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Redefining Holidays
We were shopping in our friendly neighborhood warehouse store yesterday and the Young Woman commented on the Christmas decorations that were already prevalent even before Halloween. Not that either of us was actually surprised. Holiday creep in store marketing has been a thing for decades as retailers try to extend what has traditionally been their most profitable season in hopes that profits will go up. While that tactic worked some 20 or so years ago when it first started, putting Christmas trees on sale before Thanksgiving, the gimmick has long ago lost its luster. Now, shoppers roll their eyes and proceed toward what they came to buy in the first place. There’s little sign that the extended season is helping sales at all.

On Monday of this week (October 9), the Harvard Business Review published an interesting article: “Why Retailers Should Retire Holiday Shopping Season.” The reason they give, when boiled down, is quite simple: it’s not making money. First, there’s the expense of all the additional marketing stores do for the holidays. Second, there’s the added stress as seasonal employees are added and more work is asked of everyone. Third, shopping patterns have changed and holiday sales don’t hold the luster they once did. None of those situations are going to get any better in the future, either. While it’s too late to make any change for this year, retailers would do well to begin scaling back next year and all but eliminate the holiday shopping season within the next five years. Given how many retail stores are suffering, the move makes absolute sense.

Of course, if/when retailers do start backing off the holiday sales, there are some who are going to be upset; mostly older folks of my generation and older and mostly those of a distinctly right-wing religious affiliation. By those mindsets, there are no “holidays,” only Christmas. Interfering with their holiday on any level results in accusations of waging a “war on Christmas.” Even attempts to be inclusive of other religious holidays during the month stir the wrath of those who feel that December belong only to them and their religious celebration.

All of which has me wondering if we, as a generalized society, should redefine American holidays. We have a unique definition of the word that doesn’t necessarily line up with the rest of the world, let alone the changing attitudes of people who live here. To some degree, that’s not surprising. We are the only industrialized nation that doesn’t use the metric system, for example. Americans have an ego larger than our land mass and we think we have the right to define things any way we wish.

When the rest of the world talks about “taking a holiday,” they’re referring to any general time off from work. As a result, you’ll hear them talk about their summer holiday in Iceland or their winter holiday in the South of France, and other little trips and jaunts throughout the year. Special days are only really holidays if everyone has the day off work, which doesn’t happen all that often.

Meanwhile, here in the good ol’ U.S. of A., we have a plethora of holidays running around. Here’s the list of federally recognized holidays (source):

Date Official Name Percentage of Americans observing Remarks
January 1 (Fixed) New Year’s Day[1] 72%[6] Celebrates the beginning of the Gregorian calendar year. Festivities include counting down to 12:00 midnight on the preceding night, New Year’s Eve, often with fireworks display and party. The ball drop at Times Square in New York City has become a national New Year’s festivity. The traditional end of Christmas and holiday season.[7] This occurs around the end of Kwanzaa.
January 15–21 (Floating Monday) Birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. 26%[8] Honors Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Civil Rights leader, who was actually born on January 15, 1929; combined with other holidays in several states. Some cities and municipalities hold parades; and more recently, the 1994 King Holiday and Service Act, which was passed to encourage Americans to transform the King Holiday into a day of citizen action volunteer service, has gained in popularity (sometimes referred to as a National Day of Service).
February 15–21 (Floating Monday) Washington’s Birthday 52%[9] Washington’s Birthday was first declared a federal holiday by an 1879 act of Congress. The Uniform Holidays Act, 1968, shifted the date of the commemoration of Washington’s Birthday from February 22 to the third Monday in February (between February 15 and 21, meaning the observed holiday never falls on Washington’s actual birthday). Because of this, combined with the fact that President Lincoln’s birthday falls on February 12, many people now refer to this holiday as “Presidents’ Day” and consider it a day honoring all American presidents. However, neither the Uniform Holidays Act nor any subsequent law changed the name of the holiday from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents’ Day. [1]
May 25–31 (Floating Monday) Memorial Day 21%[10] Honors the nation’s war dead from the Civil War onwards; marks the unofficial beginning of the summer season. (traditionally May 30, shifted by the Uniform Holidays Act 1968). The holiday is observed on the last Monday in May.
July 4 (Fixed) Independence Day Celebrates the signing of the Declaration of Independence from British rule, also called the Fourth of July. Fireworks celebrations are held in many cities throughout the nation.
September 1–7 (Floating Monday) Labor Day One 2012 survey of American adults found that 52% celebrate Labor Day as the unofficial end of summer.[11] A separate nationwide survey of human resource professionals, conducted in 2015, found that 97% of U.S. employees provided a full paid holiday on labor day, but 41% of employers require at least some employees to work on the holiday.[12] The holiday is observed on the first Monday in September.
October 8–14 (Floating Monday) Columbus Day 8%[13] Honors Christopher Columbus, an explorer of the Americas. In some areas, it is also a celebration of Indigenous Peoples, or Italian culture and heritage. (traditionally October 12)
November 11 (Fixed) Veterans Day 43%[14] Honors all veterans of the United States armed forces. It is observed on November 11 to recall the end of World War I on that date in 1918 (major hostilities of World War I were formally ended at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 when the Armistice with Germany went into effect).
November 22–28 (Floating Thursday) Thanksgiving Day 87%[15] Traditionally celebrates the giving of thanks for the autumn harvest. Traditionally includes the sharing of a turkey dinner. The holiday is observed on the fourth Thursday in November.
December 25 (Fixed) Christmas Day 90%–95%[16][17] The most widely celebrated holiday of the Christian year, Christmas is observed as a commemoration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Commonly celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike with various traditions.

