Lessons I’m Learning from Disaster


Just that one word probably pulls up images that we’ve all seen in the past week or so. The one of the woman with dried vomit and blood on her face, covered by a whitish coating of what I presume is pulverized cement powder.

A dear friend of mine was there, working on access to clean water for the many in Haiti who didn’t have access to clean water before the earthquake. He survived. Ironically, the UNDP base managed to keep its internet link up (I’m guessing it was satellite-based), and my friend posted to his Facebook profile that he was okay.

Not so much for the millions in Port-au-Prince.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. There are (were) a majority of people in that little patch of island, eking out an existence (most definitely not “a living”) on less than the local equivalent of $2 a day. Could you exist on less than $2 a day wherever you live? More than a billion people around the world do it. All day. Every day.

And Yet …

And yet, as we’re seeing the very literal dust begin to settle in Haiti … supplies are starting to get through, the injured (who survived long enough) are beginning to be treated properly… we’re seeing the survivors, well, surviving.

They’ve moved their little charcoal stoves (think campfire; not Frigidaire) out into areas free of debris, and not in the shadow of partially fallen buildings, and they’re cooking. They’re pulling the one or two things they had out of the pile that was once their house, and are preparing to rebuild … again.

These folks get slammed by hurricanes regularly. An earthquake is effectively the same, without all the water. And because they don’t have much to begin with, they are great at picking up and moving forward.

Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not at all romanticizing what has happened there. I was in Turkey for a similarly-sized earthquake. I know what happens to improperly-mixed cement when the ground undulates. The one Turkish word I am least likely to ever forget is deprem (earthquake).

What I’m Trying To Say…

What would you (or I) do in a similar situation? Could we, as wealthy (in that global relative sense of wealth) individuals who suddenly lost everything to some natural disaster, survive? Think an earthquake measuring 10. Think a tsunami that reaches Colorado or Ohio. Think a plague or pandemic. Think the unthinkable.

Once we got past the point of trying over and over to get a mobile phone signal, what would we do? I know some might curl up in a Twitter-withdraw ball, but you’ll eventually get hungry.

How many of us know how to build a fire without matches or a lighter to start it? Do you know how to filter contaminated water so it’s safe to drink? What’s the right thing to do with your personal waste? Do you know which plants you can eat and which ones will kill you? Did you memorize enough episodes of MacGyver that, given enough of a supply of duct tape, you could overcome the bad guys who will inevitably take advantage of the situation?

Most of us who survived one of those natural disasters would die of our own ignorance not long after. Without wikipedia to help us get through it, we are  in trouble.

Unless …

If we watch the ways in which the Haitians pull together, and learn from it, we might have a chance. If we think and plan ahead, we might survive. We do not have to descend into the morass of violence and murder in order to make a way forward. I’m not talking about utopia here folks, I’m talking about being smart now; before you actually need to be.

Maybe the Haitians are still living life in closer connection to the earth than we are. Maybe that’s mostly necessity, but still, that connection – that understanding is what’s helping those who survived the initial disaster to survive now. Because they’re accustomed to needing to work together to survive, they’re continuing to work together, in spite of radical shortages of food, water, shelter, and medical care.

That’s not to say there aren’t bad guys there, taking instead of sharing, but they seem to be in the minority.

Projections by doomsayers in the US indicate that survivors of a natural disaster here won’t be able to make it without resorting to violence and hording.

I want to believe that’s not true.

I want to believe that we’re capable of rising above our spoiled, privileged existence to care for our neighbors as well as ourselves in the midst of a disaster. We saw hints of this in New York nearly 9 years ago. We saw fewer hints of it in New Orleans in 2005.

I’m not harping on preparations for an unknown disaster here. In the 1950s, people installed “bomb shelters” in their back yards out of that kind of fear orientation. Instead, I’d like to suggest that we make a conscious decision here and now that, in the face of the unimaginable, we will continue to be human beings and that we will see those around us as human beings as well.

