Category Archives: Writing

Writing about writing, and writing of my own that is not about sustainability

Seven Pieces of Joan – and a Song about Water

joan-davis-e1374529339249_0My dear friend Joan Davis passed away on Monday, 11 January, 2016. She was a unique and inspirational person, a top scientist who also believed strongly in the spiritual dimension of human life, the “non-quantifiable variables” as she liked to say. Her extraordinary life is being remembered, in English and German, on a special website set up by her close friends in Zurich, Switzerland, where she lived most of her life (she was originally from Ohio). I have written a remembrance of her there.

https://rememberingjoandavis.wordpress.com/

Here, I am publishing something else. Joan loved stones and shells, which she had lying on her window sills and tables. This text, “Seven Pieces of Joan,” is something like that: a collection of seven discrete memories, like stones clustered on a table, reflecting how much of Joan’s subtle influence in my life I keep discovering as time goes by.

At the end, I have posted a song (about water), which was in large part inspired by Joan. It has very poor sound quality, for which I apologize, but it is the only digital copy I have, of a song that was recorded on a primitive (by today’s standards) cassette deck, in 1993.

 

Seven Pieces of Joan

1

Two days before Joan’s death, I had gone back to a certain store to buy a certain wool sweater, like one that I had just bought the week before. I found the styling relaxed, yet somehow elegant in its simplicity. I liked the thin, gray fabric, and the way the end of the sleeves felt unfinished and were rolled up a little bit. “Joan would like this,” I had thought to myself. “It reminds me of one of her sweaters.”

2

Two decades ago (Joan was fond of talking in terms of decades and quarter-centuries) I was at a Balaton Group meeting. Joan took a liking to one of my shirts, dark blue, linen, long-sleeved. “That is really nice,” she said. “I wish I could find one like that!” So at the meeting’s final banquet, I wore the shirt, and then I stood up and gave a little speech about friendship. “There’s a saying: a true friend is someone who will give you ‘the shirt off his back’. Joan, you have certainly been a true friend to me. So Joan, here, I give you my shirt.” I took the shirt off and presented it to her. She gave me that sidelong, mischievous look, but accepted the gift with gratitude. Later, on visits to her house, I saw her wear it a number of times.

3

Outside my office-cottage at the back of our property, on the tiny porch I built, there is a certain beautiful shell that I picked up somewhere. I placed it on the corner of the porch, so that it catches my eye each time I go into the cottage. It has a special white-and-reddish beauty, which speaks of its former life in the sea, contrasting perfectly with the plain gray wood of the porch, and the green-brown forest around it. “That shell is like one of those shells Joan has all over her house,” I think often to myself.

4

Many years ago, on a visit to Wallisellen, I photographed some of Joan’s stones and shells. I downloaded the images to my computer — both Joan and I were avid Mac people — and shrunk them down, and then turned the images into small icons. Then I used the icons to replace the little drawings of folders that Macs have on their desktops. So then, when I needed to open a folder and review my archives or my correspondence, I was usually clicking on one of Joan’s snails or stones.

 

5

Joan was a professional water person, and at the time we first got to know each other, so was I. But we shared a relationship to water that went far beyond science and policy. Water, the simplest of chemical compounds, is also the most extraordinary: beautiful, ever-changing, ever-reflecting, and of course, we ourselves are mostly water. Joan, an aquatic chemist, also taught me to appreciate the special qualities of water in new ways. So whenever I am admiring water, thoughts of Joan are never far away.

6

After my first Balaton Group meeting, where I met Joan for the first time, I wrote a new song. Songs are strange things: once I have composed and written them, and sung them a few times, I (usually) no longer remember how I wrote them. I can remember the feeling-tone that gave rise to the song — in this case, reflecting on the wonder that is water, sitting by Puget Sound in Seattle. And I remember certain special times I perform them — like the first time I played “Water of Life” for the Balaton Group, and for Joan, in 1994.* I remember her smile. There was a bit of water in her eyes.

7

Joan had a mystical relationship with the number 22. It was a signifier, not of good or bad, but of something very important. When it turned up, she knew she needed to pay close attention to what was happening. She had so many unusual stories around that number; at least one story involved a moment where noticing the number on something (in the context of a car accident) saved her life. I have also loved, for no good reason I can explain, 22: it was the number I chose for my jersey when I played basketball as a teenager. So whenever I see that number, of course I think of Joan. On or about the day Joan died — was it on that day? a few days before, after? — my daughter came to breakfast in a new t-shirt, with a sports theme. The shirt had a big number on it: 22.

 

* My song “Water of Life” was only recorded once, on a home “demo” cassette album called “Fire in the Night”. The quality of the one copy I have is very bad. But I post it here anyway, and the lyrics below. Conversations with Joan Davis, and listening to her lectures, were very much a part of what inspired this song into being.

