Friday, November 30, 2012

Vulnerability, Compassion and Community

I try hard to give off an air of confidence. It's a big part of my day-job, and I think it's a big part of my persona. I look like someone who's life is on track, who is not worried or anxious.

But it is not true! I do worry, and I am anxious - frequently.  And while I am generally very happy in my life, things are going my way mostly, that is a new story for me. 

Today a radio program featuring Brene Brown really spoke to me on this topic. I was reminded that my compulsion to show how busy I am, to seem in demand and confident, is a mechanism that protects me from shame. For example, I am ashamed of how much I play a video game, or how much I sit on the couch and watch old Family Guy episodes. I am ashamed that, as I write this, I am loading a nutty youtube. I fear the shame of criticism from others. So I project confidence, diligence, focus, and accomplishment.

Parents are forced to project confidence in front of children. Men and women project confidence to each other. Leaders cover their flaws with confidence. All of this has created a confidence culture, in which we avoid vulnerability

In truth, we are all vulnerable, and our vulnerability is a key to relationship and community. Our confidence forms into walls that isolate us, preventing us from being comforted or comforting someone else.  Our confidence instills a sense of independence that rejects the support of our relationships (that we desperately need, every one of us).

So open up! Fail at something! It still sucks to be vulnerable - sucks a lot - but you will be more available for the truth: we all need each other.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Promises to Grover

I don't usually write politics, but I heard some really remarkable commentary on the news today that touches on big ideas, big issues and commitments in a quickly evolving world.

haha, Grover
First some background. You may know about Grover Norquist, a conservative lobbyist for tax reform, and the promoter of a "No New Taxes" pledge that has been essentially required for any conservative politician for the last twenty years.

Like any political pledge, the lobby offers to support the candidates who sign the pledge with deep money and voter networking. On the flip side, any candidate who does not wish to sign the pledge, or who at any point contradicts the lobby, can expect negative press and a bitter, well funded challenger in subsequent elections. Norquist's pledge is considered one of the most pervasive and powerful. Over 95% of House Republicans have signed, and the lobby has nearly 1.0 success rate. Norquist himself has been considered a kingmaker.

But as the national financial problems grow, politicians on both sides have more and more reasons to disregard previous pledges and make compromises. This has led to a number of high-profile Republicans dissing Norquist by name, essentially calling for party support to end the pledge blockade.

Here's the interesting thing. A former Republican congressman and governor was discussing political pledges on a talk show. "I didn't sign them because these issues are really complicated, and they get more complicated as time goes on. My constituents elected me to make good decisions on their behalf in Congress, and I did not want to give away my freedom to do that."  What a basic understanding of our Democratic Republic.

Don't we all make promises?  Truth is, things change. In past decades maybe we could go a decade without our core assumptions about government or religion being challenged. But today new information and opportunities constantly and rapidly become available. I think that absolute pledges are relics. I think adaptability is a new virtue.

Today, let's make fewer promises. Grover is a roundabout way to think about how quickly our world changes, and how systems that worked in previous generations simply aren't able to keep up - like political lobbies. Let's make deeper, more meaningful commitments, to which we can return in our minds when the world challenges our assumptions (frequently).

Monday, November 26, 2012


I cannot hate you.
It seems like patience is an annual theme of mine. This year, my cause is the cute damn cats.  Our two kittens, Jane and Ava, have learned how to run from one side of the apartment to the other. They do so loudly, at 2am. I feel the worst for our downstairs neighbor, who works early in the morning. But they are plenty obnoxious to us, too. Ava likes scratching at our door at 5 to let us know that it's morning. Jane likes chasing her at a gallop.

We have tried using toys to make them tired all day, but we work so they have ample time to nap. And now they know how the laser pointer works. I really can't imagine spending money on toys for cats that are so much in the doghouse right now. But we know that they  cannot process their behavior as bad. Cats just don't work that way.

That's the lesson that comes from cats. My way of looking and learning and growing - often through negative reinforcement - does not translate to others. I am a unique flower, and other people, other cultures, and other species, do not communicate like I communicate.

