Reclaiming the fierceness of sincerity from the armor of irony

We have all learned the hard way that email and social media can be tone deaf. It’s difficult to parse sincerity from irony and cynicism. I was reminded recently that this may happen in other forms of writing as well. In notes on a scene in which my characters make ironic reference to Ayn Rand’s John Galt, a friend questioned their sincerity. The scene plays overly pious and even deluded if these characters truly take John Galt as gospel. Ewwww. (How on earth did Rand get away with Galt’s 90-plus-page rant-slash-speech? I mean, really.)

In architecture school, we had a yearly Friday night showing of “The Fountainhead,” during which we hooted and threw popcorn at Howard Roark. What an egotistical windbag. Telling the difference between irony and sincerity is so much easier in person. Or is it? I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the spectrum between these two, and what mindset I bring to life’s difficulties. My teenage son keeps telling me I’m hopelessly naïve, which is his way of saying sincerity is uncool. Deeply uncool. Continue reading

Triumph of mythos over logos, or, Nate Silver is not all that

Leopard2_crop

Ordinarily, I don’t get very political on this blog. But these are extraordinary times. To many, the results of Election 2016 are unimaginable. The Day After played out like the inciting incident in a dystopian alternate-reality Netflix series about a dying civilization. Rural voters seem to have acted from fear and misinformation, and not simply willingness, but eagerness, to be lied to and manipulated. Shirley Jackson could not have written better.

Liberal elites, neo-libs, progressives—whatever label we claim—have not just been humbled. We have been brought low. Our country elected, by popular vote, the first woman president. But the crafty Framers set up the Electroal College to give rural voters a chance against urban elites. And, boy, did they prevail. So here we are, literally unable to imagine, using the rational mind, how it happened. I am an avid listener to the 538 Podcast, but not even Nate Silver is smart enough, nor his algorithm clever enough, to make sense of this.

So, let’s use imagination for something bigger than a futile attempt at rational understanding. Let’s tap into mythos, rather than rely on logos. From a mythic perspective, we just handed the reins of the most powerful country on earth, and the one with the largest per capita environmental footprint, to the Trickster god of Norse mythology. Continue reading

Reclaiming our stories and listening our way back to connection

2000_7.20_Uluru2_cropWhat a revelation. I saw the 22-year-old Baltimorean, Kondwani Fidel, perform his spoken word last evening. This is the power and potential of Art. To speak the universal language of the heart. To show, unsparingly, what is real, and true. To alchemize almost unbearable suffering into strength.

Not the false strength of righteous anger and bitterness. The unbreakable strength of an open heart.

Watching him, taken in by the rhythm of words, I was struck by his courage, the word itself derived from the Old French, coeur, meaning heart. His poetry was an offering of himself, a gift of story. His words shone with the raw material of struggle and honesty, polished by the thought and care of craft. Artistry transformed hard subjects all too often burdened with shame. His words reached me. Continue reading

Dear Roxane Gay: yes to unlikable, but no to unredeemable

2000_7.9_Whitsunday sunset_crop

In her essay, “Not Here to Make Friends,” Roxane Gay calls into question the gender double-standard that female protagonists can’t be unlikable, while literature, TV and film are full of male leads who are despicable—and we love them. It’s a fascinating and maddening situation that she tackles with aplomb. I’m enjoying all of the essays collected in her book, Bad Feminist, for how they make me think about the many ways that gender stereotypes show up (and are hidden) in our culture.

“Perhaps, then, unlikable characters, the ones who are the most human, are also the ones who are the most alive. Perhaps this intimacy makes us uncomfortable because we don’t dare be so alive.”

