Monday, October 16, 2017

Risk Sharing in my Online Family

A friend of a friend had his car break down, and he could not get to work.  The next day, there was a gofundme account set up to help with the unexpected expense.

A friend had massive migraines, and the docs said surgery was needed.  The deductible was massive, but a couple of motivated friends got the word out, and dozens of people who had never met face-to-face were donating money to cover the cost.

A friend had a movie that she wanted to make.  Her kickstarter campaign provided backers with the chance to join in on the fun, get updates on the show, get the opportunity to download the final version, and for a certain level of investment, be allowed to attend the opening of the film.  (I seem to remember that you could even have your name included in the script).

A number of my friends in my new hometown shared information about a family in town whose house had burned.  Suddenly, people across the area - and beyond - are looking through their closets to find clothes for the five children, and figuring out how to help with replacement housing, bedding, dishes, furniture, and, well, everything.

I looked down the list for each one, and found that many of the donors were anonymous.  This was clearly not the equivalent of putting a wealthy family's name on over the door at the local medical center.  It is something different.  Furthermore, the people who did announce their donations were a bit of a surprise.  They were not 1% family members.  For the most part, the donors were friends living under tremendous financial strain themselves, with low-paying jobs in places with a high cost of living.  And giving anyway.

Giving generously.

In 1968, there was a group of anthropologists led by Evon Vogt in Chiapas, Mexico.  They were doing research on how small communities make their living: what the different spheres of life were and how they were intertwined.  Investigations touched on religion, work, family, life cycles, seasons, and how the universe is ordered. 

One of Vogt's students looked specifically at how the community dealt with risk, and observed that money was pooled within the community to help people who had need.  The money was considered a loan, rather than a gift, and the debt had to be paid back at the time of the next crisis.  The payback, as observed. did not conform to any traditional Western social rules of debt and repayment. 

The student decided to give it a try, and for his next field season, bought a one-way ticket down to Chiapas, and then brought enough money to buy the return flight.

Once he was down in the village, he did what he had observed.  Every time someone had a need, and asked him for a loan, he gave it to them.  He lived in the village, did his research, embedded himself in the work and politics of the village, and when it came time to go back to the US, he asked the villagers who had received loans to help him (and his wife) get back.  He got exactly the amount he needed to buy the ticket.

The story really stuck with me.  At the time, I thought of how very strange it was.  How foreign, how quintessentially 'other', to have a community that shared the risks by a series of debt relationships, and helping one another out when in need.

Growing up, I had learned that these risk management measures were the job of family.

I grew up in a pretty tight-knit family.  Other than my uncle Johnny, who left SC for Arizona, everybody in my family lived either in/around Greenville or in/around Beaufort.  I had family ties, places to stay, couches on which to crash everywhere I turned.  There were stories - many of which were probably apocryphal - of personal/legal/financial troubles that were staved off by using family connections.  The lesson - and one that I learned well - was you could go to family whenever you were in a pinch, and you could rely on them to help bail you out.

Now, however, my family is flung everywhere.  Any friends I had when I was growing up have all moved, some of them many times.  Military.  Job postings.  Grad schools and professorships.  So what is the basis of the community that I relied on?

I am also a new kid in a small town.  I love Vicksburg, and am building friendships here with people that I have already grown to love.  But inserting myself into a tight-knit community in a small town is kinda tough.

Where is my community now?  Where is the place that I can turn to for help?  Where can people turn to for me to help?

I am beginning to realize that the online community has started to function in some ways like the small community in Zinacantan.  Debts are accrued and paid as people have needs.  It is not important, really, whether we have ever met face to face.  You are a friend of Ben's, and he shared your need with us on a public forum, I will help a little, because of my love for Ben.  I will donate some money to Molly's 150-mile MS ride.  I will make a donation to the Southern Poverty Law Center because of my love for Suz.  I will help.

And y'all will help me.  I will pass along my concerns, and y'all donate to my causes, too.  I mean, I am not asking for booze money.  (Even if I did, I suspect that some of you would help pay down my bar tab - worthy cause that it is).  But we help one another, even sometimes when we don't agree - politically, socially, and ethically. 

