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Polis Selected As Spotlight Small Business of the Month

San Francisco Office of Small Business Selects Polis as March 2014 "Spotlight Business"

San Francisco Office of Small Business Selects Polis as March 2014 “Spotlight Business”

Polis Founder, Mary Finn

Polis Founder and Director, Mary Finn

San Francisco’s Office of Small Business Selects Polis as Spotlight Business of the Month

March 2014
OSB client Mary Finn recently visited the Office of Small Business for assistance with her business start-up. Mary sits down with us for our March “Client Spotlight”…


Q: What type of business do you own and what makes you unique?

A: Your life is busy, but is it full?  The idea for Polis started with this simple but provocative question.  We believe that a vibrant adult community and an active life of the mind are the ingredients of a life well lived. Yet, it can be difficult for the busy adult to find the time and space to cultivate community and dive deeply into learning something new.

Polis is in the business of intentionally building a thriving adult community in San Francisco through high-quality education experiences designed for the busy adult. We offer seminar style classes focused on a wide variety of works of literature, art, science, history, and philosophy. We seek to make engaging with the liberal arts and sciences fun, easy, and flexible.

Our instructors are experts in their fields but they are, first and foremost, expert teachers and facilitators. All Polis courses meet from 7:00-8:30 PM, our classes are centrally located in the Mission District close to BART and MUNI, and we offer one time classes as well as multi-session courses. Polis courses are inexpensive and accessible to adults from all walks of life and education backgrounds.  Best of all, at Polis there are no tests or papers due!

Q: How was the Office of Small Business involved in assisting you?

A:  I am so fortunate that I found the Office of Small Business just as I was starting Polis.  I have taken advantage of so many of the services that the Office suggested for me as a new small business owner.  Specifically, I have taken courses and sought one- on-one advice from the SF SCORE program, I have consulted the Legal Services for Entrepreneurs, and I was accepted as a client into the SBDC small business coaching program. Through the SBDC coaching program I have the ongoing opportunity to work with a business development coach who has helped me to make decisions about the direction of the business along the way. I have benefitted tremendously from the support I have received and I am so thankful to the Office of Small Business for the advice and recommendations for services.

Q: Top 3 reasons for being a small business owner in SF?

1) Unlimited opportunity for creativity

2) Polis is a community-focused business and as a resident of San Francisco it is important to me that the business be rooted where I live and work.

3) When I created Polis I set out to “scratch an itch”. I could not find a business in San Francisco that was able to fulfill my needs for both in-person community and meaningful, high-quality, accessible learning opportunities in the liberal arts and sciences. I created Polis to build the type of community that I want to be a part of in San Francisco.

Polis courses are held at BART accessible locations throughout San Francisco. The majority of classes are held at the Women’s Building located at 3543 18th St., San Francisco.

(202) 746-8807 |


Happy Valentine’s Day, Book Lovers!

Happy Valentine’s Day, Book Lovers!

Last night at Polis we had a lively class on two love poems by William Carlos Williams (accompanied by a delicious selection of dessert beers from our friends at Healthy Spirits beer store).  In a nod to Valentine’s Day, our class was co-lead by two “scholars in love”.  At the start of the class Anton and Inga shared with the group that they read the William Carlos Williams poem “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” at their wedding ceremony. The group of 13 students jumped into analyzing and discussing that poem as well as “The Ivy Crown“.  Class participants grappled with topics ranging from forgiveness and love, old love vs. young love, and male pronouncements of love vs. those of women. Together, we looked to the poems to help us to better understand the various textures and shapes that love can take in a lifetime.

Last night, a student shared with the group:

I am here in class tonight because I want to know how to better read and understand poetry. I also want to know how to better understand love!”.

In “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower“, William Carlos Williams wrote :

I have learned much in my life from books and out of them about love.”

Books can provide us with examples of how to live in love. They also provide us with many examples of love gone bad!

On this Valentine’s Day, we wanted to share a brief and whimsical list of books, writings, and resources on the notion of love.

Enjoy (and eat some chocolate today— you deserve it!)

