Tag Archives: farai chideya

RIP, Chinua Achebe

via Reuters: http://reut.rs/10stEyp

The influential novelist Chinua Achebe passed away, leaving behind a legacy of fiction, poetry, and political discourse. He’s the author of the seminal novel Things Fall Apart.

I spoke with him in 2007 for NPR’s News and Notes. Unfortunately we had a vexingly bad phone line. But listen carefully to his words not just on human nature and creativity, but also politics and the Biafra Civil War.

Audio is here.

Where I Come From, Blogging Wise

So to understand why I am a commercial non-success at blogging, you have to understand the moment. That moment would be the early/mid ’90s, when Thuh Internetz were new and most people had not a clue how to use them.

I was working for MTV and freelancing doing political analysis for CNN. Then, having been hanging around early online community pioneers like Omar Wasow, I started a blog. (Omar designed it.)

So: I went to the Wayback Machine (a project of the Internet Archive, which I adore) and pulled some of the early images from this site. The one at the top is from 1997 and if you see it in the Wayback Machine, it even blinks an exclamation point.

That version touts my heading to ABC News. Previous versions of the site, sans my photo (taken by my pal Tanya) mention my work at CNN, which really inspired me to do political blogging.

As to the commercial non-success…. when I received an offer to sell the site, I didn’t because it was my wee digital baby. Now, knowing what I know about the evolution of online content and community, I would have sold it and started something new.

Holding on is not always the best strategy. But until we have a wayback machine for real life I can’t go back and become an early internet mogul. Honestly, I loved the quirkiness of that moment of history… the uncomprehending stares I got when I went around the 1996 political conventions and told people I had a blog. I literally handed out paper flyers for my blog. Talk about old school.

A New Ambitious, Possibly Insane Project: Dear 2050

This is a picture of my family — myself, Mother, sister, and my beloved grandmother, Mary Catherine Stokes. We were enjoying a mini-family reunion to celebrate my sister’s med school graduation.

Grandma passed away almost a decade ago at the age of 82, after being misdiagnosed for symptoms of the colon cancer that, once caught, had progressed too far to save her. I wonder if she would still be alive now if the doctors had done their job. And no, my family did not sue. We thought it best to focus on what was important — healing our family from the loss of our matriarch and champion-in-chief, and living lives she would appreciate and respect.

I did a piece on my grandmother for NPR. Give it a listen if you get a chance.

In the year 2050, I will be 81 years old, just a hairsbreadth from the age my grandmother died. I’ve been blogging since 1995, and of late I’ve just asked why I’m still doing it. But there’s something in this world that still attracts me, something about the original sense of blogging… raw and unfinished.

So here’s what I thought about and decided. I will blog a piece a day through the year 2050 — should I be lucky enough to reach that age with enough mental acuity to write. There are many sayings about how big goals should scare you. This doesn’t scare me on an economic level — my blogging is non-renumerative, at least what I do on my personal site. But it does give me a shiver of potential shame. What if I can’t or won’t fulfill this pledge, even considering that I will probably write some “evergreen” posts?

The year 2050 holds a mystique, not just in the number itself, which is so solid and rounded, but because of the demographic changes America is undergoing. I want to imagine that I can make the blog equivalent of a time-lapse film…. talking about anything and everything, reminiscing and future-casting. Maybe some will just be a picture, or a video, or a sound file. But I want to unfold my life in this space. Help me stay true to my pledge, please.

No Class, Just Stereotypes

I was not a poor black child. I grew up in Baltimore, on a street with big shingled houses and leafy trees. But after my father left and returned to Zimbabwe, my mother, sister and I lived in a state of persistent, low-grade economic anxiety. One year we could not get heating oil delivered so we all slept on the floor by the gas fireplace to stay warm. (I actually cherish the memory, because we snuggled together.) My mother enrolled us in summer academic programs, sometimes working two jobs and once doing a brutal night shift. I felt ashamed to see her exhausted, and worried I caused her distress. To help out, I took jobs I loathed, as a catering waitress and a telemarketer. So, we were not poor, but we were part of the fearful working class, worried that we might not be able to keep up with our bills or achieve our ambitions. Of course, so many people today are in the same boat that my family was back then.

I can’t help but think of my personal history when I listen to the spate of wrongheaded analyses of poor children, from Newt Gingrich’s call to make them janitors to “If I Were A Poor Black Kid” by Gene Marks on Forbes.com. The article has gotten more than 500,000 page views (as of 1pm Friday), both from supporters and critics. The author’s facile analysis boils down to: go to a magnet school, study hard, and learn to code. Even if some kids get into magnet schools, others are left in educational ghettos. And many poor families cannot afford broadband to take those online coding classes. (Next summer, a new industry initiative will offer $9.95 broadband access to low-income families, but until then, they can expect to pay forty to one hundred dollars a month.)

