March 9th Lesson from my Polish Grandparents

You don’t need to be an environmentalist to arrive at a formula that leads to a humane, healthful, happy and sustainable existence.

It’s been rainy in Portland today (go figure) and I was feeling under the weather, so I had some time on my hands to blog again. Searching for inspiration, I came across the original sketches I did for the opening sequence of reUtica. The “Global Climate Change -> Death” drawing was done in my brother’s truck, in the parking lot of Our Lady of Lourdes School (just before filming the opening and closing sequences). The above sketch is the original; I inked out the one for the film with a Sharpie.

While Matt and I made a nod to larger issues surrounding global climate change, we didn’t want the film to be about that. In fact, when I think about the ethics of recycling, reusing and reducing, I see a recipe for a more humane society – at least more humane than one dominated by rampant consumerism and fueled by a media-industrial complex that makes us feel less than who we are. After all, I knew that everyone watching reUtica would not feel as strongly as I do about environmental issues. And I don’t care if I’m right or wrong about all that anymore. (In fact, I’m hoping I’m really wrong.) What I do care about is this: The same forces that (in my view) are causing global climate change are the same forces that perpetuate social injustices. Even if you are not an environmentalist, you are probably observant enough to notice that our society is broken.

The culprit is our economy and our treatment of the economy as an immutable, inevitable, thing-unto-itself. Our economic activity has simultaneously replicated social inequalities and harmed the environment because at its heart is an essential flaw.

Let me explain: The way I see things, there are three essential REAL forms of capital that should be driving our economy: Human Capital, Social Capital, and Natural Capital. Below is a very brief definition of each.

Human Capital – refers to the health, well-being and capacity of a person. This includes things like education, personal experience and talents.

Social Capital – refers to connections in a community. What can we do together? “It takes a village to raise a child.”

Natural Capital – refers to the air we breathe, the land we live on, the water we drink, the other living creatures we share this world with.

But do these Capitals drive the economy? Or are they in the back seat? Are they the ends of economic activity? When they are, is everyone invited to share in the gains?

The words “economy” and “capitalism” in our culture have become synonymous with another word: Money. Money is an abstraction. It is not real. Humans, their social relationships and the environment are much more real than money is. Yet we behave as if an abstraction of our time, our resources, our commitments IS actually real and accurately prioritizes those real things for us. To make matters worse, money has become an end in itself. Since when have you seen a Profit and Loss statement that measured things like human health and well-being or community impacts of business activity? To be fair, this practice is starting to gain some momentum, but there’s a long, hard road ahead. For the most part, there is a single bottom line: that bottom line is an abstract figure (one that makes that most sense – by design, mind you – to those who have the most money).

But what if the value of money was solely predicated upon Human, Social and Natural Capital, inclusive of all people and the environment? What if Money was really just a tool to maximize these capitals – a means to make transactions efficient instead of being an end in itself? While I might sound a little pinko-commie here, I’m really not against capitalism. I’m just stressing that we’ve missed the boat on what capitals we should really be valuing. I’m also not saying that Money itself is evil. Rather, I’m just reiterating the old adage: THE LOVE OF MONEY is the root of all evil. (Emphasis added.)

So how does that relate to my last post on Lessons from my Polish grandparents? Certainly, grandma and grandpa weren’t hippies living off the land. They worked difficult factory jobs and were very careful with what little money they did make. However, they managed to live within their means. They did not take on much, if any, debt. In a practical sense, money was a tool to maximize on the human and social capitals around them. (For them, environmental capital was maximized as a by-product of lifestyle choices resulting from their focus on the latter capitals.) They saved for their modest retirements and made sure there was enough to keep the household healthy in the meanwhile. They practiced the strategies of recycling, reusing and reducing to help ensure that living within their means was possible. From grandma and grandpa I learned that living within ones means could be a path to a humane existence. From the sustainability movement, I learned that the environment has limits and living within its means is a matter of utmost importance. Grandma and grandpa would hardly consider themselves ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’ but they had the essentials right anyway – long before their punk-ass grandkids made a film about it.

