can’t say we haven’t had plenty of notice…

From the preface to a book I just started reading, published in 1864:

“The object of the present volume is: to indicate the character and, approximately, the extent of the changes produced by human action in the physical conditions of the globe we inhabit; to point out the dangers of imprudence and the necessity of caution in all operations which, on a large scale, interfere with the spontaneous arrangements of the organic or the inorganic world; to suggest the possibility and the importance of the restoration of disturbed harmonies and the material improvement of waste and exhausted regions ; and, incidentally, to illustrate the doctrine, that man is, in both kind and degree, a power of a higher order than any of the other forms of animated life…”

The book this prefaces is

Man and Nature, by George Perkins Marsh

like I said, published in 1864

Blues for Paris

I studied photography in Paris a couple decades past, and at one point decided to take long-exposure night-time shots along the Seine. After living in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, I already knew Paris was nowhere near as threatening an environment. And I’d been out at night there on my own, at concerts, plays, talks by photographers, always traveling on foot and by Metro. Still, I was wary about shooting after dark in a less populated spot.

The first time I set up my tripod on the Left Bank, near the Pont de Archêveché, my immediate surroundings were quiet and calm. Light rippled off the water. I sighted and framed potential shots and, with all my other senses, read the atmosphere for signs of trouble.

People strolled past, talking quietly, the flood lights of a bateau mouche spread their streak of daylight across both banks, music bounced down to the river from cars passing by.

There were no red flags, just peace and calm. And its epicenter, I finally realized, seemed to be Notre Dame, buttresses like wings spread out behind her, the spire with its watchful figures, her towers looking west.

My eyes to the viewfinder, vulnerable on all sides, that sense of a guarding presence calmed me down and let me work.

There are claims that buildings are simply enclosed air, objects built from inanimate materials, but I don’t believe it. Buildings are memory boxes, repositories of the voices, footfalls, and lives that have sounded within them.

During my time in Paris I passed Notre Dame on foot, on buses, ate my lunch in the square at her feet. Within her walls and in her deep quiet, I lit candles for my parents. She stands at the center of Paris like a guardian spirit keeping watch over her city and people. Her roots are centuries deep and she misses nothing, because the world comes to her with its news, sorrows, and triumphs.

And now the world is coming to her again, with aid and prayers for her restoration.

Silenced

Fall 2017 brought long weeks of bearing witness to destruction.

It felt like a literal fall, and a steep drop.

White supremacist rallies and violence. Communities leveled by hurricanes, floods, and wildfire, ripped open by inexplicable blood shed at an outdoor concert, in a church, across a rural county. Twitter invective from a president who governs like it’s 1959 and never sees a white face when he’s looking for the cause of the country’s problems.

And that’s just in the U.S.

The intensity of nature’s power is one thing, the white elitist hatred was more than I could bear. I went to rallies for inclusion, relieved to see they dwarfed the population of white supremacists intent on turning the local tide to their maniacally limited views. Views euphemistically marketed as free speech.

Sure, you’re free to speak your mind, just be honest about what’s on it. The Charlottesville rally was named with a little less sleight of hand: Unite the Right. But don’t call it a rally for speech rights when the segment of the population that’s protesting is white and predominantly male, coinciding with the segment of the population that runs just about everything in the country.

And, of course, the presidential tweets kept launching, like spitballs through the national discourse.

By the middle of October, I’d been silenced by it all. I didn’t have the words to turn these events or anyone’s responses to them into a perspective that would clarify anything, a picture that would make the fine points and interconnections visible or tangible.

We found out local governments had allowed development in unwise―to put it mildly―places without ensuring developers complied with laws and building codes. Floodplain maps weren’t revised to reflect changes in the environment and the effects of building on that environment. Hurricanes increased in breadth and power. Western forests showed us what can happen when they are depleted, dried out, and vulnerable. People scrambled to survive storms, fires, and bullets. And now mudslides, from rains following the fires.

All this after decades of a slower building but equally destructive storm: rising living costs and sinking or stagnant income levels for most of us.