I suspect part of the desire to help people on social media is a change in the way we do charitable giving. My faith in agencies and institutions has dropped, and I tend to investigate overhead rates before I donate money to any cause.  But if your friend needs help because there was a death in the family and they don't have money for the funeral?  I might be able to help.  Maybe not a lot.  But some.  Crowdsourcing the solutions to problems - be they big or small - brings my community closer together.

We are making our own communities; some of which include, but which is not limited to, our families of origin.  We love and trust one another, and care for one another when the chips are down.

And when I am in need, I might just come back to you.  So that I can get my plane ticket home.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017


A friend who is an artist agreed to sell me a piece of her art.  I collect art from friends, and the wall in my office has been slowly been overtaken with fun pieces of quirky, beautiful art.

I set aside a few dollars a week over the course of several months, and walked down to the Trustmark bank downtown and paid for a money order.  I sent it to the address the artist had provided me.  Her response when I sent her a note to look for the money was classic, and made me happy:

"Thank you for supporting my art!  It helps me want to make more!"

A few days go by, and I haven't heard that she received it.  I ping her once; she says she had not received the check.  A couple more days go by, and I get the following:

"You check got stolen out of our mail!  We havr had our mail stolen in the past so we get this USPS service that sends a picture of what should have been delivered every day.  The check was delivered Friday and we never got it."

It is labor day weekend, so I can't do anything.  But on Tuesday, I walk over to the Trustmark Bank near where I work, and ask for them to cancel the check.

Back a year and a half ago, when I first arrived in Vicksburg, I needed a local bank.  For convenience sake, I chose the bank immediately adjacent to my work. Regions Bank promptly closed down that branch and several others in town.  So the convenience I had counted on is not there.  As a result, I am in the market for a new bank.  Trustmark carries my mortgage, and I was impressed with the folks in that department.  This interaction - cancelling the money order - is working a little bit like a trial run.  Will the service be worth changing banks for?

I felt like it was a little bit like taking your car to a dealership to be serviced.  Are they going to gouge you?  Can you trust them when stuff goes wrong?  Or are they only interested in new car sales?

From the outset, I was treated with great suspicion, as though I was somehow gaming the system. The Head Cashier explained that my only recourse was to pay a fee to have the check canceled.  Then I was going to have to pay to have the new check issued (I had already paid for the money order once; now it was going to be twice).  And I could pay for it in cash, or they could deduct it from my 'account' (you know, that account that I am trying to decide whether to open with them?).

"What would you like to do?"

Well, you just told me that I have no choice.  Or rather, you have explained that my choice is a Hobson's Choice. (As much as I love game theory, this one sucks).  I can lose the money, or I can pay the fine.  To add insult, the ATM charges $3.  And it is out of order.

When I came back, I am directed to someone else, who processes the entire transaction without looking up, except when I tell her that she has misspelled my name on the affadavit.  And her own.
In exchange for the fee, she tapped a few keys, canceled the money order, printed out a new one, and held out her hand.  I walked out, just under 50 bucks poorer, with a new money order.

Less than an hour later, my cell phone rings.

"Mr. Lawton, I just wanted to apologize.  I don't know where my head was this morning."

I nodded my agreement.  I had wondered the same thing.  

"I gave you the all the copies of the money order.  I was only supposed to give you the top two copies.  Can you come back and give the others to me?"

So in summary, I was robbed, treated like a criminal by the bank I was interviewing, charged an exorbitant fee for a few seconds of computer work, and then was asked to take additional time out of my day to do them a favor, to correct a mistake that was not my fault.

Sure.  I'll get right on that.  And you can expect my business just seconds before before the Pope sends me a piece of his own art work.

I just hope he doesn't want a money order.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Conference Call Bingo

Much of my life at work involves conference calls.  They are a necessary evil of the nature of the virtual team.  And, because of who I am, I have to take any opportunity to poke fun.

So last week, I copied a hand-drawn version of a Conference Call Bingo card, and passed out copies for a looooooong meeting that I was expected to participate in.

