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Disaster! Catastrophe! Armageddon!

News you can use.

For those in the path of hurricanes, for those threatened by wild fires, daily, hourly – minute-by-minute — reports and updates are a necessity and a blessing. The media providing these reports offer important, sometimes life-saving information. Thank you for your service.

For the rest of us, deluged not by tropical storms but by a tsunami of hyperbolic media coverage, the purpose of this incessant attention to natural disasters is problematic.* This ginned-up, brave-reporters-holding-onto-poles-in-100-miles-an-hour-wind journalism is overwrought. Of course I care (both in the abstract and because I have family in Florida and Georgia) about people in harm’s way. But, as there is nothing we can do while whatever unfolds unfolds, as we are not ourselves threatened, it seems to me that our position as spectators is uncomfortably like that of drivers slowing down to gawk at a accident by the side of the road. Also, as some media explicitly packaged Harvey, Irma and the forest fires in the west as “Armageddon,” we feel even more besieged, more vulnerable, more victimized by forces beyond our control than we have during the past six months sinking in the quicksand of Trumpism. Now there is a unnatural disaster for you.

For the media, these back-to-back-to-back “catastrophes” are gold. The storms are stories that come neatly pre-packaged in three acts: Act I: The Anticipation, Act II: The Event, Act II: The Aftermath. There’s video, oh so much video. There’s drama you don’t have to look for because it literally slaps you upside the head. No deep reporting necessary. Point the camera at trees whipping in the wind. Stick a mic in the face of a person who made it to a temporary storm shelter. How bad was it? How much did you lose? Insert yourself (and camera) into the ongoing challenges of a first responder. It may be momentarily dangerous for the intrepid reporter, but it is easy peasy. No pesky FOIA requests, no scouring documents, no spending weeks, months trying to understand communities and cultures. And the clicks! Oh Lordy, the clicks. So much traffic to the site. So many eyeballs. What a boon a good disaster is for the media!

And what a disaster for us, as we settle deeply into our lives of spectatorship (football, anyone?), as we are hammered by messages of our victimization, as we embrace what psychologists call Learned Helplessness, as we avoid the deep issues and challenges that don’t just zip across the landscape, dump on us for a few days, lose their force and move on.

*Early on, there was minor attention to the idea that the hurricanes were tied to human-caused climate change. There appeared to be little scientific evidence to support this.

September 13, 2017   No Comments

Burning Man

 Burning Man asks the question: What would a contingent of privileged 21st century people do if they could do anything, if they were given a blank slate – the vast, stark, featureless playa – to create an instant community? The answer, as I observed as a Virgin Burner last week, is complicated. They–we–create beauty and ugliness, generosity and self-indulgence, Eden and dystopia and live for a week in a world of breathtaking sunsets and choking dust storms. Burners wash your dusty feet, take drugs, practice yoga at dawn, party all night, give away hot dogs and gin and tonics, make noise, dress in utility kilts or bootie shorts or tutus or nothing at all. They make art, big, bright, hard-edged art. They make music. They dance. They mist your scorched skin with precious water when you ride by on your bicycle. They tinker. They invent. They create something where nothing was. They make life in a dead place.

But they do not live lightly on this stretch of alkali flats. They use enormous resources to create this city of 70,000: thousands and thousands of gallons of potable water delivered by trucks, thousands of gallons of gray water spirited away, thousands of gallons of gas to power the blazing Art Cars that traverse the playa every night, thousands and thousands of gallons of propane to power the generators that support each camp. Hundreds of porta potties serviced every day. This is a resource-gobbling, tech-heavy vision of the future.

And mostly, despite the hugs everyone gives everyone and the gift economy (no money changes hands on the playa) and the many small kindnesses you encounter–and those you perform yourself–it is a harsh vision of the future. A post-apocalytpic vision of industrial grunge and consensual hedonism, with hulking trucks and laser beams scanning the night sky and blaring noise and too-bright lights, a Disneyland meets Las Vegas meets Mad Max world where strangers wash your naked body and you can spend an hour in the Orgasmatron on your way to watching fights in the Thunderdome.

