Sunday, December 27, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Write a Set of Christmas Carols

I've been thinking quite a bit about this idea - the calendar says December 27 today - and I've heard a lot of Christmas carols in the past few weeks. I've even played a few on the piano, including a nice bluesy arrangement of "Rise Up, Shepherds, and Follow" and a version of "Jingle Bells" in 5/4 time which is virtually impossible to sing but fun to play.

My most recent post on memorizing poetry also prompted me to think about writing Christmas carols, since one of the poems I learned was "The Oxen" by Thomas Hardy which begins with the line "Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock." Having acquired an intimate familiarity with the poem, I had the thought it could be set to music. It has four stanzas, each with the same basic meter and rhyme scheme.

So I sat down at the piano and came up with a reasonable melody and set of harmonies that can certainly be improved upon, but at a minimum suggested that I am capable of setting a poem to music. I should probably mention that I'm not the first person to decide "The Oxen" would make a good song. It is a baritone solo in the Christmas cantata Hodie by Ralph Vaughan Williams, who certainly has nothing to fear from my efforts, or would have nothing to fear if he were still alive.

Vaughan Williams' version is quite nice and just exudes atmosphere, but requires a well trained voice and an orchestra to get the full effect. That's not the type of Christmas carol I have in mind for this particular HarvilleQuarter.

If I have a model for this endeavor, it would be Alfred Burt, whose Episcopal priest father started a tradition of creating a Christmas carol each year as part of the Burt family's annual Christmas letter. One presumes their Christmas card list consisted solely of friends and family who could read music, sing in four-part harmony and play the piano. Alfred continued the tradition in his, unfortunately, very short life - he lived to be only 33. Alfred Burt's carols have been published and recorded by many singers and choirs. Some might even be considered staples of the holiday season.

I'm not suggesting any carols I might write will achieve that status - Alfred Burt did have the advantage of being a professional musician - but I do like the idea of creating a personal contribution to the holiday season, even if the audience is limited to a few friends and family.

The first question is whether you will write the words, the music or both. As my example shows, I am quite willing to take a shot at the music but writing the words scares me. (I suppose that indicates I should write the words because that would involve more risk, one of my seven HarvilleQuarters criteria. I'll give that some more thought.)

If, like me, you'd prefer to use someone else's poetry, there are many sources of Christmas poems available. Check your local library. It may have several books consisting only of Christmas poems. Look in the children's section, too. A Christmas poem directed toward children might be a great choice for your collection. There are also Christmas poems published online as well as in general poetry anthologies and December issues of magazines. One more option would be to take the text of an existing carol and create a new musical setting for it, especially if there's a carol where you find the words more appealing than the traditional music. I know of three different settings of "Away in the Manger" and all three are quite beautiful, but that would not preclude a fourth.

If you're more of a poet than a composer, consider taking music from another Christmas carol or some other source and creating a set of lyrics appropriate to the holiday season.

Once you get started, you may find this HarvilleQuarter easier than you expect. You can decide how widely you want to share your results, if at all. And if you really enjoy it, you can make it an annual holiday tradition just like Alfred Burt, after this particular HarvilleQuarter is completed.

In case you're not familiar with Hardy's "The Oxen," here it is in its entirety:

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
"Now they are on their knees,"
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
"Come, see the oxen kneel,

"In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,"
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.


The Christmas carolers in the photograph are from the Festival Choir of Madison, Wisconsin, an organization of which I was a member for 12 years. I am not in this particular picture although I know everyone who is. It can be found at www.festivalchoir.org.


Sunday, November 29, 2009

Memorize a New Poem Daily, the Sequel

Loyal readers of this blog may have noticed a gap in the frequency of my postings. In fact, it's been more than a month. This is not completely accidental. I've been busy memorizing poems.

It occurred to me it was only fair, after listing 100 activities to do when one retires, that I should try out at least one of them and report back. The obstacle to this plan, of course, is that I'm not actually retired. So I needed an activity I could test out in my so-called "spare time." Memorizing some poems, although not on a daily basis, seemed a reasonable place to start.

This led to the realization that my poetry collection is pitifully small - OK, it's nonexistent - so I trundled off to my local library and returned with an armful of volumes with titles such as Committed to Memory: 100 Best Poems to Memorize, 100 Great Poems of the Twentieth Century, Three Centuries of American Poetry, Poems to Read, and 100 essential modern poems. And, yes, the title of the last one is not capitalized on its cover. And, yes, it does include a poem by e. e. cummings, although in the book he's listed as E. E. Cummings. Go figure.

So, over the past few weeks, I can safely say I've read more poems than in the rest of my life all together. I recognize this is not something to be proud of, since I can't have read that many poems in a month while holding a full-time job, and that's true. Recreational poetry reading has not been high on my list of ways to while away the odd hour. Although I've stumbled across a few I remembered from high school and college classes, the great majority have been completely new to me, even if written four centuries ago.

I've also discovered there are not that many poems that so intrigue me I feel compelled to memorize them --- but I have found some and I have indeed memorized them. Not without some difficulty, but I'm happy to report I can in fact memorize a poem, and even enjoy the process. Here's my list so far:
  1. Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill (by far the most challenging and time-consuming to memorize, but very satisfying to recite now)
  2. May Swenson, Question
  3. Billy Collins, Forgetfulness (a little gem that seems written for this project - as soon as I read it, I knew it would be next on my list)
  4. Philip Sidney, My True Love Hath My Heart
  5. Thomas Hardy, The Oxen (a great poem for reciting at Christmas)
  6. Stevie Smith, Not Waving But Drowning
  7. Walt Whitman, When I Heard at the Close of Day
I have a few more queued up, but I've been disappointed to read so many to find the small number I wanted to memorize, even in a book subtitled "100 Best Poems to Memorize." I hope when I get to this HarvilleQuarter in retirement, I'll be able to find one a day for a full quarter.

One question I'm still pondering is whether, once memorized, these poems will stay memorized. Just how much "maintenance" will it take to keep them in the memory bank? So far, I've been able to talk through them each day and after a few days they seem to stick. However, the seven above poems can be recited in about 10 minutes total. As the number of poems grows, a daily recitation will not be practical so my real recall ability will be put to the test.

I have learned a few lessons. It is easier to memorize a poem with rhymes and a well defined meter, although most of the ones I chose do not meet these criteria. I found I really have to think about the words, really notice them, consider why the poet chose this particular one and not another, pay attention to alliteration and words with rhyming vowel sounds, and make sure I fully understand what's going on in the poem, the narrative thread - which they seem to have in some sense.

I have proven the hypothesis of my previous post that memorizing a poem does deepen its meaning so you begin to feel a real connection with the poet. I'm enjoying the process and, in terms of HarvilleQuarters criteria, I am acquiring new skills and knowledge. It feels playful and a bit risky (I wasn't sure I could do it) and even feels creative. It definitely has brought me satisfaction. I haven't yet met any new people as a result, but that could come. Somewhere in Madison, there must be a group that gets together regularly to recite poetry. If not, maybe I'll start one.

And since the topic is memorization, I'd like to end by quoting the first lines of the Billy Collins poem, Forgetfulness:
The name of the author is the first to go
followed obediently by the title, the plot,
the heartbreaking conclusion, the entire novel
which suddenly becomes one you have never read, never even
heard of,


as if, one by one, the memories you used to harbor
decided to retire to the southern hemisphere of the brain,
to a little fishing village where there are no phones.

