Craig Venter, Egoist

Published 3/29/11
Column, “Posthuman Forward,” Science 2.0
Image via

“To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.” James Joyce

Craig Venter is brilliant. Brilliant enough, you might say, to enter the ranks of literary gods. So brilliant, he might not even know it.

Venter wants to patent the human genome—all 2.9 billion base pairs of it. And why not? The pioneering geneticist is, after all, the man responsible for sequencing it. Venter first set his sights on the intellectual rights in the 90s while still president of Celera Genomics. Later, the company’s soured partnership with the publicly funded Human Genome Project served as a forecast of how genomics research might evolve as a competitive business enterprise, if the stakes ever went up. And they did.

In 2000, Celera won the genome race when Venter et al. produced a complete set of somewhere around 25,000 protein-coding genes ahead of schedule (98.5% of the projected total turned out to be other stuff). The genomics industry exploded, I got my first lab job and the rest is, as they say, history. But the best scientists are often the most tenacious; for Venter, decoding the recipe for humans wasn’t enough.

Flash forward ten years to 2010. It wasn’t exactly the year we made contact, but Venter made history (again) when his team became the first ever to create synthetic life. I’d say that beats meeting aliens. The bacterium-based life form was fitted with four unique “watermarks”—hidden in the DNA—to keep it traceable in case it ever got out. Venter played up the new technique, going so far as to embed an email address for whoever decoded the message first. And the message?

I’m guessing Venter wanted something personal, and meaningful, to brand his progeny—something more interesting than the average Google security question. What was the name of your first pet? In what town was your high school located? Or better, a famous world leader or influential philosopher.

Enter literary master James Joyce. Venter (a fan?) encoded a memorable line from Joyce’s semi-autobiography A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Turns out the gesture wasn’t quite good enough for the Joyce estate, because now the scientist is being sued. So much for paying the dead man a compliment. But something about this story goes far beyond typical legend and legality.

Invention, while often seen as something derived solely from logic and reason, has a strong creative component as well. Venter, if he wanted, could change the code’s mappings to reveal Yeats instead of Joyce. Or Kafka or Borges or Melville—have your pick—as long as the message was identical in length. Inscribing DNA with a literary quote, after all, isn’t exactly mind-blowing from a technological standpoint. The cultural implications, on the other hand, are nothing short of inspiring.

Venter may forever be known as the guy who gave life to man’s first bona-fide creation. But to discover a new literary genre in genetic code? Now that’s a triumph.

Distributed Communication Can Help Us Reach Our SDGs

Published 7/8/15
Markets For Good

In May, I presented at the International Conference on Social Media for Good in Istanbul, joining academics from all of the world to discuss how we might build on Internet technologies to enhance philanthropy and the resolution of social problems.

Organized by Kimse Yok Mu (KYM), an international NGO carrying out humanitarian aid and development projects in 110 countries, the conference brought together unique local experiences and views that might otherwise deny comparison.

The connective tissue—what had us speaking the same language throughout—was a shared faith in technology and social enterprise and innovation to reach new heights. For me, this is what the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are about. Andrei Abramov, former chief of the NGO branch of the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) said it best in his recap of the event:

The role of information and communications technology (ICT) has been, and continues to be, crucial to the development of an effective and beneficial global civil society, since they enable the necessary interconnectedness across borders, the free flow of ideas, the exchange of thoughts and the process of consensus building that form the backbone of a civil society of global scope.

Since reading Heather Grady’s SSIR blog, Philanthropy, the Post-2015 Agenda, and Diffuse Collaboration, I’ve thought about how big and small actors might work together to achieve great things in the urban sustainable development space. The underlying principles of diffuse collaboration aren’t exactly new, at least for one whose background in science affords a basic understanding of ecology. But putting the Post-2015 Agenda under a lens of diffuse reciprocity—a concept brought forward by Hewlett Foundation President Larry Kramer and reiterated by Grady in her post—really opens up a world of possibility with regard to making cities more inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable, as laid out by SDG 11. The essence of diffuse reciprocity is the ability to see the value in any size contribution, as it applies to a shared goal or circumstance. Grady’s blog (and you should read it) is a primer, a preview and a call to action for the Post-2015 Partnership Platform for Philanthropy, which encourages the sector to “engage more meaningfully” in the SDGs. Finding synergy between individuals and organizations is a big part of this process.