Of course, only federal and state employees get all those days off work and the vast majority of Americans look at Washington’s Birthday (aka President’s Day) and Columbus Day as silly annoyances. An increasing number of people have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples Day, but unless we start actually recognizing and protecting our indigenous people naming a day for them is rather empty.

Oh, but that’s not all the holidays, mind you. If one is religiously minded, then there are other holidays to throw into the mix.  I would list them all but doing so would take up pages of space and we both know that you’d just scroll past them all. As a reference point, though, consider some of the additional secular “holidays” we throw in. Things like Valentine’s Day on February 14, St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, Ground Hog Day on February 2, Mardi Gras on Tuesday before Ash Wednesday (one of those floating holidays), Cinco de Mayo, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Juneteenth, Halloween, Black Friday, and Kwanzaa. Put them all together and one can almost claim to be celebrating one holiday or another every day of the year. The problem is so bad that many states have had to adopt a legal list of holidays for which school students can be given an excused absence.

A bit much, don’t you think? If we’re theoretically celebrating something all the time, then every day is a holiday and holidays mean absolutely nothing. Everything becomes watered down and meaningless because, for the vast majority of Americans, holidays are just the days that banks are closed and the mail doesn’t run—an annoyance increasingly made moot thanks to modern technology.

No one wants to take their holiday off the calendar, of course. Organizations use declared holidays to bring attention to causes such as childhood diseases, women’s rights, marriage rights, and the martyrdom of people who died defending our rights and freedoms. All of those special days have a reasonably good cause behind them, but are they really holidays if less than one percent of the population even knows they exist? Show of hands: how many of us even care what today’s official observance is? Walter probably would. For 2017, October 12 is Shmini Atzeret, a Jewish holiday celebrating the love of God. Would I have known that if I didn’t have a religious calendar open in front of me? Nope. Do I care either way? Not a big, and I’m guessing that anyone who’s not Jewish probably doesn’t give a shit, either.

And that is my whole point: with all these holidays on the calendar, the vast and anxious masses across the United States don’t give a shit about these little holidays that take up space on the calendar. Most of us look upon them as a lame attempt to bolster a rapidly failing greeting card market (unlike the president, when I call something failing I cite my sources). Given that, why have holidays at all? Why not wipe the calendar clean and leave everyone to their own personal observances without trying to make everyone else follow along?

Why Do We Celebrate Holidays?

Tradition. For all of written history, which encompasses roughly the past 6,000+ years or so, humanity has celebrated holidays for one of the following reasons:

  1. Religious mandate or commemoration
  2. Nationalistic observance of nationalism
  3. Cultural festivals related to agriculture and/or nature

One thing all three categories have in common is that they give to those celebrating a sense of identity. We know who we are, and we better understand why we are who we are, because of the holidays we celebrate and/or observe. This sense of identity is important to the establishment and preservation of a culture. What is the first thing a new country does when it breaks away from another? It establishes its date of independence as a national holiday, helping to define that national culture around which they all might identify.