The image is of a cover painted for an edition of Fern Hill by Murray Kimber and found at www.collectionscanada.gc.ca/obj/015020/f1/nlc009058-v6.jpg.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Practice Yoga

There are many reasons for a retired person to try yoga. In fact, perhaps I should start this way - why wouldn't a retired person try yoga? It's just about the perfect exercise for the retiree, using the word "exercise" in the broadest sense. It requires no equipment. You can begin from exactly where you are right now - physically, emotionally, spiritually. If you join a class, you're likely to meet some interesting folks you'd never get to know otherwise. It's not competitive (which not all of you may consider an advantage). You progress at your own pace, but you will progress.

If you've never practiced yoga, now is the time to start. One way is by picking up a few books on yoga at the library or the bookstore. There is no shortage of these, including a few targeted specifically at the over-50 crowd. You will see photographs of yogis and yoginis (female yogis) in poses you can actually imagine yourself doing and a few more that might seem a bit of a stretch (sorry, bad pun!). And a few more that you know in your heart of hearts will never happen in this lifetime. No problem! In yoga you decide how far you will push yourself and how far your particular body is capable of going. There is no such thing as perfection, just you working to your own degree to make progress toward the benefits you're seeking.

After you've perused a few books and/or DVD's, Websites, YouTubes, etc., I'd strongly recommend you sign up for a class. Learning yoga on your own seems likely to be unfulfilling and a good instructor will recognize the right pace for you while giving you helpful feedback. Other class members will provide a supportive atmosphere. And there's always something to be said for the discipline of having a scheduled time and place for any activity. You will almost certainly make better progress with an instructor's guidance as well as avoid injuries, which are a risk for a beginning, self-taught yogi.

Fortunately, yoga has become so popular in the U.S. that you'll probably have several choices for classes within a reasonable commute. Besides commercial yoga studios, classes are frequently offered in senior centers, churches, schools, YMCA's, recreation centers and community outreach programs. Costs will vary but many are not expensive. If you've not previously practiced yoga, a class is definitely the way to go.

My own experience with yoga started about 18 months ago when I was inspired to try a yoga studio I passed each day as I went to work. It's called "Inner Fire Yoga," and I soon discovered the title is not metaphorical. (Well, there are no actual flames involved but there is a lot of heat.) Another name for this yoga is Bikram, after its founder, and it consists of a defined sequence of 26 poses plus two breathing exercises performed for 90 minutes in a room heated to 105 degrees. Yes, one does sweat. A lot. Profusely. I recently weighed myself before and after a class and found I'd dropped five pounds, even though I'd drunk a quart of water during class.

Amazingly - to me, at least - I went back for a second class, and a third, and so on. At last count, I've slogged through 250 classes in the past year and a half. The sweating part doesn't bother me, although when it's humid, I do occasionally find I need to sit out a pose or two. They tell us that the heat helps loosen our connective tissue and muscles, making us more flexible, as well as rids our bodies of unspecified toxins. They may be right about that, but I just find the poses and environment seem to have the right mix of challenge and relaxation for me.

I watched my dad become increasingly bent and stiff on his journey to age 100, so one of my motives for trying yoga was to increase my back strength and improve my posture. It has done that, I believe, as well as improved my overall muscle tone and balance, even though the one-leg balancing poses are my nemeses. Inner Fire also has some great instructors who are thoroughly knowledgeable about the poses and demonstrate both equanimity and discipline. I've learned not to compare myself with the 5'0", 95 pound twenty-somethings in the room and simply focus on doing what I can do and making each posture my personal best on that particular day.

There are many variations of yoga, most performed at normal room temperature. Find a program, talk to the instructor, try a few classes, and assess how you feel physically and emotionally afterward. If you have doubts, try a different type of yoga with a new instructor. Take your time finding the one that fits you best. Avoid setting expectations too high. Books and Websites may tout yoga as a near-miracle cure for all sorts of physical issues and I wouldn't try to talk someone out of a real benefit he's experienced, but I wouldn't start practicing with that expectation. Just experience yoga the way you experience yoga, absorbing the instructor's guidance, pushing yourself just far enough but not too far, and letting yourself find a new equanimity. If you also find relief from a painful or debilitating physical ailment, consider it a wonderful bonus and let your gratitude know no bounds.


The photograph is from the Website of the Bikram studio in Nevada City, California, demonstrating the standing bow pose (yes, that would be one of those troublesome balancing poses that frustrate me).

Monday, October 12, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Write Your Family's History

Researching your family's history has never been easier. Of all the HarvilleQuarters on my list, there is probably none that has benefited more from the widespread availability of the Internet and all the genealogical resources that can be accessed - and the breadth of resources is growing every day, literally.

I've been doing family research long enough to remember the not-so-good old days. In my twenties, I decided to do some digging into family history, both because I was interested and because I happened to live near my father's family's ancestral home in Wisconsin. I prowled around cemeteries looking for gravestones with the Harville name, pored through thick volumes of handwritten birth, death and marriage records in the county courthouse and perused county histories from the late 1800's looking for some mention of a Harville. I also asked questions of my older relatives who, as I recall, were not terribly forthcoming. I did manage to piece together a basic family tree, gather photographs of gravestones, and found one 1913 obituary that turned out to be quite helpful in nailing down a few facts.


The best discovery I made was on my Grandma Harville's side of the family, the Shattucks. I recalled Grandma mentioning that her family had owned a published Shattuck family history written when her mother was a baby. The book traced the Shattucks back generation by generation to the one who landed in Massachusetts in the 1620's, not on the Mayflower but within ten years. This book had been lost and Grandma suspected a cousin who had moved to Oklahoma as the culprit. I was delighted to discover a copy of this book in the Wisconsin Historical Library and I was able to make copies of all the pages that related to our direct ancestry back to William Shattuck, the Massachusetts settler. It even included a complete inventory of his possessions taken at his death. Grandma was in her late 80's then and it made me happy to show her the pages she remembered reading as a child.


I did a little additional research in the Newberry Library when I was in graduate school in Chicago, but basically put family history aside until two years ago. I read a reference to ancestry.com in an article and decided to check it out. I did a search on William Harville, my great-great grandfather. I knew from the 1913 obituary of one of his sons that he had moved his family from central Illinois to Wisconsin in the 1840's, but had found nothing earlier than that. But on ancestry.com, there was a question posted on a William Harville who had married a Jane Dunagan in central Illinois in 1827. I concluded that this William Harville was most likely my ancestor, and although the query had remained unanswered for seven years, I posted a response with a few relevant facts.

Within 12 hours, I had an email from a very, very distant cousin in Washington, the query's originator, who agreed we were talking about the same William and bolstered her conclusions with some additional facts she had uncovered. This led to many emails within a few days as we pooled our knowledge and "Cousin Lea," as I now think of her, provided me with the fruits of her 30-plus years of family research (her great-great grandfather and mine were brothers). I can now trace my Harville ancestors back to North Carolina, Virginia and London into the 1600's.


I subscribed to ancestry.com and have spent many fruitful, tantalizing and frustrating hours filling in missing pieces. The pleasure is similar to a jigsaw puzzle, except you don't know what the picture looks like, the number of pieces, or how many have been lost. But it's a great feeling when you stumble on a new fact that links several other pieces into a coherent picture. So the Web has been a blessing for family historians, both for the vast collections of census, military and other records as well as its ability to help us find each other and share information, as with Cousin Lea.

