One Shade of Gold: The Fetishization of Wealth

The movie, the cruelty, the helpless love given by sacrificing your body and dignity, the beatings, the tears, the sin, the surprises, the complex emotions and the unavoidable eroticism of pain… No, I’m not talking about “The Passion of The Christ” – but about the theater version of the best selling “50 Shades of Grey” received with an equal amount of zeal and fervor.

If I wore a business suit, people would say this was hot.

If I wore a business suit, people would say this was hot.

I’m not concerned with judging whether the book or movie was bad or good, harmless or sin. That’s not my business and there’s no critical analysis I can give that hasn’t already been printed. What really concerns me – the thing I want to make clear – is that we as a culture need to stop seeing without seeing. What I want to show you (which I can fortunately do with my clothes on) is the real reason it successful and what that says about us. Note: Before you start asserting YOU didn’t read/watched it – the sales figures indicate A LOT of people did – so it doesn’t matter – the herd has spoken.  

Money Power

The draw to 50 Shades isn’t the writing (reviewed as horrid), the story (reviewed as ridiculous), or the nudity (reviewed as <…you know…>). Despite what many churches are preaching – it isn’t even because it is taboo or represents something missing in our lives. Our societal impulse hasn’t been to flock to this because of what it says about sex, love or mystery. People respond to what it says about money – and that fetishization of wealth is the last thing this country (USA) needs right now. As many before me have pointed out: 50shadescriminalmids In a country with the economic disparity of the United States, where many struggle with working poverty, lifting up the adulation of the wealthy is calloused at best. We don’t need Wall Street to tell us the rich have the right to do anything they want. We learn it through media, celebrity culture, and a consumer driven world. Think about it: The wealthy can afford organic food, they can fly in comfort and get on the plane first, they can see the doctor of their choice and afford their medication. As a former HIV/AIDS worker – I can tell you first hand – the difference between thriving, surviving, and dying for those with HIV is money. The rich get better meds, better care, better odds. At a time when we should be questioning that – we are stampeding to theaters to celebrate it. When a poor man beats his girlfriend and plays emotional games to create her consent – we call it “abuse.” When it rich man does it – well – it’s “erotic fantasy.”  

Fear Driven: It is, in fact, our helplessness to financial disparity that makes wealth fetish possible (for an example of wealth fetish – go to Amazon and type “billionaire” in the search line. Pages of billionaire books make up their own highly successful subgenre of Romance). Human beings tend to revere what they desire based on what they fear. Ancient cultures were terribly susceptible to the ravages of the weather. While this harsh winter of 2015 has frustrated many of us – it would have killed a village centuries ago. The fear and dependence on nature led to a host of religions lifting up “nature gods” – beings who were powerfully able to control that which humans couldn’t. Those gods were sometimes beautiful, sometimes loathsome – but they worshipped them. Because it made them feel safe.

Throughout history war and plagues would periodically devastate societies. What became popular almost every time that happened? Vampire legends. Vampires should be gross and villainous – but every major facet of history that involved a precarious fear or loss of life – vampire stories, first oral, then written, then movies – filled public imagination. Vampires (even the nasty un-sexy ones like Nosferatu) have something we don’t. They rise from the dead. They are (with notable exception) immortal. Fear of death creates a lust for life. It is no accident that True Blood (published the year of (9/11) and Twilight (published as young adult literature in the age of school shootings, teen suicides and drug deaths) are so popular and romantic. Vampires almost always beat the odds. Who wouldn’t want that?

Now, after a recession that took homes from our neighbors, and during a time when our media reminds us nightly about our growing deficit, the shaky stability of the dollar and the terrible gap between the rich and the poor, the billionaire with a stable, unshakeable wealth is our new legend, our new god. Why else would the wealthy majority in Congress (backed by a conservative Christian base) which has shown its willingness to have a say about our birth control, our sex lives, and who can marry – suddenly be disinterested in the morality of its citizens? Legislators are challenging the AP History exam which questions racial and economic justice, but letting erotica with slippery consent issues flow unregulated through the land. It isn’t because it suddenly decided censorship was wrong – but because we are being taught to lift up, revere, and lust for the love of power, and the power of money. With 50 Shades, we say we are being entertained – but most of us are being “trained.”

That's not your working class Daddy's tie.

That’s not your working class Daddy’s tie.

