Mastering My Environment

I’d like to apologize for my extended sabbatical. This summer has been a test in personal resiliency. First, I got sick for a long time, then my beloved pet disappeared (and never reappeared), and then–as my thesis picked up again–I began having wrist pain which prevented me from typing more than I absolutely had to.

But now, as we are deluged in autumnal rains headed toward the holidays, I’m feeling healthier and more cheerful for two reasons. 1. a new kitten and 2. a new book.

We got Ollie at 6 weeks and it is a delight to watch him grow. At first, he was so little that he could just barely jump high enough to hook his claws into our blanket and climb up to the bed. Now, he can jump straight to the top from about two feet away. Sometimes he would trip over his feet chasing after a string. Now, his body courses gracefully (mostly…we have slippery floors). Ollie has mastered his environment. He is confident, intelligent, curious, and adept. There is a simple beauty and a deep satisfaction that accompanies watching a masterful creature.


My wrist pain–you might have guessed–was tendinitis and muscle spasm from working too much at the computer + knitting + playing games on my phone. I’ve always had bad posture, so–suspecting that had something to do with it–I went looking for information on body mechanics and physical therapy. I found this book: Pain Free by Egoscue & Gittines. It’s major tenant is that we tend to put our load bearing joints out of alignment with each other. The longer they stay that way, the more muscles designed for holding you upright go into atrophy which causes your body to compensate with other, lesser muscles. For instance, when you hunch at your desk or slouch over your phone, your shoulders are not square with your hips which mispositions your elbow which makes the stabilizing muscles in your wrist do work they aren’t designed for–the heavy lifting of your palm and fingers causing your tendons to rub and get inflamed (if your wrist was using the right flexor/extensor muscles, the tendons would be lined up properly and not rubbing anywhere when you move your fingers). And there you have it, carpal tunnel syndrome caused by slouching. The book also outlines simple yoga-type poses to get the right muscles back to doing the right jobs. Like all physical therapy, you have to do the work, but it usually feels so good and refreshing afterward, that I don’t mind putting in the time. And now I get to write again!

But the combined experiences of watching my cat’s prowess while finding myself unable to hold my torso upright properly was humbling. I am not master of my environment.

On the other hand–paraphrasing Egoscue–movement begets movement. Once I began doing the exercises, I began feeling better, then I wanted to move more, and now I find myself naturally watching less TV and doing more projects. Soon my body will be a useful tool again instead of just somewhere to live. Without any cardio or strength training, I feel more balanced, more agile, and more flexible. I–like my kitten–am growing in confidence.

Sometimes, we may feel puny, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have the capacity for strength.


Researcher on the Road: Sneaky Resilience

Read the first in this series here for some context.

While we went to the coast to talk to citizens about what they knew about Tsunami preparedness, we ended up talking a great deal to our fellow Emergency Managers (EMs) and hazard scientists (i.e. geographers, seismologists, meteorologists, etc who specifically study disasters). Much like veterans, we shared stories and groused about our common difficulties.

A common difficulty for EMs is funding. There’s never enough money for mitigation projects (like building a vertical evacuation tower where it’s needed or creating a cache of emergency supplies for the community), especially in smaller communities which a) don’t have much money and b) want to invest the money they do have in other problem areas like industry or housing.

Creative Commons via PSD
Creative Commons via PSD

Another (related) common difficulty for EMs is generating support for preparedness. It’s really, really hard–we’ve found–to get people to do anything about disasters. Humans are expert procrastinators and it’s hard to get worked up about something which might happen especially when current problems exist (like no industry or housing). And let’s face it, disasters are pretty much the vegetable of our world: important, but not that much fun to think about. When (blessedly) a few people in the community do take an interest and do some advocacy or preparedness work, EMs are over the moon. But inevitably, these little groups fall away. Though they are powerful forces for good, they are fragile and easy to dissipate after a while. So how can we get them to stick around?

It turns out that the solution is the same to these two problems. More than one EM and hazard scientists said the same thing. You have to embed preparedness into the fabric of the community. There’s two ways to do that. First, you design everything you build to be dual use. For instance, at the Long Beach and Ocean Shores areas, there are no paths up the hills for foot evacuation. Instead of building an evacuation path (a low priority for most people), build a walking path for visitors and residence who like to hike. Add nature signs and little benches next to stunning viewpoints. Tourists would love that. Residents would love that. And–as long as the path ran up hill–EMs would love that. Tourism is the honey on our resiliency-carrots. It makes it go down easy.