On my last morning in Black Rock City, I was riding my playa-caked Hammer & Cyclery fat-tire bike on Lustrate, the farthest from the center street, a long, dusty several mile horseshoe of a ride. I was watching the dawn clouds dissipate in the already blistering heat. On one side of me was the city, on the other, the open playa. On the playa side, there was a grizzled man riding a squeaky bike pulling a trailer with a vintage boombox bungee-ed to the frame. As he came closer, I could hear the music. It was Donovan’s “Catch the Wind.” The innocence of that music, its softness, its almost silly simplicity, the gentleness of it. I stood there, straddling my bike, and I cried.

September 6, 2017   5 Comments

Getting UNcomfortable

I like making myself uncomfortable, placing myself somewhere I do not belong, where I am the new kid, confused, awkward, unsure — and thus alert, deeply curious, open to seeing, open to learning. I realize the privilege of this. I know many people live their entire lives feeling uncomfortable in their bodies, their families, their communities, our society. It’s not that I don’t have those feelings, all of those feelings, from time to time. But the fact is, I am safe. And so I have the privilege of purposely pushing myself into new situations that throw me off balance, the purpose being to understand people different than myself, to keep myself as humble as I can (that is, a learner, always a learner) and to test my own resilience.

I did this when I spent 18 months immersed in middle school to write about tween/teen girl culture. I did it when I joined a ballet company to see if I could reclaim an old dancing dream. And I am doing it now, and have been for the past two years, when I go up to Oregon State Penitentiary to spend time with a group of prison writers.

And tomorrow… for something completely different. Frivolous, yes, but also deeply deeply uncomfortable. Tomorrow I leave with a group of ten others to go to Burning Man. We are the Eugene contingent helping to staff a venerable bicycle rental and repair camp. Of course I have known about Burning Man for years, but I’ve never been in the least tempted to go. It seemed, well, male – it is Burning MAN – and insistently Millennial. And self-consciously arty. And suffused with all those drugs I didn’t need to do any more because, as Huxley said, once you open the doors of perception, you don’t have to keep opening them. Plus, in my dotage, I am more careful with my neurons.

But I’m going. I am going because I want the experience of helping to create a city of 70,000 people where nothing, and I mean nothing, exists, in a stark, ridiculously inhospitable environment in the middle of nowhere (well, actually, in northwestern Nevada). That, alone, terrifies me. And then there’s this: The tattoo on my back is older than most of the people I’m traveling and will be camping with.

I’ll report back. Don’t look for a post next Wednesday. I’ll be, as they say, “on playa.”

(One of THREE bins packed for The Burn, pictured above, includes nothing I’ve ever packed for a trip before: el-wire, dust masks, goggles, ear plugs, shemagh, Snow White halloween costume, combat boots.)

August 23, 2017   7 Comments

Clearing the Decks

 

Ah the fine art of self-sabotage that some of us (cough, cough) are known to practice so diligently as to become masters. I myself am particularly adept at one excellent self-sabotaging strategy, the “I’ll just clear the decks” approach. (Explained, along with other excellent self-sabotaging behaviors, in The Write Path.)

Let’s say you have some important creative work to do. For example: A book. A book you care deeply about. A book that is the most challenging work you’ve ever done. It is hard. I mean: It is hard. The molding of it, the shaping of it, the finding a way through the experience, the writing into a place of knowing. It is so hard that one plots ways not to work as one simultaneously proclaims (to oneself) passion and commitment for the work. (And by “one” I mean me.)

Thus the “I’ll just clear the decks” approach.

I’ll get serious, I’ll buckle down, I’ll really start to work once I take care of all the little stuff that’s currently cluttering the “decks.” For example: Those 30 pounds of peaches we picked this weekend that need to be skinned, pitted, sliced and freezer-bagged. The peach-juicy counters that now need to be cleaned. Which makes the OTHER counters look bad by comparison, so, yeah, those. And the floor. Better put a load of laundry in. While I’m at it, I might as well strip the bed and change the bed linen. I need to make that appointment with the dental hygienist. And take a picture of those weird cucumbers I just went out into the garden to pick so I can post in instagram. And then look at what others have posted. And check my newsfeeds for the latest Trump catastrophe. Read the latest WaPo story. I’ll just scan the first few dozen comments. And now, gee, it’s 3 pm, and I can’t start in on serious work this late.

Thus concludes a successful day at self-sabotage.

