The Theft…

IMG_0103I moved passed the main leasing office hoping not to be noticed and made my way towards the restroom. The weight of my laptop felt heavier than usual on my back and I could hear every creak of my backpack straps, every single one of my footfalls connecting with the tile floor.

“Can I help you?”

Damn, they saw me and I almost swore aloud. I stretched my face into a smile, wanting to look inconspicuous. “Um, no I am just coming in to use the Wi-Fi.”

She nodded. “Just remember we close in twenty minutes.”

“Oh… yeah. I will just check my email and then get out of your hair.”

She smiled politely and went back to filling out a form, probably some new tenants lease.

Needing to use the Wi-Fi, wasn’t entirely a lie. My internet had been turned off several months before because I was unable to pay the bill.

The leasing agent glanced back up, waiting to see if I need anything else and I realized at once that I was still frozen in place. Quickly, I moved into the main recreation area, the open space inside the leasing office with large comfy couches, a pool table and a small kitchen open for anyone who rented at my apartment complex to use. I sat down, checked my email for a few moments and casually peered over my shoulder to be sure the leasing agent wasn’t looking at me.

My heart was beating. I never stole anything before but now, there was little choice. I didn’t know what else to do. The leasing office was closing soon and there was something I desperately needed.

I stood and moved towards the bathroom. The men’s bathroom was being cleaned. Of course it was. I slumped down a little and felt defeated. What was I going to do? The leasing office we be closed tomorrow too. I turned to leave, feeling defeated when a voice behind me almost made me jump out of my skin.

“You can use the women’s bathroom if you need to, I’ve already finished cleaning that one.”

I turned to look and an older woman, wearing bright yellow ducky colored gloves, holding spray bottle and a rag was standing there, waiting for my response.

“Oh… Thanks.” I smiled at her and hoped that she took my relief for the need to go to the bathroom. Quickly I slid into the women’s bathroom. I locked the door behind me, breathing a deep sigh.

I put down the lid of the toilet and sat on the flat, fuzzy covering. I always thought it strange when people put what was essentially carpet on the top of their toilet, but there was no time for distractions. It was time for action.

Still feeling guilty, I peered around the room, a tiny open room with only a toilet and a sink. Who was I looking for? There was no place to hide in here, but my guilt was overwhelming. I had never stolen anything before. I could smell lemons, the vapors of the cleaner still wafting in the air. I took a deep breath and looked to my right.

There was my prize, the thing I needed so desperately, toilet paper. I looked, at the full dispenser. She had said she just cleaned, she hadn’t said that she had just restocked everything. Of course she didn’t, why would she? The three roll container was completely full; would she notice if I took one? Would she say something to the leasing agent? Would cops come to my door for a single roll of toilet paper?

I reached over to open the large plastic container to take one of the rolls from the rotating queue. But as my fingers reached around the edges of the container, aching for some crack or opening to exploit, my eyes moved to the center of the container. There, was a key hole.

My despair was almost complete. I felt a deep sense of frustrating and disappointment wash over me. So much had gone wrong recently. For six months I had searched for a job and put in hundreds of applications. Then finally when being hired to deliver pizza’s I had totaled my car 2 hours into the first shift. Now carless, jobless and an unfinished Master’s thesis, I felt tears beginning to burn in my eyes. I drew them back, I refused to cry again. Tomorrow I would have to tell the leasing office I couldn’t pay next month’s rent and tonight I was trying to steal toilet paper because I had to choose to eat, or buy toilet paper.

Then I looked at the key hole again. I pulled out my own keys and quickly stuck them in the hole. The smallest one wasn’t a perfect fit, but I was able to turn the lock and the front slide off and crashed on the floor. The noise echoed through the room and there was little doubt it could be heard outside.

I waited, holding my breath for a moment, to hear if anyone had noticed. But no voices called out. I grabbed a roll off the queue and stuffed it in my backpack. I replaced the plastic covering as quietly as I could. I flushed the toilet, and turned on the sink pretending to wash my hands and then opened the door.

