Challenging the Dreamers: Ta’Nehisi Coates on the deadly power of stories

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With the fiercely honest, gorgeous language storm that is Between the World and Me, Ta’Nehisi Coates offers no prescriptions, plans or programs. He simply holds up the chipped, tarnished mirror that we call “civilization” to show us what he calls “the dream.” I love this book. It has broken my heart in a way that few books have. It has cracked me open and turned me upside down. To say that it challenges my assumptions about the state of race relations in this country is as far off the mark as saying that Silent Spring is a book about songbirds.

It’s not a long book and yet it contains everything. Worlds, galaxies, histories, ancestors. Having lived for the past twenty-five years in Baltimore, I enjoyed listening to the recorded version, hearing his words in his Baltimore-tinged voice. Even though I’m well aware that his Baltimore was vastly different from mine, a tiny part of me feels connected. So many thoughts, reactions, fears, despairs, and hopes are swirling in my body in this moment—a sure sign that this is one of those books that changes everything. I will listen again and then read it too and insist that everyone I encounter read it. It’s that important. Continue reading

Portland, Baltimore, denial, disruptive change and the stages of grief

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Years ago, I read a little book of philosophy called Too Soon Old, Too Late Smart, by Gordon Livingston. It’s organized into thirty pithy and helpful truths. Number fifteen is this: “Only bad things happen quickly.” I have a little game I play with myself whenever I think of this maxim (which is pretty frequently, even over ten years later). I theorize good things that could happen suddenly, as if even one would somehow undermine the truth of it.

The fact is that many bad things do happen suddenly and catastrophically. Earthquakes, for instance. Living in Maryland, that’s not something we have to worry about. Although we actually had one a few years ago, it was small and brief. What would it be like to have this complacency suddenly shaken by new science, as happened with the recent New Yorker article about the Cascadia Subduction Zone? This unstable tectonic plate off the coast of Oregon and Washington is apparently overdue for a major disruption. Both states boast cities and towns burgeoning with hipsters and tech companies, excellent coffee and vital industry, great music, agriculture, wine, and an embarrassment of natural wonders. An entire civilization has sprung up in the quiet interval since the last earthquake-and-tsunami in January of 1700. Continue reading

“Gone Girl” has me wondering: can’t the good guys win once in a while?

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Two of summer’s greatest pleasures are travel and reading. Immersion into an unfamiliar place or a well-told story offers glimpses of the cultural mood. I just returned from a trip to Oregon, home of the Cascadia Subduction Zone recently featured in a brilliant New Yorker article. I’m incubating a blog post on the power and guises of denial, but it’s not ready yet. On the lighter side, I also read two thrillers: Second Life and Gone Girl. Both are page-turners that linger after dark endings. They also throw some of the more insane aspects of modern life into stark relief. [Spoiler alert: if you plan to read either of these, you might want to stop now.]

Gone Girl, as you likely already know, is a chilling psychological study of a sociopath and the lengths to which our need for love and belonging will drive us. Especially in the first half of the book, the author Gillian Flynn includes well-observed details of the post-recession, post-NAFTA, post-supply-side-economies of Middle America (short version: it’s all in ruins). She also dramatizes the downhill slide of an entire profession—journalism—wasted by computers, the Internet, and the ubiquitous DIY culture. Continue reading

The Muse is my client: thoughts on writing and architecture


“Acknowledging that the first draft is the equivalent of a sculptor going down to the quarry to buy a big slab of marble, or a mason buying a skid of bricks and 100 pounds of mortar is a very difficult thing to do.” ~ Shawn Coyne

It takes longer to write a novel than to design and build a good-sized building. Something like a church might take three or four years, start to finish. Apartments or a university classroom building maybe two-and-a-half. A house is more like a novella in size, but can take just as long, depending on complexity and how decisive or demanding the client is. A kitchen addition is a short story. It can be done in eight or ten months, give or take.

What is the use of writing a book? A building shelters thousands of people for decades, if not generations. It touches lives. It affects people. Even a bad building—say, a Target or a WalMart—serves a useful purpose. The literary equivalent might be a Nicholas Sparks novel, which is maybe why you see racks of them at stores like that. A few great buildings rise above, delighting us with their artfulness and lasting for hundreds of years. These are lovingly restored from time to time, and contain deep cultural, social and political histories. Continue reading

Rolling Bubble

On the way to the neighborhood
Fourth of July parade,
I saw a soap bubble
the size of a small cantaloupe
rolling down the faded center line
of the rain-slick street.
A perfect rainbow orb, running free, until
I pierced it with my glance.
Playing that moment from memory,
I watch the bubble float from origins unknown
over a tall, newly-clipped hedge,
descend over the eastbound lane
and land with intention on the painted yellow line.
My memory also reveals
that by the time I noticed what was happening—
a good-sized soap bubble
rolling down the middle of a wet street—
in that very instant,
it burst.
I asked my husband,
Did you see that bubble rolling down the street?
He had just missed it.

In search of maps for the territory ahead


“For Plato, the allegory of the cave implied a journey beyond the realm of the body and the senses to the realm of immaterial ideas. But its meaning has been hijacked. For materialists, objective reality is not the realm of ideas but mathematicized matter. In the modern version of this allegory, scientists alone can step out of the cave, observe reality as it is, and come back into the cave imparting some of this knowledge to the rest of humanity, confused by rival subjectivities. Only scientists can see reality and truth. The philosopher, and later the scientist, have to free themselves from the tyranny of the social dimension—public life, politics, subjective feelings, popular agitation, in short, from the dark cave—if they want to accede to truth. Back within the cave, the rest of humanity is locked into the realm of multiculturalism, conflict, and politics.” ~ Rupert Sheldrake, Science Set Free

Years ago, I had a fascinating conversation with my nuclear physicist uncle, who spent his career on fusion (the way the sun works), rather than fission (which is how commercial nuclear power is produced). I asked him how he could consider nuclear power to be “clean” energy, when it produces radioactive waste that we hardly know what to do with—other than bury it in sacred mountains and saddle future generations with the problem. He stated that President Carter had ruined the purity of the science by agreeing via treaty never to reprocess spent fuel. The way it was designed originally, spent fuel could be recycled virtually ad infinitum and fed back into reactors, thereby creating a closed loop. (This is my own layman’s interpretation.) He was well and truly offended that politicians would meddle in things they don’t understand. Continue reading