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The Etymology of Sign Language

I love etymology. Tracing a word back to its earliest known origins makes a writer feel like an archaeologist, anthropologist, and genealogist. Etymology can help recover the ideas and shades of meaning that have been obscured by the sediment of centuries. Breaking a word into its component parts often releases a tremendous amount of latent energy. What’s interesting is that I now I live in a house where sign language is often used. I’ve learned that the sign for “orange” looks a lot like someone making homemade orange juice. The signs for “king” and “queen” involve tracing the line of a sash across your torso. And the sign for “shower” looks like someone standing under a shower head. Sign language often seems to be rooted in the material world, which strikes me as a kind of etymology. I find it endlessly fascinating and hope to learn more.

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Constraints and Innovation

You should check out this fantastic short article from a designer at IDEO, the company that developed the first Apple mouse and is a driving force behind the design thinking movement. Two points I want to make:

1. I’ve sensed throughout my reading that design thinking and agrarianism have natural points of affinity. You can translate all five of the constraints in this article to agrarian principles like “consulting the genius of the place,” “praise ignorance,” Sabbath rest, etc.

2. The most radical thing I’ve done in the past 10 years — as a writer, as a family man, as an American, and as a follower Jesus — is to make the decision, with Kate, to root ourselves permanently in the Silverton area. This is the constraint of place, and it is a decision that I think will channel our energy and creativity for decades.

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“Slow Church” Cover

Here it is! The cover design for the “Slow Church” book, coming Spring 2014. Chris and I think the design team at IVP/Praxis nailed it! We couldn’t be more pleased.

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Why I Don’t Use an E-Reader

A few minutes ago, a friend sent me a Facebook message. She had seen a picture my wife posted with all my books packed up in boxes and ready to move, and she wanted to know why I didn’t use an e-reader. Here were the first 12 reasons I came up with. Some are practical, others are mystical, none are judgmental:

1. I like the physical “presence” of books in the house. The Bible talks about being surrounded by “a great cloud of witnesses.” As a writer, that’s what books are for me.

2. I like the aesthetics of physical books, including their design, layout and typography,their heft and texture, and even the smell of the pages. I also like how they look clustered together on a shelf.

3. I want my kids to grow up in a house full of books.

4. I want to give my kids my books someday, if they’ll have them.

5. I think libraries and bookstores are the greatest.

6. I write in the margins of many of my books. I know e-books let you use marginalia. But the physical act of writing, most often with a pencil, is how I make sense of the world, up to and including how I process and memorize the things I’m reading.

7. I used an iPad to read a book once and it drove me crazy when I couldn’t read it because the battery was dead. Of course, it was my fault for not plugging it in.

8. Reading while walking is one of my favorite simple pleasures. Somehow it seems safer to read a book while walking than using an e-reader. Similarly, I love rolling a paperback and shoving it into my back pocket for a walk or hike. A keen observer of my bookshelves will be able to tell which books are my favorites: They are either battered from much love and much use…or they are brand new because I keep giving away copies to friends.

9. I have a growing realization that the more I can avoid screens of all kinds, the better writer I will be.

10. Physical books are easier to discover. No one gives away e-books in boxes on the street corner. I’ve never been to a friend’s house and ask to browse his e-reader. It’s much easier to pick a book up off a shelf (at the library, bookstore, friend’s house, etc.), read the inside flap, and decide whether or not I want to bring it home. This is the same reason I still prefer my local video store to Netflix.

11. Physical books are easier to loan or give away. I know e-readers let you loan books, but don’t many have time restrictions? When I try to force a good book on a friend–saying, “You just HAVE to read this”–I don’t want to worry about file compatibility.

12. The three most compelling arguments I’ve ever heard on behalf of e-readers are (a) that you can get books instantaneously, if you have Internet access; (b) you can hold hundreds of books in just one device; and (c) you don’t have to lug fifty boxes of books from your old house to your new one. The last answer I can totally get behind, as can my aching back. But answer (a) doesn’t work for me because I’m the kind of person who can’t be trusted with impulse purchases. And (b) doesn’t work for me because I can’t think of reason why I’d need hundreds of books at any one time.