Water of Life

Words and Music © 1993 by Alan AtKisson – from the cassette album Fire in the Night

published here in memory of Joan Davis

 

Look at the light shining off the Sound

There’s nobody around

But me, and this body of water

Alone in a crowd

Of stars and stones and trees and passing clouds

Spirits high, I’m singing right out loud

Sing up the beauty of this

 

Clean water, clear water, cool water

Water of life

Pure water, wild water

It’s the water of the life of the Spirit moving in the world

 

Look at these jewels of morning dew

The eyes I’m looking through

Are windows of water

When it falls down

I am water watching water hit the ground

Every drop splashes up a crown

The Queen of all the Earth is

 

Clean water, clear water, cool water

Water of life

Pure water, wild water

It’s the water of the life of the Spirit moving in the world

 

The water takes a complete control

Like a river running through my soul

Like a rainstorm roarin’ up my spine

Like an ocean of love that rocks my mind

 

Look at the waves rolling up the beach

They can almost reach

The place where I’m standing

Won’t be too long

The moon will pull that tidal rush up real strong

Me and my footprints will be gone

But evermore there will be

 

Clean water, clear water, cool water

Water of life

Pure water, wild water

The water of the life of the Spirit moving in the world

The water of the life of the Spirit moving in the world

 

An Open Letter to Future Generations

Dear Future Generations,

I’m sure this is obvious to you — you can see things better than we can, in hindsight. But I want to report to you that we are living through a time of dramatic change. Historic change. The kind of moment where everything seems to be balanced on a knife edge, and it could tip either way.

I am writing to you from Stockholm, Sweden. I’ll start with what is happening here, then I’ll paint you a global picture. Because it’s all connected.

Not long ago, this was a quiet little corner of Europe, a place where everything “worked.” There was essentially no poverty. No homeless people. There was a shared belief in something we called “solidarity.”

We don’t use that word much any more. In a few short years, we now have beggars on every street corner. There are people here who have fled from poverty or war, only to wind up living in tents, or sports halls, or outside on the street. Many thousands more war refugees, after traveling thousands of miles, are knocking on our door — so many that our government just decided to close that door. This is a pattern being repeated in many other countries, too. (Though one country, Canada, just decided to open their previously closed door. Good for them.)

Meanwhile, our “Western” part of the world is reeling from a series of small but extremely violent, deadly, and scary attacks — we call it “terrorism” — whose purpose is to strike fear into people’s hearts, ratchet up tensions, and provoke us into global war. The strategy is almost working. Our extreme right wing political groups are gaining strength, countries are rattling swords, and demagogues reminiscent of the 1930s are rising up amongst us. (Unfortunately, these populist rage-baiters have access to technologies far more powerful than the microphones used by Hitler and Mussolini.)

Meanwhile, it’s warm this winter — again. According to global data, this year is the warmest our modern, industrial civilization has ever measured. And we (as you well know) are the ones warming things up. That’s not all we’re doing to the planet, either. Huge alarm bells are ringing for Nature, everywhere. Some of us are trying to wrestle down our overall “footprint” on this Earth. But so far, humanity’s “foot” keeps pressing down harder and heavier, pinning us to the mat.

We’re also struggling to leave a bit of wildness for you to enjoy, but it’s extremely hard work. All it takes is a small number of uncaring or greedy or needy or ignorant people to destroy wild Nature — by setting fire to Sumatra, say, or poaching African elephants. I’d like to be able to say about these people, “They know not what they do.” But in fact, they know exactly what they are doing. And there are global markets ready to absorb the “profits” of their illegal activities. They are extremely clever about getting past our increasingly desperate defenses, too. It’s starting to seem obvious why the mammoth, the dodo, and the passenger pigeon are no longer with us: it only takes one of us to kill the last of anything.

That sounds like a pretty bleak picture, and it is. A dismal thought crosses my mind at least once a day: we could all too easily tumble into an abyss of war, political dystopia, and ecological catastrophe.

But that’s the bad news, one side of the knife edge. The other side — the good news — is, well, surprisingly good.

Despite dangerous and viral pockets of poverty and war, our human population is overall getting less poor, and less violent. We have made amazing strides in providing people with education, better access to food and energy and health care, a sense of hope for their children’s future. We have far to go — hundreds of millions are still living in misery — but many trends are moving rapidly in the right direction. We just need to figure out how to keep those positive trends going, while not destroying the planet’s ecosystems, and before social instabilities make the challenge insurmountable.

But there is good news on the action side, too. This year, the world’s governments completed an unprecedented series of global agreements. Right now, they’re finalizing a new deal on climate change that looks like it will be better than most of us hoped for — even if we know it is still not enough and will have to be improved later. We also have, for the first time, a truly global vision and a set of global goals for where all of humanity should be heading. You probably take the idea of “SDGs” (Sustainable Development Goals) for granted by now. For us, they were an unprecedented historic breakthrough.

We are even starting to understand the fundamental principle that “everything is connected to everything else” — and we are starting to build that principle into our government policies, corporate strategies, and community development programs. It’s not just talk, either: I am watching serious change happen, with my own eyes, every day.

Given everything happening now in our world — the good, the bad, and the ugly, to borrow an old movie title — I find myself thinking about you more and more.

It seems like this time, this specific time, is really going to be decisive for you. Our descendants.

So I just want you to know: things are really, really shaky just now. We’ve had global war before, kicked off by similarly unstable conditions. So we know, unfortunately, that it’s all too possible to fall into that huge and deadly trap.

We also know what it’s like to fudge and hedge and not do what is necessary to secure the health of Nature, and the wellbeing of People — because we are seeing the consequences of insufficient action, on the global scale, right now. We are finally waking up to the fact that these two things, human happiness and ecological integrity, must go together. When they don’t … well, among other things, we get the conditions we are struggling with in Sweden, and many other places, right now.

Basically, we know what failure looks like. And we can see all too clearly that failure, when it comes to managing our presence on planet Earth sustainably, is still a possibility.

