Avoidances Enabled: Highways

Old Baton Rouge Capitol

Storm approaching over Baton Rouge Capitol building

My GPS has this wonderful “Avoidances” feature that allows me to select any of several driving obstacles I’d like to avoid: U-turns, toll roads, traffic, carpool lanes, ferries (?).   When I’m traveling -at least, after I reach my destination – I choose to avoid “Highways.”

bluebonnet swamp

Bluebonnet Swamp

Toodling around  Baton Rouge for the last few days, “avoiding” highways has taken me to some great places in some interesting ways. I’ve seen sights and neighborhoods  that I’d never have enjoyed had a I just hopped up on I-10 or I-12 and puddle jumped between exits.


Raccoon in Bluebonnet Swamp

Taking city streets to the Old Capitol area took me through some gritty areas of Baton Rouge, but also gave me an intimate sense of the history and layout of the city.   Driving main roads to Bluebonnet Swamp richly illustrated the wonder of this fantastic urban greenway, bordered on all sides by homes and businesses and busy roads that give no clue to the wild lands they embrace, or the diversity of nature the park protects.

Baton Rouge statue

Statue on LSU Ag Center grounds

In the same way, entering the LSU Rural Life Museum and Ag Center grounds – an amazing 40 acre oasis of history and botanical beauty – along residential roads that give way to boundless fields and acres of forest made the experience of time travel offered by this unparalleled museum of folk architecture and culture even more powerful.

baton rouge

Baton Rouge, LA

Baton Rouge, like all communities  large and small, is more than the sum of its parts.  It is powered by the energy, perseverance and creativity of  its people, made manifest through that people’s architecture, industry and artistry.  Exit hopping on the highway makes it convenient to forget and easy to miss everything in between those exits that makes it all possible and, more important, that makes it all meaningful.

Tomorrow, I have to disable my highway avoidance and make use of those high speed interstates, at least for some major stretches,  if I’m to have any hope of getting back home in a day, which work and life necessitates.  But I’ll be keenly aware of the lives and livelihoods, of the history and communities, that I’m passing by.  And at the first opportunity, I’ll be taking the first available exit off the highway and getting back to the roads that really take you places.

The Things That Matter: Fishing for a Real Future

soldering guidanceMy day job involves working for an organization whose mission is: “To transform our culture by creating a world where science and technology are celebrated and where young people dream of becoming science and technology leaders.”

Those are the words and vision of inventor Dean Kamen, founder of the U.S. Foundation for Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, better known as FIRST. FIRST engages kids in elementary through high school grades in competitive robotics competitions that provide youth with opportunities to work with professional mentors and learn science, math and engineering skills in fun, enduring and rewarding ways, with over $16 million in scholarships for participating high schoolers.

“The assumption that drove the creation of FIRST, “ Kamen said in an interview with PTC last year, “ waslearning about robot you get what you celebrate in a free culture, and the reason America was slipping compared to a lot of its peers around the world—particularly in kids getting involved with and mastering science and technology—was not bad teachers or bad schools, it wasn’t what we don’t have. It was the fact that as a rich country we have so many distractions that have created for kids role models that prevent them from working hard at things that matter.”

In the last few weeks, I was so immersed in working with students , their mentors and the local business community supporting kids in “working hard at the things that matter,” that I almost missed an equally important debate on things that matter to us here in Tampa Bay involving a big box retailer and the substantive public tax payer incentive that county officials want to give the store to open shop in our community.

bass pro area

Site of “The Estuary” shopping plaza

The Tampa Bay Times  reports that the Hillsborough County Commission is considering contributing $6.25 million (down from $15 million, initially)  toward road improvements around “The Estuary”, an enormous, ironically named shopping plaza planned between Falkenburg Road and Interstate 75 – currently the site of Florida pine scrub, and a good 15 miles inland from any chance of an “estuary”, which is by definition a partially enclosed body of coastal water where freshwater from rivers and streams meets and mixes with salt water from the ocean and actually does something physically, biologically, environmentally and even economically useful, by virtue of the recreational opportunities our coastline offers.

real estuary

A real estuary

Besides the sad fact that  “The Estuary”  shopping center is going to completely destroy anything remotely natural – estuarian or otherwise – in the area of planned development, developers predictions of “ annual sales of $61.8 million, generating state and local sales taxes” and “property assessment climbing to $16.4 million, boosting taxes on land now used for agriculture” ring hollow in light of the facts, and misleading in light of “things that matter.”

