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Posts Tagged ‘definitions’

To me, this is the beauty of the united states: the glorious opportunity for a mismatched group of people to find peace together. For diversity and coexistence to come to life. There are so many beliefs, so many interests, so many personal ideals all living under one “roof.” Life is like a record store, Forrest: everyone’s vinyl is a different vintage. Some folks are jazzy, others full of metal rage. There are soft-spoken crooners and exploratory concept bands. And due to luck, fate, alphabetics, they might all be leaning against each other in the “C” box. Coltrane. Claw Finger. Crosby. Cooper. I discuss this concept with one of my favorite housemates, a grad student named Hank who does the New York Times crossword every morning. He disagrees. No man, life is like a fridge with magnetic words all over it. Sometimes they come together and make a sentence, and sometimes it’s just non-sense. But the point is, green and mother and moon are all on the same playing field. It’s just a matter of who will notice and put them together. It’s the divine spirit, the god and goddess writing a giant, ever-changing fridge poem. We contemplate this, as we drink fair trade organic coffee from chipped thrift store ceramic mugs.
“Hank. I know you have all the good mugs in your room, dude. Time to share or prepare for a raid.”
He smiles says, “Ten letters. Tom Cruise Mission.”
Impossible. I laugh as he walks away with a pen, newspaper, and yet another cup to his room. Jen and Lars come down from the attic in their pjs, which consist of a giant Steve Miller band T-shirt and a silk robe, respectively. I ask them what life is like. Lars slides next to me on the bench.He says, “It’s like some modern abstract painting: no one fucking knows what it means. Even the artist makes up some bullshit ethereal contemplation, but he doesn’t know, man. It’s all these colors and lines and shadows. Fucking beautiful.” Jen likes this because she’s the modern abstract artist. She slides onto the bench too, with two steaming cups of tea and honey. They sip gratefully, the warmth wet on their lips. Her eyes wander up and to the left, meaning she’s thinking of something good to say. Hmmmmmmm. Her eyes then close. She purrs, “Life is like a library.” She’s quiet again, as if she will keep her revelation to herself. And incredulous Lars comments that she probably hasn’t been in a library in years. She ignores him and explains: “There’s non-fiction and fiction separated into different rooms. Magazines and movies and newspapers get divided. Allende and Alcott make it so South American spirits sit next to young Victorian heiresses. Homeless men sleep in corners and yuppie kids play chase around bookshelves. Chaos and order in the same place all the time.” As she says this, Adam comes in and asks if she’s talking about our kitchen. And then he sighs because there are no more mugs in the cupboard. I stretch and pass him mine as I stand to face the day.

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(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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