Does that pose a problem to my big picture of the cosmos as a place where we all connect?  Yes and no.  I don't think that connection in itself is anthropocentric; I think all matter reflects connection as well as distance.

But I do try to put myself in my cats' point of view. When has the world tried to communicate with me, and I have been deaf and annoying? Who has tried to teach me something that I simply could not learn? How can I learn faster from the authorities in my life like the planet and the town and the family?

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Sunday Prayer

As you know, I've been on a Life of Pi kick this week, in part because of the new movie and research I did for an article at Policymic. The book has struck me (again) with the level of religious content. I'm particularly fascinated by how the author, Yann Martel, connects our different "habitats" - zoo enclosures, life boats, islands, and also religions as well as the realms of fictional and nonfictional storytelling. (From chapter 28):

I loved my prayer rug. Ordinary in quality though it was, it glowed with beauty in my eyes.... Wherever I laid it I felt a special affection for the patch of ground beneath it and the immediate surroundings, which to me is a clear indication that it was a good prayer rug because it helped me remember that the earth is the creation of God and sacred the same all over....

When I prayed, the short, unknotted tassels were inches from the tip of my forehead at one end of the carpet and inches from the tip of my toes at the other, a cozy size to make you feel at home anywhere upon this vast earth.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Giving Thanks

After a post-turkey blackout brought on by a multi-course feast for two, I have reflected on the many many good things in my life.

I am thankful for the basics: I have a job that I well like, and I have a home and food, and some friends and family. I feel secure and free. I have clothes enough, and hot water. I even have a car, and a good city.

These are more than things I have. These are opportunities that grow my life. Without the physical comforts I would not feel secure enough to write in my spare time, or to pursue other skills, or to nurture friendships. If I didn't have a shower I might not have many friends in the first place. If I didn't have a car I would have struggled to do any interviews, which expanded my point of view so radically.

I spoke with people who struggle with these basics. And while a cup of coffee is great in itself, the real joy comes from participating in the coffee shop. As Christmas comes up, I remember that participation in our culture (master-narrative) requires money. I am not struggling financially, and I am thankful to be able to enjoy a thanksgiving feast, or buy a book, or art, or some plants, or gifts for loved ones, or a cup of coffee. It all comes with a price tag.

So I give thanks for my ability to participate in our community. It is the struggle of my generation, and I'm doing pretty good.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Life of Piscene Patel

The trailer for Ang Lee's adaptation of Yann Martel's famous book The Life of Pi has been making waves because of its beauty. But the book deals more closely with religion, God, humanity, and the nature of storytelling than the compelling hijinks of surviving 277 days on a lifeboat with a Bengal Tiger.

 My copy of Life of Pi has collected dust for several years, so I dutifully re-read it in anticipation of the film. I was surprised at how deeply - and naturally - the book deals with a holistic faith life. Yann Martel has claimed that, until he wrote this book as a sort of Hail Mary pass for his writing career, he called himself a secular agnostic, that is, someone who is not particularly interested in the existence of God, but who can generally see both sides of the argument for God's existence. After researching the book using the holy texts of various religions he had a breakthrough in which he understood that the world's religions were best in unison, not in division.

As Pi Patel says in Chapter 25, "To me, religion is about our dignity, not our depravity."

There are always those who take it upon themselves to defend God, as if Ultimate Reality, as if the sustaining frame of existence, were something weak and helpless.... These people fail to realize that it is on the inside that God must be defended, not on the outside.

This point is key to the future of religious tolerance. Inter-religious dialogue - all dialogue - is rooted in the idea that we have more in common than separates us. Life of Pi reminds us that reality is much bigger than our ability to describe it, and that we should expect to be surprised. Pi Patel sees no problem in using every available brush to paint God, so he engages in Hindu, Muslim, and Christian rituals while safe in India, and calls to God in various languages while suffering in the Pacific. Martel comfortably employs the language of several religious philosophies.

Reality is not as fun.
The lasting value of The Life of Pi is in showing us how to comfortably inhabit larger and larger habitats. The first third of the book explains the finer points of zookeeping, with particular attention to the art of zoo enclosures. Then Pi comfortably inhabits different religious enclosures. Finally, as the tale of survival grows taller and taller, climaxing at the floating island, we the reader are asked whether we can give up our enclosure of pure fact and be comfortable in the wider habitat of narrative fiction.