But we also know — because we are starting to experience a little of it — what success feels like. Setting clear goals. Working together to achieve them. Maintaining an optimistic vision and intense effort, no matter what. Tackling problems head-on, intelligently, compassionately. Working on making systems better, not just symptoms.

I just want you to know, dear Future Generations, that many of us are working very, very hard to try to make things better. More and more of us, all the time. Working for you, for ourselves, and for all life on this planet. And I believe we are starting to tip that balance in the right direction.

But please — if you can — let me know how it turned out.

Love,
Alan

A Brief History of Self-Sharing

BlogImage_24Feb2015_2On a recent ski-vacation, we bumped into one of my wife’s old school-friends. My wife was a little surprised, but not her friend. “Oh, I knew you were here,” she said. “I saw Alan’s posting on Instagram.”

Unwittingly, by sharing a photo on social media — just a nature scene, shot from a moving train — I had telegraphed to the world where my wife was, too. And she is not active on social media. So she was a bit shocked to discover that her location could be figured out so easily, based on my random nature photo (though fortunately she wasn’t upset about it). But this tiny incident underscored the profound changes that have occurred, in my lifetime, regarding how we share information about ourselves.

I’ve always been a sharer. I’m a writer, after all, and my books often combine a personal with an expository voice. If you read my first book, Believing Cassandra, you will learn a lot about the origins of the sustainability movement; but you will also learn a lot about me. I share personal letters and journal entries as a way of illustrating general points about data, history, or sustainability issues.

So for me, the transition to social media was a kind of seamless evolution. The phases look like this:

•    Phase 1. Letter writing: I wrote many long letters to friends and family, from my teen years.
•    Phase 2. Publishing in newsletters/magazines: I started publishing my writing around 1987.
•    Phase 3. Personal newsletter: In the early 1990s, following the example of my friend/mentor Donella Meadows, I started writing regular summaries of thoughts and activities and sending them, by post, to my circle of friends, contacts, and readers. Like her, I called them “Dear Folks” letters.
•    Phase 4. Listserves and e-newsletters: By the late 1990s I had shifted this activity over to email. This included sending around columns that were sometimes picked up and published.
•    Phase 5. Blogging: I started blogging seriously in 2008 (a bit late). Blog entries took the place of those earlier email newsletters and occasionally published columns. I more or less stopped submitting my work to other publications, though I continued to respond to invitations to publish (and still do).
•    Phase 6. Social Media: I started with Twitter and Facebook about the same time, but got more active later.

And here’s a pattern I notice: as time goes on, social media — the latest phase — is tending to obliterate the phases that went before it. Example: I blogged only eight times in 2014, compared to 20 times in 2012. I publish less than before. And I definitely write many fewer letters.

Why? Partly because people seem less and less interested.

I certainly don’t take this personally. There is a well-known enormous flood of information out there. What’s more, the majority of that flood is personal information: things like my nature photo, times a billion. In the old days, I was unusual (as are all writers) in that I shared personal information publicly. It was theoretically shared with the whole world, even if in practice the real numbers of people reading what I wrote were in the tens of thousands, tops.

Today, virtually everyone shares personal information publicly. Sometimes whether they want to or not (like my wife). And that information is far more accessible than my little newsletters ever were, whether they were on paper or in electronic format.

Skimming through Facebook or Twitter or Instagram, I am instantly in touch with hundreds of friends and contacts. All of them are sharing the kinds of thoughts that I went to great effort to push out into the world, back when I was writing my “Dear Folks” newsletters, printing up a couple of hundred copies, sticking them in envelopes and posting them.

Just more briefly.

Of course, social media is a great equalizer that way. We “writers” (and other kinds of artists) are not so special anymore. Anyone and everyone can now tell the whole world what they think, what they are doing, what they are planning to do, with a few clicks on that little handheld device we still insist on calling a “phone”.

What does this evolution mean for the future of personal communication? I have no idea. Perhaps the whole notion of actively informing people about what you think and do will die away. Robots will decide what we should publish on our social media timelines. Then robots will decide which of those pieces of information, published by others, we should read. (Actually, that’s what is already happening: Facebook’s automated algorithms determine whether what you publish there will actually appear on your friends’ timelines. How their robots make that determination is not public knowledge.)

But I note one more interesting pattern: the impact of this evolution, on me, is a reduced desire to share. Maybe it is also a function of getting older, but I feel less and less motivated to tell the world what I think — especially now that this act is now wrapped together with the culture of selfies, trolls, and hashtags. (That is, ubiquitous photographic narcissism, anonymous meanness to other people, and ever-shorter attention spans about what’s important in this world.)

Obviously, I do keep active on social media — hence this blog post, which I’ll also flag on Twitter and Facebook. Since I am still a writer (and songwriter), and want to at least give the world a chance to discover my books and songs, I make sure to post things into the great flood of tweets and timelines on a regular basis. Sometimes I’m happily and pleasantly surprised by the response, too.

But to be honest, posting on social media is just a lot less fun than those “Dear Folks” newsletters I used to write.

And I notice that the things I post are less and less personal. I may post just as much as I ever did, but I share less than I used to.

Maybe I’ll end up back where I started — writing letters to friends and family, on paper. There remains a deep satisfaction, a visceral as well as intellectual pleasure, in physically tracing out one’s thoughts in a line of ink. Then sending the letter away, as a physical object in the world, to be received, opened, and read by another human being, sitting at a kitchen table.

It feels more like true sharing. I’m old-fashioned that way.