At the conference I presented a conceptual framework for distributed social networking for CSOs, where engaged publics can address issues specific to their communities while contributing to a more comprehensive and timely global reporting structure. The goal is to show that a distributed model of communication (vs. centralized mainstream social networking) can help increase the impact of local organizations, while inspiring new ways to distribute resources, manage infrastructure and nurture local economies. Such an apparatus would help facilitate urban development through local civic participation and cross-sector collaborations.

At a United Nations side meeting in April, Don Chen (Ford Foundation) said the open nature of the SDGs invites more opportunity for new stakeholders to get involved. Building capacity and accountability, both to which Ford is committed, will be increasingly essential for local organizations looking to collaborate across borders and oceans. Gatherings like the Africa Grantmakers’ Affinity Group’s conference in New York and the Council on Foundations’ conference in San Francisco have since sparked meaningful conversation on how foundations, associations and grantmakers might engage with the SDGs to help empower youth and underserved communities around the world. A workshop earlier this year in Colombia opened a dialogue between the broad philanthropic community, national and local governments, the private sector, academia and civil society, to identify opportunities where philanthropy and private social investment can work together within the Post-2015 context. Upcoming events like the AGN Assembly in Arusha and Takaful in Abu Dhabi will connect civil society, social enterprise, governance and other themes with philanthropy in order to understand the role that donors, implementing organizations, and society at large might play in achieving success in the coming years.

CSOs collectively provide the basis for a framework for civic participation, and a distributed social ecology would help bring about a more connected and effective means of advocating for human rights, community development and the preservation of local cultures, building on cross-sector partnerships. Furthermore, metanetworks with diverse and far-reaching memberships could be ideal intermediaries for implementation, where member organizations come together across the “development divide” with innovations in knowledge sharing and capacity building.

If diffuse reciprocity represents the exchange of items of nonequivalent value, then distributed social technology is the best substrate for realizing a system in which every contribution, large and small, is recognized within a greater ecosystem of social reality and practice, and met with gratitude. To achieve this, the social sector should consider a distributed model of communication that affords everyone a seat at the table.

Bringing Back the Beats with ‘Beatitude’

Published 6/5/12
Pen name, Lambda Literary
Image: John Cohen/Getty Images

Screw expectations. That’s what the Beats said, even if they found the popular dictate impossible to follow. Expectations: tuning one’s interpretation of life to that of another, across a sea of experiential difference—a lesson in futility considering the cultural mediocrity of the day. Finding companionship on any level then becomes a torturous (if not banal) game of “kill or be killed”—the new rite of passage for deft expectation-slingers—where murdering the devil (before he defiles) is recompense for lost innocence and banished curiosity. Glum. But then again, so is reality.

Now that I’m finished feeling sorry for myself, let’s talk about the Beats—specifically, Larry Closs and the more-than-a-mere-tribute to Jack Kerouac, Beatitude (Rebel Satori Press). The story of Harry Charity and Jay Bishop begins in New York City—1995—just as the fall of Peter Gatien—godfather of the gay club and poster child for scandal, glam seduction and sexual scapegoating—taught the sons of his generation to release innocence and begin the search for compatibility and connectedness. Harry and Jay, two upwardly mobile publishing industry pros, are brought together by their common love for Jack Kerouac. The novel opens with the two would-be lovers fawning over a lost scroll manuscript of Kerouac’s On The Road—one of the generation’s most enduring legacies. But Jay is betrothed to Zahra—his girlfriend, the third wheel, and perhaps the most significant tie-in to the real-life triangle of Kerouac, Neal Cassady, and Allen Ginsberg. Harry, hopelessly consumed with his feelings for Jay, is catapulted into a world of cruel desire and remorse as he realizes this latest romantic mishap may be but one in a furious cycle of expectation-induced fantasy. Innocence and expectation ground the novel; you could say that “What do you do when you fall for someone who can’t fall for you?” is the question that relentlessly drives the narrative. But there is much more to Beatitude than unrequited love.