Bass Pro’s track record and the history of big tax incentives for major retailers suggest assurances that “ Hillsborough could break even on its $15 million investment by 2018” are probably more than a little inflated.  More important, though: Do we truly believe that subsidized shopping offers a real return on our investment towards our collective future?

Bass Pro projects it would create 369 permanent, full-time jobs in addition to 1,517 temporary construction jobs over five years, and the entire shopping plaza development is project to create 1,327 retail jobs.

But the fact is, says a report by the Public Accountability Initiative that examined such claims (Fishing for Taxpayer Cash), “Bass Pro often fails to deliver on its promises as an economic development anchor and major tourist destination – promises which were used to reel in government subsidies. Its stores successfully attract shoppers, but often do not produce sought-after economic benefits associated with major tourist destinations,” and taxpayers in places like Cincinnati, Harrisburg PA, and Bakersfield, CA “ have been left with high levels of debt and fiscal stress as a result of Bass Pro Projects.”

“Retail is not economic development. People don’t suddenly have more money to spend on hip waders because a new Bass Pro or Cabela’s comes to town,” Greg Leroy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a non-partisan economic development watchdog group based in Washington, D.C., told The Atlantic Cities in an article last summer .  “All that happens is that money spent at local mom and pop retailers shifts to these big box retailers. When government gives these big box stores tax dollars, they are effectively picking who the winners and losers are going to be.”

Larry Whitely, a spokesman for Bass Pro Shops, argued in the article that their stores “should be viewed as an amenity being added to a community — much like one might view a park or a library.  …”These aren’t just stores – they are natural history museums.  Every store is designed to reflect the unique natural environment of the area in which it is located.” “

Aside, again, from the basic fact that the store, by virtue of its construction, would be destroying a unique natural environment in the area in which it is to be located, $6.5 million would buy a lovely real natural history museum , park or library with a far greater return on the investment, socially, aesthetically, academically, environmentally and economically. $6.5 million dollars could also address food insecurity, make a serious impact on homelessness, pay for new teachers, finance school improvements, or make a nice deposit on a light rail system.

From a purely personal perspective, $6.5 million could fund a couple or three FIRST robotics STEM education robotics teams in every one of Hillsborough County’s nearly 160 K-12 schools for years, helping create the type of scientifically literate people Florida needs for a truly economically successful future.  Because the real path to future prosperity in Florida and nationally, economic development experts are saying, is growing a knowledge based economy,not a consumer based one.

stem skillsA knowledge based economy is one that is “driven by research, ideas, innovations, and technical skills to generate high-impact economic benefits and high-wage jobs. Strong sustainable knowledge economies

  • Are able to sell goods and services at a higher profit margin than others;
  • Earn average wages up to $25,000 more than non-knowledge-based communities, and;
  • Are able to perform and execute business through more cost-effective and efficient relationships.

In the “New Economy Index” report of states by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, which evaluates states on a similar “knowledge based” formula, Florida ranked 21st – and dropping.

“Some have argued that, given the economic downturn, now is not the time to focus on innovation,” state rankingobserved the report’s authors. “rather, our chief concern should be job creation. Yet, fostering innovation and creating jobs are by no means mutually exclusive. To the contrary, most studies of the issue have found that innovation is positively correlated to job growth in the mid- to long-term.”

By a correlation factor of 0.87, notes one author – ” in fact exponentially proportional to KEI (Knowledge Economic Indicator) , ie higher the KEI, higher is the per capita income of that country and vice versa. Highest KEI is of Denmark at 9.58 on a scale of 1 to 10, and the lowest KEI is of Myanmar at 0.96 at rank 145.” (Express Tribune-)

Among the key findings in Change the Equation’s Florida Vital Signs report, “Florida needs a world class education system and seamless talent supply chain to meet workforce demands at all skill levels. STEM – science, technology, engineering and math – is of the utmost priority if Florida is to achieve its long term goal.

Nowhere in that report is there a call for more consumer opportunities or retail jobs.