Secondly, you embed preparedness into the fabric of the community by using standing institutions to spread your message. Single-purpose fledgling groups are hard to maintain because they have few resources, few connections, high turnover, and too many other external pressures. Libraries, however, will always be around. Every community needs a hospital. Schools and churches crop up naturally wherever there’s people. These kinds of institutions are long lasting and serve a broader purpose. By doing so, they have access to lots and lots of people and more resources. So they make a powerful voice for preparedness advocacy. In one group, we had two librarians from two different, sister libraries. They had hosted some preparedness events and wanted to know how to help more. They felt strongly that their constituents needed tsunami evacuation information and had the power to make that happen for us.

These concepts–I’ve noticed–aren’t that much different from environmentalism ones. We use an old cottage cheese container to plant seeds in. Why can’t we make a hiking path serve as an evacuation route? We’ve also seen this in fitness and weight loss programs. The weight stays off when your exercise becomes embedded into the rest of your habits. A community is like that too. It needs resilience to be a part of every choice, not an alternative choice. We need to sneak it into community development like Mom snuck vegetables in to our lasagna.

When resilience is veggies, we have to be sneaky.
When resilience is veggies, we have to be sneaky.

Positive Deviance

I learned a new phrase today: positive deviance. In 1990 Jerry and Monique Sternin traveled to Vietnam to see if they could help the 65% of malnourished <5 year olds. At the time, government and UN agencies were donating nutritional supplements–but they never seemed to help. So, the Sternins sought out “very, very poor” families whose children were doing well. They discovered that the parents of these children were supplementing their meals with tiny shrimps, crabs, and snails from the rice paddies and sweet potato greens. This was not a common practice in the area because these (easily available) foods were not considered safe for children. The Sternins worked with these positive deviants to develop cooking classes. Soon, 80% of the first program’s 1000 children were adequately nourished and the program was expanding to 14 other villages. By looking at local solutions, the Sternins were able to develop a program that was cheap and required little outside support to maintain long term (i.e. “sustainable”).

This is an example of what Standford calls “Design Thinking”. In their own words:

Design thinking relies on our ability to be intuitive, to recognize patterns, to construct ideas that have emotional meaning as well as being functional, and to express ourselves in media other than words or symbols. Nobody wants to run an organization on feeling, intuition, and inspiration, but an over-reliance on the rational and the analytical can be just as risky. Design thinking, the integrated approach at the core of the design process, provides a third way.

Isn’t that interesting? NGOs, activists, Emergency Managers–maybe even your own boss–are tempted to import solutions from other contexts and often they just don’t work. This provides a way of thinking honestly about your current context and finding sustainable solutions which won’t dry up with the funding.

Is this something you’ve tried? Tell us about it below!

On Creativity and Resiliency

Uh oh
Sourced here.

“Is this ok?”
I was 16 and was showing off a bouquet of flowers from the garden I had arranged for the dinner table. My mom–a wonderful cook and gardener–looked up from the kitchen and said, “It’s perfect! You’re so creative! I can never get flowers to look like that…”

As I grew older, learned some more skills, discovered Pinterest, my mother continued to express a certain mixture of pride and jealousy at my creative abilities. Which completely baffled me. Her meals are always both yummy AND attractive. Her garden is a delight. She sewed a lovely prom dress for me–a very picky and indecisive teen. She helped me solve tricky interpersonal problems as a young adult. How could she think she wasn’t creative? Much later–painfully–I admitted to myself, she might be right. There is a subtle difference between her creative activities (cooking, gardening, sewing, etc) and mine. Her creativity is about following the rules she has learned to make things look nice. My creativity is about using items for a different function than what they were originally intended. Case in point:

 An example of creative problem solving: using a vase as a makeup brush holder.
I recently discovered at Goodwill a nice solution to losing my makeup brushes.

BUT–I learned–that didn’t mean she couldn’t become MORE creative (and she totally has. Mom, if you’re reading this, I love you and think you’re awesome.)

Creativity is becoming an important business and academic buzzword. We’re beginning to recognize as a society that rote-internalization of “best practices” are not working in a turbulent, globalized world. We want to train our kids to think. This is no less important in Emergency Management. A disaster response is fast, changeable, and problematic. It requires creative thinking to solve unusual problems.

It’s important for you too. During a disaster, you’ll also need to solve unanticipated problems. They may be as small as: I have one headlamp and a family of 4 that wants to use it. But just because the problem is relatively small, doesn’t mean the solution isn’t impactful for you and your family.

Emergency Hacks from Buzzfeed: headlamp-water jug lantern
Emergency Hacks from Buzzfeed: headlamp-water jug lantern

But we–as my mom exemplified–still think creativity is a type of genius. Not everyone grows up to be Picasso. It’s a talent you’re born with. Wrong. Sort of. There are two kinds of creativity. Dr. Gerrard Puccio, Chair of the International Center for Studies in Creativity at Buffalo State, calls them “Creativity” and “creativity”. Capital-C Creativity is the type of Picasso, Einstein, Michael Jordan genius which might have a genetic component (it’s not something we understand well). Small-C creativity is universally hard-wired into your brain. “You’re human and you have an imagination,” he says. “You are wired to be creative.” This kind of creativity can be taught, practiced, and grown as demonstrated by creativity degrees cropping up hear and there. If you thought, “oh ya, I guess you could you a vase to hold makeup brushes. I bet a cup, bowl, bread loaf tin, or empty coffee canister would work too,” you were demonstrating the innate ability you need during an emergency. You already have the skill. The trouble is, we’ve forgotten how to use it.