The Forbes article literally has no class, not only because it panders to stereotypes about black achievement, but also because it misreads income inequality and perpetuates the myth of the classless society. As a study by the Pew Research Center pointed out earlier this year, the Great Recession has had a devastating effect on black and Latino families, and the wealth gap in relation to whites has widened. In 2009, the net worth of white families was $113,149, versus $6,325 for Hispanics and $5,677 for blacks. The gap is a key aspect of class in America, which is more closely linked to the advantages of inter-generational wealth than current income.

My family had relatively little financial wealth to pass on, but great reserves of intellect, spirit and knowledge. I went to public school in Baltimore, and then to Harvard, where as my work-study job I hauled Blue Books at the Law Review while its president, Barack Obama, stood a few feet away. Right out of college I interned at Newsweek, where in 1990 there was a fifty dollar late dinner allowance on nights we were closing the magazine. I found myself sitting in a Swiss restaurant eating steak and spaetzle at 10:30 in the evening, laughing with my colleagues, and feeling both grateful and oddly displaced. We know that sliding down the income ladder, which so many people have in recent years, can be psychologically devastating. But jumping up a class is disorienting in its own way. Do your habits, politics, and aesthetics track with the world you knew, or the world you circulate in? How do you see your responsibility to help others back home?

The lives of black folk are measurably different from our peers of the same income. At the time many of our white friends are getting that nut from their parents to put a downpayment on a house, we are saving or living paycheck-to-paycheck. And we’re more likely to have to help out our families, meaning money flows not to us but from us. I’ve supported my family in Baltimore and Zimbabwe, ipaying overseas exam fees and hiring a lawyer to sort out the legalities of an abandoned house next to my mother’s. I’ve been privileged to contribute to those I love, and I recognize that as privilege.

That’s the real problem with analyses like Marks’. There is no recognition of what privilege means in America. (Marks, the owner of a management consulting firm, responded to critics by saying that he’s “not rich.”) In Lake Wobegon, all children are above average. And in America, everybody is sorta-kinda-middle class, or wants to think so. The myth that there is no class masks the divisions in opportunities we have, and undermines our quest to re-invigorate social mobility.

Dueling Videos of Herman Cain And Accuser Ginger White = Soap Opera

With the allegations that Herman Cain had a 13-year affair, the Presidential campaign has outdone the soap opera. The new accuser is named Ginger White. In her interview with Atlanta Fox 5, she says: “It was pretty simple. It wasn’t complicated. I was aware that he was married. And I was also aware I was involved in a very inappropriate situation, relationship.”

Georgia Woman Claims 13-Year Affair with Herman Cain: MyFoxATLANTA.com

Cain issued this statement and also went on CNN to rebut the allegations… after they leaked but before they aired on the Atlanta station:

The Cain saga has been unfolding for some time, with allegations of sexual harassment; a push by Cain and supporters to liken those allegations “a high tech lynching”; and now the allegation of the affair. The latest accuser has a record of evictions, one bankruptcy, and has settled a sexual harassment claim with a previous employer. We’ve watched race and gender dynamics go wild. But now, class dynamics are increasingly coming into play too, with a subtle or not-so-subtle framing of Ginger White and sexual harassment claimant Sharon Bialek (who had two bankruptcies) as the kind of women who would lie. Since when did filing for bankruptcy make it impossible to have sex with a rich or powerful man? Some might argue it offers incentive.

Cain has painted himself an authentic black man. He claimed that President Barack Obama had “never been a part of the black experience in America.” This desperate hyper-marketing of blackness seems targeted not at African-Americans, but non-black supporters seeking their own form of racial validation. Ann Coulter’s cry that “our blacks are so much better than their blacks” — referring to black Republicans during a conversation about Cain — no doubt got her a few more speech bookings, and a collective cringe from many black Republicans. And that leads to the question: do Cain’s supporters believe he is blameless in these allegations, or just that he’s authentic, in a tyranny-of-low-expectations kinda way?

It’s rare to see two black men figure so prominently in the drama of politics. But President Obama and Herman Cain seem to be operating not only in parallel planes, but parallel universes. Early in his term, President Obama was accused of favoring blacks (i.e., Glenn Beck’s rant on how the President is a “racist”). The irony, of course, is that because of persistent joblessness and the sub-prime crisis, African-Americans have fared worse economically under President Obama than they did under President George W. Bush, let alone President Bill Clinton. How African-Americans perceive the President’s efforts to serve not just them, but other communities with heightened unemployment, will affect turnout in 2012. The Republican flirtation with Herman Cain as a viable candidate seems to be waning… but like all soap operas, the primary season holds many twists.