Because any time we talk about God we tell stories like Yann Martel, or else we give the factual analysis that Pi finally surrenders to the Japanese interviewers.

Will Ang Lee's film deal with any of this? Unlikely. But since the book is about storytelling, we should feel deeply satisfied if the film carries us for a few hours. The previews promise at least that.

Monday, November 19, 2012


Floating in a sea of stars?
Fear of isolation continues to be a common theme of the interviews. Then I have been reading Life of Pi, which deals with isolation and categorization. Finally this morning I heard about Google's Milky Way Map, an interactive 'street view' of our galaxy, labeling and giving facts on over 100,000 stars. So...

I'm thinking about isolation lately.

That is a strange for me to write, though, because I don't actually feel isolated. I feel heard, loved, appreciated better than at any other point.  I'm feeling great, the opposite of isolated, and it's good!

I look at 100,000 Stars and I love them. I'm intrigued and impressed, I feel connected. Likewise, I read Pi and I see the ways in which the title character connects with the animals, the boat, the pens, his family, and God.

But I remember times that the thought of 100,000 stars would have made me feel so small and alone. I remember first reading Pi years ago and shrinking at the ocean.

I think ours is a time of great connectivity, with communities forming around all manner of causes and joys. But it is all in potential, and the first step toward engaging communities is the hardest. All the connectivity that the world provides us now means nothing to someone who has internalized their loneliness, their isolation, their feeling of unwelcome and un-belonging. That is the great fault committed by religious organizations - casting judgment and blocking entry to all but the most committed, supported faithful.

I think that is the true test of our communities. Can we connect to each other so earnestly that we are open to someone who only sees closed doors?

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Sunday Prayer

This week I wrote a quick piece for Policymic on the new Wizard of Oz sequel (prequel?). It looks good, but not that good. I remembered Salman Rushdie's take on that wonderful movie, the voice of Judy Garland, and the dream of escape over the rainbow.

So Oz finally became home; the imagined world became the actual world, as it does for us all, because the truth is that once we have left our childhood places and started out to make our own lives, armed only with what we have and are, we understand that the real secret of the ruby slippers is not that "there's no place like home," but rather that there is no longer such a place as home: except, of course, for the homes we make, or the homes that are made for us, in Oz, which is anywhere and everywhere, except the place from which we began.

In the place from which I began, after all, I watched the film from the child's - Dorothy's - point of view. I experienced, with her, the frustration of being brushed aside by Uncle Henry and Auntie Em, busy with their dull grown-up counting. Like all adults, they couldn't focus on what was really important to Dorothy: namely, the threat to Toto. I ran away with Dorothy and then ran back. Even the shock of discovering that the Wizard was a humbug was a shock I felt as a child, a shock to the child's faith in adults. Perhaps, too, I felt something deeper, something I couldn't articulate; perhaps some half-formed suspicion about grown-ups was being confirmed.

Now, as I look at the movie again, I have become the fallible adult. Now I am a member of the tribe of imperfect parents who cannot listen to their children's voices. I, who no longer have a father, have become a father instead, and now it is my fate to be unable to satisfy the longings of a child. This is the last and most terrible lesson of the film: that there is one final, unexpected rite of passage. In the end, ceasing to be children, we all become magicians without magic, exposed conjurers, with only our simply humanity to get us through.

We are the humbugs now

Friday, November 16, 2012

Bars are Good, Too

Earlier this week I embraced the joys of coffee shops. I think they are tools for community. But last night a friend mentioned that, in her expert opinion, bars are even better. Well I don't think I can argue with that.

Bars, public houses, taverns, pubs are much much older than coffee shops. Remember that human civilization had beer and alcohol from the earliest stages of communal agricultural development, but coffee was not widely embraced until the late Renaissance. And while it is true that the sober discussion of philosophy in coffee shops led to the development of Democratic ideals and the scientific revolution, I can't help thinking that it was less-than-sober discussions of oppression in Boston taverns that led to the American Revolution.