The results were hilarious.  People in the room were listening more closely than they ever had, in hopes of hearing one of the critical phrases.  Most participants also joined in by inserting one of the phrases into their own briefings.  ""Can you email that to everyone?"  "I'll have to circle back with you about that."  "Sorry, I was on mute."

After the call was over, I shared the card with other teams that I am on, partly for the humor of it, but also to emphasize how often we slip into bureauspeak.  A little reminder to all of us to speak like humans, instead of like the technocrats that we inevitably become.

Today, a group with whom I had shared the card held a call, and I had chuckled to myself as one by one I heard the old, familiar phrases come through.  Three "Sorry, Go Ahead"'s later, we were at the conclusion of the call.  Good information, good group of people, working hard to make sure that we communicate things well.  

Even so, I am a little flippant about it.  

The last item on the agenda was a round-robin discussion of what was going on in each of our areas. Four people talked about the projects where they were working on collaborative efforts in their region.  I followed with my own.

The woman online after me came on, and had a lot of emotion in her voice.

"I know that I am being asked to share what is going on in my district.  But there has always been a very family-like atmosphere within this group, and so I have to take a second to share something personal.

"As most of you know, my 10-1/2 year-old son was diagnosed with cancer when he was 6 months old. And we have been doing all of the things we are supposed to, and it has been a long process.

"We came from the oncologist's office five minutes before this call, and he just told us that we don't have to come back ever again.  My son is free of cancer, and I had to tell everyone.  I can't go thirty seconds without breaking into tears.... I am just so happy."

And all of a sudden, all of the topics we had discussed, all of the progress we had made, all of the plans we had shared, every bit of it went out of the window.  Time stopped as we shared in the joy of what Lynn had announced.  The next thirty seconds was a cacaphony of family members joining in shouting their excitement at the news.  

You know what?  Sometimes, it is important to take a beat and celebrate the amazing things that happen in life.  To breathe deeply and love on one another, reveling in their victories when they occur.  Taking that moment to really connect, and screaming out a yell when it is the right moment. 

That beat, that breath, that connection, is worth every moment that I put up with on every call - every buzzword, every sonorous recitation of unreadable spreadsheet data.  Because in that moment, I am suddenly part of the family. 

So I will be the first to call it out for Lynn:


Friday, July 21, 2017

Finding Your Bees

I went out for a walk (OK, it was my once-a-week smoke break) during my lunch hour yesterday.  Across the street from my office is a seedy, no-name motel - the kind of place that you seldom notice.  It is typical 1960s motel architecture: run down, no shade, with little-to-no green space, located in the middle of a downtown area.  Parking lot to one side, now-defunct bank on the other.  Not the most welcoming of places.

Testing the theory that stolen food tastes better
A year ago, I spotted a volunteer eggplant in the patch of grass next to the street.  On my walk this week, I wandered over to see if the volunteer had re-volunteered another generation of plants.

Sure enough, near the original spot, there was a big, green plant.  I lifted the canopy of leaves to find a host of small, beautiful, lavender eggplants.

I smiled, and picked one, slipping it into my pocket, while marveling at how wonderful nature was, to volunteer plants where there was once just a patch of weedy ground and a discarded eggplant.

Yeah, I don't know who discards eggplants, either.  That is to say, I don't know of anyone who discards raw eggplants in weedy lots.  I know plenty of people who discard cooked eggplant, and when I was a kid, I was responsible for some such discards when Mom was not looking.  But I don't think that kind of discard results in many volunteers.

But I digress.

Not much space.  Not much green.
The eggplant bush was in a tiny grassy area.  I looked around, and there were a bunch of weeds along the opposite edge of the parking lot, interspersed with decorative plants.  The nearest of the weeds, though, looked an awful lot like a pepper plant.

Dang.  Sure enough, it WAS a pepper plant.

A little further down, another pepper.  And another.  Twelve plants, interspersed in with the ornamentals. On a narrow strip of ground between the parking lot and the grungy parking garage of a sad motel.

Basil, too.  And mint.  And lemongrass.  Suddenly, I am seeing that this is not a volunteer location.

Instead, I had just raided someone's garden.  In a motel parking lot.  I looked around for the inevitable cameras that recorded my petty theft.

