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Why the Fools Flotilla matters

2014 Fools Flotilla, photos by Ray Pfeiffer Komifoto

We have wheels made specifically for rolling a canoe on pavement. My two kids are small enough they can both ride in the canoe to be pulled the 0.42 miles from our house to the Yahara River for the annual floating parade. They look forward to canoe rides of all kinds, happy to wear their life-jacket outfits and play with big-stick-practice-paddles. The oldest has memories of past Flotillas. 

The Fools Flotilla was started by a friend of mine, so the first year I went for her, to be supportive. This year I actually had fun. The kids are not so small anymore, so I relaxed and enjoyed the atmosphere instead of fretting about tipping over or pinching little fingers. We All had fun.

But those other years, I wondered a little why we were doing it. It is my kind of thing - costumes, community show of funkiness, nature + culture. And yet it's some work to get the family wrangled on a Sunday morning for organized fun. I think now it matters for these reasons, if not more:

1.  It's a holiday. Many of the holidays we celebrate are prescribed, defined, and constrained by a variety of things. We are not necessarily celebrating what we truly believe. Yet for as long as anyone can remember, people have celebrated holidays. It seems like part of what makes us human. I like that for my family, we have a few holidays that are not on the regular calendar, but that do what holidays are supposed to do as far as I'm concerned: mark the passing of a year, take us out of our normal routine, bring us together with people we enjoy hanging out with, and remind us of the beautiful things in life. In this case, the Fools Flotilla is a way for my family to say we value our river and green space in our neighborhood, we see connections between art and nature, and we are not opposed to dressing silly, making a scene, and living creatively.

2. We need visionary community leaders. These are not the people who are doing very important jobs to deal with urban issues, conduct studies to plan development, find and manage money, and keep the place working. We live in the First World, we assume things work, we complain about our First World problems, and we have hobbies. What gets people excited is a vision in action. People show up to be part of it, and it's because visionary leaders are catching us in the gut, helping us to see what we, too, believe is a better way. I love that the Fools Flotilla is growing - there were more than 50 boats in the river this year - organically, building an audience of fans along the banks and on the bridges. It's not huge, but it's gaining a real, organic momentum that will, I think, be critically influential in the coming years as big decisions are made about the future of the neighborhood and city. This TED talk is about how great leaders inspire is worth watching. 

3. Creativity is contagious and temporary art is memorable. Madison's BLINK program, funded by the Madison Arts Commission, is founded on the truth that ephemeral public art makes a big mark on individuals and a place (in contrast to the traditional public art that looked like a famous and now-dead leader riding a horse). I personally remember art that surprises me, makes me smile, leaves me feeling like I had an experience. The Fools Flotilla inspires us who get in boats, at least, to push our own boundaries of creativity. Some people decorate their boats, other people decorate themselves, their kids, or their pets. I think all of us enjoy having creative outlets, we all benefit from being exposed to more expressions of creativity, and it's really cool when families find ways to make art together.

4. It's playful. It's good for adults to have an excuse to play. I loved pounding on my canoe like it was a drum when the surge of boats passed under the bridges. The huge, collective echo-beat was awesome. The band played songs like "Row Your Boat" we could all shout along to. I was so swept up in the big game of it all, I was shocked when I looked at my watch. I had been in the flow, having fun, playing right alongside my kids and my husband. Another TED talk here by Csikszentmihalyi, who figured out that flow makes people happy.

So now I'm fully on board. I joined the River Alliance of Wisconsin, I'm talking up the Flottila at community meetings, and I'm keeping the memories alive with my kids. Have you been to May Day in Minneapolis? It started small, too.

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