The Pointless Quest for a Frictionless Life

Friction Happens

I was doing my circuit at the gym the other day; seated rowing machine to be exact. When I finished my reps, a guy across the room, seated with his iPad, wearing ear buds, told me to stop breathing so loud. “It’s annoying,” he said.

This was not the first person ever to mention my breathing technique. I’ve explained to others the value of yogic breath: deep, focused inhales and audible exhales. Some feigned interest in my explanation; others could hardly care This was the first guy who complained to the point of telling—not asking—me to stop.

I’m ornery enough not to calmly acquiesce, but smart enough to avoid a shouting match with a gym-lout over a ridiculous demand. I exchanged a comforting eye roll with the other middle-aged guy in the space and curbed my enthusiasm for the rest of the workout.

We create friction whenever we move

The encounter reminded me of this terrific article by Kat Rosenfield, “The Illusion of Frictionless Existence” (Boston Globe Ideas 2/22/2023). Ms. Rosenfield’s main focus is Gen Z late-late bloomers, not gym jerks, but the seeds of my encounter exist in her reporting. A world in which individuals exist in a cocoon of their own comfort, and feel entitled to lash out at anything that compromises it, even in the slightest.

Ms. Rosenfield spent ten years authoring a teen advice column (2009-2019). During that time, she was struck by a new line that occurred with increasing frequency in the letters she received. “I shouldn’t have to feel uncomfortable.” Truth is, if you ever want to grow up, you do have to be made to feel uncomfortable, you have to learn how to deal with it and hopefully, to grow from it.

The quest for an easy life, a frictionless life, is as enduring as it has been unattainable for most of human history. For thousands of years, only the rare, the rich, the royal, led lives of anything approaching ease. It was a mere 370 years ago that Thomas Hobbes declared life, “nasty, brutish, and short.” For many, the blossoming Industrial Revolution only made life nastier, brutalier, and shorter. We have only recently achieved the required level of affluence for humans to pursue a life untethered from the nuisance of others.

Add to that affluence our autonomy of communication, initiated by the telephone yet perfected by the smartphone. Individuals of means can meet most of their needs and wants without engaging another face. Contactless pick-up and delivery. Interactions that require no interaction. It’s easier than ever to live without encountering any obstacle.

Avoiding challenges is almost always a good tactic to ride through a moment; but a terrible strategy for leading our lives. When our primary mode is to avoid, we don’t learn how to get along. When we eliminate friction, we don’t develop the skills required to negotiate even the simplest exchanges, like acceptable noise at the gym. No wonder we are so unsuccessful at negotiating the real conflicts of our world.

The best lubricant for human friction is: communication

My greatest disappointment in the expanding pool of people trying to live frictionless lives is not so much that they’re bound to fail (we’re not yet so autonomous that we can actually live in private bubbles), nor that they become irrationally annoyed by the simplest of interferences (like heavy breathing at a gym). My greatest disappointment is how much they miss by not putting themselves out there, for the chance encounter, the opportunity to be fascinated by something they don’t already know.

The two most mind-expanding experiences of my own life – working in Haiti post-2010 earthquake, and bicycling through the United States in 2015-2016—were both premised on consciously putting myself in uncomfortable situations and embracing the experience. I could have retired to a cocoon: I have the resources. But I not have the inclination. Where has that sense of adventure gone from our lives?

My breathing annoyed the guy at the gym and he felt entitled to tell me to stop. Such the pity. How much better if he’d asked, “Why do you do that?” And we could have talked, perhaps learned from each other, perhaps come to appreciate each other. Instead, he dismissed me as an annoyance, which annoyed me. In his quest for no friction: we created friction.

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The Fallacy of Building Our Way to a More Equitable World

Construction Cranes over Cambridge, MA

I am an architect. I spent my career designing spaces to enhance human life. Healthcare facilities. Affordable housing. I also did my share of high-end residential work, so I’m keen to the indulgent hubris of the rich.

