Dirty Little Secret

•June 24, 2007 • 3 Comments

In a former life, I believed in reincarnation. Concepts of karma and past lives intrigued me and I thought of myself as the latest installation in an ancient tribe of one. Then I met Sedata. She was a lovely Bosnian woman with two young children. Her story was, unfortunately, a typical one for women in conflict. Her husband had been killed during the war; she had been raped. With two small children and the stigma of rape hanging over her, it had been difficult to find another husband. The one she finally found was no prize. He drank and would beat her. When they were finally able to move to the States, the drinking and the violence intensified. Fearful for her life and the lives of her children, Sedata fled once again.

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Several years later, I sat and drank a cup of tea with her and she told me her story. We talked for a long time and finally the subject drifted to religious beliefs. We discussed our understandings of Islam and Christianity and then I mentioned my belief in reincarnation. Her entire demeanor changed and her hands began to shake. We sat in silence save for the sound of her cup clinking against the saucer. Then, her face contorted in rage, she slowly spat the words at me, “What…did…I…EVER…do…in…a…past…life…to…deserve…THIS?”

And I was born again into a cosmovision marked by lives locked within the confines of the present and without a logic of coherent reciprocation. One of the most difficult realizations of childhood is that life is not fair, that we do not get what we deserve. Much of adulthood is spent searching for ways to reject the lessons that our parents hammered into our heads as children. Religious tenets and ideological precepts are used to rationalize unjust pains and equally unjust gains. The advent of pop-psychology and its progeny, the self-help book, is just the latest in a long line of existential attempts to explain the unexplainable and new-age author and television producer, Rhonda Byrne, is the latest prophet.

In the best-selling book, The Secret, Byrne collects the wisdom of her co-inhabitants in the rough and tumble genre of self-help and creates an easy-to-follow formula for success for readers and her bank account alike. Byrne’s understanding of the world is simple. Like attracts like. We get not what only what we deserve but also what we want. In such an environment, individuals must be careful what they wish for. While aspirational thinking for wealth, health, and beauty will be rewarded in kind, negative thinking is not suffered lightly. According to the Byrne theology, Sedata would not have rated as a victim of the unfortunate human tendencies towards anger, greed, and violence but instead would only have her self to blame for a fate created by a lack of positive thinking.

The Secret has been a massive international success. Byrne has been graced with Oprah’s suburban seal of approval and Larry King has sung her praises from his throne of prime-time banality. It is not surprising that her philosophy would be embraced by such a large and far-flung flock. Easy answers to complex problems tend to be popular fare and Byrne provides the perfect recipes to nourish tribes of solitary individuals. One would hope that a cup of tea with Sedata would cure the most ardent Byrne supporters of their belief in the wisdom of The Secret. Unfortunately, Oprah hasn’t yet invited Sedata to share her wisdom with the world.

Zucchini Matters

•June 18, 2007 • 4 Comments

Wealthy societies have an odd relationship with hunger. Individuals willingly submit themselves to a state of starvation for aesthetic or political reasons. Most Americans would be loathe to admit that involuntary hunger exists in their own country. Eleven percent of Americans, however, are members of “food insecure households.” While food stamps prevent the images of distended bellies that many people equate with sub-Saharan Africa from becoming a local reality, it is not an easy task to make $21 cover a week’s worth of groceries.

In a recent episode of Radio Open Source devoted to this topic, blogger and homemaker extraordinaire, Miss Maggie, recounted how her family survived on food stamps when she was young. At times, neighbors would leave baskets of bumper crops of zucchini on her family’s doorstep and she remarked on the nutritional dent that zucchini made on her during adolescence. Her frame may be three inches taller, or her eyesight keener, or her lifespan longer because of those anonymous baskets of vegetables.

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During a recent talk, the Irish poet and mystic, John O’Donohue, noted, “When you get up in the morning, you never know who’s depending on you.” It is easy to look at the profound turmoil in which the world resides and believe that we are helpless to do anything to right the wrongs that surround us, let alone those half a world away. Yet we never know the food we may have offered to curb the emotion or physical pains of hunger.