I didn’t know much about the Beat Generation prior to meeting Closs at one of his readings, and I was honest when I admitted I attended out of curiosity for Kerouac and nothing more. Since, we’ve shared conversations about this and that and the other, usually swinging back to the unstated morality of expectations.

Beatitude, in the words of one reviewer, “captures an experience universal to all people; that the greatest source of human suffering comes from our wanting things to be other than what they are.” Because a ruined life is what you get when your expectations get the best of you. Thanks, Ben, for hitting the nail on the head. Experiencing Beatitude, as the name might suggest, is about ditching expectations and diving in. Submissive readers, myself included, can especially appreciate the style in which Closs displays his characters on stage—one that presumes to raise the bar for both writer and reader by avoiding what the author refers to as “editorializing.” I found this curious, so I asked him to clarify:

I provided minimal description of the characters, minimal editorializing, because I wanted readers to get to know them the same way they get to know anyone—by listening to them speak, by watching how they act. I also wanted to subvert expectations about the differences and commonalities between straight and gay, friendship and love. I discovered that what you don’t show is just as important as what you do when it comes to establishing empathy, and that was one of my main goals—to establish empathy for each of the three main characters in the hope that readers would see the situation that arises in Beatitude from three different perspectives.

Apart from purely philosophical reasons, Closs also says that entrusting narrative to dialogue has a lot to do with mechanics—that holding the reader’s interest over 300 pages requires an element of mystery. As an avid reader, I know he’s right. But more than this, Beatitude is a reminder that captivation is wrought with skill, smarts and—what most people seem to have a hard time with these days—empathy. “That’s the ultimate insight of Harry, Jay and Zahra,” he says. “They put themselves in each other’s place, and in so doing, they each evolve.”

The story of the Beats is the story of today—maniacal, meandering and rebellious. This year, the movie version of On The Road debuts at the Cannes Film Festival. This latest derivative work is yet another example of the enduring appeal of the postwar generation. Closs says, “The Beats have remained remarkably popular for more than 50 years and their popularity rises as each new generation discovers them.” This lasting influence suggests an ongoing dysfunction between society and the norms it creates, but also serves as a lookout post for artists who are likely to channel their frustration through a muse of cultural debasement. Herein lies the seed of the counterculture of now: simulacrum out of control, introspection and imitation, retribution and humiliation—indifference to the suffering of others and our own—the schism between authenticity, falsehood, and invention. Could this be what the Beats were trying to say, generations before we would ponder the excellence and evil that now stares back at us through the looking glass?

In a recent NPR Talk of the Nation segment, Crawford Kilian, a columnist for the British Columbia online magazine The Tyree, listed 10 modern literary classics he believes are harmful to aspiring writers—”more hazard than inspiration”—because “their readable styles look so easy they might seduce a young writer into imitating them.” On the Road is one of the ten. Here’s what Closs has to say about it:

As William S. Burroughs famously remarked, “Kerouac opened a million coffee bars and sold a million pairs of Levis to both sexes. Woodstock rises from his pages.” Kerouac’s influence on would-be writers is even more profound. I had wanted to be a writer long before I read On the Road, but when I did, it had the same effect on me as it does on nearly every aspiring writer. Kerouac made me believe that I could be a writer. And that it was easy. After all, in April 1951, he wrote On the Road in a single, nonstop caffeine-and-nicotine-fueled creative marathon on a 120-foot scroll of Teletype he created to avoid the breaks in concentration caused by having to keep changing the paper in his portable Royal typewriter. Employing a new “wild form” of writing he dubbed spontaneous prose, Kerouac produced a perfectly polished and publishable manuscript in a mere three weeks that became an instant and enduring bestseller.

That’s the legend. The truth is that Kerouac had been preparing to write On the Road for years, starting and shelving several drafts, scribbling endless observations in stacks of small notebooks and searching, searching, searching before finally finding the “fast, mad, confessional” style that would evoke “the holy contour of life.” He equipped himself with all of those when he sat down to write what would become his most famous book, and the resulting effort entailed as much editing, curating and collating as actual writing. Though Kerouac swore that no one would edit the scroll—“first thought, best thought”—they did. He did, in fact, as revealed by his own revisions and copy editing marks on the scroll and the subsequent versions of the manuscript he typed in a more traditional format. Still, it’s the legend that endures, and despite Kerouac’s own advice that “It ain’t whatcha write, it’s the way atcha write it,” it’s the legend that sparks every aspiring writer’s dreams.