A few years ago, I was invited to speak to a conference of architects in Seattle about sustainability. The basic premise was ridiculous; fly in a guy from Boston to talk about sustainability. I chose not to talk about increased insulation and incorporating solar panels. Rather, I spoke to the inequities of our construction practices; how some people had too little shelter and inadequate social space, while many of us claim too much. How the replacement cycles of our buildings have become shorter and shorter; yet so many structures sit underutilized after a short period of time. Drive by any dying mall in your city to witness my point.

Afterward, several people told me I was brave to advocate before architects that the most sustainable construction is that which we never build. It wasn’t really. As a retired architect from another coast; my comments didn’t affect my personal fortunes one bit.

Several awards were given at the conference, including one for a super-cool residential houseboat built to float along the shore of Union Lake, complete with an underground lounge with a pressure-withstanding window to view passing sea creatures. The designers spoke of the structure’s energy-efficient features and net-zero operation, though they failed to mention the embodied energy required to create this floating hulk of concrete, wood, and glass.

Afterward, I spoke with Michelle Lanker, designer/owner of the houseboat. I asked how she liked living there. “Oh, we don’t live there. We still live in our house in Capital Hill. We use this as a weekend escape.”

The architects of Seattle lavished an award on a structure that took all kinds of energy to build and did absolutely nothing to address the critical space needs of the city. That was the moment when I realized that the creed of building our way to a better future is an illusion because as long as the privileged can claim more than their fair share, we will.

Lanker Houseboat, Seattle, WA Photo Courtesy Nanawall

Fast forward a dozen years or so. I watch my small yet influential city of Cambridge MA grapple with how to create a more resilient and equitable city, and I witness the response to our housing crisis is: build. More housing. Higher. Denser. Mandate the private sector to incorporate inclusionary units at moderate rents to increase availability because, left to their own accord, the private sector will only go luxury, while the public sector is definitely out of the business of creating new housing.

More new housing units were built in Cambridge between 2010 to 2020 than any decade since 1920; thousands of condos; millions of square feet of new construction. Our population increased—some—but the new units could not absorb the increased demand, nor come anywhere close to meeting projected need.

How is it that we can build so many new dwellings and not dent housing demand? Because family sizes are shrinking, so we have fewer people in each dwelling unit. Because the city has long history of two and three family dwellings, many of which are now being converted into singles. Because the city has restrictive zoning that makes ancillary dwellings difficult. Because we limit congregate living. Because we are unwilling to upset any aspect of the status quo—i.e. current homeowners and voters—in order to achieve broader objectives.

The Cambridge City Council is a dedicated and responsive body: usually. Yet when I wrote to each of my councilors and outlined five ways we could both increase the city’s population and provide more housing opportunities by better utilizing our existing housing stock, not one of them responded to my ideas. New housing construction brings in additional tax revenue without threatening any constituents. Whereas, rethinking our existing stock to shelter more people without new construction upsets the status quo of entrenched Cambridge residents without generating new revenue. Viable, sustainable change for our city: dead on arrival.

Former two-family turned into single family, Cambridge, MA

We will never build our way to an equitable society as long as the needs of the general populace take a backseat to the rich. As long as the rich and entitled want to live in Cambridge, in as much space as they want, turning buildings that used to shelter two or three families into grand houses for a single, small family, we’ll never approach an equitable allocation of resources.

This is the United States. We will not tell people they cannot have whatever they want. But we can make them pay a premium for their excess. We can establish financial incentives to sharing space and disincentives for claiming extravagant shares of that precious resource known as Cambridge real estate.

We cannot build our way to a more equitable world that includes basic shelter for all until we better utilize the real estate we already have, and make those who take a disproportionate share pony up for others.

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All Hail! Steven Pinker!

You gotta love Steven Pinker. He puts such high polish on the gruesome aspects of our world; he makes me believe there’s hope.

For those of us who may not be familiar, Steven Pinker is a psychology professor at Harvard whose research focuses on language, cognition, and social relations. He’s written twelve books, which collectively form a sort of positive humanity manifesto. The books are well researched and thought provoking, yet by academic standards, easy reads. Think Malcolm Gladwell with greater heft and a persistently upbeat perspective.