On the other hand, shoe leather is still required. I made a major discovery while slogging through microfilmed copies of the weekly Grant County Herald at the State Historical Society. I was looking for something else, but suddenly noted an announcement in an 1878 paper that my great-great grandmother had filed for divorce. The next week's paper covered the circuit court results which listed the divorce as granted. Whoa! I'd certainly never heard that little fact when I was growing up!
I consulted by email with Cousin Lea, who noted that the only grounds for divorce in those days were desertion or adultery. I wasn't sure which to hope for.

But I then discovered that all the circuit court records for Grant County are in a basement room at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, so I made a call. The attendant said it was hard to predict what might be in the file, but any and all paperwork presented with the case would be there. I made a quick trip to Platteville and held my breath when she gave me an envelope tied with a ribbon. Inside were the divorce decree, an accounting of all the costs of the divorce, and, most interesting of all, the handwritten transcript of testimony presented by my great-great grandmother and three of her sons, including my great-grandfather.


Turned out it
was desertion. She was 59 and he was 74, and they'd been married 31 years. Of course, I'd love to know the rest of the story, as Paul Harvey used to say, but with family history, the more you find out, the more you wish you knew. You simply have to accept there will always be unsolved mysteries.

I have not yet written the definitive Harville family history but I intend to take a HarvilleQuarter to do so. Besides the data available on the Web, technology makes it easy to lay out and print a family history with scanned images of photographs, census records and newspaper articles to add interest for the readers. You can take advantage of software that will create a family tree and customize maps to show the migration patterns of your ancestors. You can also insert local historical and geographic descriptions from town and county histories published when your ancestors were in residence, whether or not they were mentioned by name.

And the possibilities become more numerous each day as new content is added to the Internet and new features are added to software. If your history is online rather than printed, you can include audio and video clips - what a great way to preserve and distribute grandpa's oral reminiscences of growing up in the Depression.
This is one HarvilleQuarter I'm really looking forward to.

The photograph is of my grandparents and their first five children, taken in 1908. My father is the baby.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Memorize a Poem Daily

One my favorite movies of the past few years is "The History Boys," in which a much-loved, older English teacher in a lower-tier British boy's school eschews a standard curriculum in favor of instilling the pure love of English language and literature into his teen-aged charges. One of his techniques was to require the memorization of poetry, at which the boys soon excelled. To the bemusement of a new, more modern teacher, the students could cite a line or two of an appropriate poem at any time.

Memorizing poetry is now considered hopelessly old-fashioned to teachers around the world. You won't find it on the standardized tests used to measure the effectiveness of our educational establishment, so why spend time on it? To be honest, the last poem I recall memorizing was "There Once Was a Puffin" in about fourth grade. In retrospect, I would have thought Mrs. Curtis could have done a little better than that bit of doggerel, but I also recall that memorizing was easy. Would that it were still so.

So I approach the thought of memorizing a poem each day with lots of trepidation, knowing that my memorization skills are a mere shadow of what they were at age nine. My first thought was to go for something truly epic, literally. I remember learning that the Homeric sagas went unwritten for centuries, relying on storytellers to recite them aloud to rapt audiences and to pass them on to the next generation. Wouldn't it be neat to recreate their experience! That idea lasted as long as it took me to pull my dusty copy of the Odyssey off the shelf and note the almost 500 pages with about 35 lines per page. Hmmm.....17,500 lines in 90 days or about 200 lines per day....I don't think so!

Sonnets, on the other hand, at 14 lines might be doable and there are plenty of good ones to choose from -- Shakespeare alone wrote 154 of them. (And one is tempted, of course, to mention haikus, but I'll resist the urge.) But there's no need to limit oneself to a single form. Find about 90 short poems that you love, or intrigue you, or amuse you, or sound wonderful when read aloud, and start memorizing. This is a HarvilleQuarter that will cost you nothing if you find poems on the Internet or use library books and can be done sitting in your favorite chair in your own living room.

If you're unsure where to look for poems, you might try a book tailored exactly to you - Committed to Memory -- 100 Best Poems to Memorize by John Hollander. According to the Website www.poets.org, "this is a gathering of a hundred-and-some poems chosen specifically for
memorization, and for the particularly intense kind of silent reading for which the reader prepares ... to commit to memory short poems, or passages of longer ones, that had particularly affected (him)." They were also chosen because they sound good when recited. Having perused the Table of Contents, I will observe that most of the poems are by well-known, mostly English authors, with a few Americans tossed in, and hail from the 19th Century or earlier. It may be a good starting point, but I'm personally planning to cast a wider net.

Another resource is Garrison Keillor's Good Poems, which includes at least a couple hundred poems, mostly of a page or two. These are works he's read on his daily radio program The Writer's Almanac, when he spends a few minutes talking about a literary figure or event connected to the date and ends with the reading of a poem. So at least we know that these poems can be read aloud and presumably were selected in part because they read well. Many of the poets are unfamiliar, at least to me, and are of recent vintage when compared with those in Committed to Memory. I'll confess I'm frequently unimpressed by the poems I've heard Garrison read on the show, but perhaps the fact that I'm usually in heavy traffic on University Avenue heading for work is partly responsible for my reaction.


I like the philosophy of Bob Holman and Margery Snyder, as quoted on about.com. You memorize because a "poem you are reading makes you stop dead, you hear the voice of the poet meld with your thought-process, the poem was written especially for you... Boom! You have to make this poem your own. YOU HAVE TO MEMORIZE IT."

I just hope I can find 90 short poems with that kind of impact on me.

It also strikes me that the mere act of memorizing, even if the poem does not make me stop dead but is simply appealing, will deepen its meaning. Spending that much time with the poem, saying it out loud, looking up any unfamiliar words. trying different speech inflections and rhythms, thinking about the reason the poet chose a particular word or image, will educe insights that went unnoticed during early readings. You may then start to feel that the poem "was written especially for you." And you'll amaze your friends and family as you start to drop appropriate poetic quotations into your conversations.

The image is "24 Poets and 1 Astronaut," a 2002 linocut by Marc Snyder. In case you're wondering they are:
First row Alfred, Lord Tennyson - Robert Browning - Walt Whitman - William Butler Yeats - Gertrude Stein Second row Robert Frost - Carl Sandburg - Wallace Stevens - J.D. - T. S. Eliot Third row Edna St. Vincent Millay - Neil Armstrong - E. E. Cummings - Langston Hughes - W. H. Auden Fourth row Randall Jarrell - John Berryman - Dylan Thomas - Gwendolyn Brooks - Philip Larkin
Fifth row Gregory Corso - Allen Ginsberg - Anne Sexton - Sylvia Plath - Frank O'Hara

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Another Dozen Examples

97. Learn to fish - or teach someone else to fish.
98. Create a computer index of old editions of a local newspaper.
99. Take a battlefield tour.
100. Memorize new jokes daily and compile a book of your favorite jokes.
101. Produce a series of soirees or salons.
102. Design and make Halloween costumes.
103. Create a book festival or another themed festival.
104. Create a family foundation.
105. Reread books you read as a student or young adult.
106. Help Habitat for Humanity build a house.
107. Make a guitar or other music instrument.
108. Repair old bicycles and give them to needy kids.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Do a Project for a Non-Profit Organization

Not-for-profit organizations are always looking for help, and I encourage retirees to sign up to provide recurring assistance, such as delivering Meals on Wheels, tutoring students or preparing meals for the homeless. On the other hand, non-profits also have needs for one-time but substantive projects requiring a major time commitment to complete - and an opportunity for a HarvilleQuarter for you.

