain the resonance, purity and integrity of true love. Today’s dawn saw that kind of goodbye.

Then there was the potentially manic morning of packing – equipment, supplies, clothes, shampoo, toothpaste, vitamins (galore…). As if by design, the interview scheduled for 9:00 got bumped to noon. The travel gods were smiling already.

The mid-day interview was breathtaking, entirely in keeping with the trend sustained by everyone so far. Lena’s words were honest, unguarded, and filled with her hopes and confidences. She spoke with urgent clarity of life as a person of mixed-race – as a woman – as a 34-year-old educator, fully bilingual in Spanish who works with English language learners in support of their brilliance and dignity.

The new flip camera lost its charge half way through our conversation. Oh, equipment failure…. But that could not diminish the insights, like shiny thumb tacks, that Lena articulated, pinning down the corners and the center points of our country’s discussion of Change. “Americans are incredible,” she said. “Resilience, hard work and boundless ingenuity are solidly at our core.”

Lena’s words, like the words of all the people who talk with me, speak perfectly for themselves. In them I hear the vast richness of what we have the opportunity to learn from and with one another. That richness is a major theme so far, 8 interviews and the first 300 miles down the road.

Just after sunset I stopped in Roseburg, OR for a decaf latte (Portland habits do linger). The only coffee place I could find was the drive-through Dutch Brothers. The guy working the coffee bar was by himself and I was the only customer. When he heard about the EX:CHANGE trip, he wanted to know if it was partisan. I said, “It’s American.” He said he thinks we’re all star struck. He leaned onto the counter at the window. “We can’t put change all on one person.” Then he said he wished we could rise above our differences to identify a few major points of agreement – things of substance that matter to Americans – “things we can get to work on.”

Who knows if it was the effect of the stars, already popping out of the night sky over Roseburg – or tangible evidence of the dauntless optimism at the center of our American dream – or perhaps simply an outcome of the particular new millennium artistry of this man at his coffee bar. What I do know is that I drove away with the finest decaf latte I’ve ever tasted.

Ex:change - Change has come to America

Portland, OR

One thing is for certain. We love the word.


It so captured our individual and collective attention that record numbers stacked up at polling booths around the country. No matter whose name we selected on our respective ballots. Change, by whatever connotation, got our vote.

Then, the evening it was all decided, the word became a sentence.

Change has come to America.

And that is so. One way or another, it has. On the downside, we’re acutely touched by economic stressors, fatigued and disgusted with military conflicts and anxiously aware of the degradation of our environment. We know change is urgently needed on these fronts.

But there’s another side. There’s the change that inspires what Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm described as, “fundamental American ingenuity.” It’s a kind of change that rests essentially in vision and hope.

One way or another, Change has come to America, and it is not a dream. It is delivery on dreams.

And like millions of other Americans, I’m feeling it. It feels tentative. It feels bold. It feels long overdue. It feels like no one person can do it alone. It’s an idea that has me willing to suspend cynicism and second guessing – willing to watch and see what happens. And beyond that, willing to take on whatever my part may be for making it real.

This alone is a whole new way for generations of Americans to be American. It’s democracy in action. It’s stepping out of the passivity – out of the long shadow cast by the paternal presidencies of our past and into an active engagement with and as democracy. Because, just maybe, the day of the lone wolf is over.

I’m a social scientist by profession; a teacher, practitioner and ethnographic researcher. I’ve worked with supporting kids struggling in schools, families tormented with ‘dysfunction,’ communities saying ‘no’ to institutional oppression, and management saying ‘yes’ to uncompromised dignity and justice in enterprise. It’s been lucky work. It has challenged, taught and enriched me in countless ways.

One thing I’ve learned is that change is most likely when those who want it know what it is, and can describe how they’ll recognize it when it has happened. That clarification leads quite naturally to a sense of agency, a sense of responsibility. To watch a kid who’s been floundering in school get it that his learning belongs to him and is his right; to show him the skills he already has for being his best educational advocate – that is one major thrill!

Now, here we stand threshold of the equally thrilling prospect for American change. Given my career and experience, I find myself drawn to documenting some of what is actually a necessary and immediately practical conversation – a national conversation on the nature of this change we say we want.

What do Americans mean when we say change? What specifically do we want to see changed? What do we want to retain, or keep the same? How will we recognize change as it develops? What is a fair representation of the range of American priorities for change? And among and beneath the myriad differences in our definitions and goals, what do we agree on?

Declaring what we mean by change leads to action. It shows up in shifts of behavior and relationship – shifts that are personal and thereby public – shifts in sensibility and thus in policy.

All this talk and its attendant enthusiasm brought me quite lately to a huger for the road and an unusual idea. What if I took a few months … say 100 days … to listen to what Americans have to say about change?

On the last day of 2008 … quite symbolically, as it turns out … I sent an e-letter to hundreds of friends and family describing the trip and asking for their help in identifying people to talk with and places to stay. The response has been delightfully overwhelming. People are thrilled. They’re over-the-top generous with their creativity in supporting the … well … infrastructure of this adventure.

All of that points to first hints of a theme: The enduring (yet often unseen) presence of human kindness.

True to good ethnography, my early sense of this theme is, of necessity, tentative and open to adjustment. That’s the way it is with listening to the way people make meaning – and through that getting a sense of the points of shared meaning – the collective intelligence emanating from the hopes and dreams of a Nation.

Also true to good ethnography are the questions. They are general enough to allow for any given respondent to take the conversation whatever way seems right to them. When I hop in my little car with my flip video, my sleeping bag and my lap top, I’ll be looking to spend time listening to people across the spectrum of American experience. People of all ages, genders, political affiliations, spiritual communities, sexual orientations, physical abilities, socioeconomic circumstances – all cultural, ethnic and geographic backgrounds. I’ll transcribe what they say so that people across the country can hear, directly and in their own words, what these brother and sister Americans mean when they say “change.”

That’s the plan. And the reason for this particular description is to ask for readers’ input. How does this strike you? What subtle considerations of content might we have missed?

My virtual pit crew and I are calling the trip EX:CHANGE. The website will be live at: The exceptional skills of the all-volunteer crew will make it possible for me to blog and to post photos and other information as I move across the country. Thanks to their talent and expertise, I’ll be freed up to drive and to concentrate on listening.

Our goal is to provide for general review a collection of diverse perspectives on American Change in 2009. Central to the project is the proposition that if we are to be full agents of the change we seek, we need to know what we’re talking about.

EX:CHANGE will make available a chronicle of individual insights and collective notions of what American Change means to American people – right here, right now, on the threshold of the new day we’re all stepping into together.

What do we need to make sure not to miss as this trip develops?