Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Call of Duty

The fallout from the riots following the Monday (April 27) funeral of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died earlier this month in Baltimore police custody, has been roiling on social media ever since angry crowds began torching vehicles and looting shops in the city.

The chatter has followed a familiar trajectory: First, the breathless posting of breaking news from a range of sources – each revealing a sliver of the poster’s own sociopolitical leanings.

Second, the accusations, which include railing against police discrimination and brutality or the U.S. gun culture, issuing political and media recriminations, and calling for individual responsibility and self control, and finally, the various calls to action.

These range from the passive – “thoughts and prayers for the people of Baltimore” (acknowledging that these can have enormous power if they are not merely empty platitudes) – to the active, which include incitements to “fight the power” or work to effect social change.

This last point has been interesting, as people have been sharing many ideas about how to act, from championing the cause of racial justice on social media to lobbying politicians or working to redress social ills by funding school lunches, providing pro bono legal support and the like.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the deadly April 25 earthquake in Nepal – most recent figures put the death toll at upwards of 4,600 – has provoked a similar cycle of reaction.

A  flurry of “pray for Nepal” memes has been followed by finger-pointing accusations of inaction and exhortations to “send money, not prayers”, offering links to a range of charities.

In times of natural and manmade disaster, what is our call of duty?

And what does call of duty even mean?

Type the term into any search engine, and you’ll get the data for the Call of Duty first-person shooter video game franchise, in which players can pretend to be muscle-bound soldiers taking out “targets” (aka “people”) in various conflicts, from World Wars I and II to the present.

The series is wildly popular, with upwards of 140 million copies sold.

According to Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that helps families make smart media choices, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare “is rated ‘Mature’ for portraying highly authentic modern military combat with realistic gore”.

“There are distressing situations involving torture, execution, and the gruesome deaths of primary protagonists to whom the player will likely have grown attached,” according to the website’s review. “This material is more intense and disturbing than in earlier games of this series, and a diverse selection of cuss words is clearly audible.”

The game scores five out of five for violence.

In countries where conflict has become a part of daily life, such as Syria, Iraq and Yemen, to name just a few, there are many other calls of duty that demand our attention.

Humanitarian organizations operating in war zones or areas of natural disaster such as Nepal call on us to help them provide food, shelter and the funding and expertise to restore basic services such as electricity and water.

They ask us to support doctors and teachers and to advocate for the rights of refugees.

It is not merely warriors that are needed in times of crisis, but money, practical assistance and advocacy, moral and spiritual support and moms, such as the Baltimore mother whose videotaped attempts to drag her son out of the fray went viral on news and social media.

A call of duty in times of trouble can take many forms, but it is important to remember that most do not involve real or simulated violence.

This billboard appeared on Charles Street in Baltimore after Gray's death in police custody.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Introducing my new portfolio

I'm happy to share the link to my new online portfolio, and hope you will stop by for a visit if you are so inclined. I've included some of the stories I liked best and will be adding more from time to time.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

In case of emergency, take off your high-heeled shoes

“In case of emergency, loosen your tie and collar… take off your high-heeled shoes.”

This instruction, delivered via the Turkish Airlines in-flight safety video in a sophisticated female voice, caught my attention during a recent trip to Istanbul.

It offers, I feel, a significant lesson in disaster preparedness which also can be applied to a variety of situations on the ground.

While walking passengers through some worst-case scenarios, the in-flight announcement offers a subtle reminder that how we present ourselves to the world is important.

Harkening back to a more glamorous era, it raises the bar on travel attire. Please note that it is not necessary to “unzip your hoodie and kick off your Crocs” if you find yourself in peril. On land as in the air, dressing with care signals self-esteem and respect for others. (Remember the flap over the Northwestern University lacrosse team members who wore flip flops to the White House?)

In life, as in travel, it is important to put your best foot forward.

Smoothly scripted though they may be, in-flight safety videos are designed to remind us that life can be capricious: If your life were to take an unexpected turn today, what would you want to be wearing?

They also cause us to contemplate, however subliminally, the prospect of our own mortality. And this begs a deeper question: Faced with imminent death, how – and who – would you want to be?