Nick Kristoff has tirelessly written about Darfur in the pages of the New York Times. His reporting stands out as the loudest and most influential voice in defense of the people of Darfur, a task made much easier by a lack of like-minded colleagues. Kristoff’s articles have not caused a clear change in international policy nor have they hastened the end of genocide in Sudan. It would be easy to say that he’s wasting his time. About a month ago, however, NPR editor Kitty Eisele interviewed a hunger striker who was camped out in front of the Sudanese embassy in Washington D.C. The man, who had changed his name to “Start Loving” and tattooed the same on his forehead, cited Kristoff’s articles as the driving force behind his decision to leave his family and make protesting against genocide his full-time job.

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This might not be what Kristoff had in mind. There’s a good chance Mr. Loving might be a bit crazy. There’s also a good chance that he was a hungry man, that he felt malnourished of meaning, that he was starving for a way to be of use. Hunger is essentially an issue of absence. Kristoff offered Mr. Loving the sustenance of purpose. We don’t have to have a column in the New York Times to quell the hunger pains of others nor do we need to have a subscription to Times Select to have our appetites satiated. We just need a bumper crop of something and an empty basket. Zucchini might be a gateway drug or it might be the end of the line. Whatever its role in the story, zucchini matters.

Bling on the Blog, Part 2: Lady of the Bling

•June 12, 2007 • 1 Comment

In the article “Harpy, Hero, Heretic: Hillary,” Jack Hitt wrote about the many faces of Hillary Clinton. What made this different from the volumes written about the subject was that instead of being an analysis of her fractured personalities, it was an exploration of our often-frenetic perceptions. There are very few people in this world that skirt the abyss of neutral emotions where most of us reside in others’ consciousness. Hillary is one of these people. Paris Hilton is another.

I have strong, negative reactions towards both of these women. Mentioning their names or their latest escapades will often elicit facial contortions of the snarling variety that I normally reserve only for practitioners of the most heinous acts. Clinton has called herself a Rorschach test, casting herself in the malleable role of inkblot to be interpreted by our creative fears, doubts, and antipathies. This week, as I have ranted and raved about Paris Hilton’s latest adventures with the criminal justice system, the Paris Hilton Rorschach of my mind has exposed some of the uglier sides of my personality.

When I heard that she was being forced to return to jail, I clapped my hands with glee. This was a victory for accountability, and in a society with a perverted criminal justice system, there’s nothing wrong with that. It got a lot worse, though. Later, I read out the accounts of her tearful courtroom pleas and mocked her for crying out for her mother. I cheered for someone’s fear; I made fun of a frightened young woman asking for her mother. What in the world does that say about me? Why would she inspire such cruelty? Why do I even care enough to waste my energy being so hateful?

It’s because I do not see Paris Hilton as a human being. Instead, she is a representation of the things that I find the most distasteful about a society that gives free clothes to heiresses. She spits on the face of the false notion of meritocracy; she is an acid trip of the American dream, and a bad one to boot. However, the hallucinatory image of Hilton, while carefully crafted by her phalanx of publicists, depends upon our participation in having our perceptions contorted.

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Hilton now sits in her cell, apparently the lucky recipient of a timely religious conversion. She expresses surprise at all the media interest in her case and tells us that there are more important things to worry about than her—the war in Iraq, for example. Whether her overnight acquisitions of both depth and self-reflexivity are genuine or, probably more likely, the result of a carefully crafted plan to reshape her image, she is right. There are more important things to worry about than her. We should worry about what she inspires in us.

Bling on the Blog, Part 1: Lord of the Bling

•June 10, 2007 • 4 Comments

Once its inhabitants have vacated the space, a skull becomes a multi-functional object. From Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness to museum curators in Cambodia’s Killing Fields, individuals have put the empty shell of human life to decorative use. Former BritArt brat packer, Damien Hirst, follows in this illustrious tradition with his latest work, a platinum cast human skull studded with 8,601 diamonds. In the same way that traffic around an accident will slow to a snail’s pace due to individuals’ tacit desire to witness tragedy and even death, Hirst’s work is frightening and fascinating, repulsive and attractive.

