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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No Worries

“Greetings Comrade! This is Casey from Cleveland. I am coming to Cambridge for a couple of days to attend a conference on climate change. Can I stay with you?”

A typical message from a prospective couchsurfer. Unfortunately, I will be way while Casey’s in town, so I reply, “Thanks for being in touch, but I am not available to host that weekend. Enjoy Cambridge!”

To which Casey responds, “No worries.”

No worries? What does that mean? Does Casey think that telling them I can’t host constitutes a worry for me? Do they think I was going to lose sleep over whether they found another place to stay? Were they simply reassuring me that people who attend climate conferences have clear consciences?

“No worries.” Is a phrase we hear often these days, usually in casual contexts. Along with its ubiquitous corollary: “no problem.” Both phrases are, at a minimum, annoying. Worse, they contort our language, to an effect I cannot understand.

According to Merriam-Webster, worry is an intransitive verb: to afflict with mental anguish: make anxious; and also a transitive verb: to feel or experience concern of anxiety; as well as a noun: mental distress or agitation resulting from concern usually for something impending or anticipated. In other words, regardless the form of speech, worry is a big deal.

The phrase, “No worries” inherently supposes that something in an interaction rises to the level that worry is warranted, and one party is generously letting the other off the hook. Therein lies the inaccuracy (or perhaps narcissism?) in applying the word “worry” to something as simple as a couchsurf request. A communication that comes nowhere near the realm of things that actually merit worry. If I can host you, cool. If I can’t, so be it. Worry doesn’t factor for either party.

When we lip the phrase, “no worries,” about something too casual to be worrisome, we diminish the potency of the word ‘worry’ for truly terrible impending events. We also elevate our own relative importance by assuming that our little issues impose worry on others.

Perhaps it’s worth thinking twice before bestowing self-inflated absolution.

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Boycott the Box

Time We All Stop Providing Data on Race

Five years ago, I published a post, “Call Me White,” that describes how I came to use the adjective “white” to describe myself. If I use terms like Black and Brown to describe others but don’t apply a skin-deep descriptor to myself, I’m normalizing my own condition, when in fact, people with beige skin are a minority in this world.

Since then, in social conversation, online, and in print, I regularly refer to myself as a white guy. It’s not a group of humans I’m thrilled to be associated with, but as long as we continue to describe each other by race, it’s the apt label for me.

Recently, however, my ‘formal’ behavior has diverged considerably from my social convention. I no longer ‘x’ the box for ‘white’ on any form or data collection. I check ‘other’ or ‘N/A’ or, leave it blank.

I boycott the box.

Why? Because race and ethnicity are artificial constructs, created quite recently in human development, and historically used to misinform and divide, rather than unite us. Race checking keeps proliferating. I’ve been asked my race on government forms, health forms, financial forms, consumer surveys, and personal questionnaires. I imagine the form-makers justify their existence by proclaiming how a person’s race enhances the quality of data sought. Meanwhile, people who identify with a particular race may be keen to check their box, in the endless pursuit of fair counting. But why are we counting race in the first place? The truth is: race is an invented parameter; we can make it irrelevant.

I’m not agsint all box-checking; I still check any box that can matter. Whether I’m male, female, or transgender could be relevant on a health form. Socio-economic data is relevant for consumer research, as well as to the IRS. In fact, depending how severely the Supreme Court guts Affirmative Action, socio-economic data is likely to become the preferred—and more accurate—indicator of who we are in this society

Call me a white guy to my face I’m good with that. But don’t expect me to buy into the statistical game of racial pigeonholing. I boycott the box. I hope that you will start boycotting as well.

Race and Ethnicity Form: California Board of State and Community and Corrections
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One Acclaimed, One Obscure: Two Terrific Movies on Netflix

There was a time when I saw every Academy-Award nominated Best Film, Actor, Actress, and screenplay nominee before the awards presentation. But when Best Film nominees expanded from five to ten, what had been a game became a chore. I slacked off, and once I started to pick and choose, I started to be pickier, choosier. I wasn’t going to waste two hours on The Joker, no matter how many nominations it received.