Race and Silicon Alley

On the 13th, Soledad O’Brien premieres her special on black entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley:

It’s already started a few tussles, as when Michael Arrington told Soledad O’Brien:

We have a conference … where 25 or 30 companies actually launch on stage … There’s a guy actually, his last company just launched at our event, and — and he’s African-American. When he asked to launch, actually I think it was the other way around, I think I begged him. It’s a cool startup, his startup’s really cool. But he could’ve launched a clown show on stage, and I would’ve put him up there, absolutely. I think it’s the first time we’ve had an African-American be the sole founder.

The series covers the work of an incubator aimed at black entrepreneurs called New Me.

The issue of diversity in tech isn’t limited to Silicon Valley, nor is it just about African-Americans. The ranks of women, Latino, and Black engineers, founders, executives, and funders are thin.

Here on the East Coast, “Silicon Alley” has spread well beyond its early boundaries, with major startups in Manhattan and Brooklyn. New York serves both as a hub for companies that started in the Valley, like Google, and ones founded in the city, including Gilt Groupe and Kickstarter. The paucity of African-Americans and Latinos is juxtaposed against the demographic makeup of New York City, where the population is 25 percent Black and 28 percent Hispanic (of any race).

Many successful startups are based on pre-existing friendships. (If you’re an entrepreneur, you’ll probably need every ounce of the goodwill you and your partner(s) have built up to get through sleepless startup nights, disagreements over strategy and tactics, and generally lots of unpaid labor.) Making initial hires from your friend group can precipitate social replication, where new hires are valued for fitting in as much as for the work they do. That may sound like a positive way to keep everyone on-task at first, but as companies scale, the social replication often scales with it. That can lead to blind-spots in company decisionmaking, if too many people think alike. Social replication can also lead to a less-diverse outreach and hiring pool.

Companies that want a more diverse workforce at some point have to decide it’s a priority. They they have to make a change in hiring practices that expands social networks. As one technology recruiter explained to me, getting the top young black and Latino engineers, because of the lack of supply, requires waging a campaign of outreach and internships. It also requires some ramp-up time to see results. That’s just addressing the beginning of the pipeline. What about outreach to more experienced talent? Are smaller and fast-growing companies willing to make that effort for performance metrics they are not generally judged on?

    As I see it, you have a funnel effect:

  1. A lot of kids just aren’t prepared for advanced math and science classes when they hit college, if they even make it out of high school. That’s especially true for low income students of all races, and for students at predominately Black and Latino schools. The stats measuring whether 8th graders are at or above grade level in math show proficiency is over 80 percent of both white and Asian/Pacific Islander students, but below 60 percent for both Blacks and Latinos. Then in high school, the question often becomes whether there are AP classes and other advanced instruction. (Another Soledad O’Brien special, Don’t Fail Me, shows that even middle class white neighborhoods can lack advanced math/science course options in high school.)
  2. The funnel narrows in college. A recent article by Jesse Washington in the Huffington Post on the decline of blacks in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) professions notes:

    Black people are 12 percent of the U.S. population and 11 percent of all students beyond high school. In 2009, they received just 7 percent of all STEM bachelor’s degrees, 4 percent of master’s degrees, and 2 percent of PhDs, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

  3. After you’re done with school, existing social networks become important tools for job seekers. And that brings us back to social replication, whether engineered consciously or much more often, done unconsciously.

Technology is, of course, both rising in social importance while simultaneously fading into the background of our consciousness. It’s baked into everything we do. Within the mourning for Steve Jobs was a realization that he was the father of cyborgs-at-play, the cyborgs being the millions of people now listening to their iPods or using another one of Apple’s devices. By making technology beautiful as well as functional, Jobs made it sexy and fun. But many more people know how to use the machine than give it commands, and the question remains how that affects society. In the speech that inspired his book Program or Be Programmed, Douglas Rushkoff argues that “I do believe that if you are not a programmer, you are one of the programmed….the users, or worse, the used.”

Rushkoff uses “programming” both in the sense of coding and in the replication and evolution of ideas. If we’re inventing the future right now, both in the memetic sense and the technological sense, then I think we need a diverse workforce in order to make long-term strategic shifts that broadly benefit the economy and society. But diversity is a longer engagement play, not a quick win. The business case for a long-term approach may be outweighed by immediate concerns. But if no foundation for a diverse workforce is laid in a company’s start-up and growth phases, then it really requires a massive effort to make changes once the enterprise has scaled.