So what to do? Am I calling censorship? Heavens no! That is the way of ignorance. Free expression is the only hope of our world. Personally, it doesn’t matter to me if you love 50 Shades or hate it. If you embrace it or ignore it. Watch it, live it, laugh at it – whatever. But what I want you to do – is be aware of what it’s really trying to sell you.

It was very easy to laugh at the idealistic, disorganized youth of Occupy Wall Street who raged against corporate culture while drinking Starbucks and tapping on an iPad. However, be aware when you are posting articles about the outrageous privileges of the 1% and the horror of economic disparity – that wealth fetish may be as near as the movie ticket in your pocket.


The Magical Meadow of Shut Up

If you read the first draft of anything I’ve written, it becomes painfully clear I write like I speak. Fortunately, I speak well (thanks, speech coaches). More fortunately, I can always re-write (thanks, Microsoft Word). Speaking out has been part of my life since I was in 9th grade and Mrs. Villalba got tired of listening to me argue that the poison used in Romeo and Juliet was actually a symbol of the poisonous lack of forgiveness which caused the family feud (a position I still believe).  She took me (literally took my hand and walked me) to the debate coach and to whom she said, “Here’s the one for you.”

The debate coach when I said I had to get my parent's permission to join the team.

The debate coach when I said my mother didn’t want me to join the team.

Years of debates, presentations, sermons, and stories later – I’m still talking. My adult life has been a fantastical journey in the jungle of other people’s communication using my sword/tongue to cut away the thorns of academic obfuscation, the dead leaves of prejudice, the bitter dry soil of self-righteous, pretentious leaders and the comment section weevils eating the truth with made-up facts. I have slayed dragons, lost battles and laid down my weapons at the feet of “agree to disagree.” In short, I was exhausted.

Then one day, I came to a magical oasis with crystal springs of refreshing clarity, hammocks rocked gently in the breeze between many viewpoints, and lush gardens of fragrant discourse. I had reached the Meadow of Shut Up. At first I was afraid. What would I do if I wasn’t talking? Wouldn’t I cease to exist if I didn’t immediately add my voice to the fray? In the 24 hour-always-on news cycle, if I waited to form an intelligent, considered opinion – the topic would be over by the time I was ready to speak! The Meadow of Shut Up was inviting and I was so tired, I decided to give it a try.  There are some wonderful reasons to be quiet:

 It makes you feel.

Listening to what others have to say without thinking of what you want to say in response is one of the bravest, most frightening things you can do. Because if you aren’t busy measuring their thoughts on the scale of right/wrong or looking for the weak link to break into their logic, you will experience actual feelings about what they are saying. The topic may make you sad. The way they say it may make you angry, or happy. The fact you are having the discussion at all may elate you, or hurt your feelings.

I know, I know…feelings? Sounds horrible. But once they start – even the unpleasant ones – you begin to change the way you see things and things begin to change the way you see. It’s worth it. I promise.


It makes you think.

Most people like to think they think a lot. But the truth is – thinking isn’t the act of pondering something in your head while constantly re-confirming your own opinion. Thinking is taking in NEW data and constructing ideas around it, leaving room for change when more, confirming or denying data comes into view. Listening to someone else’s experience or ideas gives you so many more building blocks for the castles of thought you live in.

I know, I know…that’s so much effort. But the way you can understand, re-imagine, create and infuse your life with the world around you is wondrous.


This is your brain when you shut up and listen.

 It connects you.

Buddhist believe that we have all the wisdom and knowledge already inside of us. Thus when we encounter or hear something outside of us, the inner knowledge connects to its outer counter-part. That’s how we have those “ah-ha!” moments where we hear something new but we know instantly it is the truth – or our truth – as the case may be. That is part of the basis of Namaste – the divine in me honors the divine in you. We are connected. When you listen to others you find more things you both know – even if you are approaching it from different angles.


I can’t say I spend loads of time in the Meadow of Shut Up. It is still somewhat new and a little odd-feeling to me. But my rest here – listening to others, reading news from international perspectives, touching my own heart – before rejoining the speaking world has benefited me a great deal.

Maybe, if I’m lucky, some of you will join me – and before we call out, speak truth, dialogue justice and cry havoc – we can all shut up, together.

525,600 Minutes, But What’s the Word Count?