The older I get, the more divergent my taste in films becomes vis-a-vis Oscar-bait. This year, I am particularly out of sync.

I tried—I truly tried—to watch Everything Everywhere All at Once, this year’s most nominated film (11). I give the movie credit for being properly titled, but having everything, everywhere all at once is not art. It is chaos. After half an hour of hyperactivity, I turned away and let my blood pressure settle.

Next up: The Banshees of Inisherin (9 nominations). I figured I’d love it. I’m Irish; it stars Colin Farrell. We set aside Christmas night to watch with great expectation. I managed to sit through the entire thing, albeit puzzled. The black humor, the irony, the deep meanings eluded me. Doesn’t filmmaking 101 teach that before you depict the deterioration of a relationship, you show its healthy bloom, so the audience knows what’s being lost? Does anyone believe these two oddballs were actually friends before they started setting fires and cutting off fingers? Does anyone care? I couldn’t see it, and definitely did not care. With the essential premise soured, what remained was simply dull horror.

I love Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, which practically invented the genre of critiquing war from within. So I was wary whether I would appreciate another nine-nomination film. I had nothing to fear. The opening sequence sucked me right in; the awe and the futility. Throughout the film, the cinematography is gorgeous, the gore revolting, the youthful fervor foreboding, the brutal end of youth agonizing. Director Edward Berger has taken liberties with the novel, all of which I thought enriched the story’s translation from one medium to another. The woes of lowly privates in trenches is condensed in time, and counterpointed by the affairs of generals and diplomats crafting the brutal terms of armistice, November 11, 1918.

All Quiet on the Western Front will likely not win Best Picture, though I believe it should. Regardless, the film catapults to the top of any list of Greatest War Movies Ever Made. And I am appreciative of Netflix for bringing it into my home.

Series of Opening Stills zoom into Horizon of Death: All Quiet on the Western Front

_ _ _ _ _

Feeling lucky, another evening I simply surfed Netflix, and was rewarded with another terrific film. Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song is an inspiring documentary that couches the life and career of singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen within the song that’s come to define him. “Hallelujah” boiled for years, through hundreds of verses, until Leonard Cohen recorded it on an album that was never even released in the United States. How, then, the song was discovered, covered, and blossomed into a phenomenon makes for a gripping framework in which to tell Leonard Cohen’s own biography.

Leonard Cohen at one of his final concerts in Tel Aviv

“Hallelujah…” confirms the ability of music to bind and to salve. But if you watch, linger through the end credits, which include this remarkable coda:  

You look around and see a world that is impenetrable.

You either raise your fist

Or you sing Hallelujah.

I try to do both.

            – Leonard Cohen

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Leslie Jones, MLK, and The Embrace

Comedy is the most precarious of arts. One person’s joke is another’s insult. And yet, comedians enjoy wide latitude in our culture because, let’s face it, we’re a screwed-up society, and gifted comedians tap into the humor of our dissonant truths. The best of them reveal actual truth through humor.

Leslie Jones on The Daily Show

A friend sent me the link to The Daily Show with Leslie Jones’ take on the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial in Boston Common. I clicked play. I listened. I even laughed, uncomfortably, at the disgust Ms. Jones’ displays. Yet before the segment played out, my levity turned sour. I wondered why a comedian granted the huge platform of The Daily Show chose to use it so disparagingly.

Ms. Jones starts with a warning: “Even though I am about to go straight on this statue, I got to talk to the white people for a second. White people. You don’t need to be saying shit about this statue, you understand? Black hands only. You need to sit your ass in the back of the bus for this one, okay? You need to honor this statue. This is our civil rights icon.”