The article by Jesse Washington quotes former astronaut Mae Jemison saying, “So many times it’s the diversity of thought and perception and experience base that starts to make the difference in the problems you research and the solutions you consider. It’s a much more robust reason for diversity that just the head count.” New York offers a rich panoply of cultural diversity. Is Jemison’s perspective shared by technology entrepreneurs and investors? And is there a by-the-numbers business case for diversity? I’d love to get more stats, stories, and perspectives.

=====================
P.S.
Also of note: last year, the San Jose Mercury News ran a story titled “Blacks, Latinos and women lose ground at Silicon Valley tech companies.” The paper filed a Freedom of Information Act request to get data on local tech companies, and wrote of their findings:

  • Of the 5,907 top managers and officials in the Silicon Valley offices of the 10 large companies in 2005, 296 were black or Hispanic, a 20 percent decline from 2000, according to U.S. Department of Labor work-force data obtained by the Mercury News through a Freedom of Information request.
  • In 2008, the share of computer workers living in Silicon Valley who are black or Latino was 1.5 percent and 4.7 percent, respectively — shares that had declined since 2000. Nationally, blacks and Latinos were 7.1 percent and 5.3 percent of computer workers, respectively, shares that were up since 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
  • The share of managers and top officials who are female at those 10 big Silicon Valley firms slipped to 26 percent in 2005, from 28 percent in 2000.
  • Wish I had the updated stats, and ones for Silicon Alley. If you have a reference, let me know…

    The Fear of Money

    One of the most-quoted (and misquoted) verses of the Bible is: “For the love of money is the root of all evil.” But what about the fear of money, or specifically what it takes to make it? That too can produce misery.

    What if people were too afraid to maximize their incomes because they thought doing so would require unethical behavior? I’m not just talking about grand theft, like the fraudulent $2.3 billion in UBS trades, the former Goldman Sachs board member indicted this week, or intentionally steering people to sub-prime mortgages when they qualified for better. As I do my reporting work on the economy across America, often what I hear is a reluctance on the part of individuals to “be a team player” because their teams and companies encourage behaviors that range from illegal to discriminatory to just mean-spirited. The number of individuals and families living paycheck-to-paycheck makes it very hard for ethical earners to be transformative actors in unethical workplaces. Instead, some people keep their heads down and hope they won’t be the next ones cut.

    Can you blame them? A recent article in the Christian Science Monitor pointed out two important trends. First, we have significantly less cash to play around with than we did a couple years ago. Or as they put it:

    Bottom line: The average individual now has $1,315 less in disposable income than he or she did three years ago at the onset of the Great Recession – even though the recession ended, technically speaking, in mid-2009.

    Second:

    The so-called misery index, another measure of economic well-being of American households, echoes the finding on the slipping standard of living. The index, a combination of the unemployment rate and inflation, is now at its highest point since 1983…

    In order to have a real dialogue about the economy, we need to acknowledge that most people like and want money, and just want to earn it ethically. What does ethical enterprise look like? In some cases, it means choosing to work for a company that shares your values. In many other cases, it means standing up for shared values in an environment that may be unfriendly or hostile. For example, in the 1970s, my grandmother quietly fought for seven years for the desegregation of hiring at Social Security. She was denied her own promotions while she fought for others… but eventually was recognized and awarded by the same organization she had battled. Not everyone has the fortitude to mount that kind of struggle, and not everyone who struggles will be recognized.

    Wall Street does not just have rogue traders, but ethical ones — even whistleblowers. Unfortunately, as an article from Pro Publica points out:

    Whistle-blowers, truth-tellers and fraud-spotters pay a miserable price on Wall Street. They are vilified. They are fired. Sometimes they are even sued. Instead of being sought after, they become persona non grata.

    How much un-tapped economic potential is there, among everything from big firms to one-person entrepreneurial ventures, that gets bottlenecked by the fear of money, or more accurately here — the fear of what it takes to make money? That’s a critical question we need to ask ourselves before the energy behind the Occupy movements fades.

    Symbol: Cain Campaign and the Cigarette

    First, watch this video on Herman Cain’s Youtube channel:

    It’s a great example of campaign symbolism over campaign substance. And when you stick to symbols — like your campaign Chief of Staff smoking a cigarette — then you can often avoid the negative blowback that happens to all politicians who’ve actually governed, whose votes and policies can be used both for and against them. Cain is a relative tabula rasa, which may be his biggest strength.

    According to Gallup, Cain is far ahead of all other republicans in his “positive intensity score,” a score they calculate by taking the percent of Republican/Republican-leaning voters who strongly favor a candidate and subtracting those who strongly dislike the candidate. Cain’s score is 34. The next highest contender, Romney, only scores a 15. And Rick Perry’s positive intensity score has gone from a high of 25 in late August to a low of 4 in late September.