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Lessons from my Polish Grandparents

Grandpa and Grandma, circa 1948

reUtica the film opened with a dedication to our grandfather, John Ossowski. As a figure in my life, Grandpa was a bit like the sky – ethereal, somewhat distant but always present. He was born in a different time, a different place, a truly foreign set of circumstances I was fortunate enough to have been spared. Grandpa turned 16 in the Nazi-occupied Poland of 1940. He came of age just in time to be conscripted into slave labor. From what little was shared to me about his life during that period, I came to understand that he (and many men like him) were separated from their families, forced to dig trenches at gun point, and barely ate enough food to survive. I am truly humbled when I consider my own problems at age 16. I just wanted to fit in with the boys at school who had nice cars.

My grandfather died about a year after I moved to Portland, OR. During the week leading up to his death, it became very clear that the end was near. On the morning of the day he died, my father left me a cryptic voicemail and said he was heading to the hospital. Unable to reach my father, I called my brother. He got the word, too, and was heading to the hospital. I sat and cried for a moment in my downtown Portland office. There was simply nothing I could do but wait. I started looking for flights home. The day passed by with no news and I decided to go for a run after work. I thought it would help me gather my thoughts and strength for what was most certainly bad news to come. I remember the end of that run in particular.

My mind often wanders when I’m doing something repetitive, like running. Sometimes I have delusions of grandeur – like running with the elite runners at the Boilermaker. Sometimes I imagine that I’m on a horse, blazing through the forest. This day was no different, my run was full of grandeur and horses, just until the very end. As I cooled down to a moderate walking pace, turned off my music and removed my ear buds, I remember a sense of peace coming over me. In my mind’s eye, I saw my grandfather smiling at me. He then gave me a small velvet satchel that clinked a little as I cupped it in my hand. I wondered what it could be. Grandpa was a man of very modest means, and never handed over velvet satchels of anything. Still, it was comforting at that time to believe that I had been gifted by his presence, even being 3,000 miles from home.

When I returned to my desk, another voicemail was waiting for me. While I was on my run, Grandpa died.

My mind has returned to that last imagined moment time and time again. I’ve come to understand that the precious metal in the satchel is really the wisdom Grandpa imparted to me through witnessing his lived experience. He knew about what was really important in life. He survived the collapse of the Western world of his time. Moreover, he knew how to survive with his humanity intact. His efforts sustained the lives of 4 generations of my family – from my great-grandmother who lived with us when I was a child, to me, his son’s son. The nuggets of wisdom inside the satchel were lessons about living within your means, growing food at home, collecting rainwater, making your own wine, reusing things until they are really worn out, being creative with what you have, being kind to your family…and these are just a few of the lessons from my Polish grandparents. Our family is still fortunate enough to have grandma with us, so the lessons still have a living teacher.

When I look to the future, with all the dire reports on political, social, economic and ecological fronts, at best I can say that things are uncertain. The lessons from my Polish grandparents were forged during a time of great upheaval and proven themselves to be useful in maintaining a basic, humane and healthful existence. They transcended the aftermath of World War II in Europe, remained stable through the ramping up of the consumer era in America during the 1950’s, rode through the tumultuous 1960’s and 1970’s, stayed calm during the 1980’s and 1990’s, and provided a modest sanctuary during the first decade of the 21st century. Now more than ever we need to relearn and live these lessons. Making reUtica put me back in touch with this legacy. After all, the strategies espoused by the sustainability movement align remarkably well with the practices of generations past. Moving forward, I’d like to use this blog to reflect on these lessons and welcome readers to share your stories – the wealth of wisdom gleaned from your own families and people. And let’s make these stories come alive again by exploring ways to move forward with them.

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Watch reUtica now…


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After the MWPAI showing…

Last night, over 100 people ventured out on a COLD Tuesday night to hear about progress on rust2green and watch reUtica.  No worries if you couldn’t make it out – you can watch reUtica on

So here’s a nugget for a discussion…could we create and sustain a Regional ReUse Center (for building materials, school and art supplies, tool-lending, workshops, etc.) for the Oneida-Herkimer County area?

What if we could work towards a social enterprise model (like the one Our United Villages uses) and fund our own community-building initiatives?