Standing just outside was the janitor. She had headphones in and her music was blaring; it felt like a miracle. I rushed out of the side door of the leasing office to avoid the leasing agent and headed towards my apartment. Joy and elation washed over me. I had toilet paper, enough to last me several days while the leasing office was closed and I had a few dollars worth of food to make sure I wasn’t hungry. For the moment at least, I would be okay.

This is a True Story 

This may seem like a silly story, but this really happened to me. During the Summer of 2013 I experienced a number of setbacks as described above. It seemed liked everything in the world was set against me and I was forced for the first time in my life to steal something. It was a horrible feeling, like I was an animal backed into the corner.

Things did not improve for me after that. I left the apartment voluntarily because I was unable to pay the last two months’ rent. Several friends and family members did what they could to help but I had been borrowing money for months, and most simply couldn’t help any more than they had. Ultimately it was thanks to a friend who took me in on her dairy ranch that kept me from being homeless. While there, I spent the next year and a half looking for work and finishing my Master’s Thesis, which I did ultimately finish. Had I not had the support of family and friends, I may have ended up homeless. A fact that I have never stopped thinking about since this experience.

I had done everything I was supposed to do. I already had a B.A. and I had gone off to Graduate school to advance my career as a social scientist. At that point I had done 4 internships, and one of them included a large scale project funded by the Federal Government. I also had ten years of experience in video production and had incorporated that into my internships. I had help to make a full length documentary and half a dozen short for documentaries.

But for some reason, nothing was falling into place. All of my skills and knowledge didn’t seem to matter much. In fact, at one furniture store where I had an interview to edit video, I actually had a potential employer tell me that they don’t hire anyone with an anthropology background, regardless of what my skill set was. He said it was a matter of principle and that he felt that anthropology was a worthless field of study. His opinion made me feel absolutely worthless in a time when I felt like I already had no value, when I was struggling desperately to find a job, any job that would allow me to keep my apartment.

The point of this story is, before you tell someone that if they just work hard they will do well, keep in mind that sometimes, you can do everything right and fail. Sometimes it is the circumstances or timing that simply screw you over. For some it is even worse, there is a system that makes it so that for every step forward they take, they take two giant ones backwards.

People who are born into poverty, who face obstacle after obstacle and manage to overcome them, still don’t succeed sometimes. Is there an American Dream? I know there are a lot of people out there, who are at the bottom of the barrel, struggling just to get by, who can’t believe in something like that. The only thing they can believe, need to believe, is that the next paycheck is coming… for now.

If hard work was the marker of success, then the richest people in this country would be the janitors, the fruit pickers, the construction workers and a variety of other people who trade their body and their labor for meager wages. They are some of the most important cogs in the system of society and without them our system would not function. Yet rest prices (in Denver and other cities) continue to sky rocket while their wages stay the same. How we treat the people on the bottom, doing the jobs we say we would never want to do, is a reflection of who we are, who you are.

Remember that everyone needs a little respect and compassion from time to time, especially those who have to break the law just to survive. Most people who do bad things, do so because they feel there is no other choice. Ask yourself, why should anyone have to steal to survive in the wealthiest nation in the world?

#WhiteWashedOut or Why is Representation so Critical?

Su-Teatro-Seats

First of all, to be sure to place myself in context here and be reflexive, I am a white guy. Not just a white guy, but I grew up in a white part of Philadelphia and Denver Metro Area. I was raised catholic in a middle class family and I am straight. Currently, I am adjunct faculty in several anthropology departments and working on a film project and novel. In modern anthropology, many of us feel it is important to acknowledge our background so as to highlight which areas we may be biased, or which parts of our knowledge is limited.