“A Fresh Start for Sustainable Development”

BlogFeaturePicture_Development_v2Note: A different, chattier version of this post was sent to WaveFront newsletter readers. The eight-point summary is the same. To read WaveFront, sign up at www.AtKisson.com.

The new issue of the leading journal Development, under the new editorship of Tariq Banuri, is finally out! Much food for thought there. I have an essay in its thematic section on the future of development. The essay is called “A Fresh Start for Sustainable Development” [Citation and link: Development (2013) 56(1), 52–57]

Since the essay is behind a paywall, I provide a bare-bones summary below. If you need a copy of the full essay, and cannot access Development, write to information [[ at ]] atkisson.com.

  • Sustainable Development is in the process of being reconsidered and restarted, very slowly, “as though a giant finger was pushing down on a giant global reset button, at a steady but visually glacial pace.” You can see this happening from the global level (e.g. the UN Sustainable Development Goals) all the way down to the local level (e.g. Transition Towns).
  • This is timely. Sustainability became mainstream in recent years by (1) making the risks of non-sustainability clear, and (2) speaking the language of economics and management, and proposing that sustainable development could be achieved through reforms to business as usual, with economic benefits. I promoted this strategy, as did many others, and it has been successful. But this strategy has run its course.
  • The rise of the “Green Economy” and “Green Growth” — one of the manifestations of sustainability’s success in pursuing the above mainstreaming strategy — is a necessary, but far from sufficient, condition for achieving true sustainable development. Wellbeing, equity, freedom and opportunity are equally important.
  • Sustainability needs to return to its roots. It is a set of ambitious and idealistic — not “realistic” — goals, that include the eradication of poverty, the transformation of the global energy system, gender equality, peace. These ultimate goals probably cannot be achieved through “business as usual.” Transformation, not mere reform, is needed.
  • Sustainability’s goals may be radical, but they are not marginal. “They are enshrined in numerous global agreement texts, including Rio+20’s The Future We Want” [one of several UN texts agreed to by the all the world’s governments].
  • We need to return to a solid understanding of basic sustainability: system states that can continue. The disappearance of water, species, soil, and other resources is not sustainable. Widening income and poverty gaps and mass youth unemployment are not sustainable either. We must recall the fundamental goal of this work:  the achievement and maintenance of sustainability in every major system on which the health, wellbeing, and stability of our world (human and natural) depends.”
  • I propose the following formulation as a summary of the goal:  “Green Economy + Wellbeing for All = Sustainable World.”
  • A vision for sustainability based in transformation and aiming for ultimate, idealistic goals means that the work is far from over. There is tremendous learning to be done, great adherence to ethics required, lots of hard work to do — but essential, exciting work — in the decades ahead.

Knowledge and Sustainability: The Global State of The Art

Recently I had the honor — and the amazingly complex challenge — of preparing a report for the new United Nations Office for Sustainable Development (UNOSD), based in Incheon, Korea. The title of the report signals its state-of-the-art global breadth:  “Knowledge, Capacity Building, and Networks for Sustainable Development: A Review.”

This report has been published on the web by the UNOSD, and you can download it from their website, free, in PDF format, from this link:

Download the report (1 MB)

This consulting assignment was one of the most challenging I have taken on, because the subject was so huge and so, well, meta. “Meta” meaning one level up from the usual focus on content:  it wasn’t just about all the things we need to know regarding the implementation of sustainability. It was also about “what we know about knowing.”

It wasn’t just about how to build capacity for doing sustainable development. It was about building the capacity to build capacity. Learning how to learn. And also about the networks where people learn about sustainable development, and share that learning with each other.

But of course, the report also reviewed what we need to learn — and just cataloging the list of relevant knowledge domains, using UN global agreements as the source, took up a full page, in three columns, small type.

One-third of this report consists of recommendations specific to the new UNOSD (for an upcoming expert meeting on knowledge for sustainability transition); but the other two-thirds should be of interest to any sustainability practitioner.

Here are the main conclusions. Note that this is a very brief, top-headline summary: the full report is 35 pages, full of analysis; and it included an additional spreadsheet, not published here, with a review of 200-300 global sources, programs, organizations etc. that are relevant to SD knowledge, capacity building, and networks.

“The main conclusions of this report can be summarized in four general statements:

    • The *nature of knowledge* is changing, and with it the nature of sustainable development knowledge, driven by the accelerated production of knowledge and by rapid advances in the technologies to access it.

    • This change in the nature of sustainable development knowledge has profound implications for the practice of sustainable development, and for the process of building capacity to implement it. Among other effects, the change forces a shift in emphasis from individual experts to multi-disciplinary groups, and from vertical hierarchies to horizontal networks.

    • The new knowledge and capacity-building environment, combined with the emergence of *networked governance* and the increasing importance of *boundary work*, requires that governments (in an SD context) increasingly adopt the role of *facilitator*. (The *italicized* terms are defined below [in the main report].)

    • All of these developments strongly underscore the need for the UNOSD [in its role as a hub for knowledge and capacity building especially to national governments] and provide suggestive guidance to the development of its knowledge sharing, capacity building, and networking activities. These recommendations are noted throughout the report and are summarized in the Executive Summary.

We now consider the basis for each of these statements in some depth. [… End of Excerpt …]

The public release of this report now gives you the opportunity to have input. If you read the report, and have thoughts or comments to share, please feel invited to leave a comment here (or write to me through the Contact link). I’ll carry that feedback, as best I can, into the global meeting process.