Remember that earthquake I mentioned before? The one in Turkey? The one I was caught in?

Well many, many people died there too. In fact, the only time in my life as a photojournalist that I intentionally destroyed negatives was in the midst of that disaster. Some things I just won’t be responsible for exposing people to.

Still, in the middle of that, I was walking down the street with my companions and a young boy came out and pulled us (politely) into what had once been his family’s front yard. His mother had seen us coming, and had put on tea. On a fire made of what I think had previously been furniture. She managed to find a sufficient number of mostly-unbroken cups and saucers for us to share in this simple ritual of hospitality. And we did.

As we sat talking over our tea, we learned that, somewhere in the pile of rubble behind us … rubble that a day previous had been her house … our hostess’s husband and baby girl lay buried.

Never in my life have I appreciated a cup of tea more than I did that day. And I pray I am never faced with another situation capable of topping it.

The Simple Power of Being Human

Human beings who choose to retain their humanity in the face of unspeakable adversity are the most incredible, resilient, powerful creatures anywhere.

How much more can we do if we choose to face the world as human beings filled with compassion when there’s not a disaster?

What can you do, right now, today, to embrace those around you as human beings of worth and innate goodness? If you do it now – if you learn this behavior in this moment, you will carry it forward into whatever the future may hold for us all.

Assess, Evaluate, and Prioritize

No, this is not a New Year’s Resolutions post. Well, not a typical one anyway.

I receive a postcard from a friend living in Japan once each month. She was born and raised in the United States, but has lived in Japan longer than she lived in the US before going there. She lives and works in the northern part of Japan, and is just one of the most amazing women I know.

Her name is Mary (her last name is not important for the purposes of this post).

I first met Mary in 1994. I was working for the NGO that funds her work in Japan, and she was considered by some in the organization as “challenging.” I was on the communication team for the organization (actually, I was the main writer and photographer for this organization), so I was given the task of interviewing Mary when she was back stateside, as well as shooting a new photo of her for fund raising stuff.

And let me say, I was prepared for a difficult, demanding individual … who never showed up.

Never Believe the Hype

I knew from reading her bio that Mary had trained as a mathematician prior to taking up her work for the NGO. I was aware that she had devoted herself to the intensive study of the Japanese Tea Ceremony for many of the years she’d lived in Japan, and considered it to be part of her personal spiritual discipline. I figured out quickly that she is very much the introvert, in a role (when stateside) that requires a tremendous put on act as an extrovert for a long stretch of time.

In other words, Mary has a keen analytical mind that is orderly, disciplined, and gets tired of too much external stimulation.

So I approached  her with that in mind. In so doing, I discovered someone with an incredible passion for her work. Someone who works harder than most of us do, for less pay, and for far less appreciation. Someone I almost instantly admired.

Thankfully, Mary liked me too. She even paid me the kindness of saying that, in her long history with the organization, I was the only one ever to quote her accurately. I wanted to tell her story. I wanted supporters of the NGO to understand – really, deeply understand the work she was doing.

She also liked the photograph I made of her. She’s one of those people (not unlike me) who is a challenge to shoot. This has nothing to do with one’s attractiveness; it’s about something much deeper. Some people are just so conscious of everything about themselves that they can’t settle themselves for the fraction of a second required to expose the film to the light bouncing off them.

Aside: Yes, I used the word “film”. It is an antiquated substance used to capture the image revealed when light bounces off an object (or person) at certain frequencies. Try wikipedia. I’m sure they have an entry on it somewhere.

Anyway …

Even after I’d moved on from the NGO, Mary stayed in touch. There were occasional emails, actual snail mail letters, and the like going both directions across the Pacific. I walked with Mary through her encounter with ovarian cancer (a cancer that the Japanese are doing really well with … and are far ahead of the West in treating … so much so that Mary is now a 10-year survivor. Yes, I said TEN YEARS).