I first came to Pinker through Angels of Our Better Nature (2011) a fascinating romp through human history predicated on the idea that humans are evolving into more just, peaceful creatures. There’s much merit in the argument: we no longer burn people at the stake, or turn guillotine executions into public spectacle. However, our bloodiest century, by far, was the one we recently completed. Twentieth-century wars witnessed over a hundred million people dead from direct combat, battle-inflicted wounds, or collateral civilian damage. Plus six million Jews and other undesirables: gassed. Mr. Pinker may be correct in that we may have become more ‘humane’ in how we kill each other, but the scale of 20th century atrocities places humans far removed from angels.

War dead notwithstanding, the 20th century ushered in remarkable social and economic advances. Never had so many enjoyed so much opportunity. Living standards soared, life expectancies soared, political access soared. Not for all, by any measure; but for more than ever in human history.

Mr. Pinker’s optimism rose again with Enlightenment NOW: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018). The title alone is giddy with potential. Here, Pinker’s humanist creed is stronger. He doesn’t—quite—accuse traditional religion of holding us back, but the undercurrent is there.

Last year, Steven Pinker published his latest book, Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters. A title less bombastic than Enlightenment NOW, as if the pandemic made even the most optimistic surveyor of our world pause, perhaps even retrench.

I went to hear Steven Pinker speak about his latest book, in a crowded lecture hall at the Harvard Science Center. The man gives good lecture. Graphics, humor, documentation, insights. Pinker makes the case that humans are fundamentally rational beings, and that our rationality will ultimately be our path to resolving political discord, religious fanaticism, economic inequality, even environmental disaster.

“Those following rationality do not wish anything for themselves that they do not wish for others.”

Such a noble idea. An extension, really, of the Golden Rule. That our humanity is not simply what we ‘do’ to and for each other; rather it’s what we ‘wish’ to and for each other. Steven Pinker imagines a world where eight billion people wish for all others everything they wish for themselves. If only wishing made things true.

Title Screen of Steven Pinker Lecture

Steven Pinker’s talk was steeped in humanist philosophy: treating all humans as a unified group; undifferentiated by age, wealth, race, or creed; all rowing together towards the same goal in the here and now. He appears to assume that people will abandon beliefs in an after-life simply because the sectarian strife that religion creates here on earth is so caustic. He also seems to discount the reality that not all humans view all others as equal. We are rooted in tribes of family, village, and nation. We honor those within our tribes over those beyond. Who among us will work to provide the same food, shelter and opportunity to an unnamed child on another continent that we will provide our own children? None.

I love and respect Steven Pinker because his worldview of human potential surpasses my own. I acknowledge our tribal nature, our religious fixations, and strive to see how we can coexist in peace. He operates on a whole other plane: where humankind’s commonalities and rational capabilities overcome all of our differences. I look forward to the day when his brilliant optimism eclipses my limited vision.

All Hail! Steven Pinker!

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The Disingenuous Gall of Kitchen Fees

Kitchen Worker at Democracy Brewing. Courtesy of The Boston Globe

The first time I ate at a restaurant that delivered me a check with a surcharge tacked on to support the kitchen staff, I was miffed. Another hidden cost. The meal was over, the tab delivered, I wasn’t of a mind to make a scene, so I paid and left. Never to return to that restaurant again.

The practice is growing—adding a surcharge to a bill for the ostensibly noble purpose of providing a living wage to the kitchen staff (Recent Boston Globe Article). Most restaurants make note of the practice, in small print, near the bottom of their menu. Easy to miss if you’re not on your game. These days, I scrutinize menus before selecting a place to dine, and bypass any with the telltale fee. Thus, I’ve stopped patronizing Veggie Planet—a place I love—and ignore Pammy’s, despite the raves it receives, because each of those Cambridge eateries are early adopters of kitchen fees.

Why am I so boiled about this practice?

It’s not that I don’t want kitchen workers to get a living wage—I do. I’m happy to pay a fair price for a meal that includes paying all the staff well. What I object to is the so-called social consciousness of restaurant owners who proclaim to care about giving their workers a living wage, without actually paying them one. If it’s a slow night, and the kitchen fees don’t add up to a living wage for their back-of-house staff, does the owner ante up the difference? I don’t see that anywhere in the fine print.