On celluloid, George Bailey won his checkmate stand-off with Mr. Potter. On the ground here in the U.S., Mr. Potter has taken the highest office of the land, and like many in the nose-bleed elevations of upper income, he is only interested in more. To give anything, as Bailey did to keep his community properly housed and thriving, was soft-headed foolishness to Potter’s wealth-addicted eyes.

If that’s not a familiar tale, we can look to All The Money In The World for a modern film version of the same addiction.

Spread across all of that is a sizzling layer of American entertainment and news (whether it’s actually news or just more entertainment) that seems focused on getting people agitated, angry, and eager to vent, or to open that pressure valve onto someone else. Like a church full of worshipers, or a plaza loaded with country music fans.

So where’s the ballast, or the balance, if you believe people and community are more important than walls and wealth, if you’ve felt silenced, as I have, by this nine-alarm hot mess delivered to us daily via our news sources of choice?

I’ve come to realize it starts with showing up, standing up, and speaking up. So that’s my assignment to myself for 2018: no more being shocked into silence, it’s time to get shocked into words.

Fires, landscape and loss

Our sense of landscape goes deeper than familiar hikes and favorite cafés. The streets we know, personal landmarks we pass, buildings we spend our days in and the views from their windows, they all give our lives contour and context.

When that landscape is incinerated, as it has been in Santa Rosa, in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino counties, our inner compass points burn too.

The horizon of losses from these ongoing fires feels endless and is not fully known. Families, friends, animals, and community are what matter most. Losing your home and belongings is its own depth charge of a nightmare. And it’s no small thing to lose the places where you’ve left footsteps and gathered memories.

Map of Evacuation Centers in Sonoma, Napa County and Beyond. From The Press Democrat

Tipping Point Emergency Relief Fund

Extensive listings of organizations helping fire evacuees, places for evacuees and their pets and large animals, organizations accepting donations. From SFGate

POV & Unreliable Narrators—in fiction & in life

In fiction, stories are often told in the voice of a reliable narrator. It’s a voice that guides us through a story without skewing the nature of the events taking place, the characters experiencing them, or the underlying truths and meanings depicted.

Point of view, or POV, is basically where that narrator’sand the reader’ssight is aimed.

And POV is what jumped out at me about the “echo chamber” memo (full text) written by a junior engineer at Google that went viral early in August. It covered what he saw as Google management’s misconceptions about women’s capabilities, and what he called the Google echo chamber. To back his argument, he presented supporting evidence that appeared carefully cherry-picked.

His memo illustrates what the default setting is for a lot of us:

when we look out at the world, we think of our own first person point of view as a reliable narrator.

But here’s the catch. We forget to examine our assumptions. We forget we’ve even made assumptions. And we forget the ways in which we tend to gloss over or ignore whatever doesn’t fit our constructs.

In the realm of fiction, this is something a good beta reader will cure you of pretty quickly by pointing out gaps and inconsistencies. Most writers are familiar with these wake-up calls from the world outside our own heads.

In the day-to-day of non-writing life, we each tend to create our own POV-reinforcing echo chambers, and there aren’t necessarily any beta readers to snap us out of it.

The second thing that struck me about the echo chamber memo, and has deepened through events surrounding and since the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, is how tired I am of a particular strain of white narrative voice, especially as it’s become increasingly histrionic and exhausting.

It’s a voice that’s been with us always, but its vituperative levels have been rising here in the states since the 2016 US presidential campaign. And it was during coverage of Charlottesville that the weariness finally hit me full force. It’s a tiredness with deep roots, from decades of being raised, schooled, cajoled, ridiculed, and judgedusually unfavorablyby this particular POV.

I think of it as the voice of the Old White Guard, although it obviously has new constituents. And, full disclosure, I’m half white or anglo myself.

So let’s call this POV first person self-reflexive. It’s from a specific subset of white culture. It’s often male. It’s entirely self-referential. It doesn’t question its own accuracy and is certain those who disagree are wrong. It isn’t convinced that all white males are qualified and capable, never mind women and people of other skin colors.