Eventually, Mary shifted to writing me a postcard at the beginning of each month. The postcards are sometimes series of cats. Sometimes they’re from museums. Sometimes they come from her occasional pilgrimage to Mt. Fuji. Often, they involve monkeys, because I was (according to the 12-year animal calendar) born in the year of the monkey. At the start of each New Year, Mary sends me one of the special Japanese New Year postcards, on which the incoming animal for that year is celebrated by the other animals of the calendar.

This postcard I just received from Mary celebrates the incoming of Tiger’s year … Mary’s year. She was born in the year of the Tiger, but even more importantly, she is reaching her 5th cycle in this round of it being her year. This is a big deal in Japan.

On the card she wrote:

Author Ayako Sono got rid of photos and tens of thousands of pages of manuscripts when she turned 60 (5 full cycles, so a special age in the cultures that do the 12-animal cycles), and I have decided to do the same . . . It’s actually quite satisfying to lighten my footprint on earth.

The Point

Part of the point is that I wanted to tell you about my friend Mary … someone about whom no one will ever make a movie, or (unless I do it) write a book. And yet she is one of those remarkable individuals who has changed the lives of many people, simply by following her heart and doing work she feels called to do. I am not nearly so brave as she is. Would that I were.

The other part of the point is that we’re in a world based upon continual accumulation. There’s never enough. And that’s true even if you’re trying to help those who are genuinely suffering. Mary’s postcard got me to thinking about what I can do to “lighten my footprint on earth.” I’m still thinking, and it’s a worthy endeavor.

How about you?

The Ego Vs. The World

No matter who among us desires to be seen as humble, and no matter who among us actually achieve it, we all have egos. Each and every one of us.

The ego serves as a kind of insulator, a protector between the ways in which we choose to see the world, and the way it actually is. For some, this goes to the extreme of egomania or a kind of self-centeredness that causes a very real and genuine belief (albeit sometimes unspoken or unconscious) that the would quite literally revolves around them and only them.

Of course, this isn’t true of anyone reading (or writing) this blog.


Of course not.

How silly of me to even mention it.


The truth we never want to admit is that we all egomaniacs of one sort or another, because we all see the world through our own eyes and experiences, and those filters inherently change perception.

The key differences we will find amongst ourselves has more to do with whether we use the ego as a tool for good, or allow it to be a self-determined monster.

Ego as Monster

This doesn’t require a ton of explanation, because we’ll all both seen this person, and have been this person.

A style of walk that indicates fear of nothing and command of everything. A way of sitting that takes up more space than is physically required for your body as a means of indicating that you’re big and strong and deserving of the deference indicated by large space. A talking down to those deemed inferior – whether they are perceived as being less (like service personnel) or as being stupid (meaning less intelligent or learned). The sort of person who is courted by those who strive to become that, and avoided by those who are actually holding on to some semblance of sanity.

I’m not going to venture into the idea that often these people who give the appearance of having the largest egos you’ve ever encountered are often covering up for fears and a sense of inadequacy. That is well-known. What matters in this scenario is that the filters we all have for taking in data from the world in which we exist have been given a place of importance in this person’s mind and heart that makes about as much sense as putting a screen door on a submarine.

Filters through which we take in communications and other stimuli around us are just that; filters. Sometimes they’re wrong. But we can sometimes give to them too much importance and then they skew our perception of the world and tend to subsequently screw up our lives. Not a good scenario.

Ego as a Tool for Good

Let’s be honest. If you’re without an ego, you’re without any sense of self. Yes, I am fully aware of a number of spiritual traditions that advocate the shedding of the Self. More carefully examined and more fully understood, however, they’re not actually about the killing of the ego; they’re about seeing it for what it is – a set of filters, which are really just tools – and not giving those tools any more importance than is needed.

I like to think of it this way …

When our ego is being used by us as a force for good, we are empowered to see ourselves as we are seen by others. What I mean by this is that we use these filters to sift through the sensory inputs that are heaped upon us day-in and day-out, and drawing from them a sense of the ways in which we are being experienced by those around us. The ways in which our words hurt or heal. The ways in which our actions or inaction are contributing to either healing and hope or death and despair.