I simply could not have completed this report (or even dared to do it) without the help of many people, including my research assistant at the time, Dana Kapitulcinova, and many friends around the world who contributed content and insights (they are named in the report). I hope others find this report as interesting and useful to read as it was for me, and my colleagues, to produce it. My public thanks to the UNOSD for giving me such a challenging, and wonderful, assignment!

Why I Wrote “Purging Wallace Stevens”

Unfortunately, I was deeply affected by the poetry I loved and/or studied as a university student — Rimbaud, Tagore, Elliot, and so many others. Wallace Stevens was perhaps the most difficult to understand, and I loved his work all the more for that, just as I loved Wittgenstein or Hegel. I really understood very little of what I was reading in those days. But I read it all hard, I carried it to bed with me, I scrutinized the volumes while sunbathing nude (the one and only day that was possible, in May of 1980) in the cow pasture out behind my Oxford college. I was earnest.

I wrote poetry then, but it was bad. When I began to write poetry somewhat more seriously, in the early 1990s, Stevens got in the way. I could not possibly measure up to him. Having read Stevens so assiduously meant that I was also, to use a word I learned from another writer the other day, “primed” to think in his oblique, formalistic terms. I sounded like a poor imitation. That is why I had to purge him.

This poem emerged in a kind of controlled verbal rage against not just Stevens, but against the strictures of that schooled set of influences. I’ll reprint the poem here, then explain its references. Readers of Stevens will immediately recognize that this poem is chock full of references to his work. And of course, the embedding of references to other poems, philosophers, artists, the science of the day, is precisely what reading people like Stevens and Eliot and Pound, and studying literature generally, taught me to do.
So this was the weapon I took up against my mental priming.

Purging Wallace Stevens

Call the roller of big cigars and tell him to

get his ass out of town. He doesn’t give the orders

anymore — not in Key West, not anywhere. His world

 

is an attic, a koan at the end of the mind

posed by a million angels, all of them

unnecessary. Our complacencies are of the painful

 

variety:  the muscular ones who whip the Kurds

or contemplate serial murder on Sunday morning.

Oh Wallace, we hardly knew you. Your words said only

 

what would suffice. You met every man of your time

but one, who sold insurance at a crap shoot. You

did not face the women of your time. They could have

 

introduced you, at the grand finale of seem, to the

sticky puddle underneath the emperor of ice cream.

1992

Reprinted from Alan AtKisson, “Collected Poems: 1989-2009,” Broken Bone Press, 2012

So, that felt good. I got that out of my system. Here is what you might have missed, if you were a less obsessive fan of Wallace Stevens’ work.

Call the roller of big cigars

The principal poem being toyed with here is Stevens’ most anthologized work:  “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” Professors loved to teach this poem, with its tough-minded meditations on the interplay of appearance and reality.  “Let be be finale of seem. The only emperor is the emperor of ice cream.” That’s Stevens’ closing line. “Do you get it?” the teachers would always say. “Ice cream always melts. Death and entropy are all that rules us in the end.” They appeared to love flogging their students with this kind of confrontation with our mortality.

not in Key West

In “The Idea of Order in Key West,” which is perhaps Stevens’ second-most-anthologized poem, I was taught that he was celebrating the human capacity to impose linear order on a chaotic natural world. The sail boats at Key West “mastered the night” (get that play on words with “mast”) with their straight lines against the sky, etc. etc. Well, two can play at the double entendre game, so I do, with “doesn’t give the orders anymore”.

a koan at the end of the mind / posed by a million angels

Here my studies of Zen Buddhism crept into the picture:  there are no koans in Stevens, but his work is very koan-like, especially “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” (the third most anthologized poem of his, though I have no data to back up these ordinal claims). I’m blending, in these lines, “The Palm at the End of the Mind” (the title of my tattered collection of his work) and “The Necessary Angel,” his singular book of essays.

Our complacencies are of the painful variety

The upper-class domestic sketching in “Sunday Morning (“Complacencies of the peignoir” is the opening line, as I recall). The newspapers were full of violence against the Kurdish people (and others) in those days, and some serial murderer (Jeffrey Dahmer maybe?) was in the headlines. We weren’t in the 1920s anymore. Oh, and the roller of big cigars, “the muscular one,” is bid to whip concupiscent curds in “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” (The word “cereal” shows up in one of those Stevens’ pieces too — I am writing all this from memory now, so I am not quite sure exactly where it shows up.)

Your words said only / what would suffice.

Stevens explicitly practiced the art of saying “what would suffice,” like a sculptor chipping away at stone till what’s left is statue. Of course, I admired this, deeply, else I never would have had to become so irate in order to purge it, in an effort to find my own voice.

… who sold insurance at a crap shoot.

Stevens, as is well known, was a senior insurance executive. That was his “day job.” Here I am claiming — with something like false bravado — that he never actually encountered himself. His poetry is certainly self-reflective, deeply intelligent, sometimes achingly beautiful … but also cold and impersonal, like the poetry of a self-aware supercomputer. What’s the crap shoot? Oh, that’s easy. That’s life. But the insurance approach to poetry has the tendency to reduce life’s blood-and-sweat vagaries, its reckless gambling, to the precision of actuarial tables, which is, as I insinuate here (with that subtle word “crap”), a load of crap.

You did not face the women of your time.

