Embodying Empathy

It is apropos that I missed posting last week due to lack of sleep. My tiny black ninja cat decided that 2:30AM was an excellent time to sit on my pillow and conduct intensive grooming. If you’ve ever had a cat bathing in your ear, you’ll understand why this put a kink in my sleep schedule.

A day later, Chris had a trip so we were up at 5AM to get him to the train station. Then something came up workwise and I had to get up early the following day to write.

black cat

Photo by Hannah Troupe on Unsplash

Just a normal conflux of niggles and responsibilities, in other words, but enough to throw my system into a spin. My mouth was dry, my head ached, I yelled at the cats for getting underfoot. A layer of chill wrapped me that had nothing to do with the cold, damp day. Every small task was aggravating, painful, like a shoe-bound pebble that swells with each step.

As an adult with, heaven help us, responsibilities, it is up to me to negotiate sleep deprivation without becoming a danger to myself or others. Babies, on the other hand, are immune from expectations about how they should act when they are tired. Well into childhood, Richter scale meltdowns are excused because “s/he’s tired”. Rightly so. Being tired is harmful to health. According to the International Journal of Endocrinology, “sleep deprivation and sleep disorders may have profound metabolic and cardiovascular implications.” It is, “adversely affects the physical wellbeing and quality of life of participants, demonstrated in bad mood, somnolence, and tiredness” (Journal of Family Medicine Primary Care).

Babies, kids, are responding appropriately when they have a tiredness-induced crying jag or temper tantrum; their bodies need rest and are wired to seek it at whatever cost to adult sanity. This is reasonable.

What isn’t is that as adults we expect/are expected to have a different – unnatural – relationship to sleep. Instead of acceeding to our physical needs, we are supposed to keep going, as if our bodies are wrong for needing what they need.

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Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash

Cultural deprivation

There is a certain cultural tendency to fetizishation of work at the expense of sleep. Margaret Thatcher famously slept four hours a night. “For the Iron Lady four hours was a badge of almost superhuman strength. It fits the narrative of the “warrior” prime minister…” wrote Tom de Castella in a BBC News Magazine piece. The same article noted that Trump claims to only sleep three hours a night.

That suggests something with deep implications.

As a baby, we are begged to sleep; as a small child, we are made to sleep; as an older child/adolescent we still have bedtimes or curfews. As a young adult, we have the giddy freedom of being able to stay up as late as we want – and do all sorts of dumb things as a result. Then, at some invisible point, we suddenly find ourselves expected to function perfectly, whether we’ve slept or not. We’re running to stand still and those bitterly resented childhood naps sound idyllic.

This was my experience, in any case, with minor variations. When I was very small and expected to take an afternoon nap I’d lie awake, telling myself stories to pass the time. Staying up till midnight was a once-a-year occasion, a thrilling New Year’s Eve pressed up against a space heater, eating Planter’s Honey Roasted Peanuts, turning pages with sticky-sweet fingers until the clock reached 12.

When I was a young adult, immersed in music and club culture, midnight was a starting rather than an end point. The delirium of those years seemed, at the time, like part of the fun. Now, I feel anxiety amounting to dread at the thought of being out at two or three in the morning, much less four or five.

Unrested = unhinged

When duty and distraction combines to keep me from sleeping my first reaction is anger. And, because I’m tired, it is irrational rage. I am minimally patient at the best of times; sleep-deprived, I’m plain mean. I lose the ability, or will, to see things from a different perspective, or have a sense of humor. Incidental slights – a rude driver, a slow shopper – become personal affronts.

Is it coincidence that a three-hour-a-night sleeper is unhinged and meglomaniacal? Or that a four-hour-a-night sleeper was willing to crush entire industries and thousands of lives on an ideological whim?

Trump is, and Thatcher was, remarkable for lack of empathy shading into brutality. It is horrible to witness; like a toddler’s tantrum, a sign of something amiss.

It makes sense, though, that people who deny their own basic needs are willing, even eager, to deny the needs of other. I feel bad, so why should you feel good?

A couple of years ago I had a student who responded to a prompt about homelessness with a devestating account of her own struggle with poverty, homelessness and mental ill health. It was a brave thing to write. Her conclusion shook me: “Nobody ever helped me, so I don’t think they deserve any help. If I had to do it myself, so should they.”