(Sound of reveille) Good morning! Those decks I cleared yesterday so I could jump in and write today? Wouldn’t you know it, they’re cluttered again.

But right now, this very moment, as soon as I post this on my blog, I AM GOING TO WORK.

August 16, 2017   13 Comments

Humility

I am the least racist person you will ever meet.

This was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.

I have assembled the best cabinet in the history of the world.

People have given me credit for having great chemistry with all of the leaders.

Never has there been a president….with few exceptions…who’s passed more legislation, who’s done more things than I have.

Ah, the fine art of humility as practiced by the Leader of the Free World.

Let us, please, not become numb to the vanity, the hubris, the narcissism, the self-aggrandizement, the heart-stopping lack of perspective – the amorality – of all this because we hear it everyday, because it has become part of the political canon, the cultural canon. Because egomaniacal statements like this are the stuff of funny memes and clever Facebook posts and witty Shouts & Murmurs columns. We laugh. Okay, laugh. But do not forget: This is not normal. This is not good. This, in fact, erodes the soul.

You know what feeds the soul? Humility.

Humility is not self-doubt or self-deprecation. It is not meekness. You do not give up “pride” in yourself when you are humble. You give up being prideful. “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” (The quote is attributed to, among others, Christian philosopher C.S. Lewis and Islamic theologian Waleed Basyouni. Point taken.)

Humility is a recognition of who you are and your place is the world. (Carl Sagan famously said, “We are like butterflies who flutter for a day and think it’s forever.”) Or, should you want to be even more humble, your place in the universe. (as in “tiny speck”). It’s worth considering that the term “humility” comes from the Latin word humilitas, a noun related to the adjective humilis, which may be translated as “humble” but also as “grounded” or “from the earth,” as in humus (earth).

And so, drowning in this sea of bloated, inflated, self-serving rhetoric, let us swim toward land. Let us plant our feet, stay grounded, from the earth, humble.

(Well, okay, Ali WAS the greatest.)

 

 

August 9, 2017   1 Comment

On alert

 

I was walking west on Morrison in downtown Portland yesterday late afternoon when I heard a voice behind me. “Passing on your left,” the voice, male, said. I thought, gee, some guy is riding his bike on a busy sidewalk? What a jerk. But he wasn’t. Riding a bike. Or a jerk.

He was an ordinary looking 40ish white guy dressed in conservative jeans and a short-sleeved dress shirt, and he passed me on the left, walking. I watched him out of the corner of my eye. Then I couldn’t help myself. “Hey,” I said. He was only a few steps ahead of me. “I’ve never had anyone say ‘passing on the left’ who wasn’t on a bike.”

He seemed slightly taken aback that I opened a conversation. I was also slightly taken aback. He slowed his pace so we were walking side by side. “I didn’t want to startle you,” he said. We then we had a spirited four-block conversation about how men don’t realize how threatening they can be when they walk closely behind a woman or pass by her when she isn’t expecting it.

He said all of that. I didn’t.

Of course, I have spent my entire adult life looking over my shoulder if I find myself walking alone on a sketchy street or in an iffy neighborhood or, on the best streets in the loveliest of neighborhoods when it’s dark. I take note of the man walking behind me and pay attention to the sound of his footfalls. Is he getting closer? I check out the man on the other side of the street. Is he making a move to cross the street? I am not in a panic. This is just what I do. I stay alert to the potential threat. The threat a man on the street poses to me. The threat men pose to women.

If it’s a man – race isn’t the issue, gender is — I am on alert. If it’s a woman, I’m not. Yes, I know that most men don’t attack women, but in Chicago, on the street just a half a block from my apartment, one attacked me. He wanted my groceries and my money, that’s all. I was lucky. Yes, I know women can be attackers, but in Seattle, on a downtown street late at night, it was a man I had to run from.

The fact that this unassuming, sort of dorky (no PDX hipster was he) guy was sensitive to what his presence might mean to a woman alone – that was a revelation. I hope he has sons.