Stylish, descriptive and emotionally raw, Beatitude is a calling card for both Larry Closs, the author, and Larry Closs, the man—intrinsically removed, abruptly convincing and familiar—one whose intimate recollection of madness in his own mind surfaces when least expected. To lose yourself in the unrehearsed authenticity of Closs, you’ll have to pick up the novel. And luckily for us, his engine is revving for future work. It was beat poet Allen Ginsberg who now infamously wrote, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” Indeed, time to level the field.

Alan Turing, Father of Computer Science, Defied Stereotypes, the Nazis, and a Nation

Published 6/23/12
The Huffington Post

Today, June 23, cognitive scientists, tech enthusiasts, and gay activists will come together to celebrate Alan Turing. In the 1950s, Turing, along with colleague John von Neumann, reanimated human consciousness and inspired a century of technological determinism. The father of computer science and artificial intelligence, the man whose mathematical genius gave birth to the “conscious” machine via the Turing Test, would have turned 100 this month.

Think of how much of every day, every hour, is planned and assisted by computers, and you will catch a glimpse of the blinding legacy of the man whose gift of foresight was matched only by his unwavering curiosity and massive intellect. Alan Turing, the individual, put the whole of humanity first. That he might be thrown before a review board for engaging in consensual sex with another man seems ludicrous by today’s standards, especially considering how Turing saved Great Britain from the Nazis by breaking the infamous Enigma code. It’s timely still, the controversy that surrounds a man caught between the call of duty and a loyalty to self.

The Turing tragedy is worth considering, if only to remind us that despite a sustained shift away from sexual discrimination, science still hasn’t fully come to terms with the fact that one of its most influential icons was gay. Even as the mystery of Turing pervades public discourse, science, with its intransigently masculine veneer, quietly searches for a less problematic brand to helm the growing AI initiative deep into the millennium and beyond.

The Turing anomaly is enough to inspire bestsellers and blockbusters, but it’s the stained legacy we are most attracted to, the fall from grace that led our hero to despair and, subsequently, to suicide. Fitting that Hollywood has set its sights on the controversial figure. Imitation Game, the biopic by first-time screenwriter Graham Moore that documents the life of Turing, is currently in development. Moore’s epic screenplay is rumored to have reeled in seven figures from Warner Bros. and has attracted the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio to don the role of history’s most alluring mathematician.

Several years before his death, Turing was prosecuted for having sex with another man, which at that time was expressly forbidden. The e-petition to pardon Turing for “gross indecency” has surpassed 34,000 votes—this, several years after former U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown unsuccessfully bestowed a posthumous apology to the wartime hero. It seems absurd now, during the year the Mayans predicted it would all end, that we might still be caught in a quagmire of sexuality. Surely a species as intelligent and connected as ours can expand its computing power past the petty prejudice of its less-evolved forebears. With Turing we missed a golden opportunity to reconcile faith with reason. We instead chose to ignore our common humanity, further separating science and spirituality in the process, betraying any beneficial conclusion that empathy might have offered a shared goal of survival.

As we celebrate the centennial it’s fitting to ask, what else might Turing have contributed had he not been nipped in his Achilles heel by the same brand of conservatism that blocks our view of progress today? The fact that many conservatives might sooner advocate for Alan Turing the fetus than they would for Alan Turing the man is not only an affront to those whose humanity transcends primitive notions of gender and sexuality but a reason to question the antiquated ideals that, to this day, prevent us from connecting on any real level—as a good number of current political debates would suggest.

The fact that Turing’s sexual encounters are still enough to detract from his profound contribution during World War II and to science in general, and that such encounters could possibly demand repayment in the form of prison time or chemical castration, reflects a troubled society whose obsession with the status quo has only served to alienate autonomy and innovation, the very building blocks of progress.

As we observe the Turing Centennial, we are wise to consider the greater value of judging a person based on sexual orientation alone. As his contributions to society will show, Alan Turing was a man who was greater than the sum of his parts. If only we had more like him.