Kitchen Fee at Democracy Brewing, Courtesy of The Boston Globe

If you’re a business owner, and you believe your workers should get a living wage, then pay them that wage. If that means your prices have to increase, then state on your menu that you pay all of your workers living ages, and the prices reflect that. Proclaim your conscience on your website, in your promotional material. If you actually pay a living wage, I will happily pay a few dollars more for my fish and chips.

In so many arenas of our economy, retailers have discovered that the easier, and earlier in the process, the monetary transaction gets addressed, the better the overall customer experience. When we order from Amazon, we pay in advance; we know intellectually that the transit cost is folded into the overall price, but when our goods arrive—with free shipping—we feel like we just got a gift. Folks who own vehicles grouse about the price of gas (paid out on an as-needed basis), much more than their monthly car and insurance payments. Those upfront costs are already factored into our lives, and we absorb them into our psyche. Similarly, once I load up my Charlie Card, I feel like I ride the subway for free.

So why are restaurants going the other way? Instead of making checks more complicated, they would be wiser to move in the direction of fewer add-on charges, not more.

The Tasting Counter, Somerville, MA

There are a few places in the Boston area that do not accept tips; the total cost of everything is included in the stated price. The most comprehensive in this regard is Tasting Counter. Make your reservation, put it on your credit card, and that’s the last you deal with money. Arrive for an amazing nine-course dinner with accompanying wines (or in my case, nine exotic craft beers) and simply enjoy the evening. To be sure, Tasting Counter is not an everyday experience, (prix fixe is $325 per person) but the concept is fresh and the experience so wonderful, I’m surprised more modest places haven’t found a way to emulate.

Restauranteurs with a pretend social conscious: make it real. Pay your staff a living wage. Tell us it’s reflected in your prices We will patronize you. Not only for your food, but for your honesty.

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A Word to the Wise: A Word to Avoid

I’m not talking about the N-word or the B-word or the C-word, or even the F-word; though there are damned few times when uttering any of those syllables actually help a situation. I’m talking about that personally pernicious word that simultaneously lets you off the hook even as it dumps you into a psychological pit. I’m talking about the S-word: should.

According to Merriam-Webster, this auxiliary verb expresses obligation, propriety or expediency: i.e. he/she/it should keep their mouth shut/drive slower/get a better hair cut; versus you should call your mother/take out the garbage/read a novel; versus I should get a new job, exercise more/write my congressional representative.

The first instance—directing ‘should’ in the third person—is gossip; which is almost always fun in the moment but starts tasting rancid the moment it escapes the mouth. The second—directing ‘should’ in the second person—is judgment; and unless someone solicits your opinion, keep it to yourself. The third—directing ‘should’ at yourself—is an excuse; equating the desire to lose weight/stop smoking/sleep more with the effort of actually doing it.

I first recognized the crutch of ‘should’ in the 1990’s. In my post-marriage/pre-Internet years, I sometimes frequented gay bars. Too many times, the first or second thing out of an engaging guy’s mouth was, “I should lose ten pounds.” A line always prompted me to move on. In part because I have a penchant for hefty guys, and often found those extra ten pounds attractive. But more important, as any wary son of an alcoholic can attest: I am wary of any statement of intent masquerading as actual action.

Once I realized my negative reaction to anyone using the S-word, I began monitoring my own use. It wasn’t too difficult to stop applying ‘should’ to myself; I’m highly disciplined, and so I decided to either lose the weight/do the exercise/repair the leaky faucet—or shut up about it. Giving unsolicited advice was a lot harder; we all know we can navigate other’s lives better than they do it themselves. Hardest still, to stop gossiping about what others should be doing. In time, I got better at eliminating my use of the word ‘should.’ The result? A lot less talking, which is generally good for me and likely the world at large as well.