Top photo from Photobucket.com: http://i1057.photobucket.com/albums/t392/Miss-Sexylegs/b7411f5d.jpg

Monday, August 6, 2012

Yes is the answer

When John Lennon first met Yoko Ono he experienced a rare moment of cosmic connection.

Invited to climb a ladder at the Indicia Gallery in London, where Ono was preparing a conceptual art exhibit, he used a magnifying glass suspended from a string to find the word “yes” inscribed in tiny writing on a canvas on the ceiling.

The installation was simple. Yet the effect of the Nov. 9, 1966 encounter was enduring, and the affirmative power of this story has held up through countless retellings and lives on, like the legend of John and Yoko, as part of our collective cultural history.

For Lennon, it was a seminal moment. From his subsequent relationship with Ono he derived fresh energy and inspiration. While distancing himself from the Beatles and all they had become, he did not move away from his music but rather toward something bigger – art as social activism.

In short, he decided to stand for something, melding his music with Ono’s talent for performance art to promote causes such as world peace via Bed-Ins in Amsterdam and Montreal.

At its best, conceptual art provokes thought, and Save the Date, an upcoming performance by Kathryn Cornelius at the District’s Corcoran Gallery of Art is already promising some mind games.

From 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Cornelius will explore “the life cycle of marriage and divorce and the wedding ceremony’s complex mix of private emotion, public spectacle, social expectation, and state power” by getting married to, and divorced from, seven consecutive suitors – male and female – who have proposed to her online.

It's a kind of Bed-In for our age.

“With the passing of Prop 8 in California, and more recent turns in North Carolina, the looming presidential race is already teeing up the topic of marriage in its political rhetoric as ideological artillery for the coming election,” Cornelius writes on the Save the Date website, a precursor to the performance complete with “registry” and “propose to me” tabs. “What better location than the Corcoran’s liminal space, in clear-glass view of the White House, to stage a massive spectacle of the lifecycle of marriage and divorce?”

Whatever you think, Cornelius promises to make you think. I think John and Yoko would approve.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Windex vs. Dettol – the smackdown

If you’ve ever seen My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding, you’ll recall the patriarch’s love affair with Windex, which he used to clean his glasses, hands and car and prescribed as a cure-all for a variety of ailments and skin blemishes.

“Put some Windex.”

But if you’ve ever lived in the Middle East – or even stopped by – you’ll know that the real big gun in the household arsenal is not the beautiful blue window cleaning spray, but a screw-top bottle filled with a yellowish liquid that turns cloudy on contact with water: Dettol, a product with almost limitless powers.

This distinctively-scented antiseptic is used in its various forms to clean toilets, floors and kitchen counters, wash dishes, rinse vegetables and fruit, disinfect cuts, bites and wounds and as a gargle for sore throats.

It also comes fetchingly packaged as a bar of yellow soap, great for washing people, pets and clothing. And let’s throw in curtains and upholstery, too, for good measure. (A visit to Dettol’s website reveals it’s now being marketed in multiple forms, from disinfectant wipes to hand sanitizer).

Last week an Arab friend was reminiscing about Dettol, which is manufactured by Reckitt Benckiser, an Anglo-Dutch household products and drugs group, and was in 2011 ranked as the 48th most trusted brand in India by The Brand Trust Report.

Yes, India, which is one of the world’s top 10 economies. So that’s a pretty big deal.

Anyway, Mahmoud remembered his mother daubing his skinned knees with diluted Dettol on a cotton ball, while the maid used it to mop the floor and his father poured it into the toilet bowl.

“What the hell is this stuff?” he wondered, examining the bottle’s English-language label with its little sword logo. “It’s a colonial conspiracy!”

Who knows, he may have been onto something. A quick Google search after our conversation unearthed the following bit of trivia from the unreliably sourced yet relied upon Wikipedia: “In Australia, Dettol spray has been shown to be lethal to cane toads, an invasive species that was introduced from Hawaii. … Spraying the disinfectant at close range has been shown to cause fast-acting death.”

So if you are a cane toad, or even remotely resemble one, steer well clear of the Middle East if you value your life. You have been warned.