These projects may require specialized skills you learned in your former profession or expertise you've acquired as a hobbyist or handyman. So this is not your run-of-the-mill volunteer task that requires only a strong back or ability to enter data accurately. This is a project of total immersion. You will plan, organize, carry out, perhaps supervise others, and have a deliverable at the end. You may even have a budget.

Some examples that come to mind are:
  • Implement a new computer system. This could include leading a thorough system selection process, interviewing vendors, arranging software demos, negotiating contracts, and then planning and supervising the implementation, including setting up hardware, installing software, writing documentation and training the employees and volunteers. Depending on the size and complexity of the system and the organization, this could easily outlast a single HarvilleQuarter, but if you have skills and experience to do this, you would be providing a lot of value to the non-profit. A less time-consuming variation would be helping the agency implement a system upgrade.
  • Plan and act as the general contractor for a remodeling and reconfiguration of the agency's physical space. Again, if you have the expertise to do this, the benefits to the agency will be substantial, both in financial savings and better results than if they tried to do this themselves. If your skills run more to manual labor, help remodel their office space with fresh paint and flooring, for example. If you have specific trade certifications, you can upgrade their wiring and plumbing, or re-roof their building, or reconfigure their space with new walls, cabinetry, lighting or shelving.
  • Develop a marketing plan and materials. If your pre-retirement education and responsibilities were as a marketer, you skills will be valuable to some not-for-profit. Just like companies in the private sector, they need to develop a brand, define target markets and create awareness of their services. Smaller organizations will likely not have these skills in-house and will be reluctant to use hard-won donations to pay market rates to secure them. You may also be able to help find non-retired professionals in your network to donate services with you or provide them at reduced costs.
  • If you skills tend toward writing and editing, use them for non-profits who live or die by their success in attracting grant support. Locate funding sources whose priorities match the agency's and then develop well-written proposals that underscore that match while meeting all the funder's specific proposal requirements. If you can do that, you will find a welcome mat at any number of small non-profits. Besides writing grants, you can help develop written marketing materials or redesign their newsletter, whether paper- or Web-based.
  • Fundraising will always be a welcome skill. If your business or personal network includes well-to-do individuals with an interest in common with your not-for-profit, help just by making introductions and by acquainting your friends with the work of the agency. If you have event planning skills, take on the planning and organization of a major fundraising event or a conference. This could be a chance to try out a new fundraising activity for the agency - that will become an annual event - and attract a new set of supporters for its mission.
  • Speaking of mission, non-profits periodically revisit and redefine theirs and they usually need help in doing so. If you have a background in strategic planning or meeting facilitation, you can make the process more efficient and less painful by organizing and leading the effort. You can also help with more mundane tasks such as rewriting bylaws and charters, redesigning the committee structure and updating position descriptions.
  • And speaking of position descriptions, human resource skills in general will be valued. A small agency may not have an HR professional, so help by training staff in interviewing and supervisory skills, developing or updating the employee handbook, and ensuring the organization is in compliance with employment-related laws and regulations.
I'm sure there are many more examples that you can think of where you can take on a significant project - one that a small not-for-profit can't do for itself or hire someone else to do - where your contribution will mark a real step forward for the agency and a source of pride and satisfaction for you.

One other alternative - instead of working alone over a period of weeks or months, tap your network and put together a team. I recently worked for an afternoon with the 23 employees of a local company, Platypus Technologies, to help a food pantry deal with some growing pains. The Platypus folks divided into three teams - one painted offices and restrooms in space the pantry was expanding into, another set up used shelving and reconfigured the existing food storage area for more capacity and better flow, and a third sorted through a tremendous quantity of donated clothing, putting the clothes on hangers and arranging by size and sex. In one afternoon, the amount accomplished was inspiring. Your best contribution may be to organize a similar "swat team" for an overwhelmed non-profit director.

The photograph shows the neat and well-stocked shelves of The River Food Pantry in Madison, Wisconsin. It was reproduced from a link to Flickr on the pantry's Website, www.theriver-madison.org.


Sunday, August 23, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Become a Storyteller

Storytelling must be one of, if not the, oldest of the arts. We can easily envision the clan huddled around the fire on a cool, dark night, each individual transfixed by a tale spun by an elder or a natural storyteller. Usually, the tale was familiar, one perhaps heard from childhood passed down from one storyteller to another for generations. But also imagine the thrill of hearing a new story for the first time.

The talented storyteller in the ages before mass media, or even the written word, must have been a prized member of a tribe. Can you imagine the power of an all-absorbing story, told with panache at a leisurely pace. With no background distractions, the audience would have been mesmerized. To use a phrase that describes an experience now rare for most of us, the listeners would have been "hanging on every word."

We each have our stories to tell and it's worth spending some time collecting them, honing them, and then telling them. My own children, even as young adults, enjoy hearing stories of my family as I was growing up. And I can recall the times my aunts and uncles gathered around our dining room table and started reminiscing about their growing-up years. I found the tales fascinating, even when there was a debate about whose version of a particular event was more accurate (or, to be honest, especially when there was a debate over whose version was more accurate).

Storytelling is an art, but one which we can all improve on. I recently had a half day of training in telling stories to prepare 30 colleagues and me to raise funds for the United Way. Our goal was to develop stories drawn from our own experiences as volunteers, as family members, and as visitors to agencies whose programs receive United Way funding. We will be telling our hopefully riveting, yet poignant stories to audiences as part of our persuasive efforts to elicit contributions.

Although I've done a lot of public speaking and don't find it particularly daunting, our training gave me some new insights into storytelling as a unique form of public speaking. Like most people, I'm too often tempted to spend valuable minutes setting the stage for a story before I get to the meat of what actually happened. Our instructor's goal was to convince us to trust our audience to fill in the background for themselves as the story unfolds - but to start with "what happened."

We had been given an assignment to tell a 60-second story from our youth to get us started, which I practiced repeatedly the night before, timing it carefully since there would be no extensions of the one-minute rule. My inclination was to start with the background: "It was my sophomore year of college, and my parents were driving me from my hometown in northeastern Ohio to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and the back seat was piled to the ceiling with bedding and household items on one side because I was moving into an apartment that year, yadda, yadda, yadda...."

After the instructor's introduction the next day, I realized I was about to fall into the trap of spending a good third of my allotted time explaining the context before something remotely interesting happened. I reorganized my story on the fly and, I'm happy to say, related it within 60 seconds to more-than-polite applause and even some laughter. Which goes to show, even after all these years, I'm still trainable.

I'm guessing your family won't be such sticklers for storytelling methods and rules as my instructor - they'll appreciate you're sharing a memory that's important to you or just plain enjoyable to tell. Seeing your pleasure in the telling will help them experience it vicariously. I wish my own parents had been more inclined to tell stories and I wish I had encouraged them more. My dad did have a few stories that we heard with increasing frequency as he approached the century mark and, although there weren't many, I do remember them and am glad that he shared them. (At the expense of being considered somewhat disrespectful, I will observe that Dad's stories generally ended with him proving someone else wrong.)

Of course, there are courses where you can practice your storytelling skills in front of an unrelated audience of fellow students and an instructor. You'll be able to see first-hand what seems to work, get some pointers, and build your confidence. I've discovered there's a storytelling guild here in Madison that meets monthly and an upper Midwest organization, the Northlands Storytelling Network, whose spring conference is in Green Lake, just an hour from my house. I'm seriously tempted to check it out, whether or not I get up the nerve to tell a story of my own.

You can also find storytelling classes and videos offered online as well as by local community colleges, universities and adult education venues.

In case you've kept reading thus far because you've been hoping I'll share the reorganized 60-second story I told during our training (and I'm sure that's the case) here goes...