The Point

Part of what has really messed with the past six months of my life has been the fact that I work for someone who is not using the ego as a force for good. Instead, his ego is being used to destroy both individuals and a company. In really ugly ways. And the saddest part to me is that I do believe he no longer realizes that’s what he’s doing. The monster is in total control and is fast becoming a sort of cancerous mass that is growing exponentially. And cancers of that sort usually have the same messy, sad ending.

For a long time, I was allowing that ego to crush me. To adversely effect my own ego – my own sense of self. And I realized it had to stop.

That’s really hard.

Somewhere along the line, I came to understand that I have the ability to control my own ego and that in so doing I began to see the ways in which others see me. It was kind of scary. And uncomfortable. And made me want to go live in a cave far, far from normal society. But then I realized that the kitty box still needed someone to scoop it, so I decided I’d better stick around.

So I started trying to use my ego for good and not evil.

I’m the first to admit that I’m not perfect at it yet. This is mostly because I think this is a long process that is fraught with fits and starts. Still, I keep trying. Trying to see myself as others see me, and adjusting my behavior to project to the world the person I really – deep in my soul – want to be.

I’ll get there one of these days. In the interim, it’s proving to be an interesting journey.

New Year, New Beginnings

Yes, yes, I know. First I fall off the radar for months, and now I’m back like a bad plate of sushi, promising shiny new things.

But …

This is real. I have had some majore 3D-world stuff to face down for the past six months or so, and in the midst of very nearly losing my Self, I realized something.

So what?

So what if I’m overwhelmed, over loaded, out of energy, and no longer know which way is up? It’s all about priorities, and it’s damn time I start setting those priorities for myself, rather than allowing the world around me to do the setting. After all, who has my best interests at heart? Me, or the schmoe who is far more concerned with the growth of his beach house hand he will ever be with my happiness, fulfillment, and financial future?

Well, if the answer isn’t a resounding, “ME! Dammit!” I have some serious problems.

But seriously …

I’ve made lists, and I’m knocking stuff off of them one-by-one. One items on the Twitching Grey Matter list is blogging. Blogging twice a week, to be specific. (I’m also blogging twice a week for my ittybiz, Online Sound Advice, but that’s another list entirely.)

As the year progresses, I will be revealing (slowly, because this is a big deal to me and honestly, it’s kind of scary) a massive project I’m taking on, and which will eventually be integrated into this blog. More on that in future posts though.

To those who have, from time to time, checked in here to see where I am and all, I say “thank you.” Really and truly.

For those who forgot that they hadn’t yet deleted this seemingly-defunct feed, I’m asking for another chance. Please.

Here We Go

This isn’t just some random resolution I’ve concocted for the New Year. This is my life. And this blog is the place in which I can bring together all of the random pieces and tidbits that make up who I am, and dump them out into what I hope is at least a semi-intelligible format for your consideration.

I’m still going to hit on communication, theology, quantum theory and mechanics, and all of the other things that fascinate me and hold my attention for uncharacteristically long periods of time. But I’m also going to do more. I’m on an adventure toward building enough varied streams of income to allow me to leave the 5th Circle (my current employer’s nickname … think Dante) without fear of losing my house.

Will it be easy?

Hell no.

Will it be worth it?

As my most beloved writer Madeleine L’Engle once wrote, “Anything on the side of life is worth a try.” And this is most decidedly on the side of life for me.

Welcome to the adventure. Again. I hope you’ll pull up a chair and join me.

Driving Communication Styles Home

I drive a long distance to my job. It’s 30 miles each way, every day. Yes, bleck. Further, this drive is in the vicinity of one of the larger metropolis areas of the United States. So there are a lot of people on the road. A lot of different sorts of people.

And these people and their driving got me to thinking.