    Let’s circle back to that cigarette in the Cain ad for a second. Remember when Sarah Palin went after the first lady for launching a healthy food campaign for kids, saying it was “an attack on our God-given rights to make our own decisions”? This cigarette is a just-barely-more-subtle attempt to reinforce a sense that being self-destructive is mavericky. As someone with my own vices, mainly in the fatty foods department, I’m not trying to throw stones about Cain Campaign Chief of Staff Mark Block being a smoker from my own glass house. But including a cigarette break in the campaign ad was not just a natural, unposed moment. All campaign ads, even the ones which like this use a verite feel, are edited to within a microsecond. It was a choice to include the cigarette as a symbol of the freedom to self-destruct, one which we Americans exercise with abandon.

    What Tech Can and Can’t Do To Fight Unemployment

    I’m doing a forum this Wednesday in New York on “The Real Cost of Unemployment” — it’s free and open to the public as long as you reserve tickets.

    The forum is as much about the future of employment in America as it is unemployment in the right here and now. When it comes to unemployment, we’re facing a precipice where continued unemployment will drive more families into a spiral of debt; loss of homes; and diminishment of educational opportunities as property taxes fall. And then there’s the question of what will happen to people told that they could go to college and find steady, even fulfilling employment as a result; but who can find jobs every now and then, not careers.

    So, as an alternative to bemoaning our fate and handwringing over the end of life as we know it, plenty of us are trying to figure out what will work to re-employ those who’ve slipped through the cracks (blue and white collar) and create new opportunities for the people graduating into a harsh job market.

    For years, technology has been touted as a path to reviving the economy. Yet a recent piece in the Economist gave this little reality check: “Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon collectively employ just 113,000 people, a third of GM’s payroll in 1980.” The article adds:

    Americans’ entrepreneurial self-esteem is now embodied by Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon. These are indeed fabulously innovative companies with world-beating business models. Yet one wonders if they are increasingly the exception, not the rule, and if the passing of Mr Jobs is simply the most prominent example of a broader decline in American entrepreneurship. According to JPMorgan, in the late 1990s, employment at start-up companies regularly grew 1.2m per quarter. That has fallen to 700,000 since the current recovery began. John Haltiwanger, probably the leading economist on employment dynamics by firm size, finds similar trends. Entrepreneurship and innovation, of course, are not the same thing. Yet even if American innovation is fundamentally sound, there remains the more unsettling problem of how narrowly its fruits are shared.

    There are a many different ways that technology can employ more people. One is the tech/manufacturing sector. An August New York Times article profiled a lithium ion battery factory in Michigan. As it examined this one company, it weighed tech and manufacturing, and said the future of tech-driven jobs could be one that “looks less like Google and more like Ford.” Writer John Gertner added:

    One challenge to moving in this direction may be that our banks, hedge funds and venture capitalists are geared toward investing in financial instruments and software companies. In such endeavors, even modest investments can yield extraordinarily quick and large returns. Financing brick-and-mortar factories, by contrast, is expensive and painstaking and offers far less potential for speedy returns. Berger maintains that for the economy to get “full value” from our laboratories’ ideas in energy or biotech — not just new company headquarters but industrial jobs too — we must aspire to a different business model than the one we have come to admire.

    A completely different way that tech is helping to solve the unemployment crisis is through crowd funding. Companies like Kickstarter (profiled here) and Indie Go Go are helping to fund a remarkably heterogeneous array of projects, from movies to housewares to toys. The Kickstarter model has been discussed at length. One question circling back to jobs is whether this could help create a cohort of people who, in what we once considered a normal job market, would work and maybe do projects on the side, but who instead choose a path of serial small-scale entrepreneurship enabled by crowd funding. Whether or not crowd funding can achieve a critical mass nationally will bear some longitudinal study of how people use it. A major factor will be whether the model expands in adoption beyond people who are tech early-adopters and risk-tolerant to people who might use some crowd funding engine (perhaps one not even in existence) to restructure their work lives entirely.

    As these long-plays for a revived job market are being worked out, we’re looking for shorter term solutions. That’s one reason we’re hosting the forum. It’s time to put our collective brainpower together and see what we can make out of the job market, not just wait for anyone else to come up with solutions.

    ========

    The forum “The Real Cost of Unemployment” starts with a reception at 6 and a program at 7. Our guests include investor Ryan Mack, personal finance commentator (Today Show, CNN) and author of “The Real Cost of Living” Carmen Wong Ulrich; and Columbia University Professor Dorian Ward, who studies labor markets. Join us if you’re in NYC.

    You can also join the Public Insight Network, a group of individuals who offer their perspectives to public radio, by participating in our survey on the impact of unemployment on your friends, family, community, and perhaps yourself. Go to the survey here.

