Over the past week, there have been several stories that I’ve been following that all fit together in an unexpected larger theme. The first was the release of John Jorge’s Music Video, Lovin’. For those who don’t recognized the name yet, I think the first time I was him perform was in the Amity High School’s production of Rent.
I believe this was the day before Thanksgiving, which is the second story to pay some attention. Every year, we stop to give thanks for all that has been given us. As a New Englander who can trace his genealogy back to the early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, this is an important day for me. Part of what I’m thankful for is the freedoms my ancestors came to this country in search of.
Another big story for me of the past few days is my completion of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. I finished the first 50,000 word draft of my second novel on Saturday. There is something very empowering to set out to create something challenging and complete it. I will see if I will go through the editing and revisions necessary to get it to be presentable for publication, either through traditional channels or through self publication.
Then, there was the story in the Washington Post of a teacher resigning because of what is happening in education.
All of this leads up to World AIDS Day and an incredible article in the New Yorker, What Young Gay Men Don’t Know About Aids. I work at a Federally Qualified Health Center that treats people with AIDS. I am a Health Leadership Fellow of the Connecticut Health Foundation working with others to address health disparities in our state.
AIDS is a very important topic we need to have open and honest discussions about, which leads me to the final story I want to focus on.
An article in the Hartford Courant put it this way.
Student representatives from Trumbull High's theater department were told last Monday that the show they planned to perform next spring covered topics too "sensitive" or "controversial" for a high school.
Originally, I was planning to write an open letter to the Trumbull High School administration, pointing out how not allowing the production of Rent was incredibly short sighted. I would talk about depriving students of opportunities for prepare for their careers, as the Amity production of Rent helped John Jorge on his career. How not allowing the production went against the freedoms that our forefathers came to this country for. How not allowing the production was an affront to all people seeking to improve the lot of mankind through creativity. How not allowing the production would damage the school district by showing a heavy handed administration that doesn’t allow educators to challenge their students. How not allowing the production was an insult to the people of Trumbull by saying that students at Amity and in Greenwich where Rent has been produced are more capable of handling “sensitive” or “controversial” subjects.
But the most important topic to me was the health topic. According to The Connecticut Department of Health there were nearly 700 case of HIV infection reported in Bridgeport, the city next to Trumbull during the years 2002-2011. Yes, the rate of new infections has been going down, but every new infection with HIV is one infection too many.
HIV/AIDS is not too “sensitive” or “controversial”. HIV/AIDS is an infection which we can stop the spread of. We can do this by talking openly and honestly about the infection, about the stigma. If we care about the children in our schools, we need to have these discussions.
I am tempted to wax polemic adopting the voice of preachers I know that would point out that by preventing these discussions, there is blood on our hands. Yet I’m not sure that is effective. It isn’t really my style.
But, this evening, I went to a World AIDS Day event where another section of the quilt was unveiled. It commemorated people in Connecticut how had died as a result of AIDS. It was attended by people who were living successful lives knowing that they were HIV positive. These were people who have confronted the stigma, found out their status and were getting the treatment so that an HIV infection for them was a chronic disease, not a death sentence. These were people who knew their status and because of their knowledge, were not spreading the infection.
I wept with them as we mourned the death of loved ones.
In my heart, I prayed for those who indirectly contribute to the ongoing spread of HIV by thwarting opportunities for discussion. I wished they could have stood with me at the unveiling of this latest section of the quilt and I pray that these words might cause some to stop and think about what their decisions mean for freedom, for education, and most importantly, for health.
Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit. December 1st. National Novel Writing Month is over. I completed the first draft of my second novel. Thanksgiving and the blackness of the first shopping rush has passed. I have avoided stores all weekend. Today, Advent starts. Today is World AIDS Day. During this time of expectant waiting, what are you waiting for?
Friends of mine who are HIV activists have a goal, Getting to Zero. Zero new infections. Zero discrimination. Zero AIDS-related deaths. Some think it would take a miracle to achieve this. Others think that by people working together we can get there. Advent is a time of waiting and preparing for miracles.
