Taking the Pulse of Our Blog
Colleen Scheck, senior producer
As noted in this week’s broadcast of “An Architecture of Decency,” our production trip to the Black Belt of Alabama in October 2007 was the birth of our staff blog, SOF Observed. Since then we’ve offered many different types of posts under the guidance of our senior editor, Trent Gilliss. As we’ve experimented with various levels of tone, length, personal disclosure, and multimedia elements, we’ve done so with an overarching philosophy to pull back the curtain, share our production experiences, and highlight what we are seeing in our big world of “religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas.”
What captures your interest informs us, and sometimes surprises us. Rossini’s “Meow” by “The Little Singers of Paris” (fun) and Spiritual but Not Religious (reflective) had distinctly high responses. We’ve kept our eyes out for thoughtful perspectives on headlines, such as Hendrik Hertzberg’s commentary on the Catholic abuse crisis. Guest contributions (want to be published?) like Chelsea Roff’s entry on the meaning of sacred space have also grabbed your attention. We’ve focused on visuals, Purim Around the World, and sound, Forgiveness and Revenge, A Call for Music Ideas, and good behind-the-scenes stories: Archbishop Desmond Tutu is “Mad About Mango”.
So, we thought this was a good occasion to ask you: How are we doing? What are your impressions of SOF Observed? What would you like to see more of?
One Man’s Trash, Another Man’s Treasure
by Colleen Scheck, producer
I was watching television news on the couch with my 10-year-old nephew last weekend and was captivated by a segment that profiled the work of Dan Phillips, a 64 year-old man from Huntsville, Texas who builds low-income houses out of trash. Yep, trash.
The segment has stuck with me in a few ways during this week’s production activities. Phillips’ work reminds me of the kindred efforts of Rural Studio (one of my all-time favorite programs), and it has resonance with our upcoming program with environmentalist Bill McKibben, specifically around the theme of human vitality and community in our changing natural world.
It also sparks thoughts about education and vocation raised during Krista’s interview with Mike Rose (to air in January). In that last way, I was struck by the difference in approach between Phoenix Commotion (Phillips’ initiative) and Rural Studio. Rural Studio trains highly educated architecture students to build homes from salvaged materials; Phillips employs unskilled laborers as apprentices and teaches “anyone with a work ethic” how to build. The result is the same: affordable homes made from recycled materials that are both functional and artistic, sustainable and unique.
I dug around for more info on Dan Phillips, and found a great slideshow of his work, as well as more photographs via Flickr. This is the kind of tangible activity that gives me hope, for our planet and for our humanity. My nephew, whose face was buried in his iPod Touch during the entire TV segment, looked up at the end and said “That’s cool.” I didn’t know he’d been listening.
Martial Arts Meets Ethical Living
Shiraz Janjua, Associate Producer
I’ve been really drawn to this idea, brought to our attention by a listener, of the Ultimate Black Belt Test. It’s a very intense 13-month martial-arts training course. This course involves many things, some more traditionally “martial” than others: 1,000 rounds of sparring, 10,000 push-ups, and other grueling physical exercises.
Having taken karate for four years during high school, I still remember doing push-ups on my knuckles until they turned blue and purple. And I don’t mean “really red.” I mean like, “I need medical attention.” For days, I would look at my knuckles in horror at what they had become. I remember getting kicked in the stomach on several occasions, being completely drenched in sweat after rounds and rounds of drills, and wondering during the rest of the week whether I had the stamina or the will to go beyond myself to get that black belt.
As a moody 17-year-old, I decided that I’d had enough. I got to the second level of brown belt, but the black belt (the next belt) would have required another 3-5 years of serious dedication, and I simply didn’t care badly enough.
I was studying a form of martial arts that had been removed from its cultural context, and focused on the techniques of punching, kicking, standing, and other outward physical forms. I suppose I gave up because I didn’t have a core motivation inside me to push me through the training I would need to get to black. I didn’t know why I should care. I was never a very confrontational person, and sparring terrified me.
(Photo by tanueshka)
What fascinates me about the UBBT is how it fills out that inner dimension I never found in karate, which I had taken up purely as exercise. In UBBT, aside from the pain, you have to do things like practice 1,000 acts of kindness, live for a day as a blind person, clean up the environment, and profile your ten living heroes. Some of the UBBT trainees this year are heading to Greensboro, Alabama, to participate in Rural Studio home-building projects. (We had done a show on the Rural Studio a few months ago.) And, yes, that area is known as the Black Belt.