Your Ideas Don’t Matter, or, The Death of Independence

Published 8/15/13
Image: Damon Winter/The New York Times

Last week, The New York Times chronicled the hardships of an artist and his wife who are fighting for their rent-stabilized loft following Superstorm Sandy. They’ve lived in TriBeCa for 45 years. The building in question, a victim of structural damage before the storm, was deemed uninhabitable by the City after 28 inches of water damaged it further, prompting the landlord to weigh its worth against the cost of repair. It’s now a source of controversy with a lawsuit to boot.

The significance of the word “loft” has evolved considerably for New Yorkers since lower Manhattan first piqued our interest, then over time became more inhabitable, more developed, more desirable and as a result, out of reach. Early loft tenants built their spaces from scratch, in some cases installing kitchens and bathrooms where there weren’t any.

What’s interesting is how the story calls into question the viability of artistry as a means to make ends meet in the city. It hints of a time, generations past, when options were more than stocks and creativity was a steel-toed wedge in the door. “But the building also carries signs of the city’s newest reality piled on the floor—paintings rolled up, smudged and molded, ruined by floodwater.” Between the lines, a telling statement.

By 2050 two thirds of the global population will live in cities. This mass migration and the swell of cities represents a sea change in the way we live and interact. Gentrification will have to keep up. But as they gentrify, our cities send the wrong message to the creative class whose job is to transform them.

If gentrification represents the conformity of consumer taste—that which is seldom adhered to by truly independent artists—then gentrification, by definition, discourages individuality. Despite that jingles and tag lines and anthems want us to “be individuals,” there is nothing individual about consuming what millions of others consume. This is why many artists by default find consumerism unpalatable. As creatives, they seek the spark of asymmetry—the uniqueness of exploration and discovery that consumerism lacks with its fleeting sensibilities of the moment. To thrive, the brands breaking ground on every block are required to master the art of exploitation. Prices increase to accommodate supply and demand—or perhaps, to drive it. Housing seems wise to keep up.

True, the city’s artistic flair is no longer its sinew. I have seen this city molt and change color several times. But it isn’t business that drives the artists out; it’s us—our consumptive habits, our choices. We want so badly to feel unique that digging deeper into our pockets means reaching higher, over the masses, to the trinkets no one else can afford. In lieu of fame (and often as a result of it) displaying our wealth becomes a ticket to individuality, when in fact we are stomping on lives in a race to the top, to the edge of loneliness.

Independent artists then become undervalued, disrespected, forgotten—or worse, seen as enemy combatants, a threat to the status quo, to consumerism itself. In a world where conformity is king, individuality seems an innocent bystander to its own demise. And in the end, it’s our vicious engagement to be better, stronger, more beautiful and successful than “the other” which may in fact be the cause.

Science provides a way out—a connection back to the environment, to our senses—through a conceptual framework of networks and ecosystems. Life is filled with a slew of elements contributing to systems in their own unique way. Urban planners can learn from the natural world, creating and arranging communities in ways that speak to how we naturally live and interact with each other. Life doesn’t have to be all about competition.

Author Jim Collins puts it in terms of what he calls a hedgehog concept, which for companies “isn’t a goal to be the best, but an understanding of what you can be best at.” Consider the implications of applying the hedgehog concept to professions and urban planning. Since artists are an integral part of the future city vision, we should make it a priority to include them in city planning, especially considering how gentrification has so much to do with preserving both independence and the arts. Independent locally-owned businesses will follow.

Of course, this won’t be possible without certain regulations. But it’s a start.

Urban innovation must be grounded in complex ecological thinking. I can’t think of a better way to achieve this than by merging scientific and artistic sensibilities. What we need is for science and art to make a home together.

Innovating User-Centered Design for Social Good

Published 9/22/15
Markets For Good
Image via MIT News

UCD was born out of the private sector, and many in the social sector are starting to wonder if the methodology just isn’t right for the complex global challenges staring us down. But: I know that UCD can revolutionize development work. The problem is in how we apply it. -Panthea Lee

The interventions needed to address urban development in the coming years will require a social sector mindset that puts user-centered design (UCD) first. Emerging technology and practice will facilitate this leap.