On Love…

From our friends at Brainpickings: “Modern Love: History’s Most Beautiful and Timelessly Bewitching LGBTQ Love Letters”

 And “Why We Love Books: 5 Books on The Psychology of Love

Check out this hilarious (and informative!) blog about an intimate life lived with books: Books Are My Boyfriends

The San Francisco Public Library has a terrific blog dedicated exclusively to the main library’s 6th Floor (the SF History Center). The Valentine’s edition of  the blog features an incredible photo from the archives. Check it out!

The Telegraph has a wonderful article in today’s paper titled, “Valentine’s Day Poems” in case you are in need for a last minutes poem for your loved one.




Time Magazine names it’s Top Ten Romantic Books of All Time



Sign Up for a Polis Class…

We are excited to announce our early Spring 2014 course offerings.

Check back on Monday 2/17 to find out what we’ve got in store for March and April!

How Long Have I Got Left?

What does it mean to contemplate death? Does thinking about death help us to live more fully? Can we ever really be prepared for the eventuality of death? What does it mean to live a good life knowing that our days are numbered?

Polis students asked these (and other) questions in our fall courses on Joyce’sThe Dead”, Montaigne’s essays, and Tolstoy’s, “The Death Of Ivan Ilych”.

Unintentionally, each of the  texts in our fall Polis courses has death as a theme.  Who would have thought that it could actually be enjoyable to sit at a seminar table with a group of strangers and dig deeply into questions about mortality? The craft beer selections certainly helped to make the atmosphere a little bit more festive in the midst of these otherwise weighty themes!

Discussing literature and philosophy can serve an important role in our lives. Dialogue about big ideas can be a catalyst for reflection about living  in the face of an acknowledgment of mortality.

Living a Full Life. How Should We Spend Our Time?

This Sunday’s New York Times included a thought-provoking Opinion piece about what it means to live with an acceptance of death. The author, a 36-year-old neurosurgeon at Stanford was recently diagnosed with lung cancer. He contemplates what it means to live his life with the certainty that he is going to die but the continuing uncertainty of when.

The author’s first and most persistent question upon learning his diagnosis is rooted in a deep desire to know, “How long do I have left?”. Somehow, he thought, knowing an answer to this question would give him a rudder about how to live well.

The author considers his choices for how to spend his time:

In a way, though, the certainty of death was easier than this uncertain life. Didn’t those in purgatory prefer to go to hell, and just be done with it? Was I supposed to be making funeral arrangements? Devoting myself to my wife, my parents, my brothers, my friends, my adorable niece? Writing the book I had always wanted to write? Or was I supposed to go back to negotiating my multiyear job offers?

He struggles with and works to elucidate his sense of “acuteness” in knowing that he is going to die.

I began to realize that coming face to face with my own mortality, in a sense, had changed both nothing and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.

The author’s courage to publicly grapple with his feelings about his own mortality is commendable. The piece brings readers into contact with so many of the themes about living and dying that arose in our Polis classes last semester.

How Can Literature and Philosophy Guide Us?

In Montaigne’s essay, “To Philosophize is to Learn How to Die”  the author challenges his reader:

Wherever your life ends, it is all there. The utility of living consists not in the length of days, but in the use of time; a man may have lived long, and yet lived but a little. Make use of time while it is present with you. It depends upon your will, and not upon the number of days, to have a sufficient length of life. Is it possible you can imagine never to arrive at the place towards which you are continually going? and yet there is no journey but hath its end. And, if company will make it more pleasant or more easy to you, does not all the world go the self-same way? Does not all the world dance the same brawl that you do? Is there anything that does not grow old, as well as you? A thousand men, a thousand animals, a thousand other creatures, die at the same moment that you die.

The group discussion in our Montaigne class was focused primarily on what Montaigne meant by “living long, and yet lived but a little”.

How can we live a full and meaningful life despite it’s length?

In the short story, “The Dead”, James Joyce’s characters present a variety of ways to live in the shadow of the knowledge that we are going to die.

Joyce describes the protagonist, Gabriel Conroy’s, inner battle to accept the realities of his past:

He watched the scene and thought of life; and (as always happened when he thought of life) he became sad. A gentle melancholy took possession of him. He felt how useless it was to struggle against fortune, this being the burden of wisdom which the ages had bequeathed him.

Polis students askedCan we have a meaningful life even if we are “struggling against fortune”?  How much of life is ours to control and how much is beyond our reach?