So, there is a lot of debate right now about all the recent (though this is nothing new) Hollywood casting.  Tilda Swanson cast as a roll that should be a person of Tibetan origins, Scarlet Johansson cast as a character that should be of Japanese origins (and even talk of her features altered to look Japanese) and a host of others. A lot of people (many white but not all) are asking what’s the big deal? Who cares who plays what role as long as they do it well?

In short this is a question of representation.

To paraphrase a passage from a book called Odd Tribes: A Cultural Analysis of White People by an anthropologist named John Hartigan: The representation of a particular social class, ethnic group, or even individuals often depends on the long-term portrayal of their identity through a variety of social channels.

What in the world does that mean?

It means that how we portray (or the lack of portrayal) a group of people over a long period of time is really important. From repeated images or experiences, our brains create what is known as Implicit Bias, in other words, the images that we are exposed to repeatedly create all kinds of subconscious associations over a long term period. When we see images of black men in a violent context on the nightly news or in film over and over again, our brain begins to create the associate that black man = violence (Malcolm Gladwell does a good job of translating some of this in his book “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking”) By the same token there is a lack of protagonist characters associated with minorities. Over the long term, this creates a lack of association of minorities with positive qualities in our implicit bias.

Hollywood is a really powerful medium for creating all kinds of implicit bias. The problem is not necessarily when the color of a characters skin changes. The problem is when this is a frequent occurrence in a particular direction and the voices of those who want to represent their culture is silenced. A character, like the ‘Ancient One’ (via Dr. Strange) who is meant to represent the ideas and knowledge of a whole group of people, should absolutely be cast from a person of that particular background. To do so otherwise is a mockery of their culture. Rather than allowing various cultures and ethnic groups the ability to represent themselves, we have a system that has a great deal of bias built into it and that bias is consistently recycled and reinforced over ‘long-term portrayals’.

Consider watching the first ten minutes of the film Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People. This film highlights the long term portrayals that have created all kinds of anger and hate towards people of Middle Easterner descent. And by the way, this isn’t just a Media issue, this is also an issue in research and science. Back in the 1970s a man by the name of Edward Said, wrote a book called Orientalism that talked about the negative stereotypes within academia towards ‘people of the orient’. Many of us in teaching and researcher positions are trying to ensure that we consider these long term portrayals in our work and teach our students to be critical of them but with media systems such as they are, there is a lifetime of bias we have contend with of the course of a single term.

Obviously, there are additional issues here, such as Hollywood (for whatever reason) feels that if you don’t have big names, you can’t make money. Most of the big names in Hollywood are still white (and often male). If Hollywood truly believes that only straight white men can bring in the big bucks (and they are of course wrong) then that is because of Implicit Bias, which has been reinforced over the last century in film.

Ultimately, the real issue here is, that everyone should have the right to represent themselves and have a voice in the wider American sphere. After all, how can we have meaningful democracy and coherent discussions about the future of our nation if we silence and/or misrepresent huge groups of people with unique knowledge and viewpoints? If we are ever going to solve the major issues we face, we need all the knowledge and viewpoints we can get. Belittling other cultures (via misrepresentation or lack thereof) and silencing their voices are not in anyone’s best interest.

Also, check out this wonderful (and hilarious) piece done on Last Week Tonight not too long ago…

Belief and Writing

“The art of writing is the art discovering what you believe.” – Gustave Flaubert

This quote was down the hall from my office this morning at the University of Colorado at Denver student writing center.

In so many ways this quote rings true. When I am writing, the conflicts and events that take place absolutely seem to mirror what I think is important. As an anthropologist I have a lot of knowledge on the way in which culture works but I still have my core ideas about the difficulties of the world, which are absolutely reflected in my current novel.

I sat and really thought about this and started reviewing some of my favorite authors (of which there are many more then listed below). This might be a bit presumptuous and I might be completely wrong here. You may feel that these authors say something different, but I am going to try and fish out some of these beliefs.

Steven King: The world is full of monsters but there is a seed of hope and some who will fight back against the monsters. The most important thing is to take a stand (pun intended) against these monsters.