If you ask ten people what the musical “Rent” is about, you’ll get fifteen answers. It’s about artists, La Boehme, struggling, succeeding, love, AIDS, death, life, giving up, trying again, moving in, moving out, and Idina Menzel before she sang “Let it Go” – but mostly, it’s about a year – and the many ways we can measure it. Here’s a flashback (since the title made you start singing the song anyway):

Minutes may be the way we measure time, but each of us has our own way to measure life. Some measure through the growth chart of their children (then grandchildren) scratched on a wall, others measure it in billable hours. Music lovers remember the year with songs (Shake it off!) and readers mark life with the New York Times Bestseller List (Gone Girl). T.S. Eliot famously measured his life in coffee spoons.

That's a lot of life!

That’s a lot of life!

I measure my year, in fact – my life – in words.  Happy words, holy words, healing words, hopeful words. When I die, I want a memorial that looks like an old school McDonald’s sign – only with a writing quill instead of a heart-clogging M, and the tagline: “Over 1 million words said.”   In my world there is the best word, the right word, and the first word I come up with. I am frequently guilty of accidentally blurting the latter before the former can be found. Sorry about that.

As we pack up 2014 and set up 2015 (Maybe that’s why I don’t like New Year’s very much – it’s a lot like moving) – let’s invest in a few good words.

 Courage – Jump, both feet, into the things that scare you the most. Take apart the roadblocks in your life – even if it requires the same care as defusing a bomb. Stand up to the things that bully our world – be they people, systems, powers or simply stupid thoughts.

 Justice – Defend the innocent, find the guilty accountable, uphold the rights and responsibilities of citizens, law enforcement, banks, leaders, followers and lovers. Stop howling for blood, start working for good.

 Peace – Start with yourself. Start with your heart. Peace isn’t a thing we achieve, like a diploma. It is way that we live, that we see, that we breathe. Take peace out of the “pretty concept” aisle of your internal grocery store and place it in the hardware section – it’s a tool. Own it. Use it. Maintain it. Daily.

 Hope – Have hope that is active, not a dream.  When you plant a seed in the ground, you can’t dig it up every day to see if it’s growing. You must acknowledge it is currently covered in dirt and hope someday it will grow. You do things – water, nutrients, sunlight – because those are part of hope, too. In time, it will sprout. Don’t just look our dirt encrusted world and shrug. Do the work of hope – water it with generosity, nurture it with wisdom, shine light on what needs to change, and transform it.

 Love – Do it.

What is 2015 going to be about?  It’s about artists, La Boehme, struggling, succeeding, love, AIDS, death, life, giving up, trying again, moving in, moving out, and Idina Menzel singing “Let it Go”  (sorry about that, too).  It’s about a year. And a chance for more seasons of love.

Leave the mistakes, the grudges, the late night rallies, the fails, and the past in 2014. Take with you the love, the lessons, and the words.

A City of Two Tales: Dealing with the Dissonant Narratives of Bill Cosby

I’ve been silent about the accusations and media surrounding Bill Cosby because there are so many voices clattering the sound of mine is unnecessary and unlikely to be heard.  I’ve also been engaging in my own process of shock-grief-acceptance.

My process looked like this:

Eye Roll: I saw a trending article on facebook that comedian Hannibal Burress called Bill Cosby a rapist.  Reaction: “Geez, that’s low.”

Curiosity: The next day I asked some friends if they had ever heard that Bill Cosby might have raped someone. One of them said, “No, I love him.” The other, an 82 year old woman nodded. She said quietly, as if confessing a deep secret, “I’ve heard that before.”  Reaction: “I want/need to know.”

Research:  Google: Bill Cosby Rape. Read many documents from credible sources – the kinds of places that research and fact-check – not just “Cracked”. Different women, each with the same story, with names, dates, times. Let’s face it – there is more circumstantial evidence of this than there was of WMD’s when we voted to invade Iraq. Reaction: “I’m shocked.”

Reflection:  Trying to combine what my head tells me (This man is probably a serial rapist) with what my heart tells me (This man made me laugh and think). Reaction: “I am so sad.”

Resolution:  Humans sometimes do beautiful things. Humans sometimes do ugly things. And many times – it’s the same human doing both.  Reaction: Acknowledgement of this very human tale.

We are Books, not Stories.

This isn’t the first story to be given an alternate view:

  •  Every Martin Luther King Day some know-it-all grad student posts articles talking about Dr. King’s known problems with plagiarism and women. They are schooled quickly that there are 364 OTHER days to discuss the issue.
  • Columbus Day has become an out-and-out war over the story we are told in school about the discovery of America and our growing awareness of what an inaccurate tale that is and the monstrous truth of that conquest.
  • A new translation of the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales reveals the Pied Piper actually drowned the children, and the queen in Snow White was forced to dance to death in hot iron shoes.
  • My own city of Richmond is struggling to cast Shockoe Bottom as the entertainment district and family center of town so voters will approve a baseball park there. Except, there are a lot of people reminding us that the place designated for the kid friendly fun zone is actually the spot where the slave market and jail that sold Solomon Northrup stood.