I thought my understanding of the evils of ‘should’ were pretty solid, until I read Jane Elliot’s recent article, “How ‘Should’ Makes us Stupid—And How to Get Smart Again.” Dr. Elliot explains how telling ourselves that we should do something, actually makes the objective more difficult to achieve. Saying that we should lose ten pounds/go to the gym/quit smoking measures our current self against a receding horizon of expectation; an expectation that we inevitably fail to achieve, and thus descend into what she refers to as the deficit mindset.

I don’t buy every morsel of Dr. Elliot’s pop psychology path out of the tyranny of the ‘should,’ but she offers us a pretty good place to start. Every time you think ‘should’, say ‘want.’ I want to lose ten pounds. Voila! I’ve turned an obligation into an aspiration, even a motivation.

Once you start replacing ‘should’ with ‘want’ in the first person, making the switch in the second and third person can easily follow. “I want you to be happy,” replaces “you should get therapy.” “I want them to find more satisfying work,” replaces, “they should get a new job.”

‘Should’ is the Debbie Downer of words, whether we apply it to ourselves or others. When the urge to ‘should’ descends: rephrase, reframe. In time you’ll stop saying the S-word and—trust me—you’ll never miss it.

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I recently caught an afternoon matinee of Speakeasy Stage’s production of Fairview, one of the oddest, yet unsettling, pieces of theater I’ve seen in some time.

The longish one act divides into three discrete segments. The first half hour or so depicts a middle-class Black family: mother, father, daughter, and snippy aunt, preparing for an elaborate birthday celebration for the family matriarch (who is ostensibly upstairs getting dressed). Mom Beverly worries about the minutiae of the event. Dad Dayton teases and caresses her devotedly despite—or perhaps because of—her anxiety. Aunt Jasmine is a flip counter to her uptight sister. While daughter Keisha is an exemplar of potential. All sunny, Cosby-show stuff with upbeat music, line dancing, witty dialogue, and terrific bits about setting place ware for six. A generation ago, as written by Neil Simon, it might have barreled along to a juicy Broadway run and become a major motion picture.

I knew this 1980’s revery could not last, not in a Pulitzer Prize winning play written by a Black female in 2019. I’d also read the program in advance, and noted only four actors in the cast. Therefore, I deduced the grandmother would never show, nor the attorney brother, supposedly delayed due to flight cancellations.

The lightheartedness continues until the mom, overwhelmed by her efforts, faints.

A quartet of unseen voices flows into the theater, speaking in podcast language and postulating, “If you could choose to be any race what race would you choose?” Meanwhile the four actors onstage recreate the entire play thus far, in mime. If you are me, trying to discern the parallels and dissonances between the voice over with the movement on stage while also trying to recall the original dialogue that accompanied the action, this portion of the play presents a fascinating brain puzzle. If you are one of the twenty or so high school students on a class trip, seated in the rows in front of me, it’s boring. They totally lost interest, chatting and phone-checking throughout this entire section.

The disembodied voices express outrage at the question of being able to choose their race, until they capitulate to the theoretical and proceed to hypothesize. A male chooses to be Asian; another wants to be Latinx. A female with a French accent would like to be a Slav, which triggers banter about whether that’s actually a different race. The most resistant voice, ultimately chooses to be African-American.

I figure when the stage actors get to the point of the mom fainting, dialogue will resume. Wrong. Instead the four voices start commenting on the characters and action, while the actors themselves remain mute. Strange figures peer into the windows, around doors. White folk, in odd dress. Suddenly grandmother arrives, decked out like a shabby Queen of Sheba. She is clearly white, and clearly bizarre. Is she the voice that said she would choose to be an African-American? The brother arrives, also white, decked out in unlawyerly biker garb. Another grandmother arrives, in flowing caftan like a real Queen of Sheba. Finally, the daughter’s friend Erica shows up, though ‘she’ is an adult male in teen drag.

Chaos ensues. I can’t follow what’s happening and don’t really care, though at least the kids in front to of me stop chatting. Suddenly everyone freezes and Keisha (played by the amazing Victoria Omoregie, who has earned an Elliot Norton Award nomination for her work) delivers a potent monologue about being seen. She challenges us. “What can you do to make space for someone else, for a minute.” Then she invites audience members who identify as white to come up onstage. To see the world from their viewpoint, and in exchange free up seats for others.