How much divine intervention is necessary to get to zero? How much human participation? We can argue about the mix of the two, it seems like that is what theologians have done for ages. To me, it seems like a mix of the two. We can pray for divine intervention. We can organize human participation. We should do both.
So as we enter Advent, let’s pray and organize for something much more important than the latest electronics picked up in a Black Friday Frenzy. Let’s pray and organize around getting to zero, Zero new infections. Zero discrimination. Zero AIDS-related deaths.
We are less than two weeks away from the beginning of National Novel Writing Month, #NaNoWriMo. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. Just straight through writing. You can save the editing for later.
The first year I did NaNoWriMo, I wrote a mystery in Second Life, and made the goal of 50,000 words. Subsequent years, I've started off on story ideas that were not clearly thought out enough, were too close to home, or I just didn't have the time. I've tried various variations on NaNoWriMo and am preparing for this year's attempt.
I've been thinking of writing some sort of psychological political philosophical treatise pulling together thoughts on aesthetics, politics, the genome, the biome, great awakenings, transcendentalism, transhumanism, the apocalypse, the singularity, social constructs and social contracts, neural networks, group therapy, attachment therapy, filter bubbles and a bunch of other ideas.
The starting point I've settled on is a campaign for State Representative. I will draw from my experiences running for State Representative last year, as well as experiences with other political campaigns, but I need to remind everyone that what I'll be writing is fiction, trying to weave together a lot of different ideas. If you find that a character sounds a lot like you, attribute it to good writing and not being a commentary on you. If you have ideas you want to share, make them about ideas and not your thoughts about different people.
With that, here is the general idea: In a fictional district, based loosely on the area I am from, there is a long time incumbent State Rep. His twin brother is a mayor in one of the towns in the district. His father was a Congressman. No one wants to run against the incumbent, so a political philosopher decides to run, but a completely different kind of campaign. No lawn signs, door knocking, palm cards,, advertisements, or any of that sort of stuff. Just discussions. Discussions about anything and everything. Discussions aimed at bring people with different viewpoints together, modeled on Chicago dinners, and aimed at breaking filter bubbles.
One of the towns in the district is a suburb where many college professors live, so there are lots of chances to talk about the genome, the biome, social contracts and social constructs.
I have a lot more ideas built into this, but I'll save some of them for November. Now, here's my ask: what sort of things would you like to talk about at a filter breaking dinner discussion organized by a long shot candidate for state representative? What points would you like to see gotten across? What conflicts would you expect?
As you can see by my comments about transhumanism, singularity, and the apocalypse, this is wide open. Let me know your thoughts!
As elected officials in Washington set aside their own pride and gluttony and worked together to meet the needs of all the people in our great country, our not, I spent the day going from one event to another seeing the power of community coming together.
My Thursday morning started with a visit to a small neighborhood school in New Britain. They were starting a new program, a "Walking School Bus". Parents would walk their kids to school, along a predetermined route. Along the way, other kids would come out and join the group. They would all get exercise as they headed off to school. Parents would talk, and get some exercise themselves. The community would be strengthened and absenteeism would be decreased.
People from various community organizations showed up to join the celebration, encourage the families and look for ways to spread the program.
From their, I went to a meeting of the Connecticut Multicultural Health Partnership. We were discussing the National Culturally and Linguistically Appropriate Services (CLAS) Standards in Health and Health Care.
A friend, who does trainings on this for the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, spoke about the importance of challenging your own thinking. I've been thinking about this a bit in writing. Next month is National Novel Writing Month. I wrote a novel one year, and tried a few other years, but just couldn't make enough time. I need to work much more on my writing; plot development, setting, and especially my characters. Other friends of mine in health care write novels, and it struck me that culturally and linguistically appropriate character development training would be great for novelists.