"When Dad pulled away from the gas pump, I assumed he was just going to park off to the side to make way for another car. But I quickly realized he was accelerating, heading straight for the on-ramp to the Indiana Toll Road.

"My first thought was, 'Dad doesn't realize that Mom's still in the restroom.'

"My second thought was, 'This could be pretty funny!' But then I thought, 'I'm really anxious to get to Madison but if Dad goes down that ramp, we'll lose a lot of time just to get back here again to pick up Mom! And then, we'll have five more hours in the car with Mom, who will not find this at all amusing!'

"So I turned to Dad and, in a calm voice, said, 'I think Mom's going to be pretty upset when she discovers you've left without her.' Dad jerked around to look in the back seat and slammed on the brakes. We were almost on the Toll Road at this point but no one was behind us, so Dad backed up the ramp, turned around and parked in front of the restroom.

"About 20 seconds later, Mom emerged and settled in the backseat, chatting amiably about a conversation she'd had with a stranger inside. Dad and I said nothing. And, as far as I know, until the day she died, Mom never knew how close she came to being left behind on the Indiana Toll Road."

The photograph shows storytellers who participated in the 22nd Mariposa Storytelling Festival in March 2009. It was reproduced from the Website www.arts-mariposa.org/storytelling.


Monday, August 10, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Walk or Bike the Same Route Daily

In a way, this is the complementary HarvilleQuarter to Idea #12, "Walk or bike every block in your town." For this HarvilleQuarter, you will design a route that you find particularly interesting and follow it daily for a whole quarter. It's an opportunity to become fully aware of everything that's on the route, observe the daily life, see it in more than one season and several weather conditions, and even get to know some of the folks who populate the route.

Although I offered biking as an option in the title, I'd go with walking if I were you. The goal is not to cover as much ground as possible, but to take it at a leisurely pace where nothing escapes your notice. You should have time to stop for coffee at a neighborhood cafe or coffee shop, browse the store windows, notice any wildlife that happens to be out and about, and give a pat to the dog whose owner always seems to be walking him as you're strolling down their street. If it's an afternoon or evening stroll, a cold brew in the neighborhood pub or an ice cream treat from the dairy store can be a welcome pause on your journey.

During the quarter, you'll hone your observational powers. Carry a camera or sketchbook or even a videocamera or pocket tape recorder for quickly noting sights and insights you want to write down later at home. Pick up small, interesting found objects or save a menu from that neighborhood pub or cafe. All of these will become input into your quarterly diary, which I envision as a coffee table book filled with photographs, sketches, written observations and mementos from your walks.

How long will your route be? That, of course, is up to you, although if we take the rule of thumb that a typical HarvilleQuarter involves four hours a day, I'd suggest six to eight miles. That should be slow enough to allow stops for coffee, beer or a snack, photos, sketches, conversations and window-shopping, not to mention rest and restroom breaks.

How to choose your route? If you've already done HarvilleQuarter #12, you've seen every block in your town, so you'll have some good ideas. I'd choose a route with lots of variety- a few diverse residential areas, a park, a traditional retail area, a path along a lake or stream, a wooded lane, a college campus. I understand that this mix may be hard to find in some towns, but I know I could easily find such a route in my hometown, throwing in a small zoo and art museum or gallery to boot. You may be surprised at the variety you'll find on your route when you really look around.

Be sure the route is pedestrian- or bike-friendly and you're not sprinting across eight lanes of traffic halfway through. And, needless to say, be sure it's safe. Although it may be tempting to make the route circular, consider laying it out so you can take public transportation at the end to get back to your starting point.

Depending on your health and stamina, you may need to work up to a four- to six-mile walk. Start slowly, wear really good walking shoes, take frequent breaks, and make sure you are well fed and watered. Know where the available restrooms are. Carry a cellphone (but don't use it to carry on conversations as you stroll - it's for emergencies). Find a friend to walk at least part of it with you. Dress in layers. Carry an umbrella or rain poncho. Wear sunscreen - or insect repellant, or both - and a hat.

And never, never spend your four hours plugged into your iPod. You want to be fully aware of everything around you.

The block in the photograph is Knickerbocker Place in the Monroe-Dudgeon neighborhood in Madison, Wisconsin. This photograph was reproduced from yelp.com.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Volunteer to Build a Home

Well, you probably won't build a home all by yourself, especially in three months, but you can be a key participant in building a house for a low-income family. The best-known program, of course, is Habitat for Humanity. I recently visited a Habitat site here in Madison where a number of homes are under construction and it's impossible not to be impressed with the dedication of the volunteers, the commitment and competence of the staff, and the positive impact on the homeowners.

I'm guessing that anyone reading this, at least in the U.S., is aware of Habitat for Humanity, so I won't spend time on more than a quick overview. Habitat, as it's commonly known, is a program that builds homes for low-income families unable to buy a homes on their own in the foreseeable future. Participants get a lot of professional and volunteer help building the homes along with financial counseling and a zero percent mortgage on a reduced principal. In return, they must contribute a certain number of labor hours on their own house and help build a neighbor's as well. If they sell the home some day, Habitat recovers the remainder of the principal then.

The building of a Habitat home is led by professionals - either paid or retired tradespeople volunteering their time. They in turn supervise what is largely an army of volunteers with skill levels from impressive to non-existent. It's up to the supervisors to find work that fits the volunteers who happen to be on hand that day while making genuine progress toward completing the house in a workmanlike manner -- and ensure the volunteers have a rewarding experience. As you can imagine, this is not always a simple task. It's been suggested more than once that Habitat supervisors are candidates for sainthood -- perhaps someday there'll be a St. Larry, protector of drywallers and roofers.

Last year, I volunteered with some fellow Rotarians to help on a Habitat house under construction. On arrival, we discovered that our first job was to remove the insulation that had been installed by another set of volunteers the previous day and put it back in the walls correctly. So our first couple of hours consisted of undoing poor work before we could begin making a positive contribution. This was not ideal, but at least we left the house in good shape for the drywall installers arriving the following week.

One advantage to doing a Habitat HarvilleQuarter is that it helps you develop skills you can apply to another HarvilleQuarter, such as creating your dream room. Habitat supervisors are very open to letting you select the kind of work you'd like to do. You could learn framing, drywall taping, painting, or installing doors, windows, moldings or cabinets. Certain work must be done by professionals to comply with building codes, but if you'd like to become an experienced door and window installer, for example, that most likely can be arranged. Even if you start with few skills, the fact that you are volunteering four hours a day, five days a week, will you make you a valued volunteer as you will require less and less supervision as the Quarter goes by.

Even if pounding nails and taping drywall is not appealing, there are many other volunteer opportunities. You can work in a Habitat ReStore, which collects donated building supplies for use on Habitat homes or for resale to the public to raise funds. You can provide lunches and snacks for Habitat work crews. You can help with office work, provide financial management training for Habitat families, or organize fundraisers. And beyond your local chapter, there are opportunities to volunteer your business and technical skills on a three-month project at the national Habitat headquarters in Americus, Georgia -- a great HarvilleQuarter.

I'll close by mentioning that Habitat is not the only housing assistance program for which you can volunteer. An example here in Madison is Operation Fresh Start, which uses home building and renovating as an opportunity to teach construction skills and sound work habits to young people who have had difficulty in traditional schools. The participants not on;y help build and refurbish homes but spend part of their days working to complete GEDs or HSEDs. Volunteers are welcome for both the classroom and construction phases of the program.