    Thanks so much!

    The Spirituality of News

    A man I interviewed for an NPR piece on LA's Skid Row

    One could be forgiven for thinking we live in near-apocalyptic times, what with the mix of natural and nuclear disasters in Japan; revolutions and conflict in the Middle East; and economic suffering in our own still-comparatively-prosperous nation.

    It hurts to read the news sometimes, let alone to experience the turmoils of life. Sometimes even reading or watching the news requires what I think of as a spiritual discipline, an ability to look at life for what it is, and accept it. Continue reading »

    Plan Z: Or, How to Make It Up As You Go

    Every now and then someone will ask me, “Hey Farai, what are you up to these days?” Sometimes they’re fans of my former radio show or tv work, or people who know me professionally, or friends. And my answer used to be a long description of all the work I was doing, or work I thought I would do next, or, generally, anything work related.

    Now, my answer is “I’m having a midlife crisis, and it’s AWESOME.”

    This is a picture of me jumping off a 30 foot high diving platform in a lake in a volcanic crater in Guatemala. Continue reading »

    This Song of Freedom

    November 22, 2010

    First, let’s talk about redemption. Last night I went to a brilliant one-man play (soon to be a three-man production), by someone I’ve admired for years, the executive producer of Bill Maher’s show, Scott Carter. Scott wears a vest and a jacket almost without fail. His garb makes a pointed but not churlish commentary on the slovenly dress our society has devolved into in the name of Casual Friday (and Monday-through-Thursday). He is both out of time and of his time (for he has to produce a weekly humor/current-affairs show), and he is a man who has wrestled with his faith.


    Continue reading »

    How to Survive a Clusterfunk

    Hey, you. Yeah, you. Come over here. I wanna tell you something.

    Things will not always suck.

    I know you’re thinking: who is she to tell me that?

    Just a person. Just another a survivor of a job/economic/relocation/other-drama-inspired Clusterfunk. Clusterfunk, inspired by a somewhat more vulgar term used frequently among the journalist tribe, is my invented term for what happens when the rug gets pulled out from under you and you get all emotionally, financially, even physically worn out and ground down. It’s a combination of circumstances (beyond or within your control, but seemingly impossible to resolve) and the desire to maintain a facade that everything is fine.

    I got let go from my job in early 2009, after a lot of strategy I’m getting to do some great journalism and work on new projects that inspire me every day. My dear, wise friends in the business world complimented me on getting my new Plan A together so fast. To me, it’s seemed like a millenium. And therein lies one way that clusters stress can bring on a funky mood. We expect there to be some timeline by which everything is resolved, and sometimes patience and persistence beyond even our wildest dreams are required. As a writer, I think of the patience and persistence of people ranging from Harry Potter series author J.K. Rowling (now a billionaire) to Dune author Frank Herbert. Each of them had their landmark books rejected a dozen or more times.

    Signs that you are in the middle of a Clusterfunk:

    1) It’s not just one stone rolling at you, it’s an avalanche. Perhaps a job loss sets off a housing loss which sets off a situation where you have to sell some things you felt attached to (like a car), and then your dog dies or someone you love gets sick. It’s like that Calgon take-me-away commercial taken to Defcon 7.

    2) You begin to identify with your circumstances in ways that are detrimental to your emotional health. We’re told in this culture to celebrate ourselves for being wealthy or successful, but too often not told how to celebrate ourselves just for being alive and staying in the game. No matter whether you have a job or not, a great house (or a house at all) or not, it’s time to reclaim a sense of just being thankful to be you.

    3) Things begin to blur from individual problems into one giant life suckage.

    So how do you get through it? Here’s a few strategies:

    1) Celebrate you. You can curse the darkness, but also light a friggin’ candle and sing yourself an ode to joy. Do something that makes you happy (and is within your budget), whether it’s cooking a great meal or pretending to be a tourist in your hometown and just walking and taking in the sights. Write down things you adore about yourself. Look yourself in the mirror and even if you don’t believe it at the moment, tell yourself how fantastic you are.

    2) Separate huge masses of crud into small bits of crud, and then be proactive in cleaning up the crud. For example, if you have a massive pile of bills, take them and order them by priority. Instead of getting into a cycle of waiting for someone to call and yell at you, be proactive and call and explain when you will most likely to be able to pay, or simply that you are willing to pay but can’t right now. Or go to a reputable financial counselor and then actually listen to his or her advice. That’s a financial context (and there are many experts like Ariel Capital’s Mellody Hobson which can be more constructive about finance) but the idea of honesty with yourself and wise disclosure to others is critical.