There is a cold, undeniable logic to her statement, but it is a building block to a society I don’t want to live in.

kindness

Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

Cultivating kindness

We have two options: value ourselves and others; or not. If we truly value ourselves, we can’t denigrate others; if we don’t value ourselves, we can’t then magically summon goodwill towards those around us. For all our intellectual capacities, we operate as physical beings. When we are rested, nourished, and secure, we are capable of being expansive, creative, contributing members of society.

If anxious, tired, and hungry, we can’t think about anything beyond meeting those immediate needs. We can scrape by for a while, but we can’t consistently deprive ourselves of essentials without getting pinched and wild-eyed.

Kindness has to begin with ourselves. Respect and compassion for self begin with taking care of our needs – without guilt or apology. Then, fortified and of sound mind, we have the capacity to care about other people.

 

Unexpected

Saturday, 19 December 2015, I plotted a route around Portland’s used book stores. In the back of my sister’s red Wrangler, a box of Oregon Wine Pioneers. In the seat beside me, a show-copy, its gloss paper cover softened with wear. I hoped to sell a few copies, or inspire a few orders.IMG_20161225_115917

On my phone, a string of Tinder messages from some guy who spent Friday evening trying to cajole me out of the house to the some downtown bar. “The feet are up,” I had replied, by way of refusal. He seemed nice, though, so I agreed to meet him in Old Town at 6PM on Saturday.

The day started out sunny. I navigated between bookshops using Google maps print-outs since my phone didn’t have roaming. Clouds gathered in the afternoon. By the time I got lost on my way to my last destination, a wine distributor’s office in north east, it was raining and prematurely dark.

Driving back to the west side, I thought about heading straight home. I could message my excuses from there. Throwing in the towel by 6PM was lame, even for me. Anyway, this guy, Chris, said he had to be at work by eight. No danger of date creep.

We were meeting at the Roseland Theater, a few blocks from my mum’s apartment. I parked near her place, to have a clear line of retreat. The rain had stopped; the air was cold. On my way to the Roseland I passed a small, colourful Mexican dive.

At the theater, I stopped in bafflement. The building, the whole block, was six deep in teenage girls, a barricade of hormones and cheap perfume. How the hell was I supposed to find this guy? No point in checking my phone — no roaming.

After one full lap, I stopped and stared at the red-and-green lights twinkling high on an adjacent skyscraper. If he didn’t magically appear in the next few minutes, I’d call it a night. Almost as soon as the thought formed, someone walked toward me from the corner I just passed. Please don’t talk to me, I thought.

“Hi.”

One drink, to be polite, that’s all.

“Hi,” I replied.

*** IMG_20170228_102453

This morning Chris woke up at 4AM and couldn’t get back to sleep. I dozed, intermittently aware of his restlessness.

I am tempted to say something florid like, I can’t sleep/live/breathe without him, but that would be untrue.

What I thought, as we yielded to wakefulness was, if you don’t have any expectations you won’t be disappointed. 

Anything is possible, even the absence of us. That is what makes this so precious.

I fell for him like rock tossed into a canyon (still falling). One drink, to be polite turned into three margaritas and a long kiss in the middle of that noisy Mexican dive. It turned into a relationship built on air miles: Ibiza, London, Rome, Brussels, New York, DC, Detroit, Denver, Salt Lake City, Milan, Vienna, Manchester, Glasgow.

We got married in Memphis. Adopted a cat, sold a car, moved to Spain.

All of it unexpected, none of it inevitable. Loving was a fact from the outset. What we did about it was a choice. Of all the things I learned, and am still learning, this is the most important. Life is full of surprises. What comes of them is down to us.

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Storytelling: Suspense

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 20: Suspense

If you want to keep an audience hooked, don’t tell them how the story ends.

Case study: Relocating C Warncke Writer

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What it is:

After fifteen years in the UK and Europe, C Warncke is moving to the American South, and there is absolutely no telling how things will turn out.

Why it matters:

Successful stories combine action with unforeseen consequences. In this case the action is a person — me — leaving behind her entire life (country, cat, cutlery) to move thousands of miles away and live with someone she met on Tinder.

As for consequences, who knows?

