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

I’m done with triggered

11.7.15_Horse_620w

The word, triggered, is much in use lately. My son uses it to mock me when I get upset about something. Kids use it to mock each other, probably without understanding its origins and meanings.

Like many phrases or words that rise to a status of overuse, its origins were murky to me until I did an online search. The term, trigger, comes from trauma work and the study of what triggers a PTSD episode. Trigger warnings first appeared on online feminist and social justice forums discussing traumatic subjects like sexual assault and violence. Fair enough. There is now a debate in university circles as to whether course material and assigned readings should or should not come with a trigger warning. For intelligent arguments on both sides, see here and here. Continue reading

Money, politics, and the timely reminder to reserve our energy for what matters

1987_8.2_Agrigento-Temple-of-Juno_620w

A fellow Baltimorean who has been a tireless and effective advocate for housing policy reform is calling it quits for lack of funding. Driven by her own sense of justice, she has helped countless elderly folks avoid eviction and called attention to the disgusting inequities in Baltimore housing. A wise man said recently that people have long known how to profit off exploiting poor people. He said, when we can figure out how to profit off helping the poor, well, then. Look out.

It disgusts me that these things always come down to money. But this is not a post about the sacred energy of money or the power of intention or of positive thinking or the secrets of manifesting wealth. This is a rant about politics, a topic I normally avoid. I saw Maryland Congressman Elijah Cummings speak last night. He considers himself an ordinary man who has had extraordinary experiences by the grace of God and his own hard work. Pity that he is the exception rather than the rule. Continue reading

The vision, uncertainty and hard work of moon shots

Kenyon-College_620

This morning, spin class started with mash-up song of Kennedy’s 1962 Rice University speech about expanding the space program. We sprinted up a hill, fueled by these rousing words:

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas? We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”

I resolved on the spot to listen to this every morning before starting work. What better way to get psyched up for the day’s challenges? It does make me wonder why our politicians don’t talk to us like that anymore. It’s become unpopular to tell people the truth about anything, or to promise that something will be hard. Ever since President Carter’s 1977 “MEOW” (“moral equivalent of war”) talk during the energy crisis, our leaders have been skittish to tell us the truth.

And no wonder. Carter’s talk opens with: “Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you, about a problem that’s unprecedented in our history. . . . It’s a problem that we will not be able to solve in the next few years, and it’s likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century.” Man! Talk about a downer! He should have studied Kennedy’s oratorical techniques. President Kennedy spun his dazzling vision and inspired people to hurl themselves into the unknown, with only the promise of a lot of hard work and no guarantee of success. Continue reading

How “The Revenant” falls short: storytelling our way back to belonging

2.15.15_Winter woods_620w2

In his Oscar acceptance speech last February for “The Revenant,” Leonardo DiCaprio goes through the usual list of thank-you’s, then launches into weightier matters:

“Making ‘The Revenant’ was about man’s relationship to the natural world, a world that we collectively felt in 2015 as the hottest year in recorded history. Our production needed to move to the southern tip of this planet just to be able to find snow.”

DiCaprio has been a passionate and articulate spokesman on climate change for at least ten years, ever since his ponderous narration of the film, “Eleventh Hour,” in which he appears dressed in black, with an overly sober, almost frightening demeanor and message of: “You people are bad; clean up your act.” 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

Dr. King and the here-there-everywhere magic of listening

MLK_monument_620w

“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.” ~ Winston Churchill

“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.” ~ Epictetus

In acting or Improv, accurate listening comes from the heart. The great actor Alan Rickman went so far as to say, ““Acting is about accurate listening.” As an expression of deep connection, listening goes so deep that boundaries and agendas are forgotten. The action, the emotion, the words between two or more people take on a fluid quality that erases individual egos. You turn yourself over to the moment, surrendering to it and to your scene partners with complete trust. You are an instrument being played by a mysterious force, a gong rung by the wind. Continue reading

Thatching our way to a new story of relationship

Polly house compositeI made these sketches for my longtime collaborator and friend, Polly Bart. After a couple of decades as a green builder, she is building a house for herself using all natural and salvaged materials, including trees harvested from her land, strawbale walls, a green roof, and—possibly best of all—a thatched roof over the main living room’s steeply pitched log structure. Last month, the master thatcher came from Ireland to put up the roof. The photos of it are stunning. (Scroll down this post for a slideshow of six images, or follow this link for more.)

This morning, I awoke from a dream of her roof, thinking about the differences between a roof like this and conventional construction. Modern construction technology favors industrial materials put up in layers, each with its specialized purpose: structure, enclosure, water shedding, waterproofing, insulation, and to bridge and/or seal thermal movement of the different materials. Thatch, by itself, takes care of all of those purposes save the structure. Great skill and long training are required to do it correctly. Continue reading

We are all blind men describing an elephant

Climate_hoax

I had an exchange on social media after the Paris climate talks, a back and forth of articles and videos with an acquaintance who challenged the veracity and conclusions of what’s known as “accepted” climate science. I let myself be annoyed by his posts, dismissing them as straw men. (The book and film, “Merchants of Doubt,” shows that many of them are). Among the challenges to climate science, the one I find most absurd is that scientists are after big government grants, so they’ll say anything. It’s just not persuasive when you consider that it’s usually leveled by those who DO have a financial stake—like the Koch brothers and others in the fossil fuel biz.

Then I had to laugh. Here I was defending science, when I’m more inclined to question its assumption of human exceptionalism and elevation of reason to exalted status over intuition. Rupert Sheldrake’s book, Science Set Free, shows that modern science, for all its value and rigor, has gotten so dogmatic as to be almost fundamentalist in its stridency. Anything that doesn’t fit the accepted paradigm of materialism is ignored, dismissed, and labeled “anti-science.” Data that doesn’t fit the expected outcome is shoved into a file drawer and not published. Continue reading