So how do you remind your brain to think creatively about problems? These are scientifically-unproven, anecdotally-sound tips from my own life.

1. Don’t panic. Unexpected problems can be scary. Imagine having hungry children and realizing that you don’t have cash and none of the stores’ credit machines are working. It’s easy to panic a little bit, but intense anxiety can get in the way of creative problem solving–just like stage-fright can make you forget your lines. Take a deep, purposeful breath or two. Begin brainstorming. Can you get to cash? Is there someone who can help you? Is there somewhere farther away you can go? Is there a shelter? etc.

2. Believe creativity can be trained like a muscle. Carol Dweck writes in her book Mindset that people who believe that they are born with a finite amount of traits like intelligence or creativity don’t do well in life because they avoid challenges. Failure just point out their limits which is psychologically uncomfortable. But people who believe they can learn and improve on those traits do better because they try their best at challenges and learn from mistakes. In fact, they do learn to be more intelligent or creative. (Side note: this is one of the few books that I can honestly say changed my life. I highly recommend it. It’s a really interesting read on top of being important.)

3. Gather ideas. Creativity is NOT about developing a unique product from scratch (contrary to popular belief). It’s about recycling, refining, combining, adapting, rearranging, reapplying ideas. For a long while, I thought that as a fiction writer I had to sit alone and think about my story so that it would remain pure from influence. But, like water in the Dead Sea, I got stuck. I needed input from as many sources as possible. I needed to dialogue with other ideas in order for my story to be fresh and lively–ironically.

3b. Gather ideas from EVERYWHERE. I’ve talked about Pinterest before, because I think it does a good job of collecting folk solutions or life hacks. My creativity has bloomed since I began looking at other people’s work on Pinterest. But gathering ideas is more than knowing a lot about one topic (which is helpful). Being creative is partially about applying ideas from one field to another. My Brother the Scientist likes to say NO science is wasted; it always tells us something worth knowing. In Emergency Management, we like to apply ideas from Psychology, Marketing, Geology, Engineering, etc. But people like you are doing MORE. They’re applying ideas about Permaculture, upcycling, reusing “trash”, and skills like macrame, sewing, origami to philosophies about resiliency and self-sufficiency. Here are some good examples (see credit links at end–formatting reasons):

3c. Use others. When you get stuck, seek advice or bounce ideas off of others. Two heads are better than one for a reason. Sometimes just trying to explain the problem to another novice is a good way to understand the problem more deeply and stumble upon a solution.

4. Experiment. And fail. Creativity is also a little dependent on experience. Innovations are often on “the fringe” so to speak–past all the common, already-in-the-box ideas. We have to work through all the middle stuff before we can explore the unknown. And in order to explore the unknown, we can’t be afraid to fail a little. That’s how we learn whether it’s a good idea or a bad one! My brother used to say, “If you don’t fall down once or twice, you aren’t skiing hard enough.”

5. Be patient and persistent. You’re asking your brain to do something hard. Sometimes solving a problem doesn’t come all at once. Sometimes you have to sleep on it or think about something else for a while.

6.  Find another perspective. This might be the hardest one. But this is also where gathering ideas can be helpful. If you’re especially stuck on a problem, step back, and begin brainstorming different ways of looking at it. Then, try on those each ways. See if anything pops.

Your creativity might be the most important tool in your disaster response arsenal. Don’t forget to practice it!

What do you think about creativity? How do you practice it? Tell us below!


Links to Gallery

1. Duct tape uses by YearZeroSurvival

2. Food storage for homesteading and the apocalypse by Modern Homesteading

3. Paracord projects by Instructables

4. Paracord project uses by SurvivalLife

5. First aid kit by a SpoonFullofSugar

UPDATE 3/13/15:

After this post went to print, I found this TED talk by a Tokyo-based toy developer who was asked by his boss to develop toys based on market studies. He found that looking at data killed his creativity and made up a game to spark his creative juices again. It’s directly related to point #3 and it’s a lot of fun.

UPDATE 3/24/15: ( every week, I find something new that applies, eh?)
I just learned about the “Diffusion of Innovations Model” which basically says that where there is a moderate amount of heterogeneity, innovations can diffuse through the population. When you have friends that are a little different than you, you get new ideas. (It can’t be TOO different, or the population will reject it, but it can’t be too much the same or no new ideas exist.). Academia proves #3 again. I love it.