The treatment of women in Stevens’ work is deeply problematic. They are posed, if they are present at all, in their peignoirs, or as two-dimensional cut-outs, inquisitively but rather naively questioning Picasso and his blue guitar. This is masculine, old-boy stuff. It seems, in Stevens, that only the men have minds — orderly, masterly minds.

Which is why this poem ends on a note of pity. Who knows what Stevens really thought, or felt. I hope that my purge-by-critique is base and unfair; I am, after all, reacting against a cardboard cut-out. But how different might he have been — how different would his poetry have been — had he broken a few more pencils, ripped up the dance floor a bit, lain his head in his lover’s lap and sighed a deep sigh … and just listened to what she had to say.

Flummoxed About My Music (plus, a free song)

Update 12 Apr 2013: I wrote this about six months ago, but now, I am no longer feeling so “flummoxed.” The musical path forward is getting much clear. See What Music Means (to Me).

I confess: I am flummoxed. (Translation: deeply puzzled about what to do.) Why? Because I don’t know how to reach my audience. I’m a family man, and a working sustainability consultant, and those are my highest priorities, in that order. But I’m also a writer, a poet, a songwriter, a musician. I don’t have the time (or the energy, or the drive for attention) required to run around tooting my horn and selling my creative products. But this world doesn’t notice you if you don’t.

So why am I making a new album, full of new songs? And what should I do with my old ones?

[Keep reading, or scroll down, and find the free (very old! 1983!) song to listen to, in MP3 format.]

Maybe I’m fooling myself, but I imagine that my potential audience is somewhat bigger than the Twitter followers (833) and the Facebook friends (642 “friends” + 318 “likes” on my public page).  Or the average 500 per month who visit my blog. Or the 500 or so who actually open my company newsletter (out of 2,700 on the list).

Evening performance for Northwest Earth Institute, Portland, OR, 2003 (photo from the NWEI newsletter)

In fact, I am pretty sure my audience used to be bigger, back in the good old pre-Twitter days. My first book sold something close to 20,000 copies. My essays on the now-defunct blog Worldchanging were probably read by many more, and occasionally got noticed by the news media. My music … well, to be honest (with myself), not that many people know my music. My greatest “hit” is a YouTube video (my song “System Zoo”) that has been watched 7,757 times. Yes, my albums are available on iTunes and Amazon … and I have sold a whopping 107 songs and six albums through those channels, generating $118.

That doesn’t much bother me. I write songs because it pleases me to write them, and play them, and record them, and occasionally even listen to them. If no one else ever listens to them … well, that’s fine.

Like any artist, I would certainly prefer that other people listen to my songs, read my books, etc. But — again — I deeply dislike tooting my own horn and doing self-promotion. And the older I get, the less energy I’m willing to spend on self-promotional activity. Hence I am flummoxed.

So, for example:  what to do with my music — old and new? Here is that free song I promised, the opening title track from my very first album, a 10-song cassette demo, produced in 1983, in New York, on a 4-track reel-to-reel system engineered by Darryl Cherney, in his studio/bedroom. He was living with his Mom in those days, and a big white cat whose purring was so loud it could be heard on the tape if we didn’t throw it out of the room. The song is called Whitewing, and it retells the Greek myth of Icarus and Daedalus (click the link to open the song in a new window):

AtKisson_Whitewing_1983DemoVersion

When I made Whitewing, I was just starting to dream of a career in music. A few years (and a few bands) later, I was finally offered the management contract of my dreams … and I turned it down. Cut my hair. Changed careers. Headed toward what we now call sustainability. The reality of succeeding in a career in music — endless touring, smoky bars, playing the same repertoire every night for months — was, when I finally looked that possibility in the face, far less appealing than the dream.

And yet, today I go into the studio again. I’m in the process of recording my sixth album — after a break of twelve years. You probably never heard of most of my albums — “Fire in the Night,” “Testing the Rope,” or the twelve Rilke poems I set to music on “Falcon, Storm, or Song.” (I recorded that one in the year 2000, but did not release it until 2006.) Three of them — the Rilke album, plus the humor album “Whole Lotta Shoppin’ Goin’ On,” and the more serious singer-songwriter collection “Testing the Rope” — are available on Tunecore.

This new album is a return to the troubadour-style ballads of “Testing the Rope.” In fact, I’m thinking of calling the album “American Troubadour,” which is one of the song titles, and also a good description of how I feel these days in relation to music:  American.  You see, living in Sweden — which has a long troubadour tradition, yet not a lot of places for troubadours to play, and even less opportunity for 52-year-old, family-man, American-origin troubadours to play — has further complexified my situation, and made the whole music thing an even more private affair. On top of that, Sweden is not a country where you stand up and say, “Oh, by the way, I’m not just this, I’m also that, and I’m actually this other thing as well, and please listen to my songs and read my books.” Sweden feeds my natural inclination to not draw attention to myself, even though I am in a profession — author, speaker, performer, etc. — that requires drawing attention to oneself.

Then there’s the issue of mixing your professional identity (which I’ve written about in my books). I do quite a lot of work that falls into a category that one might call “serious” — advising companies or UN agencies, writing reports on global economic issues, moderating high-level panel discussions, etc. But my best-known songs (as anyone reading this probably knows) are humorous. Singing humorous songs, especially live, puts one automatically in a sort of “clown-entertainer” role. “Serious” work and “clown” work do not mix together very well.

