Short Stories and Creative Nonfiction Essays

Saturday, February 20, 2021

 Dark Roast, Cold Snaps, and INTERCONNECTIVITY


            Do you ever have a morning that just seems to follow a theme? That one little thing—an image, an idea or a remnant from last night’s dream—turns you into an antenna with only one frequency. The law of attraction not only lays similarly themed breadcrumbs in your path but drops them like Acme pianos in a Warner Brothers cartoon. Aided by your human compulsion to connect dots, the universe screams to get your attention. If such synchronicity doesn't demand a quick essay after morning coffee, I don’t know what does.

            It should be noted that said coffee was partaken on the newly re-opened patio of my local coffee shop, surrounded by mask wearing yuppies and hipsters scrolling away madly on smartphones or devices in complete silence. Oh, now and then, a nervous mutt would pipe up at a passing car or the masked stranger that had remained perfectly oblivious to its owner on approach. But otherwise, all was perfectly…disconnected. Ever part of the problem and not the solution, I myself had just contributed to a Facebook comment thread, in a manner to rival War and Peace or the Gideon Bible. What can I say? I type fast. I’d shared a soul-cleansing GIF depicting a strong, able-bodied man who resembled a sumo wrestler stopping to help another gentleman in an airport. The elder of the two hobbled on a single crutch, struggling to mount a formidable flight of stairs while lugging a roll along suitcase. Without a second thought, the gentle giant hoisted the man on his back, took hold of the suitcase handle so that his passenger might have a free hand to hold on, and made quick work of the rest of the stairs. Afterward, a quick, chivalrous nod and both went on their way.

            A fellow artist from the Philippines had commented that while heartwarming, he could not see such an act occurring in his home country. When I asked why, he cited that ‘jumping on another’s back’ would not fly in the more reserved milieu. In the discussion that ensued, I mentioned that I’d once read an essay on ‘cultural shyness’, most prevalent in eastern societies. I then went on to distinguish stilted self-expression from the more admirable reserve, prudence and modesty that seems to have gone the way of the Dodo. I may have gone on to posit that the current state of all entitlement, all the time in Western Judeo/Christian culture had arguably been birthed in the humanism of the Renaissance and the hubris of the Age of Enlightenment, then reinforced by the individualism emblematic of both the French and American Revolutions. I suggested it’s been cemented with capitalism and the manifest destiny of the westward movement. And here we are.

            Though I have several FB personalities, I have never been a big fan of food pics or any meme that threatens the poster ‘already knows’ who will repost, and that those who don’t clearly hate puppies and Jesus. In that spirit, my remote Facebook friend and I agreed on what remains elusive in society—a balance between personal liberty and what was once known as consideration. Decorum and class evolved as an acknowledgement of community. Curbing our behaviors out of consideration is a nod to our Interconnectedness.

            I glanced down at the book I’d brought along, determined to finish it. Written by a young podcaster who’d had me on as a guest, the book was titled, The Story of Interconnectivity. I greatly admire its author, despite the guilt-by-association of his having been born, by definition, a Millennial. Only vaguely aware of the coincidence, I decided to pack up and head home to read. It wasn’t the nervous dogs distracting me; the unseasonably cold winds were regularly depositing bits of debris in my eyes the size of Mount Everest. I’d continue my reading on the sofa that had couched my ass in familiar comfort over the past year—the calm center of an apocalyptic tornado. First there’d been my year-long, self-imposed isolation due to health issues. The effects of chemotherapy cream alone made me look like Freddie Kruger, reason enough to remain a recluse lest the neighborhood yuppies and hipsters choose to brandish torches or pitchforks on seeing me. Then came the first lockdown of the pandemic. I’d been a freelancer long before my health trials, so the isolation was just an extension of a lifestyle I’d been well immersed in. While many went stir-crazy or lost it facing the dark, cobwebby corners of their minds, I didn’t bat an eye. Black Lives Matter protests and a contentious campaign season further divided us, forging yet more isolation. The insurrection at Capitol Hill, rather than being the final nail in a coffin, served as a reminder that despite hope dawning on the horizon, our cultural shadow of divisiveness was not going away any time soon. And now, this icy wind that sweeps much of our continent, forcing us indoors without running water or electricity. Though I’m far from being a walking almanac, I count this nationwide cold snap among the many things I’ve not seen in my over-half-a-century. 