I do have some quibbles with this premise. Unlikable characters are certainly more realistic, and therefore more like us. They may be less relatable because we don’t want to see those traits, our shadow qualities that have been carefully hidden, or ruthlessly suppressed and denied. Still, I hold out that positive characters can be alive. A literary example doesn’t come immediately to mind, but Joanna Macy and the Dalai Lama are pretty interesting people. Continue reading

The Gordian knot of racism in “The New Jim Crow”

Ways of Seeing_620w

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” ~ Edmund Burke

In the 2007 film, “What a Way to Go: Life at the End of Empire,” the narrator brings up a phenomenon of environmental books that I’ve noticed, too. They all have about ten chapters of diagnosis, chronicling what’s wrong—species extinction, rainforest decimation, mountaintop removal, toxic chemicals in mother’s milk, melting polar sea ice, on and on. Then, in the 11th chapter, there’s a prescription of what we can do to reverse it, fix everything and restore our right relationship with the living earth. “It’s not too late” is always the message. That it comes at the end of about 200 pages of gloom and doom reflects a lack of sophistication about the human psyche. If you’ve even gotten that far, you’re not going to be convinced by a single chapter of platitudes about the indomitable human spirit. No, the preceding ten chapters will have convinced you that there is no hope. We are screwed.

I am left with a similar feeling after reading Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book, The New Jim Crow. I have to admire her for using all 261 pages for the diagnosis, not claiming to have answers or a prescription. Instead, she chooses to ask powerful questions, to spark debate and exploration. This is a huge book, not only for its dense narrative and 33 pages of footnotes. It is nothing short of a reassessment of American history: full of revelations, truth telling, and looking beneath the surface of cause and effect. I wish it could be required reading of every U.S. citizen. From the first pages, I saw just how duped, blind and irresponsibly ignorant I have been about the reality of the so-called War on Drugs. Continue reading

Different, therefore the same

11.7.15_Horse_620w

This guest post is by Megan Carlson. You can read a bit about her on the “Denizens” page.

When I was ten years old, a friend’s mom said—to my face—that she felt sorry for me because of how hard my mom worked. She was “worried about how I would turn out.” My mom, a graduate of Johns Hopkins Medical School and entering into a field, at that time, heavily dominated by men, was somehow an unfit role model for her daughter in the southern eyes of women in our community.

My parents, though, carried on in discarding gender roles. My dad had me in the lab with him on Saturdays running “experiments” at the age of six, and my mom decided to keep being a great physician despite the questioning looks and muttered concerns. However, in spite of their great efforts in molding a daughter who was fearless, I still had issues with confidence and self-doubt, something that was invisible to most. Luckily, my professors at Auburn and Clemson saw the weight of my insecurity bearing down on me, and day by day they chipped away at it until I discovered what it felt like to move freely. Continue reading

Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech shows the disconnecting effect of naked facts

2010_8.12_Brewster_620w

Thirty-six years ago, President Carter made a televised speech during prime time. It was a political disaster, and has since been called derisively the “Malaise Speech.” It’s available on YouTube, but I ran across it watching Michael Moore’s 2009 film, “Capitalism: a Love Story.” The speech is fascinating, in an anthropological kind of way. Carter looks so wooden and sincere up there, shaking his fist to occasionally animate his otherwise stiff body.

After telling his fellow Americans how upset he is about the low ebb of our national self-confidence, he launches into his advice. From the perspective of over twenty years in the green movement, his words are eerily familiar. He proposes using energy as a rallying point to renew America’s confidence and spirit, along with our economy. What was it about this bald truth-telling that equated to political suicide? He clearly did not display the gift of rhetoric that several of his successors did, but I think it was a deadly mixture of message and delivery that doomed him. Continue reading

Capitalism’s dark side: propaganda is not a story to live by

8.25.15_Knapps Narrows_620w

In politics and advertising, there’s an old saying: Whoever controls the story, wins. Campaign advisors speak of “framing” a story, of “getting ahead of” stories, “firing the first shot” against their opponent. This appropriation of Story to sell things—whether face cream or a financial bailout or a candidate—is a debasement of the magic and power of storytelling. One favored tactic is to reduce individuals to cartoonish generalizations, as some Presidential candidates are currently doing with immigration.

Michael Moore’s 2009 film about the financial crisis uses just the opposite technique, weaving a story from honest conversations with real people. “Capitalism: a Love Story,” is told in his signature quirky, gloves-off style. In the opening sequence, he intercuts an old classroom film about the Roman Empire with contemporary images of poverty, homelessness, backbreaking labor, and entertainments used to divert the people’s attention from the true state of things. It’s a brilliant commentary not only on how far we have fallen, but on where we might be headed if we don’t take an honest look at the stories we live by. Continue reading

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

Balog glacier_620w

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

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

7.16.15_Crater Lake2_620w

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