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Design Thinking and Neighborhood Renewal

Lately I’ve been reading about “design thinking,” and I’m starting to see its potential as a tool for community renewal.

Design thinking is a structured approach many designers use to generate and develop ideas, products, and innovations. It’s most often associated with IDEO, the well-known design firm that created the first Apple mouse, and Stanford’s Institute of Design (a.k.a. “d.school”). But what began as a process to guide the development of new consumer products is now being applied, often by non-designers, to business (including Apple, Target, and Proctor & Gamble, as well as social entrepreneurs like the d.light company recently highlighted in “This Is Our City”), nonprofits, health care, government, and K-12 education. The visionary designer Bruce Mau is using design thinking to help a community group in Sudbury, Ontario, a city blighted by decades of nickel mining, to uncover hidden assets and reimagine itself for the 21stcentury.

The stages of design thinking are sometimes laid out like this: Empathize (or observe), Define (or interpret), Ideate (or brainstorm), Prototype (or experiment), and Test (then improve).

One of the reasons I’m attracted to this subject is that it seems to take seriously Einstein’s warning that we can’t solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them. The reason I think it might be relevant to our work in our neighborhoods is that it is empathic and human-centered, action-driven, multi-disciplinary, collaborative, and conversational. It takes physical space seriously. It also strikes me as a powerful complement to community strategies like asset-mapping and appreciative inquiry. Our friends at the Parish Collective talk about faith communities “weaving a fabric of care” in their neighborhoods. Here, too, is something I appreciate about design thinking: its emphasis on serendipitous connection-making. Warren Berger writes in Glimmer,  his book on design thinking:

The best designers seem to have a natural eye for spotting patterns and discerning possible relationships between things that most of us view as being separate and unrelated. Once they see a possible relationship, they work to make the pieces fit.

When we gather as parish practitioners, I can see design thinking being a useful tool to collaboratively address the needs and opportunities of our particular places. It’s also a lot of fun.

This fall I want to do an experiment. I have a theory that design thinking is one way collaborators of all stripes can work together to address some of the persistent challenges faced by rural communities like the one I live in. To test my theory I want to invite a diverse group of friends to my house for pizza cart pizza, beer and soda, and a design thinking crash course. I’m hoping we can identify a need or opportunity in Silverton, and—far more quickly than is ideal—capture our observations and analysis, brainstorm ideas, and then prototype our proposed response.

Design thinking is controversial even among designers, not least because it focuses on a process rather than on innate creative intelligence, and because it is being “given away” by prominent designers to non-designers. But my hunch is that design thinking holds a lot of promise for Slow Church and the parish movement.

If you’re in the Silverton-Mt. Angel area and you’re interested in experimenting with me, let me know. And if you’re interested in reading more about design thinking, here are some resources I’ve found helpful so far:


Around the Web:

Stanford d.school
Design Thinking for Educators
Tom Davis (CEO of IDEO)

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The Freedom of the Narrow Frame

“My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned to myself for each one of my undertakings. I shall go even further: my freedom will be so much the greater and more meaningful the more narrowly I limit my field of action and the more I surround myself with obstacles. Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees oneself of the claims that shackle the spirit.” —Igor Stravinsky, “Poetics of Music in the Form of Six Lessons”

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Workspaces That Foster Creativity

I’m reading a second book on design thinking. This one is called “The Art of Innovation,” by the former CEO of IDEO, one of the world’s top design firms. I continue to be most fascinated by the chapters on physical space. Many leading-edge companies — including Pixar, IDEO, and Ericsson — have spent a lot of time and money fashioning workspaces that foster creativity, communication, fun, and esprit de corps. They describe these spaces as neighborhoods, parks, commons, clubhouses, greenhouses, huddle rooms, campfires, and cul-de-sacs.