Category: Words

Selected thoughts, essays, and poems.

The New Normal

A8D4A9C3-CD3E-451C-9FE0-25955088678D-1921-0000036F52166DC3News footage of the rain-wrapped EF 4 tornado
in Linwood, KS, on May 28, 2019.

AS I WRITE THIS, some recent storms helped make this month the wettest May on record in this area of Kansas. Just a few hundred yards from my desk is a swollen Kansas River—higher than it’s been in decades—and that’s just one of the many rivers, streams, and tributaries throughout the Midwest that have flooded farm land, washed out roads, and inundated homes.

As if the rain wasn’t enough, the storms have been violent, too. Until a few days ago, one of my fantasies upon moving here 12 years ago was to see a tornado in person. Tornadoes have always occupied an awe-inspiring space in my subconscious, spinning in my dreams and influencing my art.

But I came about as close as I ever want to get to experiencing one in waking life when my wife and I watched the local TV news in helpless horror as a mile-wide EF4 tornado tore through the small town of Linwood, Kansas, just 17 miles east of us. Fortunately, no lives were lost, but the damage was extensive. The Linwood tornado and several others in the region marked the 12th consecutive day that the National Weather Service verified a tornado touchdown somewhere in the United States. Several more twisters the next day would establish the new record, breaking the record of 11 consecutive days set back in 1980.

These days, the conversation that inevitably follows extraordinary weather is centered on climate change. We ask the experts if this is the proof we’ve been looking for that the computer models and extensive analyses are, in fact, correct—that humans are responsible for speeding up and exacerbating climate change.

I realize that the wettest May on record and 13 straight days of tornadic weather is a woefully insufficient sample size to prove we’re experiencing the acute effects of human-enhanced climate change. Living in Tornado Alley, I know we’ve had weather like this before and that it’s been even more ferocious than what we’ve experienced this month.

But my gut—and most of the respected climate science community—tell me that It’s not so much the ferocity of the weather but the frequency of these events that demonstrate our actions have meddled with the natural processes of our planet. If that’s the case, we’re past the point of hypothetical debate on what human-caused climate change might look like—it’s happening right now. This is the new normal.

It may be hard to see in the moment, but we’re already in the next chapter of this story. Sure, there will be stragglers hanging on to the previous chapter, unwilling to accept that we’re all collectively responsible for the predicament in which we find ourselves. It will be up to the rest of us to remind them and ourselves that no matter how we got here, we’re all collectively responsible for making the decisions that lift us out of this predicament … or at least the ones that help make the most of the situation in the new normal. In that thought, there’s still hope—not that we can prevent climate change, but that we can learn how to survive and thrive.

From the Summer 2019 issue of Utne Reader

Vexations (2017)

Eight minutes and 43 seconds of pianist Michael Kirkendoll’s 11-hour performance of Erik Satie’s “Vexations” inside of Rashid Johnson’s sculptural installation “Antoine’s Organ” at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, Mo., observed on May 5, 2017. The infinite nature of a moment.

Invocation of Pure Expression

While I wholeheartedly support the act of creating without explanation or meaning, I know my art and music means more to me if it’s motivated by one or more of the following criteria. This is my Manifesto of Pure Expression:

I make art and music …

to remind myself that every moment, no matter how insignificant it may seem, can be meaningful if we choose for it to be so.

to extol the virtues of spontaneity, celebrate the majesty of the mundane, and embrace the beauty of imperfection.

that functions as a mirror to my insecurities, a vent for my frustrations, and an acceptance of my perceived shortcomings.

that emphasizes curation over creation.

for people who find it more interesting to answer the question “Do you like it?” rather than “Is it good?”

to do my part in promoting free culture.

BUT ABOVE ALL

to demonstrate that you, too, can make art and music.