Sometimes I chose to sit in the back of the bus. But the point of the civil rights movement—refusing to sit in the back of the bus—was not to transfer second-class status from Black people to others. The point was to allow each individual to sit on any available seat, wherever they like. And so the moment anyone tells me where I have to sit, is the moment my hackles rise.

I continued to listen as Ms. Jones proceeds to describe how The Embrace, modelled on a photograph of Dr. King and his wife upon learning that he won the Nobel Peace Prize, looks like cunnilingus. “Martin Luther King going down on his wife. I can’t unsee it. I can’t unsee it. It is what it is.” I do not see what Leslie Jones cannot unsee. Then again, we tend to see what we want to see, in life, and particularly in art.

Fellow comedian Dulce Sloan joins in. Dulce sees a different sexual act: a pair of hands on a giant penis. Given my personal proclivities, that might be a more plausible thing for me to see. But I don’t see that either. Ms. Sloan goes on to praise right-wing zealots: “They know how to make a statue. It’s a white dude on a horse. It’s always a white due on a horse. That’s what the liberals need to do. Make a statue of MLK, in his suit, on a horse.” She then concedes that she does not know if MLK ever rode a horse.

By this point I’m wondering how these two Black female comedians, who might mine excellent material from the challenges of creating a more equitable world, choose to reiterate supremacist tropes. Why do they turn a discussion about a memorial to Martin Luther King into an informercial for the Great Replacement Theory?

A child within The Embrace

On a warmish January day, I did something that I doubt either Ms. Jones or Ms. Sloan did: I went to see The Embrace.

First off, it is beautiful. Seamless, glistening, elegant in scale and form. Second, it’s popular. Dozens and dozens of people milling around, photographing the sculpture, photographing each other. Talking among their companions and with the strangers. No one even paused at the statues of white guys on horses. Third, it is not a statue. It is a sculpture; it is a memorial. It is evocative of what Dr. King stood for. It invites you within, it boosts you up, it elicits community, it represents love.

I understand why Leslie Jones chooses to disparage what she could have elevated. Disdain plays for laughs better than honor, and cheap pokes have yielded her millions.

Standing before the sculpture, among dozens of people who looked like a full cross section of our nation, I did not see cunnilingus. I did not see a giant penis. I saw what Dr. Martin Luther King stood for. I saw the human potential to bend the moral arc of the universe towards justice.

I am saddened that two women who have benefited greatly from Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy are unable to see the same thing.

The heart of The Embrace
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The NFL’s Long Journey to “Inspire Change”

Flag covered Field at NFC Championship Game

Here it comes…Super Bowl Sunday!

The biggest unofficial holiday in America!

Have you invited over your buddies?

Got your beer and chips and dips and wings on hand?

Are you psyched for the hype, the commercials…and Rihanna!

Oh, and by the way, there’ll be a football game.

Generald Wilson sings our National Anthem at AFC Championship Game

By some weird equilibrium of the metaverse, the older I get, the more politically I engage, the more radical my ideas become, the more I love professional football. Don’t seek the logic: there isn’t any. Chalk it up to my endless fascination with the dichotomies of America: all of which the NFL manages to champion.

I grew up wedged between New York and Philly; the Giants and the Jets and the Eagles. I cannot forget that brutally cold winter day, shivering in the concrete recesses of Franklin Field, watching little men in dark uniforms run around on the field below me. I didn’t understand a single thing going on, and didn’t care.

That didn’t stop me from joining freshman football; a feeble attempt to save face before my athletic brothers. I was chunky, uncoordinated, and therefore assigned to play guard. Field practice was gruesome. Blackboard sessions even more debilitating. I was supposed to be this academic whiz kid: why couldn’t I make any sense of the X’s and O’s, curved lines and arrows? Two weeks into the season—physically exhausted and mentally numb—my brother said, “You know there’s some cool kids in the band.” I quit football the next day, and spent happy high school years parading my Sousaphone up and down the field.