I am confused, having never considered the juxtaposition of actor and audience member as dynamics of oppression. But I give over the idea: audience and actors are the two groups that playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury has at her ready.

At the end of the play, the stage is crowded with white folk; the four principal Black actors retreat, the lights come up, and everyone’s a bit awkward. I am disturbed, which is of course the point, and also enamored by the play’s title. Fairview began as a likely title of a soap-opera-like confection, and ended up a plea: to give each other a fair view.

Pedaling home, adrenaline-fueled, I kept trying to make sense of the play’s discordant pieces. To no avail. The concept is grand. The execution a bit clumsy. But ultimately, I came away wondering why, in an attempt to give everyone a ‘fair view’ the playwright took something away from everyone.

There are two consistent ways in which actors receive recognition and affirmation. By having their names and bios listed in the program, and by accepting the applause of the audience at play’s end. Fairview robs four peculiar white actors of any Playbill notice – something I’d never encountered before. Simultaneously, it robs four extraordinary Black actors from receiving they applause they so richly deserve.

Isn’t there some way that we can see each other—fairly—without taking away welcome affirmations? Can’t we both see each other fair, and lift each other up?

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Remembering Jimmy Carter

Ever since he entered hospice care a few weeks ago, at age 97, reminiscences and accolades of Jimmy Carter have fluttered across the cyber-sphere. They triggered my own memories of the peanut farmer turned President turned humanitarian: the only President with whom I have any personal experience.

Jimmy on the Stump, 1975

I first saw Jimmy Carter at Quincy Market in Boston, 1976, gladhanding tourists, making his pitch to be elected President. The city was aglow that year, playing a central role in our nation’s Bicentennial celebrations. Quincy Market was still fresh and innovative. I had my doubts whether the soft-spoken Southerner was up to the executive task of the Presidency, but I understood that he was a necessary salve to our national bruises of Vietnam, and Watergate.

My fears proved accurate. The one term governor of a mid-tier state with almost no D.C. connections took forever to put his government in place; key appointments lagged for months. Before equilibrium set in, inflation raged, gas lines stretched blocks, and Iranians took hostages. The former Navy officer’s ship of state never found an even keel.

What Jimmy Carter lacked in executive function, he compensated for in moral leadership. The modest walk to his inauguration, the cardigan sweaters, the direct appeals to turn down our thermostats, his Playboy admission to committing “adultery in my heart.” The man from Plains was the perfect antidote to Richard M. Nixon. And though many of us proclaimed that Jimmy was the kind of man we wanted, we had to reckon with the truth: Tricky Dick was a more accurate representative of our nation’s character than this naively honest, faith-based man.

My true appreciation of Jimmy Carter emerged in 1978 when I served as a VISTA Volunteer in the South Plains of Texas. The tobaccer chewin’ cotton farmers living in brick ranches, the Brown migrant workers in stucco flats, the Black hands hunkered within drafty wooden frames, all scraping an existence miles removed from the media mills on either coast. They all loved our farmer President. They heard their own voices in his resonant drawl.

President Jimmy Carter went down in single-term ignominy; whopped by Ronald Reagan and his supply side shenanigans. 1980 proved to be a pivot election. Since then, any talk of morals, ethical responsibility, or true equity is only cheap political blather. American’s sole purpose is the pursuit of the mighty dollar and the creature comforts it affords. Whatever we trample chasing that buck—whether flora, fauna, or fellow human—is permissible collateral damage.

Jimmy and Rosalynn know the correct use of a hammer

As our culture descended the narcissistic, nihilistic spiral of over-consumption, the easily dismissed one-term President rose as a phoenix of human decency. Without question, the finest former President our nation has ever produced. In retirement, Jimmy Carter was everywhere: monitoring elections in far off lands; negotiating peace accords that won him the 2002 Nobel Peace Prize; hammering away at Habitat for Humanity. That was the second time I saw Jimmy Carter, withered and thin, with Rosalynn, building Musician’s Village in New Orleans post-Katrina. A man so much more comfortable in his skin than the politician I’d encountered in Boston thirty years earlier.