If you're physically able, working with either Habitat or local programs like Operation Fresh Start can be tremendously rewarding and would certainly meet the HarvilleQuarters criteria for learning new skills, meeting new people, taking some risk and growing as a person. I recommend them.

The photograph shows an Operation Fresh Start completed home in Madison, Wisconsin. Source: www.operationfreshstart.org.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Another Dozen Examples

85. Walk or bike the same route every day - take pictures, make sketches, talk to people, write down daily impressions.
86. Become a groupie for a musical group.
87. Retrace the life path of an artist, architect, writer, composer or someone else who fascinates you.
88. Build and install birdhouses.
89. Lead the beautification of some intersections in your town.
90. Make greeting cards.
91. Learn to kayak.
92. Learn a magic act.
93. Create your own Story Corps a la National Public Radio.
94. Make paper architecture models.
95. Learn a new card game and play it daily.
96. Live on an island.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Volunteer at a Community Theater

As someone once said (Irving Berlin actually), "There's no business like show business ... and no people like show people." I've acted in a couple of community theater productions over the years - and my immediate family members played roles in many more - and I can confirm the sentiment notably belted out by Ethel Merman. There's a particular kind of "high" that comes with performing before an audience, whether in the local high school gym or on Broadway - and, although I've never had the latter experience, I'm guessing that the quality of the "high" is not that different.

Happily, you can experience a similar adrenaline rush even if you are invisible to the audience. There are lots of opportunities to participate in the experience, to become engrossed in the often frantic preparations for opening night, to listen intently to the audience reactions, to laugh and drink at the cast parties (especially drink), and experience the relief and let-down when it's all over.

Many volunteer jobs don't even require special skills or unusual talents. And these theaters need lots of help, so time, energy and dedication will take you very far indeed. If you're new to a community, it's also a great way to meet friendly, committed folks who will welcome you warmly - and pile on as many assignments as you're willing to shoulder.

The good news continues - no matter where you live, there's almost certainly a community theater in your town or within easy commuting distance. According to the American Association of Community Theatre, 7,000 are spread across the country, annually involving 1.5 million volunteers with 46,000 productions performed in front of 86 million audience members. With statistics like these, anyone with a hankering to get involved can surely find an opportunity.

What roles might you play (using the word "roles" in the broadest sense)? Acting, directing, choreographing and producing are obvious ones but there are many others. In fact, for every person in front of the footlights, there are probably several more behind the scenes, literally and figuratively. (Isn't it interesting how many figures of speech we use that originated in the theater. I guess "all the world is a stage" is as true now as in Shakespeare's time.)

Here's a list of opportunities you'll find in most community theaters:
  • Box office - besides staffing the box office on performance nights, there's mailing of tickets, ticket exchanges, and maintaining the database of ticket buyers.

  • Costumes - virtually all shows require some sort of costuming other than the performers showing up in their street clothes (or in no clothes, but I would guess that's a rarety for community theater). This could involve anything from ransacking your own closets, combing the racks at thrift shops for period numbers, renting or borrowing costumes from other theaters, up to designing and creating custom-made costumes for your show.

  • Stage manager - the job description could go on for pages, but the AACT mentions these specifically: scheduling and running rehearsals, communicating the director's wishes to designers and crafts people, coordinating the work of the stage crew, calling cues and possibly actors' entrances during performance, and overseeing the entire show each time it is performed.

  • House manager - duties include assigning and supervising the ushers, coordinating with the backstage crew and the box office, resolving customer complaints regarding seating, accounting for all tickets, overseeing press passes or other special tickets and providing a count of attendees, among other duties.

  • Lighting - this could include designing the lighting for the show as well as setting lighting instruments and operating the light board during performances. The ability to walk on elevated, narrow catwalks without taking a plunge to the stage or house is a definite asset.

  • Sound - as with lighting, someone needs to design the sound and run the sound system during performances.

  • Sets - designing the sets in consultation with the producer and director (and within a too-small budget) could be a great HarvilleQuarter activity. If you're not quite that creative but can hammer nails, paint, or paper, your skills will be most appreciated.

  • Props - the shear number of props (short for "properties") required by a show can be daunting. Finding just the right props, almost certainly within a Scrooge-like budget, can be time-consuming but very rewarding when, for example, you find the perfect 1930's lamp for You Can't Take It With You at an estate sale for $2.50.

  • Stagehands - During the show's run, there is a whole backstage crew who sets the stage before every performance, changes scenery and props quickly and quietly between acts, and makes any fixes required from one night to the next.

I could go on. There are always things to do and never enough people to do them. If you're multi-talented, you may end up taking on tasks you didn't expect, and if you're not multi-talented, you probably will be by the end of the show.

The photograph was lifted from the AACT Website and shows a scene from the Tacoma Musical Playhouse's production of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat." (Wouldn't you love to be the costume designer for that show?)


Sunday, July 5, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Visit a Major Museum Every Day

The great gift of retirement is time - unstructured time you can choose to populate however you wish. If you're married or have a significant other, there are the wishes of the other person to consider, of course, but is he or she is also retired, one can hope the two of you find many HarvilleQuarters to do as a couple. As well as some to enjoy independently.

But getting back to time.... I've visited a few major museums in my life but never spent more than a day at a time in one. A few years ago my friend Doug and I toured Spain for ten days, a few of them in Madrid. We arrived one morning at the Prado, one of the world's greatest museums, just as it opened and managed to get in about ten hours there. Yet I felt I spent the last hour practically racing from room to room to get a glimpse of a few Goyas and El Grecos I'd somehow missed up to that point.

Like many museum visitors, I tend to gravitate toward the big names and well-known pieces, barely glancing at whole sections as I travel through en route to the next blockbuster. I must have overlooked a host of gems because I've been consciously allocating my limited resource - time - to the must-see art, generally defined as what other people, such as guidebook writers, tell me I should see.

I'm really looking forward to spending a whole HarvilleQuarter making daily visits to one major museum and taking time to absorb each room in its entirety. I promise to include those forms of art I perceive as less interesting or impressive - pre-Columbian pottery, native American art, tapestries, furniture and other "decorative arts," Chinese porcelains, and I could go on. I'm afraid I've been too much the typical art tourist - focusing on representational European and American paintings from about 1600 to 1900.

I'm planning to change that.

Here's my approach: I'll pick a museum with a broad collection, arrive five days a week and devote four hours daily to a different room. That could be anywhere from 10 to 40 pieces I'm going to get to know really well. I'll look at each one - really look at it, even if I don't initially find it attractive or interesting - and consider all the variables that make up the piece - its form, composition, texture, materials, color, size, subject matter, history and historical context, patterns, light - anything I can notice.

In addition, I'll think about why this item was selected for exhibit by this museum. What did the curator find compelling about it? Why is it placed in this position in this room surrounded by these particular pieces?

I will start my HarvilleQuarter by familiarizing myself with the museum in total. On the first day, I'll rent a self-guided audio tour to orient myself to the space and hear what the museum staff think about the pieces. I'll also take a guided tour with a docent to get her point of view and engage her in a conversation about her favorite rooms and works, especially those not part of the standard tour.

I'll purchase an annual membership to get free admission and access to the museum library, special exhibits, lectures and other amenities. This museum is going to be my home for three months and I want to end up feeling as "at home" here as in my own living quarters.

