Unintended Changes

11151421293_920e1a23be_cI started this blog under a different title and with a different purpose over 11 years ago.  Back then I was moving my life from Portugal to the Netherlands, writing about my travels and things happening in the world. Writing both for me as well as my friends and a few strangers who were crazy enough to read me.  My philosophy was write when I want, write often, and try to be creative.  It was, as always, personal, spontaneous, and honest.

Somewhere along the way things changed of course. As did my life. A neverending list of interesting adventures came my way and a changing outlook on my style of media and what I wanted to do here resulted in a podcast, a focus on what I call “under reported news”, and strangely enough – an attempt to look more professional or serious. I think that I realized I want this to be my career and I got busy trying to make it look like one.  Like so many things in life, keeping up appearances sometimes becomes as important (unfortunately) as the real heart and drive behind something. Want to be hired or funded? Put up a front like you’re an experienced pro and the world will believe you’re an experienced pro.

Happily, the experience part actually did happen as time went on, I’ve amassed a unique and fantastic collection of media producing experiences that I’m proud of and make me uniquely qualified in this world.  Uniquely qualified sounds more lucrative than it actually is, I still struggle every month to pay my bills and figure out how I’m going to make a living 3 months from now.  But that if we put aside that common problem many of us share, this work I’ve done has still led me in a really special direction.

What I do lament is how during this whole process I began to write less.  To over think everything out of fear of making a mistake or wasting my energy. This place was once an open canvas for working out ideas together with an audience. But in the name of looking professional and not appearing vulnerable, I shifted more towards publishing my weekly program and in between some first hand observations and notes from the field.

The point? Sometimes I miss the old days. I definitely miss writing without fear or certainty of what my point is. All this posturing as a media professional hasn’t brought me a stable or lucrative career. It may have earned me respect among the more conventional journalists out there. But I lost something essential about who I am and what i love to do.  That is to tell stories, to bring forward other people’s stories, and to increase understanding of who we are as humans in this world and how we could do that old cliché thing of making it a better world than it was before we each appeared on the scene.

One Year Since My Tahrir

Towards Tahrir, Nov. 2012
Towards Tahrir, Nov. 2012

One year ago this week it was Chris and I running around the streets of Cairo, getting a crash course in revolution from some of the most passionate, charming, and welcoming people one could ever have the good fortune of meeting in this life. From our home base in western feeling Zamalek, to our front office between the hallowed walls of Café Riche in Downtown, everyday we went to school with pen, paper, and microphone. Incredibly, the very three weeks that we were in town coincided with the reawakening of a movement, to finish what they had started back in 2011.  For two outsiders eager to learn at any hour of the day It was nerve wracking, it was confusing, it was beautiful.

One year later the loud voices of observers from all walks of life and all corners of the world would shout me down and say it was and has been a terrible year for Egypt, and we were witnessing just another chapter in a story filled with tragedy.  While those voices might be louder and considered more credible than my own, I would still say to them – what I experienced in Egypt in the autumn of 2012 was a thing of tremendous beauty.  I saw old and young walking arm in arm through the streets without fear, singing, chanting, smiling and inviting their neighbors to join them.  I saw families camped out in the middle of this world famous square, sharing food, telling stories, and exchanging warm greetings. Every time we turned a corner we were greeted as welcomed visitors, people eager to show us and have us relay to the world – this is Egypt, we are glad you are here.

When I think back on those wonderful weeks in Egypt, among so many great interviews worth listening to again and again, my favorite has to be Fouad and the boys, three friends sitting with us at an outdoor café in Downtown Cairo. Telling the story of what has been happening and Egypt and what it all means to them personally. Putting things in perspective, especially in that big-picture perspective of life, death, and everything in between.

A lot has changed since those fateful days of November in Egypt.  Lots more lives have been lost and terrible crimes have been committed.  But anytime I see one of those simple conclusions in the press, or hear that blowhard at the bar spout off about how Egypt has jumped off the deep end, I remember what I experienced and the lessons I learned from some very special observers that live the reality everyday, including at this very moment. And I take solace in the fact that there is always more to this story, it isn’t all just one way, and oh the fantastic people you could meet if you were there right now.

Storytelling Renaissance, Sort Of

photo by Local Studies NSW/Flickr
photo by Local Studies NSW/Flickr

The word storytelling seems to pop up all over the place over the past year.  A quick glance at cultural events in your community and projects being carried out by NGO’s (such as our very own hardworking Small World News) and you are sure to see the word storytelling.  Storytelling as an art, a hobby, an activity to bring people together, to share experiences and culture; it’s this thing that has always been there, for generations, and might just be having a bit of a renaissance in the context of on and offline culture.