Such commemorations made perfect sense for the entire portion of our history wherein our cultural identity was connected either a belief system and a geographic sense of place. Those conditions have been a foundation of human reality right up until the Internet was released upon the world in 1991. Once we had the ability to be connected beyond our physical borders, however, everything began to change. Over time, we have become enlightened to what life and culture are like in geographies and religions other than our own. Histories that were once fed to us as the one-sided opinion of the victors are now challenged as we see the same history from the perspective of those who lost. We are more aware of struggles outside our own and judge our situation by comparing our lives to those of people we don’t know. We understand more than ever exactly how government works and many want to find ways to take a more active role. Our world, our belief system, and our cultures are all morphing into something different, something new.

While this “something new” amounts to change for old farts like me, though, for Millennials, those born in 1990 or later, this isn’t change. This constantly evolving, always discovering, mythology-busting reality is their culture. They don’t see life in the same, straight-forward way that their parents do/did. Facts must be challenged and their sources questioned. Traditions must be reconsidered and their origins analyzed. History must be re-written in context of who was hurt, what was fair, and whether the end result was positive or negative for all of society, not just those directly involved. Values are different because their perspective of the world is dramatically different. What’s more important is realizing that there’s no way society ever returns to the tunnel-visioned view of the past. This new culture of exploration, inquisitiveness, and demand for fairness is here to stay.

Another argument for all these holidays is that they provide times for families to get together, especially at Thanksgiving and Christmas. We, as a society, have a soft spot for families, Even sitcoms can make us tear up a bit when a tender family scene is invoked. Surely, we wouldn’t want to do anything that would keep families from getting together, would we?

Have you looked around the table at Christmas lately? Family isn’t quite so important to everyone and the younger adults in our families aren’t as worried about whether they’re present on a particular holiday or not. There’s a good reason for that. Those who are close to their extended families, particularly mom and/or dad, never move that far away and see their families on a regular basis through the year. So, if they miss a Thanksgiving dinner because they have a chance to visit friends in Norway that week, it’s not a big deal. They’ll see everyone when they get back. For those who aren’t close to their extended families, especially in situations where abuse was a part of their childhood, these “forced” times together are just painful. Adult children look for any excuse possible to avoid having to do holidays with the family.

This holiday-driven family time is a relatively short-lived tradition in the first place. Prior to the mid-20th century, people didn’t travel to be with family for holidays because they couldn’t. Few owned cars and there was no commercial air travel. When the holidays came around, people invited their neighbors, not family, to come over and share their food with them. There was a sense of warmth and community because they were with friends by choice, not a sense of familial obligation. Only after World War II, when children from the Midwest began fleeing for the coasts by the millions, did parents start asking children to come home for Christmas. The travel industry saw this as a way to make money and began marketing the “Home for Christmas” concept and it quickly caught hold.

Now, however, those who travel prefer to do so on their own timetable. When we visit relatives, we do so at times of the year when it fits our schedule and we can afford to do so easily. That means we’re more likely to visit Grandma in the summer when discount airlines offer large savings on tickets,  or early fall when gas prices historically dip (hence, the advent of a fall break in the school schedule). Millennials are more likely to take trips to see family almost any time other than holidays because visiting family is what they do when there’s not a better, more fun experience to be had. Family is who you visit between festivals and on your way home from that trip to Italy. Those with small children are more likely to stay home for gift-giving holidays especially because the cost of shipping presents back and forth is often more than the cost of the presents themselves. Parents can give their children a better holiday experience if Grandma and Grandpa come to them.

All the reasons we once had for indulging in holidays are rapidly making less and less sense as our culture morphs into an experience-based and away from religious and historical observances. Too many holidays now either don’t make a like of sense, such as Columbus Day or create social expectations we don’t want, such as Valentine’s Day. With the reasons for celebrating going away, now would be a good time for us to completely redefine the American holiday.

Time For A Sensible Approach

Doing away with holidays completely doesn’t make as much sense as doing away with holiday marketing. Yet, there are some similarities between leveling out sales in retail to reduce the emphasis on end-of-year selling and redefining holidays so that we’re not stuck in a litany of forced activities that don’t make sense. We can, and should, improve on the entire concept of holidays so that everyone is a lot happier. Of course, we know exactly how to make that happen.