Each day, I'll take with me some relevant reading material. Four hours is a long time to spend on one's feet contemplating art. Most galleries have a bench or two for taking breaks. I'll read up on the artist, or genre, or historical period while surrounded by the actual art I'm reading about. After a while, I'll take another look while my new-found knowledge is fresh in my mind. I'll have a journal along for writing down my impressions, both initial and after reconsideration. Which items drew my attention on first entering the gallery? Are they the ones that I'll remember most vividly after spending an afternoon with them? Which will I return to later in the HarvilleQuarter because I've felt a strong connection with them? Which will I include in my farewell tour on the last day of the quarter?

I'll observe my fellow patrons as they walk through, noting the items that draw their interest, perhaps eavesdropping a bit on their remarks. I may even strike up a conversation with one of them who seems particularly drawn to a work to understand the source of their fascination.

By the end of three months, I'm confident I'll be looking at art - all kinds of art - with new eyes. I do believe the only way to acquire a true appreciation for art is to look at it, over and over and over. Reading about it, knowing the historical context, picking up anecdotes from the artist's life - all this color commentary will enhance the experience - but personal growth will come from simply standing and looking, and looking some more, and then looking a third time.

I'm confident I won't get bored. I anticipate that saying a farewell to "my museum" after three months will be sweet sorrow indeed.

The photograph is the St. Louis Art Museum, taken from its Website, slam.org.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Make Mobiles

I didn't realize until I started to research mobiles that one individual is generally acknowledged as the inventor of the art form: Alexander Calder. I was certainly aware that Calder's fame rested largely on mobiles and I've seen a number of them, but I'd assumed that the mobile's origin as an art form was hidden in the misty recesses of time.

Turns out that's not really true, although one can make the argument that the common American weathervane, responding to air currents by pointing into the wind, has the necessary elements to comprise a mobile. Including, in some cases, a certain artistic sensibility. (By the way, Belarus also lays claim to pre-Calder mobiles.) But Calder not only transported the concept embodied by the folk-art weather vane into the abstract art movement and, thus, the museum, but even gave it its name: mobile. He also invented "stabile" to describe those boring inanimate sculptures which, by the way, was the medium of choice for both his father and grandfather. He had quite an artistic pedigree and one of his earliest experiences with sculpture was modeling in the nude for his father at age 4. I have a feeling that might be frowned on today.

Regardless of origin, the fact is that mobiles can be fascinating pieces of art. Unlike most other forms, they're three-dimensional rather than two, and unlike all other forms, they're built to move in response to air currents. This makes a mobile with even a few independent parts an object of infinite views, and to me can elicit the same fascination and infinite musings as watching a real log fire on a cold winter night. No matter how long you look, you never want to look away for fear that you will miss whatever unique composition will appear next.


Many of us fall into the trap of thinking that all mobiles are either installed in museums, chiming in vaguely Oriental scales on back porches, or hanging over baby's cribs. This would seem to leave a tremendous gap that is begging to be filled. I suggest that you use a HarvilleQuarter to make a beginning.

Mobiles have many aspects to recommend them, including the possibility of making one entirely out of found objects, i.e., you can build a mobile without spending a cent. Even if you're a bit more fastidious about your raw materials, you can create a mobile for a few bucks. In addition, mobiles can be sized to fit a corner of your desktop or a corner of your backyard. You can create quite a spectacle --- neighbors will watch your progress with interest, and possibly awe.

It also appears that an interesting, even artistic, mobile can be designed and constructed by those without the ability to draw a decent stickman. A mobile can comprise a few abstract shapes hung on a few wires from horizontal struts to stay roughly balanced, with perhaps an interesting texture, color, gloss or timbre to catch the light or create a few pleasant musical riffs. Your library or bookseller can certainly locate a few books (some more oriented for children, but who cares --- you're in your second childhood) that will explain the basics, suggest some materials, and include some designs that you can copy. Of course, the Web is another resource, where you can even procure kits for making mobiles.

No one else has to know that you didn't design your particular mobile in a burst of artistic creativity as you teetered on the border between genius and madness.

If you do decide to create your own mobiles to hang over a baby's crib - say your grandchild's or a favorite neighbor's - please do exercise caution to ensure there is no chance of parts falling into the crib where baby will choke on them or gash himself. Common sense paired with an abundance of caution is definitely called for. Also bear in mind that the baby will be gazing at the mobile on his or her back, from underneath, so make sure that there are interesting things to see from that vantage point.

The Calder mobile at the top of this post is titled National Gallery III [maquette], 1972 and hangs in the Washington National Gallery. The image was taken from calder.org, the Web site of the Calder Foundation. The birds mobile is included, with detailed instructions for its construction, in the book Magnificent Mobiles by Melanie Williams, (c) 1994, Quintet Publishing Limited.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Learn to Play the Harmonica

I don't use the word "evocative" often, maybe once a year at most, but it comes to mind when I think about a harmonica. It just plain evokes some sort of nostalgia for a time and place where I've never been in real life - around a campfire on the Great Plains after the horses have been bedded down for the night, in a Southern blues bar on a dusty side road, in a hobo encampment alongside the railroad tracks with the sounds of train whistles in the background.

My one real-life association with the harmonica was attending a concert by Jerry Murad and the Harmonicats when I was a delegate to the National 4-H Club Congress in Chicago as a high schooler. The Harmonicats' hit song, Peg o' My Heart, had recently scored big on the charts so we farm kids were pretty impressed to have them as our entertainment after one of our banquets.

Having never learned to play the plastic harmonica I owned as a child, I recently started wondering whether it was something I could pick up as an adult. A trip to the local library uncovered a couple of slim instruction books with lots of photographs and songs and only a few pages here and there of actual instruction. Which gave me hope --- if playing the harmonica, including several styles and variations, can be described in such few words, it ought to be something I can learn in a HarvilleQuarter.

How well I could learn the instrument in three months remains to be seen, but I'm really tempted to start now, well before my official retirement. Perusing these books raised my awareness of the many possibilities the "lowly" harmonica offers. A quick search of the Internet revealed that perfectly respectable, quality harmonicas can be purchased for under $50, in fact under $25. And an absolute beginner's model (not necessarily recommended, but an option for the truly cash-strapped) can be found for $10 or less.

Not only that, but instruction is available - including free instruction - on the Web, with harmonica enthusiasts, eager to share their knowledge, demonstrating how to get started in home videos that are short on production values, but long on sincerity. Of course, "how to play the harmonica" manuals, DVDs and subscription Web sites can be easily located as well.

I recommend taking a look at these sites yourself and picking one that seems to call to your inner "harmonicat", or harp player, as some term it. Buy a harmonica if you don't already own one (a diatonic harmonica in the key of C seems to be the universal recommendation) and get going.

I have no idea how proficient one can become in three months, but considering the starting point, the progress should be exponential. And how cool would it be to play the harmonica for your grandkids, sitting out on the front porch on a sultry summer night, the sound of your blues wafting out amongst the fireflies and honeysuckle, accompanied by the distant, mournful wail of a freight and the much closer baying of hounds. It positively sends chills up one's spine. Before long, you could be one of the guys on YouTube demonstrating your technique for the next crop of beginners.

I'll finish this post by quoting none other than John Steinbeck (The Grapes of Wrath, Viking Press):

A harmonica is easy to carry. Take it out of your hip pocket, knock it against your palm to shake out the dirt and pocket fuzz and bits of tobacco. Now it's ready. You can do anything with a harmonica: thin reedy single tones, or chords, or melody with rhythm chords. You can mold the music with curved hands, making it wail and cry like bagpipes, making it full and round like an organ, making it as sharp and bitter as the reed pipes of the hills. And you can play and put it back in your pocket. And as you play, you learn new tricks, new ways to mold the tone with your hands, to pinch the tone with your lips, and no one teaches you. You feel around --- sometimes alone in the shade at noon, sometimes in the tent door after supper when the women are washing up. Your foot taps gently on the ground. Your eyebrows rise and fall in rhythm. And if you lose or break it, why it's no great loss. You can buy another for a quarter.