And then shrugged, with full smile on my face.  Someone had taken a crappy little corner of the universe and made it theirs.  They had found a way to bring something positive out of the peeling paint and auto-exhaust begrimed surfaces, and brought forth life for their table.

I love that idea.

A friend likened it to my hunt for bees.  For most people, having an infestation of stinging insects is not something to meet with joy.  But everywhere I go, I always keep an eye out for any bees, anywhere, especially hives that I could steal, bring to my house, and give them a new home.  My friend challenged me to write about it.

So the "Finding Your Bees" series is dedicated to everyone who has taken something that is overlooked and made it into something wonderful.  And I ask for you to share it with me - either in the comments or in email form.  Examples can include:
New Orleans Container House....
  • Artists who make things with found objects 
  • Repurposing artists (my brother Parker is a master at this!)
  • Guerrilla Gardeners - who tame abandoned lots and make them into community gardens
  • People who build houses out of shipping containers (not as novel now, but somebody did the first one not so long ago)
  • Scientists who are working at re-introducing lost seeds to farmers
  • Archaeologists who are introducing old techniques to help improve the lives of modern folk 
  • Linguists who are working to revitalize languages in indigenous communities
  • Brewmasters who re-introduce old recipes, based on either historic data or archaeological evidence
  • Someone who figured out what to do with kudzu (or nutria, or water hyacinth, or Asian carp, or...)
  • Someone who makes musical instruments out of unusual stuff, or that make sounds that are unexpected (left handed sewer-flutists like Michelle Bowe need apply!)
If you know of a Johnny Appleseed character, group, or collective, let me know about it.  Or if you are doing something where you are taming - or wilding - a piece of the world in a novel way, I want to hear the story.  

Non-profits and other programs are fair game.  My sister pointed me to a news story that talked about writers who were invited to move to areas of Detroit that were hit hard by the economic downturn - with the idea that creative folk can lift up a neighborhood (see the story at

The world is an amazing place, filled with incredible people.  I love it when people see things in a different way than usual, and see possibility when the rest of the world sees none.  It is almost like they are giving the world the gift of a visual pun.

Tell me yours.

Saturday, July 15, 2017


"Crap.  They did it again."

I looked up, knowing that I was about to go from a good mood to a bad one.  Kathe was scowling at her phone.  "AT&T is charging me another $15 for going over the data limit.  I have not used anything since the last time they charged me.  This is now 3 times this month that they added $15 to my charge."

There's a bad mood on the rise.

Kathe has made five trips out to AT&T store, each time having the tech look and see if they can identify what is making her churn through the data.  She has turned off all of the usual suspects: FB, maps, anything that identifies where she is, basically all apps.  When we are at home, she uses the wi-fi, and essentially uses the data only when she suspects that a weather system might impact travel, while we are on the road.

She no longer listens to music.  She no longer watches videos.  She does not access maps, or download emails that are more than a line or two.  She uses her phone as a phone.  And she sends texts, which sometimes get delivered as much as three days later.

When she speaks to the folks at the store, they could not help.  Essentially, every single response she has gotten from AT&T was a shrug.  We can sell you a different plan.

Problem is, the plan would tie us to AT&T for another two years.  Not exactly a consummation devoutly to be wisht.  We've looked at the plans that offer to buy us out, and I have come to the conclusion that the cellular age just doesn't suit us so well.
Anybody interested in joining me in the neolithic?  I have a stone hatchet and a stone hoe I can trade you for some corn...

I tweeted my complaint, using the hashtag #classaction.  It got immediate attention.  Over the next two days, analysts analyzed, and techies teched, and there was a flurry of communication that ensued.  The end result was that I received 18 bucks.  

No explanation of how the overage happened.  No promise that it would not happen again.  Nothing like that.  Just $18.  

So now I will sit and wait for it to happen again, and hope for another flurry of messages when I next get mad.  Or, as I am sure that AT&T hopes for, I will decide that it is just not worth my time.  And that I will pay the money or change my plan.  Either way, problem solved!