1.Clear the calendar and start over. Make a clean break and make sure everyone knows about it. No more nonsense, partisan, political, or special-interest holidays. We can’t get a new start if we’re still hanging on to old ideas and concepts. This is going to be troubling for all us baby boomers because we’re emotionally attached to all those holidays.  We have memories, both good and bad, around each one and we are fearful of letting those go. We also don’t like giving up our traditions. Like every aging generation before us, we like what we know and abhor being asked to change.

What my peers need to realize is that this society is less ours and more that of our children. We’re dying off and in the next few years, the number of deaths is going to skyrocket at close to the same rate as our births did. I’ve seriously given some thought to getting back into the funeral home business because it’s about to get very lucrative.  The future belongs to our children and grandchildren and we need to help them make the societal and cultural transitions that work better for them. Standing in the way of change just because we’re comfortable with the status quo is selfish.

2.Establish two distinct holiday periods. Make the first full week of July and the third week of December national holidays. Close all government services and offices for that week and let everyone who can have the entire week off. Let’s get real: productivity during those two weeks are already at their lowest, so declaring those two weeks as holidays isn’t going to change anything. People take full weeks around July 4 and December 25, so let’s go ahead and give everyone those two weeks as a national minimum.

Yes, some individualized adjustments are necessary. Everyone taking off work at the same time isn’t practical, at least not yet. For the time being, we still need people running retail stores, convenience stores, and dining establishments. We are likely to see that change dramatically over the next 30 years as those industries completely morph with technology, but for now, the economy still needs those employees, so some will need to take their holidays either the week before or the week after, alternating the schedules so that everyone gets equal time off. What’s important, though, is that we all get that same holiday with no connection to religion, geography, relationship status, national heritage, or any other criteria that celebrates one person over another. Equal time to celebrate whatever you feel like celebrating.

3.Put an emphasis on personal holidays. Everyone gets their birthday as a holiday and their immediate family (spouse and children) get the day as well. That’s not going to be as big a financial hit for employers as one might think. First, Millennials are already taking their birthday as a vacation day or personal day already. The attitude toward birthdays is less centered on receiving gifts from other people and more around creating memorable experiences for oneself. We give ourselves the things that we want so that we’re not disappointed by the agenda someone else set for us. Second, Millennials are having smaller and smaller families often with only one or two children, or none at all. So, the overall number of people affected by one person’s birthday is rather limited.

From a retail perspective, this could be a water-raising concept. Instead of seasonal sales, which have proven to be increasingly less effective, give everyone a steep “Black Friday” type discount on their birthday. This spreads both the cost and the advantage of deep discounting evenly across the entire year rather than lumping it all toward the end of the year where things can, and have, skew horribly wrong. Millennials have already shown that they’re more likely to buy for themselves than other people, so play to that on the day when they’re thinking the most about themselves.   Remember, someone has a birthday every day of the year. This approach is more likely to create a steady stream of customers and avoids the costly end-of-year nightmares.

4.Leave religious observances to the religious and give everyone else equal time off. One area where the American calendar is horribly biased is in the emphasis on Christian observances over those from any other religion. Christians traditionally have little trouble arguing for days off around Christmas and Easter, but Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists have much fmor difficulty arguing for time off on their holiest of days. And if one isn’t religious at all, then you’re screwed altogether; either one accepts time off around a religious holiday or just keeps on working. As our society grows more diverse and less religious, this biased approach to holidays makes absolutely no sense at all.

However, that’s not to say that people of faith shouldn’t be allowed to observe their religious holidays. I tend to like the stance taken by the New Jersey Board of Education which created “The List of Religious Holidays Permitting Student Absence from School. (PDF) ” The concept is a simple one: no one is prohibited from taking a day off to observe a recognized religious holiday. The list not only includes all major Christian, Jewish, and Muslim holidays, but also includes holidays for less popular religions such as Baha’i, Scientology, and Wicca. Fairness is the goal, with no one religion superceding another. What’s missing, though, is an equal allowance for those who don’t hold any religious belief at all, or at least are not part of an organized religion. For those people, who currently number about 35 % of the population, an equal amount of time off must be alotted to use at their discrestion according to their personal belief system. Give everyone the same opportunity but force no one to observe someone else’s religious holiday.