In the “Death of Ivan Ilych”, Ivan is forced to reckon with his imminent mortality with a recognition that he has not lived the type of life he could have because he was too focused on the “ought’s” and “should’s” of other people’s expectations. Tolstoy writes:

Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,’ it suddenly occurred to him. ‘But how could that be, when I did everything properly?’ he replied, and immediately dismissed from his mind this, the sole solution of all the riddles of life and death, as something quite impossible.”

During the discussion of  Tolstoy’s work, a Polis student asked,I get it–he lived a life according to other’s expectations–but what is it that he would have done differently? What could have made Ivan feel that he had lived a full and good life as he lay on his death bed?”

Diving deeply into literature and philosophy won’t help us to find THE answer to questions about the good life and  an acceptance of death but discussions like those at Polis can help us to stop, briefly, on the treadmill of our daily routine and ask, “Am I living as I want to? Am I living as fully as I could? Am I adding meaning to my life and the lives of others?”

The philosopher Anaïs Nin writes: “There is not one big cosmic meaning for all; there is only the meaning we each give to our life, an individual meaning, an individual plot, like an individual novel, a book for each person.” – The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Vol. 1: 1931-1934

Our life as an individual novel, a book for each person.

Join us for a Polis class in February. Meet interesting new people, read something you’ve always meant to, and chew on the big questions of life.


Interested in Reading More?

I Do Not Fear Death“, Roger EbertSalon,Sept. 15, 2011

Living Well, According to Some of  the Wisest People Who Ever Lived“,Carolyn Gregoire, Huffington Post,Aug. 28, 2013

Anais Nin on the Elusive Nature of Joy“,Maria Popova, Brainpickings, Nov. 12, 2013

What Makes a Thriving City?

open book

Do you live in a great city?

5 billion people (60% of the world’s population) live in cities. I’ve been thinking quite a bit recently about what makes a city great. The people? The landmarks and cultural institutions? The politics? The ability to get around easily?

You may wonder why we’ve decided on the name Polis for our organization.

When I think about what makes a thriving city (or “the Polis”) some books and historical examples come to mind.

The sociologist and journalist Jane Jacobs wrote in her The Death of American Cities (1961) about what she called the “street ballet” of robust cities: the vibrancy and “choreography” of city streets that are alive with interaction.

If you haven’t read Pericles’ Funeral Oration in a while (or ever!) check it out with the question, “What makes a city?” in mind. I think of this speech as a timeless shout-out to the concept of the city.

In a recent post about what makes a city great (in his case, NYC), author Seth Godin came up with this list:

  • It’s different here (as in not the same)
  • You can find someone to have an argument with, about just about anything
  • There are fringes–cultural, educational, architectural, societal
  • More than 42 languages are spoken at the Queens public library
  • You can get something that’s not the regular kind
  • There are profit-seekers who will happily sell you something, anything
  • There are many who do things for no profit at all and will eagerly entertain, entrance and change you for the better
  • You will find a diversity of religious belief like no other
  • It’s changing
  • The food hasn’t been entirely homogenized
  • People are active
  • A stranger will go out of his way for you, perhaps, and more often than you expect
  • There is more information per minute, per meter and per interaction
  • Neighborhoods are more important than homogeneity, and co-existing is most important

In ancient Greece the idea of the polis was, in large part, meant to provide a space where ideas could be exchanged between people (though, of course not all people at that time) with differing perspectives. The thinking was that if people had a public space where they could appear, speak, and listen then the frailty that exists in human relationships would become that much stronger. Conversation would bleed into other parts of city life and make the city stronger overall. The sociologist Robert Putnam proposed a similar theory about modern American city life in his book Bowling Alone.

The Greeks used a phrase, “Wherever you go, you will be a polis”meaning, in essence, you are the city. 

Many philosophers and writers have grappled with the question, “What makes a city”?  The philosopher Hannah Arendt (mid- 20th century) saw the polis as an absolutely necessary part of what it means to be human. Arendt’s ideas about the polis have fundamentally inspired and shaped the founding of this organization (and we plan to offer a class on Arendt in the future!).