            In my essays on the significance of this impasse, I’ve pointed out the prevailing irony: at the precise moment we’ve been forced into isolation—separation—a tiny virus that knows no borders has taught us just how interconnected we are. One needn’t be a conspiracy theorist to recognize that historically, fascist dictators, fearmongers and demagogues use our divides against us, knowing full well power is best usurped from the masses in climates of isolation. Divide and Conquer is the name of the game, as there is power in numbers. In my view, though such tactics are express strategies of certain regimes, not all our current challenges are proffered by The Man.  In our democracy, there is no one villain with a twisty mustache keeping the huddled masses uneducated and preoccupied with materialism as a control tactic, nor stoking the fires of hate in order to divide. Nor even cultivating viruses in petri-dishes for Pharma-profit at government-funded germ warfare labs. The mechanisms of power structure are the logical result of human nature; this is just the way things have panned out. It should be no surprise our institutions have evolved as they have. Nope, no supervillains are stroking cats in swiveling chairs or tying us to the railroad tracks. We are doing it to ourselves. 

            The thing is, it’s happening for a reason. It may be too convenient to simply say all strife signals change. That things are coming to a head and cultural paradigm shifts are on the horizon. The evolutionary theory that informs sociology posits that any institution, convention, norm or custom that persists serves the proliferation of the species. I would offer that the evolution and transformation of our noosphere—the invisible realm or our ideas, principles, thought forms, beliefs, codes and laws—is no different. The very notion of civilized society relies on this moral realm. The dialectic of world events, in all its pendulum swings, contributes to our survival. To the propagation and proliferation of humanity. Still, what could be the value of isolation and the illusion of separation?

            I pondered the question as I began traversing the stretch of sidewalk that would lead me back to my couch, cinching my hoodie about my ear-bud stuffed ears. The podcast that happened to be playing—BrĂ©ne Brown on Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations—piped up in my skull. “Suffering always results from isolation,” Brene’ announced, rather cheerfully. “Without belonging and connection—which some would say are the very definition of love—there is only suffering.” So there it was: a year of isolation was meant to make us long for connection. For touch. For belonging. In the way of man’s basest nature, we want what we can’t have and we appreciate what has already flown the coup. Absence makes the heart grow fonder.

             As I sipped what remained of my dark roast, I secretly hoped that along with the ushering out of obsolete paradigms that no longer serve us—like the patriarchy that’s led to capitalist greed, imperialism and exploitation—we might begin to rediscover our interconnectedness, and cherish it. The very Individualism on which our country was founded—the personal liberty, equality and freedom with which we identify and so value, is precisely what has contributed to our isolation. To the dog-eat-dog sense of ‘taking’ that erodes community. Technology—the convenient diversion offered by a cell phone or device that anoints awkwardness at a bus stop or in line for a vaccine, saving us from having to look fellow humans in the eye, also has its price. It erodes collectivism, unity, and any sense of interconnectivity. The very fact that we must now socially distance from our neighbors compounds the equation with suspicion. Long before Covid-19, debates raged the world over between nationalistic policy and globalism. 

             Ironically, I just finished Deepak Choprah’s audiobook Metahuman. In it, much time was spent dissecting dualism. The chasm between subjective experience and objective reality. The empirical view that consciousness is a biological phenomenon reduces those who view it otherwise as tiny figures in the head seated before an enormous silver screen, believing what is projected on it. It suddenly clicked—the disconnect between metaphysical consciousness and materialism, the rather recent throwing out of the baby with the bathwater I’d often called the grand illusion, meant that the masses, disillusioned with institutionalized religion, no longer honored our roots in consciousness. Let alone collective consciousness. It’s long been said we live in a Godless society. But what clicked is this: the Individualism that founded our country went hand in hand with the trend toward dismissing consciousness altogether. It’s been a steady progression—and something’s got to give.

             As an artist, (read: a rebel without a cause) I’ve spent much of my life aware of social conditioning—seeing through the matrix. Questioning the status quo and wishing others would do the same, that they were less like sheep. In the new millennium, I’ve finally gotten my wish: folks are attempting to topple power structures and have begun to question every last institution. The thing is, the masses are not particularly practiced at it. What one gets is a Pandora’s box of conspiracy theories—a cultural paranoia. But it’s exciting and promises change—assuming we can get a handle on fake news and regain trust in our fact-checkers and media. 

            As always, balance seems to be the answer: cultivating free-thinkers who are not so subversive or contrarian that they become dissonant forces in society—insurrectionists or rogues or homegrown terrorists. Or in the case of a recently-ousted world leader: a cancer that must be excised. With Interconnectedness as a cultural value, we might be able to restore balance, questioning the status quo for the greater good. Keeping our eye on the red road of our capacity and contributing to our collective transformation by engaging creativity. Using our unique gifts to put us a step closer to our human potential. 

            I’ve really gotta slow down on the coffee.