It also has a need to diminish everyone else in the room that’s reached the white-knuckle stage lately. And that’s what has stood out most: in an era of global challenges that demand stepping up with creative, collaborative, and inventive responses, this is a voice that sounds unsurpassably needy and self-focused.

If there’s an upside to this continuum of events, from the echo chamber memo to the violence and invective surrounding and since the Unite the Right rally, it’s that we’ve had the chance to see how limited and how skewed this POV is—a classic example of an unreliable narrator.

They can have their say just like the rest of us, but they can’t eclipse the multiplicity of voices across the breadth of the United States, or any other country.

We need to keep moving forward to a multi-racial, ethnic, culture, religion, gender democracy.

Let’s call that point of view collective-omniscient. It may be noisy and demanding work, but if we keep our eyes, conversations, and POVs open, we’ll get there.

Immigration—gestures, posturing & walls

(in which Vesta has a soapbox moment, but let me just get this out of my system and we’ll go back to our regular programming)

A poet died last week. Memories of him lit up the Internet. Reading messages from writers and students whose lives had intersected with his, I could feel the traces he’d left along his way.

The poet who died is Tom Lux, and one of the most affecting messages about him was written by Vijay Seshadri, in writing freshly poured from pain and loss. It’s a remembrance of generosity and humane welcome that inadvertently shines a bright light on recent attempts in the U.S. and elsewhere to codify xenophobia.

Not that xenophobia is new, it’s a state of mind with a long and entirely shabby history. But it has attempted to pass itself off as rational in the wake of horrific events like the bombings and murders in Paris and Berlin.

Clearly, there are terrorists in the world. Very likely in every country in the world. We have our own home-grown varieties here in the states. Slamming the gates on individuals based on where they were born, banning members of any religion, will not keep this particular wolf from the door. It’s posturing. It’s throwing sledgehammers at a complex problem that requires precise tools and specialized knowledge.

The deeper problem here is that when we humans feel threatened we do what makes us feel safe, whether it addresses the actual threat or not. We point fingers. We roar. We pound tables and slam doors because it silences the noise in our heads, not to mention everyone within hearing range. This is sound and fury within the tiny neural networks of our own minds, not threat resolution out in the world where it matters.

But here we are, closing the doors. Locking the gates. Putting up walls.

I imagine Lady Liberty, our Mother of Exiles, standing in her harbor, wondering what happened to the country stretched out behind her. A place that once prided itself on can-do independence and ingenuity, the ability to roll up its sleeves and solve anything. For now, that country has decided to act out of its fear instead of its wits.

Where do we go from here?

Dark Landscape treated, crop bis

My neighborhood is ordinarily a fairly social place. When the weather is warm, kids play soccer and basketball or ride bikes and Razors, calling to each other as they race past. You hear music coming from homes and passing cars. There are greetings, conversations, and laughter.

We’re from different parts of the globe. Some of us are poor, none of us is wealthy. There are newish cars and long work hours, barbecues on weekends, groans and cheers when a local team has a game televised.

After the back-to-back killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, my neighborhood fell silent. No one played music, kids stayed indoors, there weren’t any conversations or greetings. The only sound that broke the quiet was a woman weeping one night, sporadically, from dark until I went to sleep. It felt like an illness traveling through every home.

It went on for over a week. Then the sniper fire in Dallas happened and added its own sickening dimension. And the police killings in Baton Rouge. And the shooting of Charles Kinsey in Miami.

It’s a list that probably will not end soon. And, really, it can’t end soon enough. Where do we go from here? All I’m sure of is it’s going to take cool heads and calm hearts. I’m also pretty sure the solution isn’t high octane rhetoric and hair-trigger distrust for anyone who doesn’t resemble us. That’s how we got here, it’s not the road out.

When we’re on that threatened-frightened-angry continuum, what we do is hammer whoever we don’t know or don’t like into the shape of our fear. We need to step back and take a breath. We have to do better than that.