The problem is the cognitive dissonance (that uncomfortable feeling when a story we tell ourselves doesn’t match the facts presented to us) between the story of the Bill Cosby I knew and the stories I did not.

My first memory of him was watching Fat Albert on Saturday morning, not Bill Cosby the jet-setting actor who hung out with Hugh Hefner at the Playboy Club.

  • He was the Jell-O spokesman.
  • He was the kindly, smart, funny Cosby dad.
  • He was a huge proponent of education and scholarship provider.
  • He was a curmudgeonly old man telling parents to get with it and kids to pull up their pants.

Then, in a matter of a few weeks – He was a serial rapist.

No – that doesn’t match.

At. All.

This is NOT the way the story goes.

Except, it is.

There were clues to this hidden narrative. Some crew members said he was hard to work with and had a temper. A few characterized him as controlling (often calling it “he’s his own man.”). Scholars and advocates in the African American community complained he was pandering to popular opinion (largely the opinions of white people) in his criticisms of culture and dampening a young generation’s experiments with identity as a way of making the majority clap for him

But now – this new narrative isn’t just an add-on or sour grapes – it’s a whole different story!

The truth is – human beings are not just one story. We are books, made of more than one narrative. In some of our stories we are kind. In others, we are cruel. In some stories we are passionate. In others, we are too tired to care.

We are the brilliant respected electronics visionary who didn’t give a dime to charity.

We are the peace loving song poet, martyred in death while young, who abandoned his first wife, slapped women, and treated his first son with total contempt.

We are the football star and luggage jumping airport runner who was on trial for murdering his wife and in jail for armed robbery.

We are human beings and our books contain many tales.

How do we Deal with this New Book?

There are several methods to discovering someone you admired is not a novel, but collection of wildly different images:

Catch and Release: Some people will pick one story out of a book and ignore the others. For some Bill Cosby will always be the role model. For others the rapist.

Not My Circus:  Other people will just toss the book away and read something else. Collections of short stories aren’t very popular. Anyone who has queried a literary agent has seen “We do not represent short story collections” a million times.

Elementary, Dear Watson:  Some will reach for psychiatry, interpretive sociology and any expert they can find to attempt to explain the differences until they are more comfortable with the details.

Accept the Struggle as Part of the Journey: People of any faith are used to the idea of conflicting narratives – because faith life is full of them.

Christian people spend time trying to deal with the idea that the God who says, “I am your God and you are my people” is the same one shown playing a game with the devil and saying, “Sure, you can torture my servant Job.”  Jesus tells us the story of a God who forgives (and want us to forgive) but doesn’t really address the God who kills a guy with lightening for breaking a rule while saving the Ark of the Covenant.

Buddhists who like bacon and have affirming views of the GLBT community have to struggle with the ancient ideas about eating and sexual behavior. Decisions across the spectrum have been made to reconcile modern practices and dogma.

Muslims struggle with the Quran – a document (like many sacred texts) both beautiful and savage.

Dealing with conflicting narratives is the fire that refines our metal. Bill Cosby’s story(ies) gives us a chance to show compassion for all who are hurt, to stand against rape, to encourage the truth, to comfort and to learn. We can’t un-know and we aren’t going to be able to separate one story from the other. But we can move forward – a little bit wiser for having read this book.


Eat the Blame: A Zen Invitation to Forward Motion

What’s the number one rule of the internet? Don’t read the comments. What’s the number one truth of the internet? You read the comments, didn’t you? The comment section is the thorn in the rose of every thought provoking article, news story, or cat picture the 24 entertainment cycle can throw at us. And yet, we always want to know what people are saying. At least – until we see it. Then we are trapped with all that jumble of bad spelling, poor grammar, anonymous “studies,” misapplied scripture and the blame. Oh, the blame.

"Oh, the blame, Blame, BLAME..." (c) 1966, MGM Television.

“Oh, the blame, Blame, BLAME…”
(c) 1966, MGM Television.

They blame the victim.

They blame the system.