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

  This is one of a few essays I wrote during lockdown, about Covid-19 and its impact. I just retooled it for submission:





            2020 is destined to go down in history as a year we’d all rather forget—from the Covid-19 pandemic that’s killed thousands and decimated economies, through incidents of police brutality and subsequent civil unrest, right up to the unprecedented insurrection on Capitol Hill.  A year into the pandemic that’s changed everything, we’re still struggling to make sense of it. Every crisis is an opportunity, many parrot, with a nod to pandemic-as-impetus for paradigm shift, as is the way of human history. Many speculate about which ideologies, institutions and conventions are being ushered out by this most vivid illustration that patriarchy and imperialism (for example) have failed us for centuries. Such models, along with the exploitation, capitalist greed and oppression they spawn, are little more than dinosaurs farting obsolete dust. Long before our common enemy—a spikey microorganism, with a crown, no less—ostensibly jumped from animals to humans, things were coming to a head. The world over, nationalist and globalist ideologies were duking it out. Post-Covid, most can agree to the prevailing irony: at the precise moment we’ve been forced into isolation—separation—a tiny virus that knows no borders has taught us just how interconnected we are.

            I was born in 1968, at a moment when the world was on fire—much as it is now. A quick Google search will yield that during the year of my birth, both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago brought one of the lowest historical points in police brutality, and the most contentious of the civil rights demonstrations took to the streets. 

            The following year, 1969, brought both Woodstock and the moon landing. History has framed Woodstock as the quintessence of our interconnectedness—the very picture of communion in action. The moon landing exemplifies man’s ever-evolving march toward realizing our capacity. Neil Armstrong’s declaration, “one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” succinctly voiced the paradigm shifts that yield possibility. Outdated thought forms like man cannot fly regularly dissolve and give way to new, more innovative ones, putting us a bit closer to our human potential. In fact, the very protests that cast shade on 1968, contentious as they were, proved essential to effecting lasting, institutionalized social reform.

            The seeming disparity of these back-to-back world events can be easily explained: crisis yields opportunity. Strife signals change. It is well known that man transforms through conflict resolution alone. On the microcosmic level, individuals resolve cognitive dissonance by synthesizing opposing thought forms into new, novel ones. On a macrocosmic, or societal level, the status quo prevails until unrest—activism, protest and demonstration, even storytelling and art—upend it.

            Long before the pandemic hit, divisiveness was the word of the day. Most evident in the political arena, polarized agendas and platforms have led to nothing short of an impasse. Or more accurately, one standoff after another. Threats of government shutdown blend seamlessly one into the next. Each political party points the finger at the other for the current state of affairs, each administration blaming the last while erasing its progress via executive order. Talking heads posit that the incorrigible conduct of our leaders began with Newt Gingritch or the Whitewater Investigation or the spawning of Nancy Pelosi by aliens, with the inception of CNN or Fox News or MSNBC. No longer tempered by the lost art of rational discourse, these conflicts fester as seismic rage, revealing cultural fractures in a myriad of other areas—tiny fissures that have widened to rival the Grand Canyon, not a bridge in sight. Our ideological divides mirror those of developing countries that have birthed uprisings, insurrection, coups, and revolutions. The Arab Spring saw the overthrow of corrupt dictators and oppressive regimes at odds with personal liberty and justice. In the Western world, many of our differences, while couched in social, moral, or ethical terms, boil down to opposing worldviews.

            Society is conflicted because individuals are conflicted. The inner turmoil leads to a digging in of heels and an impulse to take refuge in identity politics—the tribal instinct to bond that oversimplifies political platforms and forges common enemies. Among the fractures are, starting with the obvious: left versus right, conservative versus liberal, and Democrat versus Republican. But the worldviews that attract individuals to one platform or another are subtle concoctions of other imaginary divides inherent in social conditioning: science versus faith, (or empiricism versus rationalism, respectively,) the war between the sexes, between patriarchy and gender equality. Ageism versus youthism (or ‘Boomers versus Millennials’) capitalism versus socialism, left brain versus right, nationalism versus globalism, Western medicine versus Eastern, (which correlate, arguably, with mechanistic or holistic models,) and racism versus tolerance. The above is not a laundry list of societal ills, but it is the tip of an iceberg. And now the clincher: the divisive tropes are all illusions. Stay with me.

            All abstract concepts rely on semantics. Ideas appear diametrically opposed due primarily to the insufficiency of language and a lack of perspective. Socrates introduced what is now known as the ‘Socratic method.’ He found that if enough questions were asked, any definitive statement about the material world could be disproven, due to flux. An understanding of the Socratic method is all that’s needed to grasp the role of perspective, subjectivity, or point of view. But humans tend to be emotional learners; compassion and empathy for ‘the other’ are just as germane to considering other points of view. Studies have shown time and again that reading (a pastime that seems to have gone the way of the Dodo) cultivates compassion. Specifically, reading novels in which one identifies with a protagonist for pages on end and invests in his or her goals. As a fringe benefit, tolerance is learned when literary fiction is set in cultures other than one’s own. With movies, sports, and other forms of live entertainment taking a back seat during Covid, this author often fantasizes reading will make a comeback. But then my inner Cher slaps me upside the face, Moonstruck-style, and tells me to snap out of it; there is still plenty of T & A for folks to scroll through on Insta. 