“Before handing taxpayer money to Bass Pro projects, ” concludes  the Public Accountability Initiative report, ” public officials should consider what some other cities are going through as a result of Bass Pro-anchored projects that have fallen short: high levels of debt and fiscal duress, lackluster development, vacancy and blight, and lower-than-expected tax revenues. Considering the potential consequences, it is imperative for public officials and taxpayers to take the proper steps to ensure that they are not subsidizing an underperforming development: ask straightforward questions of Bass Pro and project developers, demand transparency and data, secure contractual guarantees that limit cannibalization, and, above all, consider alternatives. There is no good reason to subsidize development that sells cities short and leaves taxpayers on the hook.”

checking under the hoodPublic officials – and the public – should also consider what really matters to Florida’s future and help us build a Knowledge economy that will serve us and future generations  far better, and make us far more productive and competitive than any retail chain store ever will.   If, as Dean Kamen says, and as I fully agree, we get what we celebrate, and the best we can do is Bass Pro Shops , then that’s all we’ll get.

If, however, we choose to celebrate creative productivity and scientific and technical literacy and achievement, we’ll get so much more than we could ever have imagined!

Make 2013 a Love Note!

Year’s end is neither an end nor a beginning but a going on, with all the wisdom that experience can instill in us.  ~Hal Borland

Of all the images I captured this year – sweeping Alaskan vistas, Ozark valleys, majestic marshes, beautiful animals and amazing skyscapes – it is this goofy but joyful family portrait that seems to both sweetly sum up the past year, and to beautifully illustrate my hopes for the new one. Everyone in the photo has suffered some hardship or loss over the past year:  the passing of close loved ones, the loss of jobs, accidents,  and health problems.  And still we dance.

2013 live in joy and thanksgiving

In the wonderful poem, “What If” , by Ganga White, Director of the White Lotus Foundation yoga center in California, White asks:

What if our religion was each other?
If our practice was our life?
If prayer was our words?
What if the Temple was the Earth?
If forests were our church?
If holy water—the rivers, lakes and oceans?
What if meditation was our relationships?
If the Teacher was life?
If wisdom was self-knowledge?
If love was the center of our being

Think about it: What if your life  really was your worship?  Regardless of what you believe or don’t believe , what if   each day was treated as holy and sacred in the Temple of Earth?  What if your life was one big Love Note? Consider how you would live then, and you will have your way forward into a future where the only resolution you need is the resolve to live in joy, compassion and thanks giving.

Wishing you a New Year rich with opportunities for good choices, and thoughtful and intentional ways of being, and wishing all of us the strength of our convictions to help create a world in which love, reverence, and gratitude are central to our lives.

Happy New Year. Look after each other.

Florida Winter Wonderland

The bluebird is the traditional symbol of spring, one of the earliest arrivals to northern bird feeders at the end of winter. Right now, however, they’re ours, part of our wonderful Winter Wonderland of windows flung open to balmy breezes,  colorful forests of changeling swamp maples and golden cypress trees, and the chorale of migratory birds filling our woodlands, fields and yards with song.  Among my favorites are the flocks of bluebirds brightening  fields, treelines and fence posts, flitting skyward in cheerful feathery flashes of azure, nature’s Christmas ornaments brightening the yellowing boughs of cypress trees and the brown leaf litter.

If bluebirds were people,” wrote Steve Grooms and Dick Peterson in their 1991 book Bluebirds (Bt Bound ), “they would be respected citizens who raise their families with exemplary devotion, lead productive lives, and contribute generously to charities. And they would surely be featured soloists in church choirs on Sunday mornings!

They require some patience to see, and that’s the real gift of the bluebird – the reward for waiting quietly at the edge of a field or forest, letting your eyes adjust to the small details, your mind settle into the awareness of natural space and your soul open to the life that fills that space.

They may be the first sign of spring in the northern latitudes, but here in Florida, bluebirds are a wonderful sign of winter!


Block Friday: A Better Way to Spend the Day after Thanksgiving

Let’s take back Black Friday to be mindful of the way we spend our time and money.   BlockFriday.org

Tee shirt and wallet company Holstee , in what may be considered a commercially and fiscally ironic move, is leading the “Block Friday” effort.