The photograph was located at flickr.com/photos/thanland/322740247/.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Create a Local TED Event

If you're not familiar with the TED Conference, go immediately to its Web site, www.ted.com, and watch a few videos to get the flavor of it. Of course, I'm risking that you will become hooked and never come back to my blog, but it's a chance I'll have to take.

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, although since its founding in 1984, the subject matter has spread well beyond those categories. TED's tag line is "Ideas Worth Spreading" and that pretty much sums up the requirements to be considered as a TED presenter - having an inspired idea and an energetic delivery style. The ideas involved can cover just about anything and probably have in the 25 years since its inception.

The TED Conference takes place once a year over a four-day period in which dozens of thought leaders - some famous, many not - give 18-minute or less presentations on an intriguing idea. Some use technologically-advanced graphics, some basic PowerPoint slides, and some simply stand on stage and talk (or more likely, pace back and forth and talk). When they finish, the next one steps on stage without audience Q&A.

I've never attended a TED Conference but I can imagine that one's brain is both exhilarated and exhausted by the end of a day. If you followed my suggestion in the first paragraph and checked out its Website, you very likely watched a few of the videos while you were there, so you know what I mean.

How does this relate to a HarvilleQuarter? Clearly, we can't all troop off to California for the annual conference, but why not create a local version? I think there's an audience almost anywhere for TED-type presentations and you can probably find a few people who would make outstanding presenters.

I wouldn't suggest trying to set up a four-day conference. But how about series of once-a-week TED evenings for, say, four weeks in a row. Each evening might feature three speakers, and, unlike TED, I would allow for ten minutes of Q&A after each one, so the evening in total would last about an hour and a half, with some refreshments and informal audience member interactions with presenters and each other afterwards.

Where could you find presenters? A local college or university would be a good starting point - it may already have a Speakers Bureau established with a list of faculty members and topics. Organizations that have regular programs, such as Rotary Clubs, could provide names of their best speakers. Not-for-profit organizations and newspaper feature editors and columnists could be another source, as well as music schools or live music venues. And just plain word of mouth.

You're going to want a venue that is the right size, already has or can accommodate decent technology to display presentation materials, is cheap and has sufficient parking. Churches are an option, as well as high school or college auditoriums, senior citizen centers (some retirement communities have small auditoriums), meeting halls, hotel ballrooms, convention centers, or even bars. (I'm intrigued by the thought that a bar could attract an off-night patronage by offering TED speakers.)

I'd find a few friends to help with all the arrangements, including locating and signing up presenters, securing the venue, publicizing the series and creating buzz, rehearsing the speakers, setting up the room and AV equipment, organizing refreshments and performing the myriad other tasks that go into an event like this.

You may be able to find a business to sponsor each evening, allowing for free admittance for audience members. If not, it should be possible to make the cost very nominal. TED does not pay its speakers and you shouldn't either.

Rehearsing speakers will be a key to success. It's important that they understand the time limitation (18 minutes), are well-organized, easily audible (especially if your venue is a senior center) and that the AV works flawlessly. You may or may not feel comfortable giving more substantive feedback during rehearsals, and speakers may or may not be appreciative of constructive criticism. Ideally, you have vetted speakers sufficiently before issuing an invitation to be confident of their audience appeal.

And, if an occasional presenter is less than riveting, the beauty of a TED evening is that the audience is stuck for only 18 minutes at most and can then turn their attention to the next speaker. Who, one hopes, will be both dazzlingly brilliant and falling-down-and-rolling-in-the-aisles hilarious.

Besides the three 18-minutes speakers plus Q&A, I'd consider short entertaining interludes between the speakers - five minutes or so - sort of a palate-cleanser, you might say. A deftly executed Chopin etude or Bach prelude and fugue, an aria, a theatrical monologue, a juggling act - all would be candidates. If there's a music school in your community, a faculty member or advanced student could fill the bill nicely.

That's about as far as I've got in my thinking on a local TED event, but I'm hoping to receive lots of comments and suggestions from all of you. See that "comments" link right under this posting?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

One Idea in Detail: Grow Vegetables in a Community Garden


Over the last few years, I've watched a community garden develop in a corner of the playing field of Midvale Elementary School a few blocks from my house. Initially, some plots were tilled up for use by the school kids as part of learning projects as well as for use by local residents. Last fall a communal orchard was added with 70 fruiting trees and bushes. It continues to develop each year and the progress has been quite remarkable. A local retiree built a wonderful tool shed this spring and an artist/welder created a set of beautiful and imaginative metal gates.

Gardening has traditionally been viewed as a fine activity for seniors - it gets us outdoors in the fresh air and sunlight, provides physical activity without being terribly taxing, boosts our spirits (except when the slugs and aphids strike), and furnishes a variety of low-cost, nutritious fruits and vegetables for our dinner tables. On the downside, it tends to be a solitary activity - and many seniors live in apartments or condos where land for gardening is not available.

Enter the community garden. Community gardens can take several forms, but many provide garden plots - from 8X10 feet to 20X20 or larger - for a small rental. For example, some in my home town of Madison charge $10 to $65 annually per plot based on the gardener's income. There may also be a requirement to donate a few hours of labor during the growing season if you are able.

Low-cost space, however, is just the beginning of the benefits. Plots may be tilled up for the gardener in spring, water and hoses provided on site, free compost delivered, and seeds and plants available at no or little cost. Many gardens also have tools and expert advice for sharing and garden sites accessible by those using wheelchairs. In a lot of ways, a nearby community garden plot is even better than having a garden in your own backyard.

Community gardening also provides an opportunity to interact with new friends. You will recall that one criteron for a great HarvilleQuarter is engagement with people you would not otherwise have met. While it would be possible to stay on your own 400 square feet without visiting with your neighboring gardeners, it's unlikely. Eventually, you are going to want to share suggestions and experiences and even produce ("I'll trade you some zucchini for an acorn squash.")

Madison's largest garden, Troy Community Gardens, has over 300 20 by 20 plots in an area of the city with a sizable H'mong population. At least half of the names on the plot assignments are clearly H'mong, who tend to group themselves together. However, at the margins, one can find some interesting juxtapositions - Diane Schmidt is next to Lee Thao and the Thomas family adjoins the Chavezes, who are across the walking path from Lamngern Paborriboon, who is next to the Williamses. These folks will probably start with the occasional "hi, neighbor" wave but by the end of the season will have progressed to more substantive interactions, even if their common vocabulary is limited.

So, if you have a green thumb, or even if you firmly believe you don't, check out the community garden scene in your town. If there is no community garden, consider dedicating a HarvilleQuarter to starting the first one in your area.

There are resources available on the Web like the one sponsored by the American Community Garden Association (ACGA). Gardens don't have to be large; in fact, some are created out of a vacant lot or the corner of a small park. As pointed out by the ACGA, a single community garden can bring many benefits to a neighborhood, including reduced crime, more interaction among neighbors and a more attractive community.

This could point you to one of my other HarvilleQuarters - spearheading the restoration of a habitat, vacant lot, or city park. That will be the subject of another "One Idea in Detail" posting.

By the way, the photograph is from my local community garden. You can find others on its Website, www.midvaleproject.net.