As an adult, I indulged in just enough football for Monday morning office water cooler chat. Until I had a son, who immediately and absolutely loved football. I wanted to be a good dad, I wanted to bond with my children, and so my eight-year-old tutored me on first downs and two-point conversions. Over time, I learned the difference between a shotgun and a wishbone, though I’m still kinda loose about slot receivers, wide receivers, corner safeties, and tight ends.

Dissected flag at AFC Championship Game

Being a New England Patriot’s fan in the early Aught’s was easy: they always won. My football season extended as long as the Pats were in the playoffs, as I had no interest in any other team.

I became enchanted with football as America’s premier cultural phenomenon—and our nation’s accurate mirror. The teams were virtually all owned and coached and quarterbacked by white guys. Yet a disproportionate number of Black men did the heavy lifting as our 21st century version of Roman Gladiators. I didn’t care for the militaristic patriotism the NFL promoted: field covered flags with fighter jets overhead; too many commercials to join the US Army. The NFL highlighted our bellicose tendencies. And yet, there was obvious comradery among teammates. And over time there were Black referees, female referees, whose word was law. Maybe there was more going on here than sonic booms.

As the Patriots have descended into the ranks of the mediocre, my football watching has actually increased. I still suffer through every Pats game, but also follow their better rivals: Buffalo; Cincinnati; Kansas City.

I also appreciate the equalitarianism creeping into the upper echelons of the league. What Colin Kaepernick endured would likely not play out today, when 11 of 32 starting quarterbacks are Black. There are also three Black coaches, though Brian Flores trials illustrate they still operate under separate and not equal rules. Team owners are still mostly a white man’s club, yet Kim Pegola (co-owner of Buffalo Bills) Shadid Khan (Jacksonville Jaguars), and Lewis Hamilton (co-owner of Denver Broncos) are making inroads there as well. Perhaps we will one day get to the point where we don’t feel compelled to enumerate QB’s, coaches, and owners by their native origin or skin color. After all, we are all Americans.

Which brings me to the most fascinating aspect of the NFL: how it balances its fundamental militarism with messages of social justice. Many players sport, “End Hate,” “Choose Love,” and “Black Lives Matter” on the back of their helmets. Helmets they then use to bash their fellow man. Goal posts are wrapped in the message, “End Racism.” And ends zones are lettered, “Inspire Change.”

“Inspire Change” is NFL’s official Social Justice initiative, complete with a cool logo and a Changemaker Award. At first I was turned off by the milquetoast slogan that can mean pretty much anything to anybody. We are all fans of change, in theory, but rarely fans of specific change, especially if it directly affects us.

But the more “Inspire Change” gets drilled into me, game after game, the more I realize it’s a perfect exemplar of the NFL as our national mirror. Anyone, of any political persuasion, can watch any NFL game and see what they want to see, hear the message they want to hear. From awesome fighter jets to love, every perspective is represented, all at the same time. We are tough and we are compassionate. And of course, each message comes with corresponding apparel available through NFL.com.

And so this Sunday I will watch the Super Bowl. I will be awed by the remarkable athleticism. I will be revolted by the aggression. I will be amused by the commercials. I will be uplifted by the noble slogans. I will be horrified by the blatant militarism. Nevertheless, I will watch. As this paradigm of our national values, in full regalia, unfolds.

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Dionysus Says:

I discovered this quotation, attributed to the Greek Poet Euboulos, 4th century BCE, beneath the display of a humongous drinking vessel at the Harvard Art Museum. It is too pithy, too exact, not to have its own dedicated blog post:

“Three bowls of wine only do I mix for the sensible: one is dedicated to health (and they drink first), the second to love and pleasure, the third to sleep—when this is drunk up wise guests go home.

“The fourth krater is ours no longer but belongs to hybris (outrage), the fifth to arguments, the sixth to drunken revel, the seventh to black eyes, the eight to the bailiff’s, the ninth belongs to bitter anger, and the tenth to madness that makes people throw things.”