JK Rowling: Friendship, compassion and courage are the things human beings do best and the only way to counter hatred and fear.

Isaac Asimov: Human beings have enormous potential and what is out amongst the stars is often mirrored in ourselves.

Arthur C. Clarke: We are limited only by the ways in which we limit ourselves. There are endless possibilities.

Ursula K Le Guin: Things are not always what they seem and the world is much more diverse and beautiful if we just peer outside of what we think is normal.

If you disagree, if you have a better belief, or if you just want to share your favorite author’s beliefs feel free to tweet me @stiltedcities

What my Characters Taught Me about Writing

Admittedly, I am an amateur writer. Currently, I am finishing the first draft of my third attempt at a novel (Upon Stilted Cities). The first time I attempted to write a novel I was 16, the second time I was 25. Both ended in miserable failure and returning to the several hundred pages I had written between the two now, I scoff in disgust. You always hear famous writers saying it takes a long time to develop your skill; looking at those old works, I have definitely made some progress.

My third attempt at a novel really began almost five years ago now. I woke up from a strange dream, wrote down a few paragraphs and then went back to sleep. For a few days after I played around with the idea and then figured I would get back to it some time. I was in the middle of a graduate program for Anthropology at the time and most of my writing hours were devoted to academic styled papers, so there was little time for fiction.

What was the dream about? Oh, it was about a man staring out a window overlooking a giant walking city. It seemed like a silly idea even when I wrote it down initially. I thought to myself, the science of something like this has got to be completely unrealistic. I never thought much of the idea and mostly forgot in the midst of my thesis research and yearlong filmmaking project.

But something happened.

Over the course of the next few years, the dream would occasionally pop up. Whenever it did I wrote a little bit more about this strange man overlooking this city. It turned out that he was the head of security, he had been alive over a thousand years (thanks to some nifty science) and the city walked through a barren desert (the result of human-created climate change).

Then about 10 months ago in the summer of 2015 I became overwhelmingly curious. I had to get to know this character, had to see what in the world he was about and what was happening in his world. So, I sat down in front of my computer with no idea or thoughts about what I was going to write. I tried to plan him out, to outline the chapter and nothing came forward.

I thought I was going to give up and say forget it. Then in the back of my mind, I heard him beginning to tell me his story. He was old and tired, even though he didn’t look a day over 50. His wife had died of cancer right before some scientists had figured out a cure to disease and aging. He went on and on about himself and I just went on and on writing it down.

Then, when I was finished I didn’t know what else to do. Again, I thought the book was done. Until another character started tapping me on the shoulder. His name was Runner 17 and he had his own interesting and unique story to tell in this world. Then more came: a Senator who lived among the richest of the walking city; a sanitation worker who cleaned up the city’s mess. Then, one more appeared (others came later). He was a man who had decided he would like to see all the walking cities destroyed. Through him I saw what was happening, that this story was forming and now, after about 10 months of fairly solid writing I am wrapping up the last few chapters.

The difference for me was striking. When I had attempted to write my two previous novels I had sat down with an outline. I tried to tell the characters what they were going to do, to control every facet of their world. I found myself making hollow and cliché obstacle for them to overcome. All characters were the same, they were lost individuals who would ultimately find some sort of enlightenment and thus be model pictures what humanity could be. Most of all though, they were boring.

The characters in my current novel are vastly different. More importantly they themselves have taught me more about writing then any workshop, college creative writing class, or book on writing. I think if you let your characters breathe, live, experience, feel then they will teach you their story.

There is something else I have gained from this experience too. Sure, I am not some pro-writer making big bucks turning out novels (we can all dream right?), and yes I do want people to read my work. But I have learned so much about myself in the process of letting characters do their thing that even if no one reads a word of my work, I have a sense of satisfaction of both personal growth and a sense that I have spent time among some intimate friends for a while swapping stories.