When we think of martial arts, or even military training, we rarely associate it with ethical living. Sun Tzu’s The Art of War regularly finds its place in business training. We’re so conditioned to be aggressive, to fend for ourselves, to fight to get ahead. Maybe that’s the dark side of individualism.
In any case, many martial arts traditions have immense philosophical depth to them that have accrued over centuries. It’s fascinating to me to see a program that encourages the development of the inner self and treats it as seriously as the physical regimen. I don’t plan on delving back into martial arts, but I’m drawn to the story of the UBBT, and it’s something I hope we can explore in some form on Speaking of Faith. We’ve talked in the past about having web features, and this might be a topic for such a feature.
Just Because You Can, Doesn’t Mean You Should
Trent Gilliss, Online Editor
Being a homeowner who has gutted and rehabbed a number of residences now, I’ve come to learn that materials really do have their place. Asphalt shingles work great on a pitched roof, but place them on a porch’s shed roof with a shallow incline… well, you’re begging for those newly laid floors of reclaimed Douglas fir from your upstairs attic to cup and bend. Wood putty is fine for those nail holes on an interior door. But, try to close the gap on those weathered storm windows — the first spring rain bubbles the paint and makes them look worse than before. Lessons learned.
And, as you can see from the picture above, what worked beautifully as a retaining wall treatment in the Yancey “Tire” Chapel (1995) failed miserably on Tracy Shiles’ house. The stepped approach to the front entry hasn’t borne foot traffic well, and it wasn’t covered either. The flaking stuccoed tires reminds me of something Andrew Freear, the director of Rural Studio, told Krista in our anchor interview for SOF’s upcoming program, “An Architecture of Decency.”
He views sustainability with a small ess. Instead of searching for “green” products with the proper FSC stamp or building structures that are LEED certified, Rural Studio emphasizes vernacular materials that require zero maintenance. The stuff has to be readily available, reusable, and understood by the owners so that it can be easily fixed. Their clients are scratching out a living and extra time, says Freear, needs to be spent making additional income, being with their families, or simply just resting from a hard day’s work.
After all, this isn’t so hard to understand. How many of you have an uncle, grandfather, or dad who gripes every time he opens the hood of his Volkswagen Jetta or Toyota Prius or even a Ford Taurus because he can’t make simple repairs because of all the electronics being used? The same idea applies here. A Dutch-produced prefabricated cementitious fiberboard may be “green” and durable, but if it gets damaged in a storm, the owner can’t replace it. But, use corrugated sheet metal and the owner can find a piece at any scrap yard or vacant, tumbledown building in the tri-county area for the repair.
Welcome to Alabama
Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer
We arrived in Greensboro on Tuesday afternoon and headed straight up to Antioch Baptist Church (see image below) to see if there was any information on services during the week. We were hoping to gather sound of the church’s congregation, perhaps speaking to members who had seen the previous incarnation. Cruising down the 1.5 lane highway at a healthy speed, we eyed this tiny sign pointing down a gravel road (driveway) “Antioch Baptist Church.” The grass between the tire tracks was quite tall, giving me the impression that this church might not get used at all. As we walked up to the structure we knew immediately that this was a Rural Studio project, it was like no other church in the area (except for the other RS chapels).
Alongside the church is an elevated graveyard with headstones dating back to the early 1800’s. The juxtaposition of these old tombs looking upon the modern chapel below was striking, as was the fact that the only windows along the long walls of the church were the narrow strip which looked directly out at the graves.
As we walked along the grounds, which were surrounded by thick forests of pines, you could hear an old hound dog howling in the distance interspersed with long stretches of eerie silence. This combination seemed to say, Welcome to rural Alabama!
We left Antioch to head back to Greensboro and again, at highway speed this dog seemed to come out of nowhere. At least, it seemed like a dog, minus one ear. This German Shepherd was standing next to the side of the road waiting for us to pass, standing alert with its one good ear. Sorry, it was just too strange for us to want to get out and snap a photo.
Just Give It a Little Gas…
Mitch Hanley, Senior Producer
Amid a day full of interviews and site visits, our tour guide Dan Splaingard took us over to his former landlady’s place so he could deliver a delicious Icee fresh from the gas station. Theresa’s two dogs, whose names I cannot recall, came running out to greet us as Dan went inside. These dogs were very sweet and all I can say is that I am glad this car was a rental. It was as we were leaving that we learned the “game” these dogs love to play: Car Chase the Dogs! We had the hardest time getting out of the driveway, these dogs were right behind us, when we drove out to the main street they ran right in front of us. Dan said, just give it a little gas and they’ll get out of the way. Here’s a pic of one of them, having just gotten out of the way…