5.Create more emphasis on personal days with a push toward mental health and volunteerism. I have always been a bit jealous of the European concept of “taking a Holiday” for anything from a vacation in the Alps to a day off to attend to car repairs. Limiting holidays to observances outside our control wreeks too much of communism, where individual choice is severely limited and sameness is applauded. Sorry, that doesn’t work for me and it certainly doesn’t work for upcoming generations that are more bent than ever on doing things their own way when they want to do them. A calendar full of holidays in which they have no say nor interest doesn’t make sense.

What does make sense is encouraging people to take time for themselves and for others. Mental health remains the top drain on corporate productivity from top to bottom. We wear out, burn out, drop out, and ruin ourselves from an environment that pushes endless work. Redefining holidays to include personal time off allows us the freedom to take a break without having to do anything beyond taking care of ourselves. Breathing. Seeing to our own needs. Addressing the external issues that create stress. At the same time, we are in danger of becoming so inwardly focused that we forget there are even greater needs outside us. One of the most attractive perks companies can offer is paid time off to volunteer. Companies as diverse as Timberland and Salesforce are already doing this, offering up to 40 pain hours a year to volunteer. This means you can actually take time for the special cause beyond just copy/pasting something on Facebook. You can be that big brother/big sister or help with a non-profit’s fundraiser without taking a chunk out of your personal revenue.

Holidays Reimagined

There are a lot of options for holidays that improves upon the current over-filled calendar of days with little national meaning and that few observe. We can keep familiy and religious traditions without forcing everyone else to play along. There are eoptions that make more sense and allow holidays to be more personal, more meaningful, and more enjoyable. We don’t have to keep doing things the same way.

Abiding comes easier for everyone when we remove the obstacles of mandatory social inclusion. If holidays do not hold meaning for us, what’s the point? If I don’t believe that a ghost impregnated a virgin then why should I be expected to buy presents and wear ugly sweaters? If I like buying presents and wearing ugly sweaters then why should I have to wait until the 25th of December to do so? Abiding is finding the flow where one best fits with the universe and going with it. Religious or not, nationalistic or not, let’s redefine holidays to be those breaks we need, not what someone else thinks we should have.

This is how we create a better world for everyone.

Abide in Peace,
The Old Man

And now …

Where we pass the hat

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redfining Holidays

Photo credit: Frost Queen by charles i. letbetter. Model: Rebekkah McGrath. Makeup: Jennifer Baxter

Reading time: 21 min
Solving the problems we create

If we want to cut down on disease and achieve meaningful health care reform, we should make it a top nonpartisan priority to address our nation’s nutrition crisis.

Dariush Mozaffarian, Professor of Nutrition, Tufts University

There are so many hot-button issues on which I want to voice my opinion that I find myself in a quandary this morning over which to choose. Gun control obviously has had people all up in arms this week (pardon the pun). LGBTQ rights are an issue again, thanks to a change in presidential policy. Women’s reproductive rights are in the same boat and don’t even get me started on children’s healthcare. There is more than enough to talk about for days without ever reaching any kind of workable solution. We have, in the United States, done nothing but talk about these issues for so very long that even the most insignificant action seems dramatic, so we do nothing.

Then, I open my refrigerator, looking for something to mollify the munchies that are inherent to spending long hours in front of a computer, an am reminded that we are at the end of our monthly budget for food. The fridge is looking pretty sparse. There’s sugar-free jam, light margarine, some leftover curried chicken and noodles, and 1% milk. There’s ground beef and frozen veggies in the freezer, and I have a roast thawing for dinner, but come Monday we’re going to need to make a trip to the store. That means I have to start deciding now what we can afford.

, but come Monday we’re going to need to make a trip to the store. That means I have to start deciding now what we can afford.

Here I have a problem. Why? Because I recently came across this study indicating that food is the leading cause of poor health in America. If we’re going to talk about things that kill us and do us harm, before we look at guns, before we look at access to medicines, and before we start screaming about the cost of healthcare, we have to stop and look at the effects of what we’re putting in our mouths. Now, I’m diabetic, so I already know some of the dangers that come with being loose and free with one’s diet. However, diabetes isn’t even new the top of serious health problems whose core causality is rooted in food. Heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, chronic kidney disease, and kidney cancer all rank higher and all of them have at least partial causality in the poor nutrition levels we perpetuate.