Two Sorts of Drivers

It has struck me – since I recently started paying attention – that there are really two main groupings of drivers.

1 – Those who care only about how quickly they can get from point A to point B.

2 – Those who realize we’re all on this road together.

The folks who fall into the first category are the ones who go as fast as the laws of physics (and their engines) will allow, crawling up the tailpipe of anyone blocking their way. They zip in and out of lanes – with millimeters to spare between their bumper and the bumper of the cars around them, passing on whichever side they perceive as being clear enough to get around the person in front of them.

When there is a merge, they don’t let anyone in. When they are merging, they will force you into an emergency stop so they can push their way into traffic.

They invented what I call the “Boston Left Hand Turn”*. They also have no qualms about making right hand turns from the left hand lane (or visa versa).

These folks use their horn a lot and their middle finger even more.

*The Boston Left Hand Turn (think US driving here folks) is when you want to make a left hand turn, and pull out into the near lane, blocking it, until someone in the far lane stops and lets you in so you quit blocking the other lane of traffic. Yes, this happens a lot in Boston, but I’ve seen it other places too.

The folks who fall in the second category may well be just as anxious to reach a given destination as those in the first category, but they approach the whole driving thing in a very different way.

While it may not be conscious, they “get” that everyone on the road is trying to get somewhere, and if we all work at this driving thing together, we’ll all make it in one piece.

These are the folks who pass in the correct passing lane (unless there’s an entirely clueless person blocking that lane forever). They may drive fast, but never so fast that they’re in danger of beginning a low altitude flight.

They make sure they can actually see the car(s) behind them in a mirror before jumping in front of someone, and they don’t force their way into lanes just because they can.

These folks, when faced with a merge situation, will slow down or speed up to facilitate the cars merging with them. And when they’re merging they will get into traffic in such a way so as to not endanger lives.

In short, this second group works with the drivers around them to keep things moving and safe.

But what does this have to do with communication?

Well, given that I have such a long drive, I see lots of each category of people every day. The saddest days are when someone from category 1 misjudges something and ends up killing themselves and/or someone from category 2 (I’ve seen both first hand).

But as I thought more about it, I realized that the way people communicate broadly fit into these two categories as well.

Category 1

When these folks communicate, they have an end point in mind. Diversions from this end point are a waste of their time and so they constantly pull back the focus of the conversation to their perceived path of their desired end point.

You often find that conversations with these folks are about them and their stories. Any stories you tell them are really a means for them to tell you their own version of the same story-type.

They often talk fast, and rather than spending time listening, they’re really just waiting for you to stop talking so they can talk.

Category 2

When these folks communicate, they’re working to make sure that the message they want to give is being received in the clearest possible way by everyone else involved. They strive for clarity and want to use communication as a means of getting things done, expressing an opinion or desire, or being with others more fully.

They love to collect the stories of others, because this enriches their own experience of the world. They often also love to tell stories, but as a way of giving to others as they have received.

They will often listen more than they speak, but aren’t necessarily afraid to share their opinions.

No, this isn’t perfect…

…but it’s not meant to be. These are just broad categories.

Now I have no doubt that it’s obvious which sort of driver and which sort of communicator I think is more desirable.

I despise the drivers who force me to slam on my brakes because they just had to force their way into a space that wasn’t big enough for their vehicle. Likewise, I struggle mightily communicating with people whose only focus is themselves and their needs.

In the case of the former I am ashamed to admit that once such driver who nearly clipped me caused a major accident a few miles later. My shame comes from the fact that I had a “well you deserved it, asshole” moment when I saw his car flipped over.

In the case of the latter, I am equally ashamed to admit that I end up not taking these folks seriously. I quit listening to them. And that really just means I’ve become like them and well, that’s not a good thing.

The Point

The point is that we can make choices in how we drive and how we communicate. And those choices have tangible effects on people around us. Sometimes these effects are literally life-and-death (though more with driving than with communication).

What choice will you make?