They blame the “ism”

Or the political schism…

(Apologies to Dr. Seuss – I start rhyming like this every Christmas…)

Our world is filled with people who know exactly who is to blame for nearly everything. Blame is so much a part of our DNA that it sheds from us like skin cells, dropping from our mouths into the environment as so much judgmental dust. Before we polish our coffee table and pretend we don’t know what’s happening, think of the many times you’ve said, heard, or come across these questions?

  1. What was she wearing the night she was assaulted? Why was she in his apartment?
  2. Why was he jogging at 11:00 PM? Doesn’t he know he could be robbed?
  3. If they can’t afford three kids, why did they have them?
  4. Why don’t they get a job?
  5. Why didn’t he just do what the cop said, even if it violates his rights?
  6. If she didn’t want diabetes, why did she eat like that?

And so on…

Take a handful. There's enough for everyone.

Take a handful. There’s enough for everyone.

Blaming is a national pastime. But what good does it do? Little. Blame makes the victims of violence hide their experience and allows perpetrators to go free.  Blame adds a pile of shame on top of every situation, and doesn’t help anyone become stronger, wiser, better or happier. Blame doesn’t take us forward. Blame doesn’t offer us an opportunity to change.

Blame makes us feel superior, smarter and eases our fears about a world that is unpredictable, violent and out of our control. Instead of admitting there is a rape culture on many college campuses– we say, “Don’t drink and don’t wear tight clothes,” because those things we can control. Instead of looking with compassion at someone who is suffering from obesity, recognizing that most of us also have a troubled relationship with food, it makes us feel powerful to add shame/blame to the challenges they face. Instead of admitting our country has a pattern of judicial and institutional racism that we don’t know how to change (without going through the pain of real change), we blame the victim again and again. Blame is our protection plan, practiced so often it has become a cultural reflex.

Make no mistake – we blame because it makes us feel better. But – it doesn’t make us better. It just keeps us spinning bitterly in place.

How can we stop this reflex? Eat the blame. with flakier crust.

Mmm..blame…now with flakier crust.

There is a Zen koan that gives us a map to healthier way of living. It’s called (in English) “Eating the Blame.”

Circumstances arose one day which delayed preparation of the dinner of a Soto Zen master, Fugai, and his followers. Quickly the cook went to the garden with his curved knife and cut off the tops of green vegetables, chopped them together and made soup, unaware that in his haste he had included a part of a snake in the vegetables.

The followers of Fugai thought they never tasted such good soup. But when the master himself found the snake’s head in his bowl, he summoned the cook. “What is this?” he demanded, holding up the head of the snake.

“Oh, thank you, master,” replied the cook, taking the morsel and eating it quickly.

 What’s going on here?

The cook has made a terrible error. The monks are strict vegetarians. To have eaten a snake in their soup would have violated their vows and brought shame to them.

The cook had a number of choices when the head appeared in the Master’s bowl. He could have:

  • Blamed the Master for forcing the cook to work too quickly.
  • Blamed the gardener for allowing snakes to infest the garden.
  • Blamed the followers for breaking their own vows – they liked the soup and didn’t question.
  • Become the victim, apologizing profusely and drawing attention to the crisis.
  • Instead, he simply ate the mistake that was pointed out to him and went on.

The cook’s actions do a number of good things.

  1. It shows his compassion for the monks by not wanting to draw attention to the misstep.
  2. He eats snake too – becoming one of them – so no one is better than anyone else.
  3. He takes responsibility for his mistake in eating it himself.
  4. He allows the Master to move forward with polite gratitude.

Those are the very things we can do to stop the blame cycle infesting our culture. When you see a news story – try some of the following responses.

  1. Approach the situation with compassion for everyone involved. Instead of jumping to the “what x did wrong” scenario, instead think of how they must feel, what they’ve been through, and soften your heart.
  1. Walk in their shoes. You don’t have to become a victim or perpetrator  – but you can understand a time when you’ve been lonely, or hungry or made the wrong choice, or found yourself in a bad situation of your own making or someone else’s. Instead of being quick to judge “the other” be willing to walk beside them.
  1. Look into your own heart and take responsibility for your feelings. Often the situations that make us the most angry or judgmental are the ones that touch a part of our past or our heart that we haven’t resolved yet. Before you dump your mistakes onto another situation, own them and accept them. Awaken.
  1. Allow the situation to move forward. Give hope, and have gratitude.

If someone is in the wrong, there will be a world of people ready to make that known. Be one of the people who gives them to power to change, to overcome, and to continue to a brighter day.