The sight of the diamond-studded cranium, entitled For the Love of God, inspires more than primal fears and fascination of death. It also taps into our own sense of self-importance, lending credence to the belief that a skull acts as a representation of human identity. A world away from genocide memorials, some of which in Rwanda include rows and rows of anonymous skulls with visible machete blows or head scarves still wrapped around them, Hirst’s skull basks in its individuality, radiant in its platinum casting and diamond adornment. More than an elegy to the 18th century man who once inhabited the shape that is now dotted with diamonds, this piece is a celebration of the value of individual life.

It evokes the visceral reaction of a mother looking at her child for the first time, casting an eye on all the terrifying potential and magnitude of a life that has yet to be lived. It is beautiful. I am frightened by it. I want to see it shine. The empty and evocative vestige of who we once may have been, a skull offers no hints to the untrained eye of what was once thought and tasted, heard and said within the now vacant borders of bone and gap, white and black, cavernous shadow framed by the fragile shell that once held together life.

The skull is an empty canvas of potential framed by the unknown confines of a life already lived. Hirst chose to paint an image of beauty and radiant splendor, simultaneously conjuring that which is impermanent and that which is eternal about a human life. This work could be seen as a triumph of capitalism. The artist has become so enormously wealthy that he funded the project himself and claims to not know where on the spectrum of twenty to thirty million dollars the cost of his creation lies. It could also be seen as a triumph of vision, illustrating the true value we place on those we love and the priceless quality of one human life.


Bread and Orchids

•June 8, 2007 • 2 Comments

I have a black thumb. In fact, I have two of them. My freshman year of college, I watched a cactus wither away and die due to my neglect and subsequently gave up on plants. Shortly after returning to Belfast, however, a friend gave me an orchid as a house warming present. Knowing my dangerous apathy towards flora, she gave me very specific watering instructions and then added, “Don’t worry if you kill it, everything dies in the end anyway.” Assured with the knowledge that this poor plant’s death wouldn’t be my fault but was instead its destiny, I diligently cared for those shockingly violet flowers until I went on vacation. When I returned, the flowers had crumpled into a sad mauve rendition of their once vibrant plumage and I decided to let nature take its course and let the little flowers disappear into the dust from which they had come.

There are many things that I hold dear. Friends, family, good wine, well-spiced food, the hope of decent political candidates, the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast, strong coffee, and jazz to name a few. Plants that need tending do not rank on even the longest version of this list. This past week, however, I have found myself spending an hour a day watering flowers. My fiance Gareth and I are house-sitting for his parents with our one responsibility being to make sure the plants don’t die. Neither of his parents really believe we are up to the task. Being stubborn as hell, I’m trying to prove them wrong. Each day I am there, I find a new little plant hiding in some previously unexplored corner of the house that has absolutely no need for greenery, taunting me with the fact that its life is in my not-so-capable or caring hands.

Gareth’s parents love those plants. I feel that each day that I wrestle with the hose to reach a far away seedling and wrestle with my conscience to not just walk away from the watering can and go to the beach. It has become a meditative task. I think of his parents while I am doing their chores and think about the things that they hold dear and what they struggle to keep alive. I think of the flimsy foundations on which we build our faith and the fault lines on which we erect the altars to worship whatever it is that we hold to be of value. The wind at their house can get so strong that they sometimes struggle to get out the door and into the car in the morning. And yet they plant daisies in the yard.

Loving something, loving anything is the bread that sustains us, it is the act that makes us human. I doubt that I will ever have a neatly trimmed lawn or take to tending roses. Tonight, however, a friend gave me a bouquet of lilies and before I went to bed, I mixed its food and gave it water and cut off the edges of the stems and even remembered to put it in the vase afterwards. Understanding what other people love doesn’t mean that we have to change who we are in order to share in their passions but it might change us all the same, it might even enhance our own humanity. At the very least, in my case, it’s let a few more flowers live to see another day. And that’s a small good thing.

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Hello world!

•June 7, 2007 • 10 Comments

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