I’m often involved in discussions or projects related to the world of online story telling.  Truth be told, I do love a good story, and I do believe it is part of why I love to record other people’s words. By and large it must be a big benefit for all of us now and for future generations, that in 2013 storytelling got hip!

photo by giulia.forsythe /flickr
photo by giulia.forsythe /flickr

Despite the fact that it is probably good for our collective health and I myself am involved in teaching and promoting story telling online, I am also partly skeptical of all the noise surrounding the word. Storytelling for the sake of sharing with the world and bringing us closer together- yes! Surely it does matter how you present something, if the audience can understand it, follow it, and to some extent relate somehow. But storytelling that is focused on entertaining and manufacturing emotional high’s and low’s, as a journalist at heart, that is not what I am about. Of course I like a good story and have certainly exaggerated my way through some tales for the sake of a big smile or a “huh.. wow.. that’s amazing” reaction.  I too love the stories coming out of radio projects like This American Life, Radio Lab, or Snap Judgement.  But if indeed I am a storyteller and I’m busy teaching means of better telling their stories, I would rather inspire people to not try to entertain but rather – tell the truth.

Choose to record the words of a person without chopping up the audio or video in an effort to create an emotional moment. Films do that. Radio plays do that. Even the guy or gal at the bar on a Friday night does that. But we who genuinely want to bring stories of real lives and real issues from one part of the world to another, our priority should not be to produce “a story” that will captivate and move an audience, we should let the truth do that.  And if the truth isn’t enough to get someone’s attention, if the reality of suffering or triumph from some corner of the globe isn’t enough to compel an audience to listen, at some level, I say- so be it- life is not always entertaining or captivating. Sometimes life is just sad or wonderful or something in between. It is not a made for tv drama, and there are still many of us out there that don’t need to be entertained before we learn something new.

Putting the Value Back

Mass HouseLast week I rambled into Boston and as soon as I set my bag down Chris Lydon said, “Let’s go interview Jaron Lanier.” And as always, I was pleased and excited to not only get to record another interview with Chris, but very glad that I would finally get to speak with Jaron, who’s previous book “You Are Not A Gadget” had a profound effect on my thinking.

What had most stayed with me from the book was the discussion of the danger posed by group think and the “crowd” mentality that seems to dominate large parts of the internet. Despite the endless possibilities, Lanier pointed out that there is and has been a lot of cases of people all doing the same thing; talking about the same topics, designing websites the same way, etc.  A trend that I too have observed and wondered about for some time now. But at the same time, like Jaron points out, there is still plenty to be excited about and the opportunity is still here- for people to challenge these conventions and steer the internet using a more critical-free thinking approach.  – At least, this is what I understood from the book.

Meeting Jaron in a very impressive Boston Hotel was admittedly very exciting but also rather intimidating. As a man who writes and speaks often, interviews seemed to be routine and easily irritating for him.  I think both Chris and myself wanted to do our best to keep him interested in the interview while not letting the answers sound too routine.  Thankfully I think we found a balance.

Perhaps the highlight of the interview for me were his theories on the value of information.  Like many people out there who used to believe 100% in the idea that information should be free and this will all work out somehow, Lanier has changed his stance on this issue. He believes it was a mistake and that there needs to be a return to recognizing and giving value where information is created or exchanged. A familiar idea, especially to fans and users of micropayment systems (like flattr here on my site) who have long been making use of a system where work you enjoy and want to help continue receives a piece of your monthly media budget.  Jaron talked about how this trend of giving our information for free and the devaluing of so many jobs within a growing list of sectors, is dangerous and spreading fast. It used to be something we bloggers and podcasters thought was only our issue, but now it could be architects, manufacturers of all types, translators, etc, who may increasingly find their work isn’t worth much of anything thanks other sources of “free” information that have emerged.

When it is published I will no doubt listen to the interview a few times in order to properly understand both what Jaron is worried about, what he foresees for the future.  But what I did understand is that all his experience and research points to one solution to get us out of this pyramid scheme style internet where we put in work and information for free and then someone else profits from our contribution- returning the practice of giving value to information. You provide me with X, I give you Y in exchange.  Instead of an unsustainable economy where, as he describes it, “they that have the biggest computers always win,” we could still move towards an internet economy where we the individuals adopt the tradition of recognizing and giving value to one another’s contributions, even on the smallest of scales.

Putting the Puzzle Together

A good friend said to me today “seems like all the work you’ve been doing and the journeys you’ve gone on, they are all pieces of a puzzle, and now you have to put that puzzle together.”

Paris RiverIt would seem so, after 13+ years as a blogger, 9 years as a podcaster, and over 7 years of giving lectures and workshops around the world, I’ve always believed that this was building up to something and I would know what at some point down the line.  All this knowledge, experience, and the contacts I have around the world, they do indeed fit together in different and sometimes unexpected ways.

But the puzzle still lies before me, waiting to be solved.  And whereas in the past there always seemed to be time and a natural order to all this, now it would seem push has come to shove financially and professionally and the question is – can I put it all together and make something out of it that I will be good at, enjoy, and be able to live from.  Over the past decade the answer has been yes, yes it can and will work. I have been fortunate enough to have lived the kind of life where I do indeed have options and people willing to help me sort through these options to find what is real and worth while.