One of my oddest accomplishments is to visit every Presidential Library, from Herbert Hoover right on up to W. (Before Hoover, Presidential papers are private, and therefore not official Dept. of Archives libraries.) Each library is fascinating in how directly it reflects the man it illuminates. Reagan’s is pompous; Kennedy’s aspirational; Nixon’s consciously contrite. LBJ’s is actually humorous; Clinton’s bloated. Ford’s is, frankly, boring. Eisenhower’s focuses more on World War II than his presidency and, in a similar vein, Jimmy Carter’s celebrates his accomplishments after he left office. Jimmy’s building is low slung, inconspicuous. The only library I’ve visited with absolutely no security. Just come on in.

Jimmy Carter Presidential Library, Atlanta GA

I thought I knew the story of this man and his times; they are my times as well. But I learned something new and profound about Jimmy Carter when I visited his library. The man avoided being labelled either hawk or dove: he pardoned Vietnam draft dodgers; cancelled the B-1 bomber; yet also increased the Defense budget; and authorized arms sales around the world. Still, while Jimmy Carter was President, the United States did not engage in any military conflicts. None. No American soldier was deployed in combat, anywhere in the world. No battle lives were lost. An amazing non-achievement for the leader of a nation as bellicose as our own.

Jimmy Carter will never rank among the best of US Presidents. But he will always lead my list of the finest human beings to walk this earth. I feel privileged to have stood in his shadow, and witness his example.

Jimmy Carter as sage, 2022
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Marathon of My Parole Hearing

Guest Post by Michael ”Skylar” Theroux; she/her/her;

Mike Theroux and I have been Black & Pink Masschusetts pen pals for the past two years. Mike is currently serving a sentence at NCCI Gardner; her parole hearing is this Friday, April 14, 2023. She sent me this message of hope in advance of the hearing and asked me to post it on my blog. Please send good energy to Mike this Friday, and good energy to all the marathon runners this Monday!

Mike back in the day.

The day of the Parole Hearing is fast approaching just like the magnificent 2023 Boston Marathon. Many will participate and be anticipating such an outcome that could affect lives of so many from a educational, social and economic standpoint. This year will hold a lot of emotions for not just me but all who are involved and particularly participating in this year’s events.

The time clock keeps ticking down to zero indicting ”showtime.” Everybody is quiet, patient, listening, waiting, and when the final answer is a ”yes” or ending in a positive approval, the crowd goes wild like the flock of fans and supporting members of all the runners, joggers in the Boston Marathon.

We all cry, hug and celebrate this welcomed blessing for freedom and second chance at life and independence and choice of living. I can now focus on a stable career and successful life with my kids and family, my education and furthering my intelligence. I can give back to my community and show the world I’m a major contribution to it. I would also like to have close ties to my university and alma mater.

I will never forget the great minds and people who appeared in my life those are those memories we as biological creatures savor for those days later on our sun porch or patio reminiscing about everything in our life. The good and the bad, why we did this and what if we did that? Those kind of tough questions and thought interpretations.

Just know the parole board will be figuring out my thought interpretations while Boston Marathon runners will be doing the same to fill their psyche in finishing the race at the finish line.

Photo courtesy of The New York Times
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Spring Break

Taking a bit of time to reenergize my thoughts. The Awkward Poser will be back, refreshed. In the meantime, all the best to my readers.

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When Did You Realize: We’re Screwed

The data is pretty clear. Human life on this planet, as we know it, is on its descent. Ten thousand years after we harnessed the extractive possibilities of agriculture, we are racing through the planet’s resources—and heating it up in the process—at such a rate that we probably don’t have ten thousand more years to go. Maybe not even a thousand. Doomsayers barely give us another century.

Human life is likely to persist on earth in some manner, either through greatly altered lifestyle, reduced numbers, or some sonic-paced evolution that transforms us into creatures whose mental capabilities expand without our physical bodies being such gluttons of Mother Earth’s bounty. Any way we slice it, life as we know it is unsustainable.