People tell me, “Oh, but your songs are so effective at getting these messages across!” (I heard this just yesterday, at lunch — and I say thank you very much to the person who said it!) It’s often true that when I give a keynote speech or do a training, people remember what I sing — when I do sing, which isn’t always — more than what I say. I know that because I meet people who heard me years ago, and the first thing they say is, “You’re the guy who sang that song!”

So, I’m flummoxed.

Flummoxed or not, I’m going to keep doing what I do. Maybe more so. All of it. Including music. I’m going to start putting more of that music here, on my blog, so you can access it (for free). And I’m making a new album. (It’s not a funny one.) I have no idea how I’m going to promote that album, or even pay for it — but there’s a decade worth of songs that are just demanding to be recorded. They won’t let me alone until I do.

And then … I’ll put the work out there. On Facebook, Twitter, the Blog, the Amazon, whatever channels are available.

And see what happens.

The Summertalker’s Moment of Revelation

In this country of traditions, which has captured my heart and caused me to set down roots as deep as a modern human can have (family with children, house, bank accounts, taxes, habits of behavior and mind), there is a tradition that is quite modern, as recent as radio.

“Summertalkers” is not a beautiful word, and yet its Swedish origin, “Sommarpratarna,” is somehow beautiful. Partly it is the association:  to experience the Summertalkers program, one sits lazily by the radio, and listens to a gifted writer (or actor or musician …) speak about life. Occasionally, the Summertalkers play a piece of music to illustrate what they are talking about.  Usually the talk is by turns deep, by turns amusing, or perhaps — if the person is quite famous — interesting only in that it reveals something quite personal about them.

As I write this, I am listening to one of most satisfying “Summer Talks” I’ve caught over the years, by author Torgny Lindgren. His 72-year-old voice hesitates in charming ways as he talks about writing and music and how these bring meaning to even the most tragic of lives — say, Joseph Roth, who drank himself to death in the cafes of Paris but wrote compellingly, humorously, and in full command of style, until the very last alcoholic drop.

Torgny (these talks are so intimate in tone that they make one feel compelled use the first name) made me laugh as he recounted the turning point in his young life, the moment when literature gripped him. He was sitting in the outhouse of his family home in northern Sweden, “leaning forward, probably pushing.” The few lines of Swedish poetry that he happened upon in a social-democratic consumer cooperative magazine do not translate well, or at least, I can’t recall them well enough to do them justice in translation. But there he was, a writer-to-be, seized by the language that gives us meaning, having a moment of youthful literary euphoria, in the middle of doing his business in the outhouse.

The beautiful absurdity of it says something about Torgny’s character, his lack of self-pretension (though he sits in chair #9 in the Swedish Academy). But it also says something about summer in Sweden. It is absurdly beautiful here, just now. Everything is wonderful, in the midst of these endless sunny days of leisure, even the most clichéd old song, even American soda pop, even a decaying mini-golf course. One laughs at oneself for enjoying such things — Torgny began by noting that our capacity to fool ourselves about how important, or smart, or beautiful we are is probably one of our most important success factors as a species — but one enjoys it all nonetheless.

“Let’s be honest, music leads us nowhere. Music is completely useless. Ask the tax authorities!” says Torgny. “But we all have a drive to music, a ‘music libido,’ that is as strong as any other drive we have,” he notes, remarking on the remarkable fact that people go around plugged into devices to satisfy their constant, endless need for music. “If Sigmund Freud had discovered the music drive, then all of his work would have looked completely different.”

And the talk goes on, and on. Torgny is playing with words, adding the “muse drive” to the “music drive” — a drive to creativity. We simply must create, just as the Earth — and this is impossible not to believe, during these long summer blooming day-nights in Sweden — must create.

What else, in this endless universe, is there for us to do?

Blogging, Tweeting, Booking Face – Results & Survey

For the last month, I’ve done my best to write publicly (on the internet) about my professional life, with a personal voice, as often as I possibly could. “Daily” was the original ambition. It became “often” instead.

What did I learn? Should I continue, with the same frequency?

You know, that’s really up to you — to those of you who are reading this.  I’d really like your feedback. Should I write more? More often? Less? On what?

Here’s a link:  please take the survey! (then continue reading this entry)

http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/AlanFeedbackJune2011

Since starting this “one-month intensive,” readers have come to my personal website about 1,000 times (I have no idea how many actual readers that translates to). I’ve gained a little over 50 followers on Twitter. That’s lovely, especially if I think of these readers as friends, reading my letters. I wrote a lot of letters as a young man, and they were a wonderful way to figure out what I thought, and exchange thoughts and feelings with others. But hand-written letters go to one or two persons at a time. A “blog entry” (oh, how I dislike the language of Web 2.0) is typically read by 30-50 people (my biggest day was around 300, but that was two years ago during the Copenhagen climate summit, the recent tops is 82). And again, if I think of it as writing a letter that reaches that many friends and family members, it’s at least a more efficient way of writing to them.

Isn’t it?

Wait a minute, isn’t that what Facebook is for?

Shouldn’t I just use these channels for marketing? Ah, but then people become less interested. Of course, it’s all marketing, isn’t it?  Aren’t we all sort of “marketing ourselves” in this tweet/blog/facebook part of the world? Even when we are “baring our hearts”? Maybe even especially then?

And aren’t we all overloaded with information? Isn’t it getting harder to care, what someone writes about what they think? Harder to prioritize what to read?

You can see I’m a bit confused, which is why I’d love some feedback from you. But if you have read this far, you are clearly interested in these questions, so here is a little more information about the results of my “one-month intensive.”