August 2, 2017   3 Comments

Lean into the YES

I have been thinking so very much these days about the power of yes. What started me thinking about this, paradoxically, was encountering “no.”  A while back, and for the first time I can remember, someone in a position of power (over me) said no. I don’t mean “no, I am not giving my permission/ blessing/ support.” I’ve heard that many times. You pitch ideas, and sometimes they go nowhere. You keep pitching. I mean “no, I do not believe you are capable of doing this. No, I do not believe in you.” Gobsmacked I was. Blindsided. It is a testament to the power of that “no” that I am still processing it more than a year later. What it made me realize was the extraordinary power of yes. We lean into the yes, wherever we find it, like a plant leans into the sun.

I’ve never had a mentor, but at various points in my life, I’ve had people who said yes, people who believed in me, people who expressed, in small — and unexpected — ways, that they thought I was capable of great things. What an extraordinary difference this can make. What an extraordinary difference this has made.

Mr. Hawkey, ramrod straight, starched collar (equally starched personality), Mr. Discipline, Mr. Hard-ass – my 11th grade English teacher – said to me, as I exited his classroom on the last day, “Don’t waste your talent.” Wow. Mr. Hawkey thought I had talent.

Otis Pease, the best and most brilliant professor I’ve ever had or could hope to have, treated me with quiet respect. To be respected by a man like that was almost overwhelming. It made me want to be worthy. It inspired me.

A few years later, I had a brief encounter with Robin Morgan, a name that might not be familiar to you. Robin Morgan was a pillar of the second-wave feminist movement, the co-founder of Ms., an author, a poet, a national voice. A big deal. She was delivering a speech on campus, and I got to introduce her. The speech was amazing. She was amazing. I had never been that close to someone who burned so brightly, who radiated such energy, whose energy filled a space so completely. After the speech, when I ran over, beating the crowd, to grasp her hand, she looked at me, really looked at me, and said: “Lauren, you’re up next.” The power of that ignited me.

More recently, and ever so miraculously — I still do not believe it — Eugene Ballet Company artistic director Toni Pimble said yes, you can join the company, yes, you can dance with us. Yes, I believe in you. And because she believed, I believed even more. And I danced.

And now I somehow lucked into Steven Finster, Yes-man (and I mean that in the best sense) extraordinaire, who makes my work at Oregon State Penitentiary possible, who believes in opportunity and challenge, change and redemption — and in the good in all of us.

That’s what we all need: People who see our potential. People who believe in us. People who say yes.

July 26, 2017   2 Comments

The stories we tell

 

I think about stories all the time. Or, more accurately, I “think story” all the time. I think about the story the experience I am having will make, often in real time and especially if the experience is less than wonderful. “This will make a good story,” I might say to myself (I did say to myself) as an 18-wheeler spewed a tsunami of gritty road water in my face on the afternoon of the first day of a three-day bike trek. And, yes, I did write about it. “This will make a good story,” I might say to myself (I did say to myself) when, one morning not long ago, I stepped out the back door into a cool, lovely Oregon morning and skidded halfway across the porch when my bare foot encountered the splayed (still warm) guts of a vole the cat had proudly caught and eviscerated. And see, I just wrote about it.

But I also think more deeply, more seriously about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and the stories others tell about us. I don’t mean made-up stories. I mean the narratives we construct to help give shape to our lives and make sense of our experience. I mean the stories others tell about us – again, not fabricated but constructed from their perceptions and the memories they retained – that tell us not so much about ourselves but about the people telling the stories.

I think about the men I work with at Oregon State Penitentiary, Lifers all, convicted murderers all, and the way they are learning to create narratives that are about something other than the worst thing they ever did, the lowest, most shameful moment in their lives. I think about the power of telling that story to yourself. And I think about a parole hearing I sat in on recently and the competing narratives I heard: One was the story of transformation, the 30 hard years of making sense of the senseless, of learning how to take responsibility, of figuring out how to live with the guilt, the anguish you caused so many people, of struggling to remake yourself into person who could never do what that person you were 30 years ago did. And then there was the other story, the one steeped in pain as raw today as it was three decades ago, a story of violence vividly remembered, of families shattered and lives forever altered, a story so often told, so often relived and remembered as to be truly indelible.

Both stories are true. But the story of pain, of the past, proved more compelling to the parole board.

And so the man who told the transformation story, a man who’s been in my writers’ group for almost two years, is now faced with another story to tell, a narrative that helps make sense of the parole board experience, a story that can help him process, understand and move forward from that experience. He’s working on it. I’m there to help.