One feeling that follows all this is that the time for sitting back and just going with the flow has ended. The time for action, decisive, meaningful, and well thought out, has arrived. Success is in no way guaranteed; I need to stand up and create the next opportunities.  Just like I did when I started this whole thing all those years ago.  The same spirit that caused me to start writing online, with an honest and determined approach, even at the risk of sounding like a fool, is what once again will get me to the next level (of life and slow journalism) which I very much desire.

On that note, on to Brooklyn!

What These Beds Have Seen

When I arrived at the former monastery, roughly ten days ago, I knew by the unkempt and run down buildings, it would not be a pretty sight inside. Despite the numerous buildings that made up the compound, most were locked up and seemingly out of use for several decades.  Only one building, just beyond the chapel, looked like it was still in use, as families with young children huddled around the visitors entrance, telling stories and discussing who their children resemble.  All the adults have the same concerned, uncomfortable look on their faces, as if to say – I can’t wait until they day I don’t have to come to this place anymore. 

HandsThe old sign reads Pulmonology C and as I walk down the odd smelling hallway I notice that in fact it isn’t a hallway. If I jump I can see over the temporary walls into the makeshift rooms that have been created from what is one massive room where I can imagine some 25 years ago everyone was just thrown in all together. Not that much has changed, I estimate, only now there are 6 beds to a room, each room with its own thin 2 meter high walls that allow every hacking cough, fart, or moan to be heard by everyone in the entire wing.

As I walk into my grandfather’s room, I quickly glance at the 5 other beds and their occupants; a young man sitting in hospital pajamas reading the newspaper casually next to his bed. An old man looking quite sick, reaching to over to grab a glass of water, a middle aged man wearing a breathing tube under his nose fast asleep, an older gentleman wearing reading glasses sitting up in bed eating a yogurt, and a charming little old man who has fallen sleep while sitting in a comfy chair next to his bed.  And there among the very sick and the not so sick, lay my grandfather, 92 years old, fighting what is certain to be his last battle against pneumonia and a body that is starting to shut down on him. Without his glasses, his teeth, and his loud greeting- I hardly recognize him.  But as I approach he greets me, making a quiet little joke about how more days in this place and his beard will be just as long as mine.

The next few days this became a ritual. Take the long drive to the old hospital and sit with grandpa. Tell him stories about what vegetables we have managed to grow in his garden and who called to send him kisses and wish him a speedy recovery.  Eventually it would be jello time, the only thing my grandfather seemed to take pleasure in – “It refreshes me”, he would say, as he slurped down another spoon of the trembling red treat, which would usually be followed by a coughing fit.  Day after day my mother and I would do this, and with each passing day he would speak less, open his eyes less, and eventually lose interest in the refreshing afternoon snack.

In just one week in such a place, you notice everything going on in the rooms and beds all around.  Who seems to be getting better. Who gets lots of visitors. Who screams and moans in pain in such a coarse voice that you find yourself running outside to escape that horrible sound every 30 minutes. And above all, you notice who disappears and why.

Hospital“The man who was sitting up in his bed yesterday breathing heavily with the machine hooked up to him, where did he go?” I asked a nurse.  “Where do you think he went?” the man answers me in very matter of fact “use your brain” tone.  The man who had been in the corner bed for only three days had held court on his first day, sitting in a chair not attached to any machines as numerous visitors came to chat with him.  By the third day he was in bed with an oxygen mask, not chatting to anyone and only his daughter and son-in-law by his side.  That night, he died.

This story happened three more times that first week. One was an pale looking old man I had helped to reach his water. The next day, his bed was empty, clean sheets awaiting the next patient. I didn’t need to ask the nurse, I could tell by everyone’s behavior what had happened. By the fifth day the gentleman with the reading glasses, who had so often been walking the halls in his slippers and often seemed concern about the well being of my grandfather, he was now in bed with an oxygen mask. His pajama top was opened, revealing his bare chest pumping in an out like it was out of control.  He sat in bed for hours, it looked as though any minute he would finally get a handle on breathing, but that minute never came.  As I said goodbye to him that day, I smiled and wished him a better day tomorrow. He answered with a stale look in his eyes and gave me the thumbs down.  Again I shouted to him and put my fist in the air, “you can do this, I wish you strength!” Still breathing heavily he shook his head no – pointed to himself and then pointed solemnly towards the ground like things would only be getting worse.  The next day his bed was empty, the nurse was busy gathering some of his personal items in a bag.

Strangely enough the weakest looking person in the room is the one who is still there, my grandfather.  Everyday he is a little less there, and every day a new person takes up whatever empty bed there is.  The charming old man who often fell asleep in his chair was sent home.  On his way out, still wearing hospital pajamas with his dress shoes, he mumbled best wishes and good health to all as he ran towards the exit. My grandfather, now heavily medicated and rarely lucid, did not even notice. Maybe its for the best, as he told me on his first day in the pulmonology wing, “I this place mark, you either get better or you go crazy.”