That was the key to our discussion last night. Bars promote turning points in our lives. You go in, meet with friends, get safely loose, and clarify your life problems. The alcohol reduces anxiety, which makes decision making easier. If you have good bar friends - that is, real friends who also like going to a bar - you will be held accountable to that decision.

Bless you, Chart Room
Case in point, the Chart Room is, for me, the place where things happen. It is one of the few French Quarter neighborhood bars, where most of the patrons are locals and the prices are good. The bartender Julia knows my name and my drink. And almost every time I go there something big happens: I have gotten a call for a promotion, I have interviewed for a job, I adopted cats, I got a new apartment, I quit my job, I found another job, I got sick, I got better....

I actually don't go there very often, because every time I go something happens. I went weekly when I waited tables in the Quarter, and now it is "my spot", even if I stay away for months (which is typical).

Maybe that is the essential joy of bars. Like coffee shops, you are welcome there, period. No one judges how often you come or how long you've been away. You can order whatever you want. You can strike a conversation or read or play poker. You can bring your friends or meet them. But, unlike coffee shops, the people at bars are relaxed, even talkative. If you can avoid the drunks, or getting drunk - easy to do with experience - bars are great places to make community. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Cleaning House

I don't think that I'm a "neat freak" by any stretch - I wear old shirts and play in the dirt.  But I draw deep satisfaction from cleaning, which is what we've been doing today.

I don't mean sweeping and laundry and dishes - that's standard operating procedure for day to day existence with cats and clothes and food. Today we woke up, made coffee, and emptied the fridge, scrubbed the walls, organized desk drawers full of receipts and random paperwork. I broke out some old paint cans and touched up the walls. And everywhere we went we found things to throw away.

For me, cleaning means filling a trash can.

Let me be clear - I like my possessions. Period. If I possess it, I like it. If I don't like it, I don't want it around. So if we haven't eaten that homemade preserves in a year, or if I haven't needed the warranty info for the cell phone, or if that paint brush just is not savable - trash can.

With less clutter, I feel more free to enjoy the possessions I do have, like this rock or that book or these clothes. Simplifying my life reduces ambient stress triggers, which gives me a little more energy to do things I like, like connecting with people and writing.

But I know that cleaning house is a choice.

I've met some really cool people lately, including a few travelers (or gutter punks) who have made the choice to forgo living in a house for this very reason. No, I'm serious, these folks have the money to live somewhere, they have enough work, and they mostly had families they could turn to, anyway. But they want to travel, meet new people, have rad experiences, and you can't do that if you are worried about year-old mason jars in the back of the fridge.

Removing objects from their lives made them feel free enough to remove more objects, and eventually remove habits, homes, and hometowns. And power to them - I frequently feel that urge.

But I like my house, and I like my life, and I like our possessions. The cost of those is cleaning, so I like my full trashcan.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Joys of Coffee Shops

interaction is a must at Cafe du Monde
I have been drinking a lot of coffee lately, but my own filters stay clean.  I meet strangers in coffee shops and make them friends through the interview process. And while I have met in some other locations - like a rural smoothie king - almost everyone is happy to meet for coffee.  And, as a newly minted cafe afficianado, I know why.

Like the internet, at a coffee shop it is easy to connect with others. The space is public and safe, and there is very little commitment in terms of money or time. People feel willing to connect - what do they have to lose? What's the worst that can happen?

Unlike the internet, one cannot be anonymous. A coffee shop is personal, maybe even cozy. People can quickly develop relationships with the baristas and with other patrons, even if the relationship is as shallow as a passing joke or a reference to the weather.

Fair Grinds, NOLA, is a great place to get work done
Frankly, that superficial relationship might be closer than many people get with their pastors and pew-neighbors. Unlike religious communities, coffee shops do not have a premise: eat muffins, drink coffee, or don't. You will not have an altar call or a conversion, you will not be expected to listen to someone preach about ancient texts. You can even plug in the laptop and work without feeling isolated; self-employed writers and designers sing the praises of coffee shops for getting out of the house and stumbling on inspiration.

Coffee shops, then, are a common ground, a neutral ground, where people can be themselves in contact with each other. With Caffeine!