That’s my story.

July 19, 2017   No Comments

We’re #1…in something

What’s with this latest hoopla about the U.S. being in danger of forfeiting its position as The World Leader, the Head Honcho, The Big Kahuna. I don’t get it. “Trump’s G20 performance indicates U.S. decline as world power” was the headline coming out of last week’s meeting in Europe.

I don’t get it.

Decline? From what lofty heights? Let’s take a moment to look at who actually leads the world in what:

#1 in Gross Domestic product (purchasing power parity): China
#1 Most innovative: Switzerland
#1 Most technologically advanced: Japan
#1 in use of renewable energy: Sweden
#1 Cleanest environment: Finland
#1 Highest worker productivity: Germany
#1 Highest median family income: Norway
#1 Healthiest: Italy
#1 Safest: Singapore
#1 Lowest Infant mortality: Luxembourg
#1 Best healthcare system: Luxembourg
#1 Longest life expectancy: Monaco
#1 Most educated: Singapore
#1 Highest literacy rate (100%) Andorra, Luxembourg, Greenland, Norway
#1 Narrowest gender gap: Iceland
#1 Most LGBGTQ-friendly: The Netherlands
#1 Happiest: Norway

What exactly does America lead the world in??

#1 Most men and women behind bars
#1 Biggest military budget

I know this sounds like unadulterated lefty criticism. Sure it is that. (And I’ll take that as a compliment.) But it is also a simple reality check. Regardless of the breast-beating and the flag-waving and the rhetoric, America is not the leader in much of anything.

And it is not unpatriotic to say so. In fact, it is the act of a patriot to be realistic about the shortcomings and flaws of her country, to believe in her country (and it citizens) in the face of these flaws, to nurture hopes for the future, and to work with energy and commitment toward that future. To me this means we should shut up, quit boasting, consider adopting that most un-American of character traits – humility — and start learning from those who have managed to create safer, cleaner, healthier, more functional, more equitable societies for their citizens.

America: If you love it (and I do), see the country for what it is, admit the flaws.

And fix it.

July 12, 2017   2 Comments

All hail the LIBRARY

For those of us who were looking for points of pride yesterday as our country commemorated its birth, for those of us who were concerned that we had little to celebrate about our country during these dark, dark days, may I just say:

The free public library.

Yes, we can claim that. We did that. We can wave our flag about that.

As with most wonderful ideas that happened a long time ago in this country, Benjamin Franklin figures into the narrative. He founded a lending library in Philadelphia in 1703. But the country’s first free (which is to say, tax supported) public library opened in the spring of 1833 in Petersborough, New Hampshire. The more famous (and erroneously claimed as “first’) Boston Public Library opened it doors in 1852. In the 1890s, Butte, Montana city boosters opened that city’s public library “as an antidote to the miners’ proclivity for drinking, whoring and gambling.” (I’ve never been to Butte so I don’t know how that worked out for them.)

A few years later, millionaire (when that meant something), bibliophile (when that meant something)and New York governor Samuel Tilden bequeathed a fortune to establish the extraordinary New York Public Library. (Imagine, for a moment, the current Governor of neighboring New Jersey doing anything for the public good.) And then there was Andrew Carnegie, industrialist-philanthropist, who funded the establishment of more than 2,500 libraries worldwide, 1,689 of which were in the U.S. Today, in case you’re interested, we have more than 16,000 public libraries.

Libraries open the world of books to us. Books open the world to us. It’s that simple. It’s that powerful.

We support public libraries with our tax dollars (our personal donations, our endless bake sales). We support libraries for the good of all, for the enrichment and betterment of all. We don’t say: I’m rich enough to buy my own books. Why should my tax dollars support libraries? If we hear that rhetoric, or a corollary: I’m rich enough to send my kids to private schools, or I don’t have children, why should I support other people’s children’s public education? we must label it for what it is: Deeply un-American. Not the attitude, not the policies, not the fundamental beliefs that reflect what true patriots celebrate. What I celebrated yesterday.

This Saturday, I am so very proud to help the Manzanita Public Library, part of the Tillamook County Public Library system, commemorate its 30th anniversary, 30 years of opening the world of books, which is to say, the world, to the lovely folks in this town that is my second home.

July 5, 2017   No Comments