Romance, disaster, or reinvention are all distinct possibilities.

In typical damn the torpedoes fashion I charged into this with minimal consideration for what happens if it goes, as the Brits say, tits up. I’m as curious as anyone to see how things turn out.

If nothing else, it will make a great story. And the perfect conclusion to the Elements of Storytelling series. Thanks for following and stay tuned for more storytelling adventures.

In other words:

“Every life, Transtromer writes, “has a sister ship,” one that follows “quite another route” than the one we ended up taking. We want it to be otherwise, but it cannot be: the peoploe we might have been life a different, phantom life than the people we are.”
~Cheryl Strayed Tiny, Beautiful Things

Practice: “Create characters that live and breathe on the page… I realised I had come to know some of these people so well that the idea that something bad was going to happen to them had become almost unbearable. I was turning each page with a sense of dread and it dawned on me that here was the most satisfying way to create suspense.”
~Mark Billingham via The Guardian

Remember: “We all live in suspense from day to day; in other words, you are the hero of your own story.” ~Mary McCarthy

Storytelling: Framing

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 19: Framing

What a story is about, and the conclusion it reaches, depends on how you frame it.

Case study:

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump

hill-trump

Who they are:

Respectively, the Democratic and Republican candidates in the 2016 American presidential election. Clinton won the popular vote by an unprecedented margin. Trump won the majority of Electors and is slated to become the next President of the United States.

Why it matters:

The bitter, split decision presidential election highlighted the fact that there is no single “story”. What we think a thing means and what we believe about people and events, is drawn from a rich mass (or mess) of facts, ideas, information and preconception.

After last week’s storytelling post a reader rebutted my assertion that Hillary Clinton is “a experienced, qualified, sane, humane politician”:

Surely this must be qualified as “by comparison?” Isn’t it a fact that Hillary Clinton:

1) Supported the Iraq War forcefully and was a key proponent as an opposition pol from NY

2) Supported overthrow of Libya forcefully

3) Supported overthrow of Syria forcefully

4) Was endorsed by entire Bush family and most of GWB cabinet officials

5) Received 100s of millions from wall street banks and multi-national corporations

So, if Hillary Clinton wasn’t positioned against Trump and you judged her by her policies she would be a rightwing neo-con Republican.

I think perhaps you should also consider the story telling of the Clinton campaign which would argue that perceived racism and sexism are more important than real policies that have killed hundreds of thousands of Muslims in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other countries.

 

This is a perfect example of framing. My narrative frames Hillary’s experience and views as a positive; my reader highlights different, but equally legitimate, information that casts her in a different light. Trump can, likewise, be any number of things depending on how you frame him. He is either a robust example of American iconoclasm or a racist shit. He went bankrupt and made billions; the story depends on what facts you put in the picture.

In other words:

“While reality itself does partly determine the meaning we assign to it, it doesn’t insist on any one specific meaning. So, while we all live in the same reality, we interpret it differently. Most of the time, the differences are negligible: at the day-to-day level, we agree sufficiently about most things. But some differences are radical. And that’s what politics is about.

Politics is a colossal magnification of the differences in how we perceive the world around us. And an election is a simplified, brief magnification of that. In an election, time stops, and a complex, gradually evolving jumble of differences of opinion is frozen in a single statistical figure.” Rob Wijnberg via The Correspondent

Practice: “All I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame. This is all I have to bite off for the time being. All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains were still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor.” Anne Lamott, Bird By Bird

Remember: “One person’s craziness is another person’s reality.” ~ Tim Burton

Storytelling: Character

Storytelling is the essence of communication. The elements of storytelling are like letters of the alphabet. When you know how to use them, you can tell your best story.

Element 17: Character

Characters drive stories. Make yours unforgettable.

Case study: Yoga With Paul

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Paul Dobson

What it is:

An umbrella brand for the professional activities of London-based yoga teacher, masseuse and former professional dancer Paul Dobson.

Why it matters:

Yoga teachers are two pence a dozen in London and students typically cram sessions into hectic schedules. In this environment convenience, rather than affinity for a teacher, is often the deciding factor in choosing a yoga class.