What kinds of things would we like to see happen in our community, to strengthen the social fabric of our neighborhoods, increase public safety, support our youth, _________(fill in the blank)?

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…well, almost. 

Still, I’m giddy with excitement as I write this. It seems like ever since I got off the plane on Thursday night, I’ve been at TW Video Productions in Utica, NY with my brother Matt. We’ve been editing footage from Portland and Utica and weaving together an inspirational story. Up until now, the editing process was done remotely – Matt was working with the equipment in Utica and I was sending him feedback via email and phone from Portland. I’ve never actually been part of the film editing process before, so this was a learning experience for me. At first, it’s a little weird looking at your friends and family frozen in the middle of a word and then inhaling it slowly in reverse to just the right moment for the cut. But after a while, reversed English doesn’t sound like the language of the demonically possessed and you get a sense for the real craftsmanship it takes to make a film.

Although the finished film is less than 24 hours old, it’s already attracted some media attention. Here’s a link to an article in Utica’s independent paper, The Utica Phoenix.  Honestly, I’m flattered with the positive feedback I’ve received from folks in Utica and Portland about this project.  I hope the film meets everyone’s expectations – and I hope some positive actions will follow.

I’ll post again once the link to the film is available.  Matt is working on that as I write this.   (Go Matt! – he’s my editing/compressing/uploading video-hero!).  And once again, the film will be shown at the Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, NY on Tuesday, December 14th following a short presentation by Rust2Green at 6:30pm.  Come on out and see it in person on the big screen!

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Film Release and Synopsis

reUtica will be shown on Tuesday, December 14th at 6:30PM at the Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, NY. This screening is free and open to the public.

reUtica is a collaborative work by two Utica-born brothers, Matt and John Dean Ossowski. This short documentary explores sustainability-focused community initiatives in Portland, OR. The viewer is invited to explore these options with the filmmakers and consider how they might translate into viable alternatives for urban development in Utica.

Shot over the course of two months between Portland, OR and Utica, NY, this film features two successful Portland-based programs, Our United Villages and Groundwork Portland. Through in-depth interviews and compelling local footage, the viewer will learn how the reUse of local assets can produce complimentary social and environmental benefits.

Our United Villages operates as a self-sustaining social enterprise that provides affordable, reUsed building materials and community outreach to neighborhoods in the Portland metro area. Groundwork Portland promotes community-led redevelopment of brownfield areas in low-income neighborhoods. Together these social innovations reflect key concepts laid out in the Utica City Master Plan 2010. The film specifically addresses Housing & Neighborhood Development and other themes important to the Utica community, such as environmental sustainability and public safety.

By reUsing existing infrastructure, embracing history and shifting perspectives, reUtica affirms that green initiatives can take root with minimal cost and high return. While new technologies may play an important role in a sustainable future, they will need a receptive and engaged community to be successful. By first leveraging human, social and natural capital, communities can speed the reinvention of the great little American city. As a former rust-belt town, Utica is ideally positioned to maximize these innovative models and move towards a green future.

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Film Update

The week of November 14th was a hectic, whirlwind experience.  My brother, Matt (an experimental filmmaker from Utica, NY), arrived in Portland and went to work almost immediately.  Matt and I traveled all around Portland interviewing folks involved in sustainability-focused community building projects.  Matt also turned his lens on other highlights of the area – including a shipwreck on the Oregon Coast.  (I’m not promising that footage will make it into the film, you’ll have to see the finished product to find out!)

With filming essentially done, the hard work of editing and fine-tuning the story has begun.  This process is a little more complex than it could be, because Matt has since returned to Utica and I remain in Portland.  Still, we’re working together via e-mail and sharing a quick call when we can catch each other.  I’ve planned my holiday trip to Utica so Matt and I will be in the same ZIP code again after December 13th.  Most likely, we’ll do some last minute touches before our anticipated final release date of December 15th.

Speaking of which, I hope you’ll be as excited to see this film as Matt and I have been about putting it together.  Look for it on youtube – and other venues in Utica (TBA).  I’ll be posting more about where you can see the film as the release date nears.  In the meanwhile, stay tuned and enjoy the changing seasons!

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