That's what millennials are attracted to in community - low initial investment, low risk, high returns.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Sunday Prayer

After the week's election, I'm reminded of a prayer from Kung,

Guardian of our destiny,
bless the leaders and rulers of the nations,
that they may not covet power and glory
but act responsibly
for the welfare and peace of humankind.
Guide our religious communities and those set over them,
that they may not only proclaim the message of peace
but also show it in their lives.
And to all of us, and to those who do not worship among us,
give your grace, mercy, and all good things,
and lead us, God of the living,
on the right way to your eternal glory. Amen.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Assembly of Church

my first smoothie king interview!
My interviews continue to bear amazing fruit. Yesterday I spoke with a youth pastor for a rural Christian church who reminded me what Christian looks like, what church is for, and what Christianity can be.

First, let me make clear that there is a deep gulf between the things he believes and what I believe. I approach the bible very differently, and our visions of God vary widely. Thus, I am not on his page on a variety of moral issues (that we only brushed up against).

But since my goal is to listen, not teach or contradict, I was able to learn what someone who is committed to Christ looks like. He was open and honest, not confrontational or judgmental. He believed in the power of the Holy Spirit based on personal experiences. He committed himself to daily practices - meditation, study, prayer - that would make him more forgiving and less proud.

Here are his three goals as a youth minister, in order:
1) spend time in peoples' lives - not teaching, but just being there as a friend
2) be "an out" - a resource that can be called 24/7 for anything
3) maybe teach sometimes.

I mentioned that, in my experience and the experience of most people I've interviewed, Church is not like that. And he agreed. "We have 30 years or more of bad press to overcome, and it's our fault." He recalled pastors and Churches that were full of gossip and judgment and hate, and he had to get out. Now he is lucky to be at a place in his career that he can shape his community in his own vision:
Church as a place of healing. 

To paraphrase, "I want to teach the gospels like Jesus himself did. First he welcomed and loved. Then he healed. Only after being healed are people ready to listen to the gospels. That's when I myself listened to the gospels and committed my life to Jesus."

During the interview I caught myself remembering the good church communities I had the fortune to be involved with, and how welcoming and loving and wonderful they felt. That is a bold contrast with almost every other church I've worked with. Please, Christians, take note.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Interviews So Far

CC's on Magazine
I've been hesitant to post about the interviews, but so many people have asked, "What are people saying?" that I want to share. After nearly twenty interviews, some common threads have emerged.

If the interviews could be said to have an overarching theme, it would be the importance of relationships.

Most conversations have been with millennials - men and women born after 1984. Millennials have all been deeply interested in relationships - friends, family, networks, loved ones. They expressed this positively using words and ideas like a desire to be well remembered, trying to connect with people through art or music, being treated with respect and respecting others. They also expressed the importance of connections negatively through words like isolation, judgment, and expectations.

The few older men and women I've spoken with are split on the topic of relationships. One man did not mention relationships at all until I brought it up, and expressed that he "doesn't let anybody tell me what to do." This same man felt connected to past generations, however, with a well developed sense of reincarnation.

Fair Grinds is the most popular spot, btw

Another common topic - if only because we are meeting due to an online ad - is the relationship with the internet. Everyone valued the internet as a tool that can bring people together and develop communities, but everyone also fears the anonymity of the internet. The picture I put on Craigslist was directly responsible for many people reaching out to me who would not have otherwise.

I also noticed some very direct differences. While many respondants were goal-oriented, bringing up ideas like reaching certain accomplishments, others were more interested in flowing along, "like a river." Personally, as a goal oriented person, this surprised me. I guess I just have a goal-oriented (teleological) community around me, and had forgotten the joys of being open to the universe.

More to come soon! I have a number of unique, promising conversations scheduled this week.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Christ and Politics

Good Morning, everyone! I hope you are all registered to vote, and remember to visit the polling place on Tuesday.  I was not planning on writing a column endorsing Barack Obama over Mitt Romney, but this weekend someone said something that made my political leaning bubble over.