    The thing that strikes me about Clusterfunks is that incremental solutions begin to seem meaningless. If a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, the Clusterfunk mentality tells you that not taking any steps at all is somehow a victory. That’s the way I used to think about exercise when I was clusterfunking. I would literally look at chubby people running and say “What’s the point? They’re not thin.” (No, really, I thought that.) That was defeatist thinking on so many levels. Now I jog, and I don’t care if I am slow and don’t look cute plodding along. I feel good.

    3) Downsize if you have to, or if you want to. As Erykah Badu sings, “Pack light.” Less stuff is less stuff to worry about.

    4) Take small bites of reality. You’ll finish your to-do list slow and steady. Don’t forget to take time to dream. Many people have survived on dreams when they had nothing else. Most of us are fortunate enough to have many material things in this world, but none of them are a substitute for a belief that there is more than this time and this space and this moment.

    So uplift yourself, follow that dream (and remember that it may take a different form than you first expected). Clusterfunk-be-gone and keep on keeping on.

    From Burning Man To Politics

    Out in the Nevada desert, people are preparing to burn an effigy of a man, and hopefully be inspired, refreshed, and renewed by the experience. The annual Burning Man festival is a total “wha?” for some people and utter old hat for others, so if you don’t know about it, I will send you straight to their website, BurningMan.com.

    I just got back from the playa, or the Black Rock desert where the festival is held. It was a somewhat truncated trip because work beckoned. I say “somewhat truncated” because one of the things you learn from being on the playa is that everything may not be right, but it’s right where it needs to be and right on time. So the fact that I flew a couple thousand miles and drove another three hours to be in a place with no running water for four days was exactly as it had to be, and totally worth it. While I was there, I helped build a bunch of structures for my theme camp, and for the first time I also did some reporting, on black participants at Burning Man.

    To say that black Burners are a minority is beyond obvious, but as I found out many of the African-Americans (and Afro-Brits, etc) who come have been taking part in Burning Man for over a decade. I saw more color than ever before among the participants, which is to say not a lot but a noticeable uptick since I last attended three years ago. The people of African descent I spoke to included a man who did live event radio broadcasts to one who taught fire arts to another who helped run the media tent. They were there to dream, and to do.

    It strikes me, and not for the first time, that Burning Man is resonant with metaphors for American life and politics. America is a shared dreaming, a place with rules and codes that are constantly being challenged and re-worked. Our Constitution was re-worked by debates over slavery and gender, among others. We have re-coded our laws to suit our changing morality, sometimes, as with California and Proposition 8, crossing the same line many times using different branches of government.

    Although Burning Man is designed to be and is a place of, as they put it, “radical self-expression” as well as radical self-reliance, it has rules. No firearms, for example… You used to be able to bring guns and shoot out over the vast open lands. Now you can’t, because, among other things, it’s simply not practical to have fifty thousand people in various states of self-expression and also have weapons around. (Some will argue that point, but most agree to that rule, and others, including the rule that nothing other than coffee is to be bought or sold within the festival circle.)

    One of the reasons I go to Burning Man, and I think one of the reasons many people go, is because every single moment you are forced to check in with your own relationship to other people’s choices, and your own. As Burning Man has swelled from a gathering of hundred, to thousands, to fifty thousand people, space is literally mapped out and negotiated, and the negotiations themselves are one of the most interesting parts, to me, of watching the city’s drama unfold.

    What is politics but a literal negotiation of space, in forms including Congressional redistricting, as well as allocation of resources? Some negotiations are not pretty, and right now America is pulled taut by a mix of economic stress and tensions over ethnicity, immigration, and identity. We are growing as a nation and feeling the growing pains.

    On Tuesday, I head off on my next reporting adventure, which I’ll talk more about later. For the online, radio, and multimedia specials “Pop and Politics with Farai Chideya,” I’ll be going on a multi-day road trip through Florida with multi-media journalists. We’ll be interviewing Senate candidates, citizens, and undocumented immigrants. We’ll be hosting a meetup in Miami. And we’ll take a look at the ways in which people use political tools — from activism to running for office — to negotiate resources and space.

    I’ll leave for my reporting trip inspired by my trip to the desert, which, as every time I go, opened my mind and my heart. Driving to and from the festival, through miles and miles of open country with open sight lines, past Tribal lands and small towns, I saw a part of America that the New Yorker in me rarely sees. Is it any wonder we sometimes misunderstand each other, or take each other for granted, in this vast land? How do we come to an agreement of what is the common good? Those are questions I’ll take with me on the road.