# of blog posts I wrote during the period 19 May to 22 June:  10

# of twitter/linkedin/facebook posts:  about 150

# of comments attracted:  less than 10

Most popular blog post during that time:  “What Lady Gaga and I Have in Common”  (Link: https://alanatkisson.wordpress.com/2011/05/31/lady-gaga-and-i/)

No surprise there: I wrote the post partly as an experiment, to see if mentioning Gaga would increase average readership. It did, by more than 50% for that day, and it’s getting three times the hits of the next most popular posting.

I tweeted live from high-level seminars on the future of the planet, and large-scale conferences on future of our lifestyles … I reflected out loud on the ethics and practice of my profession as a sustainability consultant (including the intriguing topic of confidentiality) … I told the world about being in a car accident in Korea, even before I told my family (and I still have not mentioned it to my children). And despite all that …

Most people want to read about me and Lady Gaga. Maybe I should write about celebrities more often!

I look forward to your feedback …

http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/AlanFeedbackJune2011

What Lady Gaga and I Have in Common

You might be expecting a humor piece — “I once dropped a piece of Parma ham onto my lap, where it draped across my leg as though it were a patch on my pants, just like Lady Gaga’s famous meat dress” — but I’m actually quite serious here.

I’m not really a Gaga fan, no “Little Monster” as she calls them (effectively creating a “brand” of her own fan-base).  I’ve seen one Gaga concert on TV, I’ve heard the hits on the radio. It’s catchy stuff, perhaps not my cup of tea, unavoidably sticky. But she’s clearly a real musician, versatile, skilled, committed.

And as I also still think of myself as a musician — even if my actual concert-style performances have been more infrequent of late, my playing rustier — I pay attention to the music business; and so I paid close attention to Stephen Fry’s profile article on Lady Gaga in the Financial Times on Saturday, 28 May 2011, followed by an article on the economics of her pop music/performance art empire in the same paper. (Online version here.)

And I learned some things that surprised me.

Let’s start with the tattoo. I don’t have one and never will; but if I did, I would be very likely to choose a line from the poet Rainier Maria Rilke, whose life and work I have studied intensively, resulting in one album of his poetry set to music. I even wrote a one-man musical play, based on his early life and letters, and performed it exactly once.

According to Fry, Lady Gaga has tattoo that consists of a long piece of Rilke’s writing, a quote from “Letters to a Young Poet.”

Then there is her approach to art and work, which one might call “Rilke-esque”. She lives her performance, 24/7. She is fully committed. She professes not to care about making money, and in fact went bankrupt last year — despite her enormous success — because she invested her own money in re-designing and re-tooling her tour, continuously, in response to her evolving sense of what needed to be done.

Without going into the philosophical details here about why, it should be obvious to anyone observing that I have for many years taken a similar approach to my work, at a much, much, much smaller scale of operation. (Just trying to make sure you know that I have no illusions of grandeur. My blog posts are read by, oh, several dozen people at the moment!) In fact, I used to conceive of my work as a kind of “global art project.” These days, I no longer make any distinctions between my “artistic” life and my “professional” life. Consulting on sustainable development strategy, writing, developing processes that bring people together to make change, making up songs and singing them to live audiences as part of a speech or a training session — even knowing when not to sing, because the role I’m playing and the purpose I am dedicated to achieving requires near-absolute adherence to the traditional cultural patterns of suit-and-tie and professional decorum — these all blend together now.

It’s not like I’m doing everything all the time, however. Sometimes a corporate client will specifically ask me to bring my guitar to the session on sustainability strategy (I have even sung to audiences of scientists, and military personnel, you-name-it). But sometimes, it is obvious that any hint of being a “creative person” should be left outside of the meeting. By the same token, when actually performing as a musician, I tend to leave the bullet points on strategy off the stage.

Basically, in each situation, I do whatever seems best to serve the overall purpose of advancing this transformation process we call “sustainability.”

It should be equally obvious that money is not my primary motivation. In fact, like Gaga, I’ve sunk a lot of my own money into developing the tools, methods, etc. that my colleagues and friends are now spreading around the world, with a kind of apparent insouciance to the current profit/loss/cash flow/balance sheet situation that has, on occasion, made my accountants roll their eyes. Why? Because the issues we are dealing with are deadly serious. They outweigh short-term financial considerations. So I do what I think needs to be done, where I see an opportunity to amplify and accelerate change, for as long as I can, and as long as I don’t put other people’s financial well-being at risk. (In truth, I believe or at least hope that this will prove to be a good long-term strategic investment in financial terms. I’m guessing Gaga thinks the same way. I’m also guessing she’ll end up making way more money than the entire sustainability movement will ever see in this lifetime.)

So, work, art, life … It’s all one thing. Sometimes it’s serious (e.g. working to help a country or a company fine-tune its sustainable development strategy), sometimes it’s just plain fun (e.g. singing the “Parachuting Cats” to an international conference audience). It’s not about “saving the world.” It’s about being *in* the world, as it is, in this particular moment.

Okay, let’s wrap this thing up on a lighter note, with the tiniest grain of potential truth in it. When I was a musician in New York in my 20s, I used to get my hair cut on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, at the same place Madonna used to go to, before she got famous. And Lady Gaga, this generation’s Madonna, also comes from the Lower East Side.

So who knows — maybe all three of us have a hair-stylist in common, too.