Unless the problem is an unhappy customer.  In which case, problem not solved at all.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

No Rhetorical Questions

To say that I had fun watching Charlotte's Web is an understatement.  I got to see three showings over two days, and it was just cool.  But before the first performance, Caroline warned me that I might not be getting what I expected, and she was right.

See, when we were growing up, Grandmother Lawton would take us to the Bob Jones theater.  Say what you want to about the politics of the school, but those guys really invested in their theater productions.  Spectacular sets, glorious costumes, powerful voices, good direction, and casts and crews that knew their jobs.

And so, as a kid, when you went to the theater in my household, you got a stern warning ahead of time.


There wasn't even any suggested punishment offered as a quid-pro-misbehaving-quo.  You put on the coat and tie, shoes that pinched your feet, and went out to spend an evening with the grown ups. Often, but not always, the choice of play was Shakespeare, performed with lofty accents, and the expectations were every bit as high as the 'culture' we were getting.  The expectations and limits were clearly delineated.
  • No crawling on the floor.
  • No climbing on the back of the chair.
  • No talking - not even in a whisper.
  • No kicking the back of the chair in front of you.
  • Eyes front.
  • No, you cannot go to the restroom; you'll have to hold it.
Usually these rules were meted out one at a time for me throughout the performance, as though both my parents and I were checking off our own Thou Shalt Nots lists.  And by the end of the performance, I would inevitably feel my bottom to be strangely warmed (John Wesley reference, for those of you who would appreciate it).

As I grew older, and saw more theater in different places, I knew the rules - they had been inculcated into me early in life, and they stuck.

So Caroline was warning me to be prepared for something a little different.

The theater at Wheelock is very big.  I had expected a smaller, more intimate setting from which to watch the play, but the seats were comfy and there is not a bad vantage point in the entire stadium-seating theater, so I settled in pretty quickly to enjoy.

The first showing was a matinee.  Afterwards, Caroline said that it was a remarkably well behaved group of kids.  I looked at her.  "Huh?"

"I SAID THAT THE AUDIENCE TODAY WAS VERY WELL BEHAVED.  THE BEST WE'VE SEEN!" (She had to say it twice, so that my dazed brain could focus enough to actually hear what she said.)

The kids were out-of-their minds excited by everything.  Like the audience of a rock concert the moment before the opening chords, the audience of 600+ kids (and three adults, by my count - the rest, I suspect, were hiding somewhere under the seats) vibrated with unbridled energy.  And when the play started, they screamed their roar of delight at a decibel level that would make an ground controller at the airport look for a replacement pair of ear protectors.

To my utter fascination, the kids were engaged completely in the performance.  Not just appreciating the performances, as I was taught to do, but living the moments.  Excited honking back and forth between friends while watching the physical comedy of the geese perform on stage.  Bleating in imitation of the speech patterns and physicality of the sheep and lamb.

And answering the questions.

When the newly-hatched Wilbur comes out on stage (What?  I'm no farmer - I don't know how these things work), he asks 'Who am I?  Where am I?'  The existential questions of every philosopher-poet ever - from the bowl of petunias to the sperm whale.  And the line is intended to spur the remainder of the monologue.

No chance.  'Who am I?' was immediately met with a chorus of 600 screaming kids YOU"RE WILBUR!!!!!!

'Where am I?'


During the intermission, kids stood up and replicated dialogue.  They inhabited the characters they had been watching.  They shouted, ran around, pointed, and climbed.  They lived the performance in a way that I have never done.

The second performance was, if possible louder and more energetic.

CW run-through before I inserted the ear plugs.
The third performance was an evening performance, with parents and kids.  And I liked it.  I caught snippets of dialogue that I had totally missed out on for the cacophony of audience voices that accompanied each action of the cast.  I saw subtle physical cues between cast members that reinforced the relationship of the characters: a reassuring touch here, a side-eye there, an unconscious mirroring of actions between animals standing side-by-side.

The richness of the show is incredible, and much of that richness I missed in the first two performances.  With the overwhelming sensory overload that comes with 800 screaming schoolchildren, your senses have to focus on very specific sensory inputs to be able to follow.  You have to listen carefully for the dialogue, or you will miss it.  You have to watch for the spider's descent, or you will miss it. Whatever is outside of the direct focus of your attention gets lost in the roar and the wiggle.

