Archive for the ‘1. Introduction’ Category

(Let me explain a bit about why you are reading this.  I’m not going to be presumptuous enough to declare why you chose/ found/ were given this particular book.  You can read lots of studies about how people do judge a book by its cover, by its author, by the lighting and shelf location, and the timing of fate.  Sometimes you go to reach for an interesting book and someone walks by with remnants of dog poop on their shoe and you are repulsed by the smell, so your hand instinctively shrinks back and thus you have dodged some unknown.  This is not what I am going to be (or am even capable of) explaining.  Instead, let me give you the back story about how this book got to where it is.  It started out as a conversation, a few years back…
I was a radio talk show host; my program was about recent news or studies, anyone could call in or email to share their thoughts, opinions, questions. Usually I have guests, experts or eyewitnesses in a field related to the topic of the hour.  It’s fun, check it out sometime, I’m pretty sure it’s still running.  Anyways, the topic on that fateful day (Of which I have no recollection of the date…Isn’t that funny? A life changing moment and I can’t even tell you exactly when it was. I feel like so often people remember explicit details at important moments, like “I was drafted on October 12, 1940” or, “I met him on the E. line at 67 Avenue on a sunny Monday afternoon” or, “I was brushing my teeth  and wearing my favorite flannel pajamas when I heard the news.”  I’m sure I could look it up in radio archives, but never felt the need to revisit- as if I could forget what happened anyways.) (Ahem, the topic) was celebrating community.
Seems innocent enough, people were calling in about nice neighbors and gay parades and city projects to support the disabled.  I was actually getting really riled up and excited about it, maybe even borderline preachy, telling everyone how important it was for us all come together on the same page about what it means to be a community. I was spewing out words like diversity, municipality, local, global, progress.   Hell, if you didn’t know any better you would have thought I was some Yankee Doodle Dandy about to vomit out a new world motto.  You know, community, I was talking about it, and so was everyone, and we were all on the same page.  Except, about 45 minutes into the show, you-know-what creeped in to the conversation.  (Okay, side note again! Don’t roll your eyes, this one’s important.  I am describing this Unanswerable Question in terms of fear and negativity.  But let’s be honest, my whole career is based on questions, my job is to give people tough questions to think about, the most brilliant people in the world are good at asking questions, we are born asking questions.  I love questions.  But in this case, the question in question (!) didn’t provide me with a sense of academic thirst, or a child-like wonder, or a journalistic squirm.  Instead, I felt ignorant, dread, and impotence at my inability to round together even a reasonable reply.  Something that should never happen to a well-known talk show host on-air.  I was beaten at my own game.  And for that question, while I am grateful for what the search for its answer has taught me, I will forever hold a deep and fearful respect for.) I answered a call from a young man in Alaska. He started with the typical “Thanks for letting me talk, I have been listening with interest about what everyone has said,” etc etc.  It was a little static-y because of the long distance, but suddenly  his words rang loud and clear: “But what if we define it differently?” )

(And then the show was suspended in mid-air for a moment.  And I began to pick up the pieces of my shattered understanding. The thought was followed by eloquent, controversial, beautiful explanation; clearly born out of struggle to understand the concept of community. I sat quietly, while I (and many of the listeners) absorbed the well-thought-out monologue.   As I took in the words, I knew that there had to be more, that out there were other diverse and unsung definitions living among us.  So I began this project: whose results have produced the words you are reading now; to interview a variety of people who define community in different ways, including the caller with The Question; to let them do most of the talking; to put their ideas onto paper and let it be read by the world; to start a million conversations in which we can re-interpret words we think we all define the same.)

(My questions and prompts will be in parentheses throughout their narratives.)


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This is a work of fiction. Enjoy!

(What do you do when a question is unanswerable?  I mean, there are the questions that you simply don’t know the answer to; and there are questions you prefer not to respond to because of sworn secrecy; and there are the standard theoretical questions that are used somewhat as a statement more than a query(see line one).  But then.  There is a separate category  altogether, of questions that are begging and shouting and pleading for answers; questions that make your mouth hang open or your pulse quicken or your mind race in no particular direction; questions that your soul and your brain are stirring to respond to but ultimately fall short of answering.  What do you do when you are fielded such an anomaly? Please tell me because I still want to know, even though the last time that happened to me was years ago.  Please tell me, because if it happens again, I want to be prepared this time so it doesn’t so radically change the course of my life. )

(It turns out that The Unanswerable Question can be surprisingly simple.  It doesn’t have to involve complex social theories or dense scientific data.  Nor does the syntax of the sentence need be long and complicated.  For me and my experience, it was six words followed by a question mark.  But again, let me remind you this is no ordinary question mark.  This symbol of inquiry hung in the air and grew until it filled the room.  It pressed out all other sounds, leaving a suffocating and pounding silence.  It squeezed into my lungs and left me no room for breath, let alone the chance to make a sound.  It blinded, it gagged, it threatened and menaced.  Color faded to black and white, everything in the room was broken, even time was cut open by the sharp edges of the mark.  It took about 2.3 seconds to ask; and eons to process what had been asked.   But before you get grandiose ideas about this seemingly mind-breaking inquiry (too late), know that it was certainly not the first time it has ever been asked.  In fact, it might not have even been the first time it has been asked of me.  And yet, this question did more than move me, it strapped me to a moving U-Haul and shipped me down Highway 70. It’s incredible that this small and otherwise unnoticeable part of my day has meant so much.  And yet here you are, reading about it.)

To be continued…

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