Still, all that data hasn’t moved human behavior in any significant way. More than sixty years after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring sounded the wakeup call, we haven’t curbed our impact on the planet in any meaningful way, unless you consider flying so-called leaders to world-wide conferences to establish target reductions that are never achieved as an actionable step.

Data is not going to change our behavior because human beings—so ingenious in facing immediate, individual threats—are terrible at addressing slow-moving, collective problems. Lowering my thermostat, boycotting plastic containers, riding the bus: none of that will appreciably impact our environmental devastation. Besides, my neighbor is doing squat, so why should I bother?

Environmental collapse is like cancer: by the time we feel the direct effect of the disease, it’s already metastasized beyond control. Also like cancer, the mere thought of it floods us with doom; the sense that we are screwed.

Ahah! moments are not rooted in data, they emerge from personal experience. Some event or observation that illustrates how the path we’re on is totally wrong, even as the ability to redirect is beyond our reach.

For me, that moment happened about twenty years ago, on a Friday evening, driving my twelve-year-old son and three of his friends’ home from a middle school event. I drove in silence, savoring the chatter of boys rambling on as if I were invisible. School gossip. Sports talk. After ten minutes or so I realized how often these boys discussed vehicles going by. They knew makes and models, attributes of luxury and power.

Twelve-year-old boys who live in a city with excellent public transit don’t need to know much about cars. They won’t drive one for years, and even then, could easily get by without. Yet their knowledge of cars was encyclopedic because, well, automobiles are part of the American DNA. In that moment the implications of a world gripped in the thrall of the autonomy and power of individual transit on demand overwhelmed me. All American kids want cars, and most of the rest of the world wants to be like Americans. The fact that car culture demands excessive energy and enables an unsustainable footprint of ever-expanding development, is irrelevant. The next generation wants cars just as much as we did, and our parents did. Q.E.D.: we are screwed.

Twenty years later, all of these boys-to-men own vehicles: gas-friendly pick-up trucks or SUV’s. (One got married and has a child, so he drives a mini-van.) They don’t seem to care about electric; they certainly don’t ride the bus.

I know, I know. My example is statistically irrelevant. My sample size of four twelve-year-olds all grown up is tiny. Recent data indicates fewer young people drive than my generation, and fewer own vehicles. But that data also suggests the reason is lack of economic ability, not lack of desire. Yet, for some reason, chauffeuring twelve-year-old’s provided my moment when the tragedy of how we organize our lives and aspirations struck me as completely opposite what’s required for natural balance.

These days, evidence of the insane way we live at odds with our natural environment is rampant. Ever-expanding highway systems, hundreds of thousands of people flying overhead at any moment, a bag of peanuts delivered—within two hours—to our door. The average size of an individual home has more than doubled since Rachel Carson’s day: space that needs to be heated and cooled and furnished. Meanwhile, the number of homeless swells, along with the number of climate refugees. Carbon-absorbing forests are cut down; animal species go extinct on a daily basis.

I recently drove the length of the New Jersey Turnpike, never a consoling view of ecological balance. Mid-state, in that zone between New York and Philly that used to be casual farmland, now stand rows and rows of fulfillment centers, our latest, pandemic-enhanced building type. One single warehouse was over a quarter of a mile long and contained over 1,000 truck bays. Merely one among many.

Perhaps seeing those warehouses will be the event that makes one person, or even a dozen, realize we are screwed. Perhaps they’ll think twice about signing up for Amazon Prime. Regardless, their noble gesture won’t be enough to trigger mass revolt towards these monstrosities, or alter the damage already done by them and the thousands of trucks they require to deliver us peanuts on demand.

I don’t know how to slow down, stop, and redirect our unsustainable society onto a resilient path. I have no faith in international cooperation. I don’t trust our leaders to do it. Capitalism, certainly, isn’t going to be any help. So I guess it’s up to us, each individual, insignificant as we be. Can you recall the turning point in your thoughts about what we are doing to our planet? I’d love to hear the anecdote that triggered you. Perhaps, if we all start sharing our individual experience, it will somehow induce action that mere data alone is unable to inspire.

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