This election season has been a referendum on Roe V. Wade. Conservative candidates have distinguished themselves from each other by how thoroughly they would prevent abortions. Will there be exceptions in the case of rape, incest, or the life of the mother? Some candidates say, "No. I am principled, and ANY abortion is against my principle."

That might be a great strategy, politically. I don't know their constituents, and I don't know their supporters.

Here is what I do know: 

Todd Akin - Privileged White Neanderthal
A person who seeks an abortion is not happy about being pregnant. Their pregnancy might be unwanted because of the violence and trauma of being raped, or because they can not deliver a child while staying healthy themselves. Maybe they cannot financially support a child, or they do not have the support they would need to raise a child.

A person who seeks an abortion is suffering, and the cornerstone of suffering is isolation.

So when I hear a privileged, white, male neanderthal who has never known isolation talk shit about pregnant women, I change my vote.

This is not a Christian issue. The Gospels say that Jesus was isolated, suffered, and stood with the isolated and the suffering. Jesus healed  their physical ailment and their isolation. Jesus was not president of the rotary club, and his family was not well-connected. Frankly, the Gospels do not show a Jesus who taught us doctrine; Jesus DID things to relieve suffering.

To follow Jesus a Christian must feed the hungry, heal the suffering, or at the very least connect with the isolated. Christians must stand on the side of pregnant women.

This is a Government issue. You might say that it is not the government's role to relieve suffering, that relief in the form of healthcare, medicine, food, and education are better served by local communities of neighbors. As a white male with financial security, I am attracted to lower taxes and smaller government. But that doesn't mean I want to elect an ass.

Compassion is the benchmark of leadership. The President must be able to stand on the side of the suffering and isolated, even if it is a gesture without government support.  And I believe that Obama, the candidate who has experienced isolation, is a more compassionate leader than Romney, who has been privileged and included from birth, and who's platform is based on raw economics.

My version of American Exceptionalism is to hope that we, as a country, can take care of each other. I believe that we are better than Denmark, and they somehow manage to take care of everyone. What's more, I believe that America can stand next to people who suffer worldwide. I believe that our flag is a symbol of hope for people who feel alone, scared, and hungry. Some call that soft power: it would make us more powerful, would protect our interests, and reduce global conflict.

Romney works hard to look really smart, like he has the answers to our problems.  Experts disagree about the solutions to our various problems, and whoever is elected will have a panel of them to figure out the answers to these problems and new problems.

All the answers do not replace compassion. Please do not support someone who has nothing in common with you, and is not interested in your isolation and your suffering.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Sunday Prayer

Engraved on a bronze plaque and mounted inside the lower level of the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty is a poem called "The New Colossus", written by Emma Lazarus in 1883.

Liberty Enlightening the World is a symbol of the great city, and of our country. I think of it when I imagine America, and American Exceptionalism. I think of the meaning and importance of the statue - to comfort and inspire those who feel lost, suffering, and isolated - is relevant to our news cycle and our election cycle.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Friday, November 2, 2012

Please Don't Make Me a Marxist

A picture of people not thinking about their paychecks.
I've gotten a lot of feedback from my last post about the monetary and human impact of Sandy (as seen through the lens of Katrina).

Here's the takeaway - don't turn people and lives into money. period.

I think this is the big lesson of the interviews so far, too. People want to be respected as people: three-dimensional, with their whole own context and experiences and relationships and value. In fact, I'm just about ready to call those the watchwords of the new millennial faith story.

But I've received emails from a few readers that remind me that money IS the problem. How much will uninsured losses cost? Will we go bankrupt? Will we need to sell the house and move? How can I get to work, or is there work to get to? How will I buy food to feed my family?

Catastrophe or not, everyone worries about money. Money is how we do things, how we live day to day, how we participate in community. Those who are lucky to roll in high circles know that their community is very expensive.  

We are afraid of loosing money because poverty seems to equal isolation. I get that.

But even then, I argue that the real fear, the source of money anxiety, is loss of freedom and loss of relationships. Neither of these are handcuffed to money, both are found free.
So again, we relate to our neighbors when they struggle - be they in ritzy Manhattan or working-class Staten Island. Do not let people in your network suffer isolation and fear.