As an aside, Friday, I met with an HIV outreach worker and a couple college kids to talk about a social media and beyond project addressing stigmas in health care. The HIV outreach worker is HIV Positive. He talks a lot about being 'positive' and at one point we got into a discussion about how people with health stigmas, like being HIV positive is rarely portrayed in popular culture, let alone portrayed in a way that reduces stigma.
I ended Thursday off with a visit to a Fall Food Fair for Diabetes Awareness, yet another chance for people to help one another in culturally appropriate ways to live healthier.
Today, I head off to help people get health insurance, then to document people from work rebuilding a house for Habitat for Humanity.
All of this, I set against what is going on in social media. The noise about disfunction in the GOP controlled House of Representatives in Washington dominates my feed, interrupted by people talking about their struggles. One person grieves the death of her son to pediatric cancer as an important Muslim holiday approaches. Two others have posted about friends of theirs who have recently taken their lives. One wrote a great status update. I shared it with my own status update following the same vein.
I hate those: "If you're a real friend you'll post one word as a comment about how we met, copy and paste my status verbatim, send me $100 and annoy the hell out of all your friends at the same time" sort of status updates. They aren't real.
They are as bad as the "Facebook is taking selfie pictures of me in the shower and sending them to perverts in Croatia. Please change some unrelated privacy setting so hackers in Moscow can't come through your friend feed to get to those selfies" posts.
So, I was struck by John's post today. It's real, folks. It is about connecting the way we are supposed to connect, with compassion and empathy. Yesterday, another friend posted about someone they were close to who took their life.
Please, read this, read John's status update. Stop and think about the people behind the other status updates you read today. Try to find some way to help others around you.
Thank you John for starting this discussion. Let's hope it spreads.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
It struck me last night, how difficult this is, as we enter day eight of the U.S. Government hostage crisis. Social media and the traditional news media remain focus on the crisis and negativity abounds. There are the spin-offs of mentally ill people acting out and getting killed and of others immolating themselves.
Yesterday, I read a blog post, Does Reading Popular Fiction Make You a Dunce?. It referred to an article in the Atlantic Wire Now We Have Proof Reading Literary Fiction Makes You a Better Person , which in turn refers to an article in Science, Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind
The abstract for the Science article says,
Understanding others’ mental states is a crucial skill that enables the complex social relationships that characterize human societies. Yet little research has investigated what fosters this skill, which is known as Theory of Mind (ToM), in adults. We present five experiments showing that reading literary fiction led to better performance on tests of affective ToM (experiments 1 to 5) and cognitive ToM (experiments 4 and 5) compared with reading nonfiction (experiments 1), popular fiction (experiments 2 to 5), or nothing at all (experiments 2 and 5). Specifically, these results show that reading literary fiction temporarily enhances ToM. More broadly, they suggest that ToM may be influenced by engagement with works of art.
Years ago, I spent a bit of time studying artificial neural networks, and this still shapes a bit of my thinking. The inputs we receive help shape the way our brains work. The old saying about computers applies, "Garbage in, Garbage out".
So what if we spent more of our time contemplating things of beauty, a masterful painting or a well turned phrase? What if we spent more time trying to comprehend fascinating complicated characters and multifaceted ambiguous plot lines instead of two dimensional characters facing simple, predictable outcomes?
What if we stopped and listened and looked at beauty, for half an hour, for fifteen minutes, or even just a few minutes a day?
I have returned to the article I started reading sometime ago, “The Romantic Period, 1820-1860: Essayists and Poets” by Kathryn VanSpanckeren, (2008). I still have Blithedale Romance on my smartphone, and read sections of it from time to time, but it is slow going right now, so I added Whitman's Leaves of Grass.
I've thought more about Walden and Innisfree. How deliberately do we construct our lives? How much deliberation do we put into our lives? How do we balance deliberation and spontaneity? Can we live our lives as if they are an artistic creation we are working on?
Can we curate our social media feeds to assist us in this creation, spending more time on posts with a higher artistic value?
I was planning on review more of my Facebook feed, but that should wait for another day.