Panthea Lee, founder and principal of the social impact firm Reboot, is confident that UCD can revolutionize work in the social sector, but not as-is. The process, she says, must begin with redefining the term itself, and she has a point. In this context “user-centered” is a misnomer; in focusing solely on the user (what she and others call a “vestige of commercial applications”) the end product amounts to little more than an object.

In commodifying the human body and spirit, we’ve reached the end of the usefulness of the object as we know it, entering a period of innovation that will serve material less, while regarding information and utility as the value-basis for time and social relations.

We already see a growing movement against “the new materialism”—what I think of as a gradual encroachment of commercial mechanization, automata and digital practice on the corporeal experience, going so far as to metaphorically (in some cases literally) redefine memory, family and legacy. (I first wrote about this after the Twitter fail of 2009.)

Meanwhile, Lee is right to suggest that addressing the world’s intractable problems will require innovative design interventions that involve all sectors—public, private and social—as well as ordinary citizens. Not only would these innovations consider nuances across the various social groups they intend to serve, but actors from all sectors would share a central role in their planning and implementation.

Lee compares designing a mouse (a process that has only to consider an end-user with two hands) with designing health services for low-income people—a more complex process which must consider the roles of health care providers, local governments and community leaders and others, not to mention the needs of the end-users, in this case the people themselves.

While the sharing economy represents a phase shift in social awareness, the Internet of Things represents a global infrastructure that will coalesce actors from every sector across a vast and changing landscape of all-seeing serviceability meant to enhance our shared life and work experience (see my project that contributes to this new reality). Perhaps most importantly, this always-already connected experience will exploit “shared states” rather than “shared objects,” a more sustainable substance paradigm that will shift discursive desire and practice further toward transparency and accountability.

In this context, it’s clear how an entire piece of the innovation puzzle can go missing with blind traditionalism pulling the reins; “no need to reinvent the wheel” does little good when reinforcing wooden theory-driven practice that’s all but rotted through. “Innovation” has come to reflect a prescriptive approach to betterment, a far cry from experimentation and controlled chaos.

The end picture then is nondescript (at least for now). Who are we serving? How do we reach a working solution before the resources run out? We need the whole picture (in this case the process) to know which pieces to put where. So then, how to lose the misnomer—this artifact buried deep in everyday thought and practice?

Reboot came up with the term “multi-stage problem-solving,” a semantic solution Lee admits is less than catchy. Even the acronym falls flat. MSPS sounds too much like USPS to espouse a vision of twenty-first century innovation (“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night…”). Preoccupied with (explicit and implicit) messages myself, I can see how this working definition misses the mark, what with all these buzzwords nipping at our heels. We need a better name for this approach to enter the collective consciousness. For more on Reboot’s plan, read Panthea Lee’s article for SSIR, where she touches on the attractiveness of solutions, the importance of understanding context, and of using design as a tool for development.

To be a global development team player, the social sector will have to find a way to move user-centered design away from the product context and toward a new model which solves for social good.

About the image: In 2012 HMS researchers measuring the growth rates of cells found that mammalian cells divide not when they reach a critical size, but when their growth rate hits a specific threshold. As one grad researcher said, “It’s easier for cells to measure their growth rate, because they can do that by measuring how fast something in the cell is produced or degraded, whereas measuring size precisely is hard for cells” [source]. How might this biological principle apply to urban development?

Saying Goodbye to Old Friends

Published 4/18/09
Column, “The Caffeine Eccentric,” EDGE Media Network

I’m single again. After years of resounding sweetness, love, trickery, joy, insecurity, questioning the past and planning the future, I’ve called it quits with the boyfriend. It was actually quite amicable, our final conversation—no expletives, no screaming, I can do what I want with the Crate & Barrel desk in the hallway and if anyone asks, there are no negative words to be said.

Days later I deleted the Facebook photos and unfriended our mutuals, trashed the emails, shut down the joint blog and ditched all of the phone numbers. A week before the decision came down, I went out and bought a new plant, a peace lily. It was as if I expected something else to die. The flowers were beautiful, the leaves robust. It brightened up the living room. Funny how you can erase whole parts of your life in an instant. I wondered how this rollercoaster of a relationship might leave its legacy. How much gained? How much lost?