The evening performance allowed for the audience member to pick up on a lot more that is unavailable to the school matinee audience member.

And it was, by comparison, boring.

Not that there was anything different about the play - the actors nailed their performances and I loved the play.  But the audience participation - especially in that uninhibited way that children play - is simply not going to happen with a mostly-adult crowd.  The rules will be explained, and the limits will be set (and tested) and somebody's bottom will become strangely warmed halfway through the first act.

But the audience is separated from the action.

Just before the first performance, I leaned forward to the girls sitting in front of me and said, "You want to know a secret?  That (pointing to the program) is my sister."


And for the rest of the show, every time Charlotte made an appearance, they would both turn around in their seat and whispersqueal "THERE SHE IS!"  ...and then turn back around and interact with the play, fully committed to the action.

When it came to the 'adult' play, there were some titters and oohs and ahhs, and some appreciative laughter.  And conversations during intermission.

But not a single bleat or honk.  And I found it terribly disappointing.  Are we adults just not as affected by the majick of theater as we were as kids? Has the venue become a holy sanctuary, where we dress up and whisper in hushed tones and worship at the altar of an amazing performance, only discussing it afterwards?  Have we moved from 'play' space into 'sacred' space?  Is there any way to infuse the experience with the spirit of a thousand kids?  (OK, maybe a thousand is too many.  But the idea is still the same...)

I think I'll start the trend of interacting with the cast members during the performance.  Who's with me?  Maybe in Romeo and Juliet, I will respond when she asks "Wherefore art thou Romeo?" with:


*Yes, I know what 'wherefore' meant....

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

High Flying

The lady in the theatre stopped me and said, "Your sister is so amazing."

I went to Boston this week to watch my sister in her play at Wheelock Family Theatre, Charlotte's Web.  And Holy Hammer in Hicksville, she is awesome.  The play is amazing, and the whole cast grabs you and doesn't let you go for the whole ride.  Templeton is snarky spectacle in her pure rattiness.  Wilbur is humble and radiant.  The goose and gander make me laugh every time they are on stage.  The baby spiders are ridiculously cute...

Gary Ng took incredible shots of Charlotte and Wilbur.
But the woman was right.  The high flying Caroline Lawton is amazing.  Her aerial maneuvers display an incredible strength and show off her dedication to learning new things - she just started circus school a few months ago when she was cast.  And she is mesmerizing - you simply can't take your eyes off of her when she is on the set.

But the performance was not what the woman stopped me to talk about. She continued:

"Your sister is so kind on set.  She has really just set the tone for the whole play, of one of kindness, and the way that she has been with my daughter...."

The woman looked away to giver herself a moment to gain control of her voice again.  "Caroline has been so wonderful to all of the kids.  Your sister is amazing."

The play Charlotte's Web is about what it means to be a friend.  What it means to go from thinking only about yourself to thinking about the needs and wants of somebody else, and figuring out how you can help them.  The theme, woven throughout the script, is of selfishness versus selflessness.  Charlotte embodies the latter characteristic, and Caroline inhabits that part of the character completely, both onstage and off. 

The moment of triumph in the show for Charlotte is not the moment in which she saves Wilbur's bacon (#sorrynotsorry), but the moment when Wilbur comes to the realization that he needs to look for ways that he can be nice to others. When the gift of received friendship causes someone to move outside of self interest and find ways of doing something for others - that is the climax of the story.

How often do we do that?  Not me.  I am focused on getting my memo through the bureaucratic hoops.  I am worried about my Wednesday briefing, and how I am going to survive the next week of meetings?  I am aggravated about the paperwork, frantic over the emails, concerned about how overwhelmed I am feeling....

I.  Me.  My.

What if my focus instead were on the people around me?  What if I looked to see what Jenny is struggling with, and acted out of kindness, instead of just looking to use her to get my projects done? What if I stopped by to talk - really talk - with Brenda, instead of only leaving my desk to deal with the crisis at hand, exploding with anger that yet another memo had been hijacked and delayed?

What if I practice kindness?

I want to be amazing.  Just like my sister.