“The polis, properly speaking, is not the city-state in its physical location; it is the organization of the people as it arises out of acting and speaking together, and its true space lies between people living together for this purpose, no matter where they happen to be” (Arendt, The Human Condition, 198)

Arendt believed that the polis is the space and time where people come together, in public, and participate in what she referred to as “acts of disclosure” through a sharing of ideas. The city, according to Arendt, requires the spontaneity and unpredictability that is found in authentic (and sometimes messy) conversation.

At Polis we aim to be just that: A space where the unpredictable in conversation is encouraged. A chance for people with different perspectives to meet and talk about texts and ideas in spontaneous ways. A community that will strengthen the city.

Let’s take a look at the cities where we live. Here are a few questions that I’ve been thinking about and that have been floating around in the media recently. I don’t have answers to these but want to give readers some Friday food for thought and articles to read about the essential question, “What Makes A City?” (by the way, another feature of a Polis class is that we begin each session with an open-ended question as a means of starting the discussion).

What do you think makes a city great?

Join as for a Polis class. Courses start next week and there is still time to register.

Three Good Reasons

3 booksLife In The Polis: Needed Now More Important Than Ever

Last week we launched our first Polis courses and the response has been incredible.  Students are signing up for classes at a steady clip and we are all getting so excited for the first sessions to begin in just three weeks. There are still a few seats available in both classes- sign up today and spread the word  about Polis to friends and family in the Bay Area.

One of the major challenges that we face at Polis: How to convince adults who are busy and stretched thin that they need to take time out for a discussion class in the liberal arts?

In the midst of work deadlines, family obligations, errands, and of course our favorite TV series (with Breaking Bad ending and Homeland starting this Sunday- I am fully aware of the power that a good show can have on our time!):  Why should the busy adult consider a course in the liberal arts?

1) The Liberal Arts Can Make Us More Creative Thinkers:

Diving into a great book in the company of interesting people can have an impact on our lives well beyond the classroom. We become more expansive and creative thinkers in all of the other parts of our lives (by the way, Steve Jobs felt strongly about this fact). We build the mental muscle of creativity through the liberal arts. But, we don’t necessarily need to rely only a traditional university to be the gym for our minds.

Joseph R. Urgo, President of St Mary’s College of Maryland : We live in a data-driven era, where increasingly we do not want to make a move without a clear plan — a plan in advance that outlines goals, execution and results. True, almost all we do on a mundane, daily basis is done better by such systematic approaches. On the other hand, nothing stifles creativity and originality more effectively than such rational demands. The urge to control abstract, cognitive pursuits represents a cynicism about our existence, a loss of hope, an abandoning of the human spirit. The only antidote to despair is creation and intellectual revival, and this is the business of an unfettered liberal education.  Baltimore Sun, March 03, 2013

2)  Face to Face Conversation= True Connection

Many of us have hundreds of online connections (the average American has over 600 social connections!) but at the same time we feel that there is something missing. We sense that as we acquire more connections we are losing the quality of being known well. Sherry Turkle, MIT researcher and author of Alone Together, reminds us:

FACE-TO-FACE conversation unfolds slowly. It teaches patience. When we communicate on our digital devices, we learn different habits. As we ramp up the volume and velocity of online connections, we start to expect faster answers. To get these, we ask one another simpler questions; we dumb down our communications, even on the most important matters. It is as though we have all put ourselves on cable news. Shakespeare might have said, “We are consum’d with that which we were nourish’d by.”

3) Reading Literature (and Discussing It With Others ) Can Make Us More Empathetic and Patient:

Research on the long lasting impact of reading literature shows:

“Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, and Keith Oatley, a professor emeritus of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, reported in studies published in 2006 and 2009 that individuals who often read fiction appear to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and view the world from their perspective. This link persisted even after the researchers factored in the possibility that more empathetic individuals might choose to read more novels. A 2010 study by Mar found a similar result in young children: the more stories they had read to them, the keener their “theory of mind,” or mental model of other people’s intentions.”

Of course these are not the only reasons we need the liberal arts integrated into our daily lives. More to come in future posts!

What are the reasons that YOU think continued engagement with the liberal arts can lead to a life well lived?

We want to hear from you! What would you tell a friend who asks, “What can reading  books and talking about ‘big ideas’ do for me?”

Preparing for Fall 2013 Courses

scheduleWe are currently meeting with a range of teachers to set up an exciting Fall calendar. There are amazing ideas percolating at this very moment.

image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

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