Weeks before, I lost my friend Ihsan to diabetes. A prolific writer, father, husband, and beloved art community leader, Ihsan left an impressive legacy. To me he symbolized independence and tenacity—the highest crest of creative flame; his body failed him, not his mind or his spirit. Someone at the service said that he was “on a trip.” I like to think of it as a spiritual journey.

Friends and lovers, though hard their departures may be, are not the only things to leave a legacy when they vanish from sight. And despite my complacent sense of self-reliance (I thank my father and Emerson for that), saying goodbye is still quite difficult. Perhaps because, at times, it comes with a ticket of guilt, regret or uncertainty. Perhaps because there’s a genuine void to fill—a sort of forced introspection that catches me off guard. Or maybe I just need to be stronger.

People lose things and people everyday. In fact, we just have to look around to see traces of lost jobs, failed marriages and broken hearts. Voting a black American into the White House hasn’t cured racism. Feeding money to the banks hasn’t put people back in their homes. Planting surveillance cameras on street corners hasn’t made us safer. Winning marriage in Iowa and Vermont hasn’t made gays and lesbians any less hated. The hatred, in fact, has even spread to the classroom. Several years ago, Ohioan Eric Mohat, 17, shot himself after being mercilessly bullied by classmates, and just this year an 11-year-old Massachusetts boy, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, hung himself. And of course we can’t forget the story of Lawrence King, the 15-year-old California boy shot in the head by his classmate.

This recession isn’t just a bunch of talking heads on television. It isn’t just about retail store blowouts or the big bad wolf on Wall Street. It’s not about fare hikes or union strikes or threats of cutting police forces or dreams of muggings and planned arson; it’s just as much a reminder of what we’ve lost as it is of what remains to be gained.

When I introduced The Caffeine Eccentric a few years ago, I wrote about the coffee shops that helped mold me, recalling the experiences and the teenage drama, and reflecting on how, in the late 90s, these oases began to close one by one. The safe zones for us gay and lesbian freaks were evaporating into thin air like steam. After graduation, social life imploded, and so began my haphazard quest to fill the vacant seats and rebuild from the inside, alone. Over the years, new meeting spots emerged, bringing new conversations, new views on the world. This is the growth that saved me.

The end of an era

I’m concerned that many of today’s LGBTQ youth have lost their safe zones, too. Many are affected when coffeehouses with deep roots in the community close. For them, it’s not just a matter of finding another coffee shop.

In 2008, Rapture Cafe in New York closed its doors forever. The shop was an East Village institution and safe haven—a creative zone for writers, artists, performers and eccentrics of all ages and genders. As owners Hattie Hathaway and Joe Birdsong might say, people left their judgments at the door. Rapture was just what this town needs: something different.

Sucelt Coffee Shop, the Latin American eatery in Chelsea, packed up just before Christmas. Skyrocketing rents had put a chokehold on the business. The shop opened in 1976, in a time when the area was heavily Latino. Jenny Navarro, who took over the shop with her sister Yvonne after their father retired in 2000, said she’d rather not serve the rich, but instead wants to serve the poor because it was they who kept the shop open for more than 30 years. In February 2009, Eastenders Coffee House on Long Island closed after five years. In addition to fresh-brewed coffee, the owners brought music to the community by lining instruments along the shop’s counters and encouraging daring patrons to experiment with them. And on Christopher Street, the legendary Factory Cafe was turned into a boutique clothing shop, because clearly we need more of those.


Yet, despite these recessions of body and mind, there are glimpses of spring and renewal: lone buds shoot from thick branches; refreshing rains part the polluted air; the city’s potential energy stirs beneath the surface. There’s something to be said about urban resilience; take something from us and we’ll find something to put in its place. Out of the ashes of Rapture came Ost, a euro-style coffee shop on 12th and A—a stone’s throw from where Rapture used to be. On the other side of town, Ihsan’s body of work continues to inspire a new generation of artists, including the three children he left behind.

Meanwhile, in the next borough, my lessons in failed love serve to reinforce what has been inside of me all along—the willingness and desire to make things better—the same kind of independent energy you’ll find in any good New York coffeehouse.