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Expanding the Scope of Genesis…according to The New York Times

“Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” – Genesis 1:26, New King James Version

I’ve always considered it the height of vanity to think that god made us in its image, and an utter lack of imagination to think that god looks like us. But then, I suppose the essence of all religion is the juxtaposition of hubris and ignorance. Creators of religions make authoritative pronouncements about where we come from, why we are here, and where we’re going based on fable and fictions, and then coerce their followers into venerating their vision as sacred truth.

Thus we wind up with passages like Genesis 1:26, proclaiming man’s dominion over the entire earth. By 2023, this impudence is leading directly to man pretty much destroying the gift we’ve been given, under the pretext that we have a god-given right to dominate this place, even if it destroys us.

Back up a few months to a quotation in The New York Times Morning Newsletter, November 22, 2022 about rejuvenated efforts to take us—once again—to the moon:

“If there is water on the moon, you can split off hydrogen from oxygen and make rocket fuel. Such a prospect would be transformative because the moon could be used as a base for deep-space missions without the cost and burden of lifting heavy rocket fuel off the Earth, which has six times the gravity of the moon. “Scientifically, that’s a cool possibility…and so people started getting interested in the moon again.””

In other words, when we’ve exhausted our capacity to inhabit this planet, we’ll move on to the next, extract what we can, and so on and so on. When does it stop?

The answer, of course, is that it doesn’t stop. And, even as I strive to make the smallest possible footprint upon the planet that nourishes us—not to mention the moons and the planets we’d like to deplete—I realize that it’s virtually impossible to live in balance with nature. The fundamental systems of our existence are based on extraction: taking from mother earth; taking from our fellow man.

And yet, although I strive, I don’t give in to despair. Because when our time is up, and man does himself in on this earth, and we follow the course of the dinosaurs before us, we will have had a good run. Once we’re gone, the earth will be able to repair, new forms of life will emerge. Maybe they’ll be more successful than us because they’ll find a way to live in balance. Unshackled by Genesis’ hollow proclamation of dominance, or even The New York Times promoting unsustainable follies into space.

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Crosswalks of My Mind

When the city revamped Huron Avenue, they sunk granite curbs level with the pavement to define the crosswalks, an expensive yet elegant bit of urban dressing. On my meditative walks home from the gym, I often find myself tracking the granite as if I were an Olympic gymnast, one foot in front of the other. A simple bit of balance with no risk, as there is no place to fall.

The Olympic analogy is short-lived; I can’t pretend to be an Olympian for even a few moments. So my mind spins to other feats of folly. I recall the child actor Matthew Garber, who played Michael Banks in Mary Poppins. In a movie-instant that few probably recall, as Mary, Jane, and Michael depart 17 Cherry Tree Lane for adventure, Michael snakes around the porch column, rather than simply trod down the front steps. The image of that round-faced boy in his shorts suit and cap pivoting off that column stuck with me for years. I credit it as the inspiration for the Master’s thesis I wrote almost twenty years later: Architecture that Affords Play.

I savored that time: studying the psychology of play; analyzing how people interact with the built environment in unanticipated ways; creating over two hundred free-hand drawings back in the pre-Photoshop days of cut and paste.

Then my mind turns a dark shadow as I flinch at a more recent memory. The director I’m collaborating with on a new play chastised my working process. “Loosen up, play with it!” I explained to him that, as a person of engineering temperament, I know how to play like an adult— manipulating something I’ve already mastered—but find it wicked difficult to play like a child—who seeks mastery through open-ended exploration. Even when I was a child, I don’t recall playing like one. I don’t know if he ‘hears’ me, or believes me, but his words sting deep because I know all too well how my creative impulses are stymied by a rigid constitution that simply won’t things fly.

By now I’m approaching the next crosswalk. A dozen steps ahead, I see a woman pursuing my own indulgence: balancing herself along the granite strip of crosswalk. She’s older than me, but simply from the way her body jostles as she steps, I can tell she’s jolly.