And for all the rest of you human beings, forget about the Windex.

“Put some Dettol!”

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Desperate screenwriters, and other tales of writer's block

Oh, how I relished ABC’s recently concluded Desperate Housewives, a series stuffed with so many hooks and quippy one-liners that it would put a fisherman’s tackle box to shame.

I was full of admiration for the screenwriters, who managed to create story arcs for the ladies of Wisteria Lane that blended the sympathetic and the sinister and tapped into the dark side of suburbia without becoming dark. Quite a feat.

So when I came across Tanner Stransky’s excellent  roundup of the highs and lows of the series in Entertainment Weekly, (#1200, March 30, 2012) I was fascinated to read about the “back end” of the series – the feet paddling furiously under the surface to keep the storyline moving smoothly forward:

“As the show burned through stories, plotlines became more outlandish, as evidenced by the annual ‘disaster episode,’ in which the ladies' hometown of Fairview was struck by a tornado, fire, plane crash, and riot, consecutively,” Stransky writes, going on to quote coexec producer Bob Daily: “A great part of our day in the writers' room is spent saying, ‘We've done that...’ We did, toward the end, start to think, ‘Are there any natural disasters left?’ We're not in the right climate for volcanoes and floods.”

Writer's block happens – even to the cleverest  writers.

It also happens to people who aren’t writers.

In the April 2012 issue of Vanity Fair, Sam Kashner interviews Julia Roberts and Mike Nichols:

“VANITY FAIR: I always wondered if actors feel the way writers sometimes feel when they haven’t written in a while—this fear of shutting down. What they call writer’s block, for lack of a better word.
JULIA: I think all creative people feel that way.
MIKE: Yes.
JULIA: I’ve certainly felt that way. Every first day of any job, you’re getting ready and you think, I hope it’s in there. I hope it comes out when it’s supposed to. You have to feel that way; you have to be nervous.
MIKE: It’s not something you can count on, by definition. I do think people go through cycles. The people I’ve admired most have gone through cycles, lost themselves briefly, usually in the middle, and then they’d found a way to keep generating it. I think it’s like Dante’s Inferno—you do find yourself in a dark wood one way or another. And then you get stronger after that. It’s such a fleeting and mysterious thing.”

But what can be done about writer's block when it strikes? On March 19, NPR's Robert Siegel spoke with author Jonah Lehrer about his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works. In the NPR segment, Lehrer says that when you encounter an obstacle, you should step away from your work:

“What you should do then — when you hit the wall — is get away from your desk. Step away from the office. Take a long walk. Daydream. Find some way to relax. Get those alpha waves. Alpha waves are a signal in the brain that's closely correlated with states of relaxation. And what scientists have found is that when people are relaxed, they're much more likely to have those big 'A ha!' moments, those moments of insight where these seemingly impossible problems get solved. So when you hit the wall, the best thing you can do is probably take a very long, warm shower. The answer will only arrive once you stop looking for it."

During a May 8 talk at the National Geographic Society, travel writer Joyce Maynard revealed that she also believes in stepping away.

“I’m such an active person,” she said. “ If I’m sitting at my desk and it’s not going well, I get up and take a hike, swim, scrub my floor. And I consider that writing.”

While she is engaged in these other activities, Maynard said, her mind is still at work, mulling over the story she is writing in a process that is “just as important as typing time.”

Based on this collective wisdom, there are two key points to take to heart when you are struggling unsuccessfully to solve a creative problem.

First, remember that you are not alone, as even the most talented people experience this occasionally.

Second, do not sit staring blankly at your keyboard. Step away. Do something else. And maybe when you come back, the desperation will be gone, and in its place will be the hooks, plot twists and quippy one-liners that have been eluding you.


Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The weight of words

Words can be heavy. Choosing them carefully can be difficult. So much thinking, so much typing, so much chewing of the pen. But words can also be light and fun. Crosswords, Scrabble, Boggle for the game lovers. Words that rhyme or just make you giggle. I've been playing with word clouds this evening, pasting different texts into TagCrowd. Here's a word cloud of the posts from this blog:

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