Yoga With Paul was created to buck this trend by sharing founder Paul Dobson’s character. Instead of saying why he’s a great teacher it shares what he believes and cares about. Through a blog and social media, Yoga With Paul (#YWP) has built a network of like-minded yogis who share Paul’s interest in yoga, meditation, clean eating, mindfulness, fashion, urban life, and more. The proof is in the success: Paul now teaches several styles of yoga across London, and his annual Yoga Holiday With Paul summer retreats sell out well in advance.

In his own words:

“My life changed radically when I became a Bikram yoga teacher and it made me realise how easy to get locked into a “ladder” mind-set in our careers, relationships, or even hobbies. What I strive to share with my students is the awareness that you grow and become more yourself by challenging your preconceptions and being open to new experiences. It’s never too late for Bikram and never too late to change your life.”
Read more

Practice: “Your readers will live in a house made of their own mental pictures while reading your fiction. Those pictures are based on your words, of course, and you will curate that mental gallery quite closely. And yet the infinite details that your readers will conjure up around the mental pictures suggested by your words are all their own.” via Michael Alexander Chaney

Remember: “Desire is the crucible that forges character. ~Kristen Lamb

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Yoga With Paul

 

Elements of Storytelling 1

Storytelling is the essence of communication. Writers, entrepreneurs, corporations, governments and even religions rise and fall by the stories they tell. It’s simple: if you want an audience, customer, or acolyte you better tell a damn good tale.

Think of the elements of storytelling as letters in the alphabet. Once you know them, you can tell any story your want in a way that makes people pay attention.

Element 1: Listening

Great storytelling begins with listening… to stories, people, songs, ideas, waves breaking on rocks, the voice of your intuition

Case study: Boom Earwear

boom headphones

What happened:

My first interaction with @BoomEarwear on Twitter. As a music fiend and serial jogger I go through headphones at an unholy rate. I clicked onto their webpage to order a pair but the site was down. I Tweeted a jokey complaint. To my surprise a response popped up a minute later, thanking me, apologising, and promising to fix things ASAP.

Why it mattered:

Easily distracted, I went back to my crappy generic headphones. When they gave up the ghost I thought of the Twitter exchange, but couldn’t remember the name of the company. The fact they listened and responded was enough to make me search my feed for the name. My post-purchase Tweet received a prompt, friendly response. Once again, giving me the warm fuzzy feeling that comes from being listened to…

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Their story:

A note from James, founder of Boom Earwear.

Firstly, thank you for checking out Boom Earwear, we’re super excited to have you around. I’ve been asked many times why I set up Boom Earwear, and wanted to tell the story exactly as it is.

I founded Boom Earwear after encountering issues with my headphones when travelling through Asia. I’d gone out for five weeks alone, and took a pair of headphones with me to listen to music – it’s a big part of travel for me.

During the second week, my headphones developed a fault – and naturally, I wanted to get this solved. I contacted the manufacturer and was told that sure, I could have a replacement – but I had to go back to the store I bought them from, or get them shipped to a UK address. When you’re out in the middle of nowhere, thousands of miles from home – that’s not a great answer.

That’s when I started to get super bummed out. Consumer electronics as a whole is a huge industry, and there is a real lack of companies that care enough to help….

Read the rest of the Boom story here

Practice:

“Imagine yourself in the other person’s situation, wanting to have someone listen to them. When they are speaking, make an effort to think of where they are coming from and why. Imagine what their life is like and what struggles they might be facing”
via FastCompany

Remember:

“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.” ― Ernest Hemingway

Poem of the Month – If by Rudyard Kipling

If is the poetic equivalent of “…Baby One More Time”: it’s naff, simplistic, brash and its politics don’t bear examination but Christ it’s catchy. I can’t remember when I first read or heard the poem, but fragments of it are buried in my brain like shrapnel.

Kipling was a jingoistic racist. If is patronising hooey. Still, the line “if you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds worth of distance run…” has gotten me up more hills than I can count. So there’s that.

Why memorise If? In part because I think it’ll come in handy over the next couple of months in Ibiza (“If you can keep your head when all about you/ are losing theirs…”) and partly to acknowledge the fact that bad poetry can be as useful, or meaningful, in the right context, as the most exquisite sonnet.

What’s your favourite bad poem? Share in the comments.
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If

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!