I Mary-Lou-Retton my way across the street and greet my fellow gymnast on the far side. “I’ve never seen anyone else left-right-left across the street on the granite strip.” “I do it all the time; it’s good for my balance.” We laugh with each other and move on. Grateful to live in a city that can afford the indulgence of granite curbs where none are required. Thankful that we can still toe the line.

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What’s Going on in Haiti?

Ten years ago this month I completed the first great adventure of my life: designing and supervising the construction of two buildings in Grand Goave, Haiti following the 2010 earthquake that devastated that country. My work on the Mission of Hope School and Be Like Brit orphanage were the epitome of my architectural career, fusing built form and community need in a more potent way than in any previous projects. My time in Haiti brought me a fresh, humbled, view of our reason for existing on this earth, slowed me down, and created important connections that remain dear to me today.

Me, in Haiti 2012

No matter how we might otherwise prefer, when we reach out to fellow humans in distress, the person who can extend themselves almost always benefits more than the person they try to lift up. Perhaps this is because the challenges of the needy are more complex than we suppose. Perhaps it’s because economics and politics are so complicated. Perhaps it’s because despite best intentions, the gratification of giving exceeds the humility of receiving. That the giver so often falls short of alleviating the plight of the receiver does not mean that we should not attend to fellows in distress. Rather it means we should accept that the fruits of our labor may be less, sometimes much less, than we desire.

After the Haiti earthquake, the world showered the impoverished nation with attention, relief supplies, and money. Billions of dollars in humanitarian assistance. My own contributions created two sturdy reinforced concrete buildings in a community that had none. The school is a place where hundreds of children learn; the orphanage a place where dozens of children live; and each provide community-wide refuges from the tropical storms that so often batter Haiti. However, any objective analysis of the hundreds of thousands of dollars these two projects consumed would show that money could have better addressed more fundamental Haitian needs like safe drinking water or sanitation. Alas, it is much easier to raise money for an orphanage and a school than a septic system.

The hope of Haiti, 2012

Ten years on I can reflect how my time in Haiti changed my life, positively, forever. Unfortunately, I can’t report that the decade produced similar positive change there. Recent articles in The New York Times (11/27/2022: Link) and The Boston Globe (12/23/2022: Link) report a country racked by political instability, gang violence, economic deprivation, and rampant disease.  Today, Haiti is more unstable than at any time since the earth rumbled, yet this time round, there is little international will to intervene. In fact, the international community is pretty much washing our hands of the mess.

What that means for Mission of Hope is that the lifeblood of their operation is gone; Haiti is too dangerous to bring in missionaries. Mission of Hope continues to provide basic services and education in Grand Goave, but their direction of growth is actually in the Dominican Republic, where a flood of Haitian emigree’s has created refugee ghettos in need of services in a place where Mission of Hope can safely bring volunteers.

Meanwhile, some of Be Like Brit’s orphans are nearly grown, yet despite having many educational and health advantages, they have no place to graduate to, in a country with virtually no economic promise.

I am still in touch with several people affiliated with Mission of Hope; I still work with Renee and Lex and Gama and other central characters from Architecture by Moonlight on projects that maybe, someday, will become reality. I refuse to despair about Haiti, because one thing I learned from The Magic Island is the persistence of hope. Hope conquers all. And so I am happy to report that Dieurie, one of the boys I have sponsored for all of these years, is still making his way through school, and should actually graduate in two years’ time. Meanwhile, his younger brother, the mischievous Dieunison, who conquered my heart as a six-year-old, has been in and out of all kinds of trouble but at this moment is reunited with his brother and hopefully seeking a solid path to manhood.

Dieunison & Dieurie, 2022

I can’t say that Dieunison or Dieurie or Haiti as a whole are where I hoped they would be when I left ten years ago. But it’s not my position to pass judgment on any individual or nation. I must be content in believing that I made the place a little bit better, even if it seems I was the one who came out with the better deal.

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