 

What a Difference a Smile Makes

This summer has been a rough one for a lot of people. From terrorism at home and abroad, to violence by and against police officers, to a never-ending presidential campaign that will undoubtedly leave millions of Americans feeling alienated by the result, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the suffering, frustration, and hopelessness. So what can any of us do about it? Here’s one idea:

My friend Teri and I were talking recently about how being bombarded with bad news on a near daily basis was wearing us down. We noted that the easiest thing to do would be to stop paying attention to the news and remain blissfully ignorant, but we both understand that’s not the solution. Instead, Teri has decided to do something brilliantly simple to bring some balance into her life—she’s smiling more.

smile

The idea came to her after a friend described a profound experience she recently had with a stranger. The friend said she was driving when she passed an African American man who was walking on the sidewalk. It was a really hot day and he was sweating profusely so she felt compelled to pull over and ask him if he needed a ride. He was confused by the offer but happily accepted. They got to talking and he said he was surprised because in his experience, young white women driving around by themselves don’t normally stop to ask if a black man needs help. She soon found out that the man was walking to the hospital to meet his recently born godson. When she arrived at the hospital, he relayed how
appreciative he was of her kind act because it just meant a lot to him to be acknowledged. She responded by giving the man a hug.

The story moved Teri to tears and got her thinking about what she could do to simply acknowledge the many strangers she crosses paths with on a daily basis. So she decided that the next time she passed someone while walking down the street, she’d push herself out of her comfort zone by making eye contact and smiling. The first time she tried it, an older woman stopped in her tracks, thanked her and complimented Teri on how nice she looked. The brief interaction made Teri’s day and she decided to pay it forward later on when she walked past a well-dressed man, smiled and complimented him on how nice he looked. He was as appreciative of the comment as Teri had been earlier. And just like that, Teri had interacted on a lasting and profound level with two complete strangers simply by smiling and acknowledging that they exist.

My conversation with Teri made me realize that hopelessness is a chosen perspective. When we allow the troubles of the world to weigh us down, we become blind to the real, everyday opportunities we have to actually make a difference in someone’s life. Wouldn’t it be something if the key to solving the world’s problems was as simple as a smile? I think Teri might be on to something.

Originally published in the Fall 2016 issue of Utne Reader

Photo courtesy Juozas Salna, licensed under Creative Commons.

No Photos Necessary

It’s amazing how certain memories from childhood can stick with you and continue to shape your adult life. I’m still learning from a memory I have of a particular moment during a high school history class trip to Washington, D.C. and other sites related to the Civil War.

On a cloudy and chilly morning, we were walking around Gettysburg National Battlefield near the intersection of two stone walls called The Angle that was the site of the Confederacy’s last gasp in the fierce and bloody three-day battle. Aware of the historical significance of the site, I thought a photograph was in order, so I took a seat on the wall. As I sat there waiting for a friend to snap the photo, I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up and the emotional weight of the place bear down on me. It’s the closest experience I’ve had to paranormal, but it wasn’t scary. Rather, I found it fascinating that a physical place was capable of conveying so much emotional energy, and the experience sparked a love for history and mystery that I still enjoy today.

This past September, I had the opportunity to revisit Gettysburg for the first time since that pivotal moment in my life nearly 20 years ago. The weather was similarly chilly and dismal as I walked through the battlefield toward The Angle. My plan was to walk back to the old stone wall and see if I would feel what I felt that first time.

As I walked along the wall and looked up at a particularly poignant old tree that sits at the heart of The Angle, I contemplated that previous moment and began to feel in tune with the vibrations of that place once again. But this time, as I pulled out my phone to take a photo of the tree, I felt the goosebumps disappear. I soon realized that my effort to preserve a profound moment was precisely what caused me to lose one.

The experience made me wonder how many profound moments I’ve missed whenever I’ve stopped to record them with a photo, video, or social media post. I do these things because I think they’ll help me remember the moment, but I’ve discovered that what makes those moments special to me can’t be preserved through physical or digital artifacts.

I know that many people like documenting special moments with photos and videos and I appreciate why that’s valuable to them. But, speaking for myself, I’ve realized that I glean the most from a special moment when I focus on contemplation rather than collection. I see now that contemplation slows me down and helps the important aspects of an experience reach and nourish me—something that can only happen when I put my phone away and let my heart and mind occupy the moment so fully that I’m able to receive whatever the moment is trying to teach me.

Truth be told, I still enjoy looking at that photo of a gangly 17-year-old me huddled on the old stone wall, but not because it helps me recall a formative moment from my youth. I keep it because it’s a reminder that I never needed it in the first place.

Originally published in the Winter 2015 issue of Utne Reader