            Abstract ideas also appear diametrically opposed due to what I call the Grand Illusion: the human compulsion to create opposites. This ‘black-and-white’ mindset is most dominant in Western culture: the drive to label everything in existence good, bad, right or wrong, from another’s faith to his sexual orientation. We could all benefit from a more eastern understanding that the Yin cannot exist without the Yang, the darkness without the light. That balance and harmony are innate when both are assigned value. That everything in life is neutral except our response to it, and all pendulum swings have value. The Kybalion, based on Hermetic principles that predate Christ, speaks of gamuts. Rather than polar opposites, most concepts can be thought to exist on a continuum with extremes. Though the extremes are on opposite ends of a conceptual stick, they are not mutually exclusive.

            Americans on both sides of the aisle are guilty of living in an echo chamber, blaring either CNN or Fox news but rarely both. Forget about PBS or Al Jazeera. By refusing to live in bubbles by surrounding ourselves with only the likeminded, by resisting identity politics and cherry picking as active confirmation bias, we might eventually find objectivity, and practice it. We might learn to be judicious.

            I have always subscribed to the idea that change begins within. Michael Jackson suggested we all start with The Man In the Mirror to effect change. Mahatma Ghandi wisely counseled us to ‘be the change you wish to see in the world.’ We all know Ghandi is beyond reproach, in the way of Mother Theresa and Meryl Streep; the three can do no wrong. They are not just pillars, but—dare I say—a collective holy trinity of wisdom. And impeccable acting technique. Put clinically, the micro affects the macro when it comes to cultural change and paradigm shift.

            In addition to serving as a Rorschach test for the masses, the recent health crisis known as Covid-19, or conversely, quarantine, lockdown, or  #Coronaapocalypse—take your pick—has forced many to spend time with their own thoughts. For some, this means a return to their true essence or childhood self; to others, it means anxiety, panic and outright terror. ‘Doers’ are confronted with guilt for not accomplishing enough, for being self-indulgent or lazy. Speaking for myself, I can’t help but see this moment as a mass opportunity for individuals to get to know cobwebby corners of their minds, to witness their own thoughts and feelings without diversion. As an artist and writer, I have spent my adult life touting the value of introspection. Some have called the current lockdown ‘an introvert’s dream.’ Guilty as charged. Being a freelancer who works from home anyway, and having already been in self-imposed isolation due to health challenges, very little changed in my life in 2020, short of the inability to score toilet paper without resorting to the black market. Still, my secret hope is that individuals will take this opportunity to reflect. To reconcile their beliefs. To synthesize opposing thought forms and integrate the compartmentalized worldviews at the root of so much strife. We are being called upon to choose love over fear, to rely on our compassion and empathy and acknowledge our interconnectedness. 

            As an artist, I’ve seen beyond social conditioning from day one. I’ve often wished others could resist conformity and begin to question the status quo. In the new millennium, I’ve finally gotten my wish: folks are attempting to topple power structures and question every last institution. The thing is, the masses are not particularly practiced at it. What one gets is a Pandora’s box of conspiracy theories—a cultural paranoia.

            But it’s exciting and promises change—assuming we can get a handle on fake news and regain trust in our fact-checkers and media. A few weeks ago, speaking with my sister by phone, I shared my thoughts on bridging divides—healing a fractured world from within, one heart at a time. With the caveat that the sentiment was very idealistic, I asked rhetorically how the collective could possibly not transform and evolve as a result. I made a good case—pointing out how all global paradigm shifts start with one rogue movement that challenges the status quo, eventually reaching critical mass. I may have even quoted John Lennon, to put myself in the best possible company. If John Lennon could solicit us to Imagine utopian ideals, so could I. 

            Considering how I qualified my premise, my sister’s reply was unexpected: “That’s very Polyanna.”

            I thought about it. Is it? It’s been said that most wars have been fought under the guise of religion, if only to justify land grabs or the usurping of power. In that way, the evolution of our invisibles—the intangible realm of our ideas, beliefs, morals, ethics, principles and codes is no small thing. The French Revolution and the American Revolution took place at the same moment due precisely to the overriding global philosophy of the time: sophism. It touted personal liberty, justice and equality above all else. When one studies the evolution of philosophy, all world events are explained under its umbrella. Cutting edge thought forms are ever in transformation, driving world events. Is it such a huge leap to accept that those ideas that take hold begin with a handful of courageous individuals?

            “It may be Polyanna, but it’s everything,” I insisted, defending introspection for the thousandth time. “The world without reflects the world within.” And then, for good measure, I roped in Martin Luther King:

            Though the arc of the moral universe is long, it always bends toward justice.