    Kiss the Sky Playlist: Chapter 16, Musafir, “Ninderli”

    In my novel Kiss the Sky, each chapter begins with a song. Over the course of the book, I compile a 91 song playlist that parallels the mood and story of the main character, Sophie “Sky” Lee, a black rock musician trying to make it in New York at the turn of the Millennium. I’ll blog a song from the playlist each day until the playlist is complete. Enjoy.

    The Story Behind the Song….. Chapter 16: Musafir, “Ninderli”

    The strange thing about You Tube culture is that you can find the most random stuff online. Like this version of this song… fairly poorly filmed but good audio. So far, 51 views. Let’s get it to 100 folks.

    Kiss the Sky Playlist: Chapter 15, The Smiths, “Shoplifters of the World”

    In my novel Kiss the Sky, each chapter begins with a song. Over the course of the book, I compile a 91 song playlist that parallels the mood and story of the main character, Sophie “Sky” Lee, a black rock musician trying to make it in New York at the turn of the Millennium. I’ll blog a song from the playlist each day until the playlist is complete. Enjoy.

    The Story Behind the Song….. Chapter 15: The Smiths, “Shoplifters of the World”

    It’s just ridiculous. That’s all. Guilty pleasure.

    Videoed:

    And live:

    Kiss the Sky Playlist: Chapter 13, Cyndi Lauper, “Money Changes Everything”

    In my novel Kiss the Sky, each chapter begins with a song. Over the course of the book, I compile a 91 song playlist that parallels the mood and story of the main character, Sophie “Sky” Lee, a black rock musician trying to make it in New York at the turn of the Millennium. I’ll blog a song from the playlist each day until the playlist is complete. Enjoy.

    The Story Behind the Song….. Chapter 13: Cyndi Lauper, “Money Changes Everything”

    Celebrity apprentice has been a fabulous distraction from/addition to my life. Folks from Holly Robinson Peete (@hollyrpeete) to Sharon Osbourne to Bret Michaels (recovering from the frightening but gloriously named subarachnoid hemorrhage) submit to the claims of fame willingly and with gusto.

    Oh, Cyndi, I was rooting for you. But you’re a winner in my book just for playing the game with grit and that voice.

    Also, this voice:

    The audio is warped… old tape digitized? It’s all in the past now… except with things like reality TV, folks keep coming back, and back, and back…

    Kiss the Sky Playlist: Chapter 12, The Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil”

    In my novel Kiss the Sky, each chapter begins with a song. Over the course of the book, I compile a 91 song playlist that parallels the mood and story of the main character, Sophie “Sky” Lee, a black rock musician trying to make it in New York at the turn of the Millennium. I’ll blog a song from the playlist each day until the playlist is complete. Enjoy.

    The Story Behind the Song….. Chapter 12: The Rolling Stones, “Sympathy for the Devil”

    “Oh babies. There are so many of you. Just be cool down there in front and don’t push around.”

    That’s what Mick Jagger says at the start of this live clip from the infamous show at Altamont, during which a man named Meredith Hunter was killes by Hells Angels hired as security guards during the Stones’ set. From that set: film of 1969 Altamont Speedway performance of “Sympathy for the Devil.”

    Kiss the Sky Playlist: Handsome Boy Modeling School, “Rock ‘n Roll (Could Never Hip Hop Like This)”

    In my novel Kiss the Sky, each chapter begins with a song. Over the course of the book, I compile a 91 song playlist that parallels the mood and story of the main character, Sophie “Sky” Lee, a black rock musician trying to make it in New York at the turn of the Millennium. I’ll blog a song from the playlist each day until the playlist is complete. Enjoy.

    The Story Behind the Song….. Chapter 11: Handsome Boy Modeling School, “Rock ‘n Roll (Could Never Hip Hop Like This)”

    I’m up past my bedtime.

    Not much to look at but nice remix:

    Are you feeling Cablinasian? Try harder!

    Kiss the Sky Playlist: Chapter 10, The Buggles, “Video Killed the Radio Star”

    In my novel Kiss the Sky, each chapter begins with a song. Over the course of the book, I compile a 91 song playlist that parallels the mood and story of the main character, Sophie “Sky” Lee, a black rock musician trying to make it in New York at the turn of the Millennium. I’ll blog a song from the playlist each day until the playlist is complete. Enjoy.

    The Story Behind the Song….. Chapter 10: The Buggles, “Video Killed the Radio Star”

    This was just so far ahead of its time. This is why I stayed up to watch Friday Night Videos. (No, we did not have cable, and thus no MTV.)

    Bonus: from Wikipedia

    “In 2009 [Buggles co-founder Trevor] Horn teamed up to produce the album Reality Killed The Video Star for British singer Robbie Williams. The album title pays homage to Horn’s first single with The Buggles back in 1980. The two performed the song together at the BBC Electric Proms on 20 October 2009.[7]”