According to CoExist, Holstee co-founder Michael Radparvar said the company elected to “create something participatory, by renaming Friday, November 23, as “Block Friday,” a day to “block off” for something meaningful, whether it’s hanging out with friends and family or being outside.

““The goal is to get as many people as possible to consider one question:This Thanksgiving, what are you blocking Friday for?’” says Radparvar, who plans to use the day to see old friends in his hometown of Providence, Rhode Island. “There’s no wrong answer.””

Yesterday, our family set the tone for the weekend with some remarkably nice family time capped off by a little silliness (see above). Today we’re hanging out, reading, writing, talking.  It’s quiet and peaceful.  I’d rather be here with a handful of loved ones, than in a crush of shoppers buying presents no one will remember after Christmas.  That dancing photo above?  We’ll all remember and talk about that for years!

Is staying home today bad for the economy?  I don’t think so.   I think we need to find a new economic model based less on  “stuff” and more on knowledge and creativity.  That’s another topic altogether, of course, but for today at least, maybe we can take a holiday from the onslaught of commercialism and enjoy the gift of meaningful living.

Want to play along?  Share your Block Friday plans and pics on YouTube and Twitter with the hashtag #blockfriday and #holstee to add your declarations to Holstee’s digital archive.

Live in Thanks Giving

My Love Note to you this Thanksgiving: Wishing you a joyful day with family and friends, and the  peace and understanding to live in Thanks Giving year round!

The Sum of Our Parts

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”

― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

I’m just back from a personally perspective setting visit to South Florida, a trip which took me through the old haunts of my youth in Miami and the neon lit art deco district of  Miami Beach, to the Everglades, the River of Grass, my original wilderness muse.

We can run but we cannot hide, nor should we, from the sources of our being – some good, some bad, some indifferent.   For many and varied reasons  I have avoided for many years, the city of my childhood, the Magic City of Miami; the place where, in the 1970s, I swam with manatees in the Tamiami Canal and pedaled for miles on a rusty old bike, from our tiny terrazzoed apartment on the final approach to Miami International Airport, to the elegant ruins of the Biltmore (since restored) to the tropical jungle of Alice Wainwright Park, through Little Havana and Coconut Grove and all parts in between.

The language of youth is gone – or at least broken, the Cuban half of my heritage shoved under the Caucasian camouflage of my other half.  But I found I still love the sounds and smells and tastes of my original culture – the scent of cigars and pipes, the hot sweetness of cafe con leche, the rich fragrant jumbles of meats and rice and fruits, the music, the omnipresent chatty effusiveness and easy camaraderie of a people – my people – who wear their hearts brassily on their brightly colored sleeves.

The natural landscape of South Florida, which persists through even the most determined urban construction in Miami was the catalyst for my love of the outdoors; a veritable botanical Eden populated with the ubiquitous palms – coconut, royal, date, queen and more, giant ixora, hibiscus blossoms of every color, massive Bougainvillea,  heady banks of jasmine, walls of bamboo.  Everything that can grow here, does, erupting  in verdant abundance through sidewalks and stone walls and even from cars parked too long in one place.

And at the edge of it all, that massive River of Grass, the place where all roads south of the urban landscape of Miami fall away, one by one, until only a narrow handful venture past the fields and sawgrass prairies of Homestead and the Redlands and enter the stark, beautiful inevitability of the Everglades, a wilderness which so few understand and upon which so much depends.   The Everglades is the place where I cut my hiker’s teeth, along the Gumbo Limbo and Anhinga Trails, and later went stargazing with my pivotal South Miami High School Astronomy Club, and later on photo safaris and adventuring with my would-be husband in reaches far outside the tourist trails.

We are the sum of our parts – the depth and greatness of our being determined largely by the degree of our receptiveness to the  influences and experiences – focused, incidental, accidental and peripheral – of our lives.  Turn our backs on any one of our parts, and we are lessened by a commensurate degree.

Life is a series of lessons. Every experience is a required course, prerequisite to the experiences to come. The test of  lessons well learned is to be able to revisit the past not nostalgically nor with bitterness, but with understanding and appreciation, using the past as a ladder to a hopefully more enlightened future; a future  in  which, in my case, my family, friends and cultural heritage will always be an integral part.

Hasta luego!