Argue, fuss, grouse and complain all you want, the bottom line comes down to the fact that the high cost of healthcare in the United States is significantly attributed to our lousy eating habits and unless we do something we’re going to soon a dramatic change in what had been an increasing life expectancy. We’ve already seen the numbers fall for Caucasian males, who are notoriously bad eaters. Without significant change, though, we could see ourselves dropping like flies over the next 20 or so years. Perhaps even worse, though, is that before we die we’re going to rack up impossibly high medical bills that come with frequent heart attacks, broken hips and things caused by falls due to a loss in bone density, and increased liver and kidney disease. Bad enough that we’re dying, we’re raising the cost of healthcare by dragging it out over 30 or so years.

I know, you don’t want to believe me. I don’t want to believe me, either. That’s why there’s peer-reviewed research to back up these allegations. Try this one on for size: approximately twice as many people die each year from eating hot dogs (processed meats) than in automobile accidents. We’re talking something in the neighborhood of 60,000 people a year. Who knew hot dogs were such vicious killers? And no, eating “light” or “low sodium” hot dogs doesn’t make enough difference to be worth the trouble. Processed meats, such as the pepperoni on that pizza, or the salami on that sandwich, are high in sodium, carbohydrates, fat, and processed sugars, all of which are bad for us when we over consume them, and we habitually over consume everything.

So, I need to make sure my family and I are eating healthy. That means we should load up on fruit, nuts, fish, vegetables, vegetable oil, whole grains, beans, low-fat yogurt  That also means we should absolutely stay away from refined grains, starches, sugars, processed meats, high-sodium foods, industrial trans fats. Anything that falls between those two lists is kind of a “meh” food that’s not going to kill you quite as quickly, but should probably be consumed in moderation.

Immediately, there are some problems here. Take refined grains for example. The most common “refined grain” that is in almost every cupboard is all-purpose flour. Almost any white-colored flour is bad for you. That whiteness comes from extreme processing methods that include bleaching. Over time, all that flour contributes most heavily to heart disease and diabetes and stroke. The better replacement to all-purpose flour is whole wheat flour but that comes with a couple of complications. Have you tried cooking with whole wheat flour? Cakes, cookies, bread, fried food batter, all the things that we most frequently cook with heavy amounts of all-purpose flour require some adjustments if we use whole wheat, and sometimes those adjustments aren’t enough. Have you ever tasted whole wheat chocolate chip cookies? No, really, just dump them in the trash.

Oh, and then, to add insult to injury, whole wheat, the stuff that’s actually easier to package, cost more. For example, my local Kroger (grocery store) has a five-pound bag of Gold Medal all-purpose flour for $2.99. However, the same sized bag of King Arthur Premium 100% Whole Wheat Flour is $5.69! Nearly twice as much! Now, there are store brand options that lower the price of both, but the nutritional differences between the store brand wheat flour and King Arthur is significant.  If we’re going to talk health here, we have to go with the good stuff and that means taking a bigger bite out of my limited budget.

Budget. For a first-world country, there are a lot of people in the United States who have insufficient food budgets to eat healthily. Research shows an incredible correlation between low incomes and dietary problems.  We don’t eat well, we get sick. We get sick, we can’t work. We can’t work, we can’t afford healthy food. We can’t afford healthy food … you see where this is going, right?

Let’s look at my specific situation as an example, since I know exactly what’s going on here.  I have approximately $400 a month with which to feed five people, three of which are adults. Of those three adults, though, the Young Woman of the house consumes the least. Her schedule is such that she ends up eating out more than the rest of us. The kids get breakfast and lunch at school five days a week, so that helps as well. The budget isn’t totally inflexible, either. If we get down to the end of the month and need milk and bread, we usually can afford to exceed our stated limit. We’re privileged, though.  Many people don’t have that option.

So, when we go grocery shopping, trying to keep in mind what is healthy versus what is not, our bill ends up looking something like this (I’m rounding to make the math easier):

Meat: $84
Fruit: $22
Veggies: $104
Dairy: $68
Grocery (whole wheat pasta, beans, etc): $136
Total $414

$414? Really? And I’ve not even gotten to sugar-free snacks, which are an absolute necessity. Are you beginning to see the problem?  Now, if I were to replace healthy food with frozen and pre-packaged things such as pizza, boxed mac & cheese, and breaded fish, I could make that budget stretch a lot further. Canned veggies are really inexpensive, for example, but they are also loaded with sodium, have the vitamins cooked out, and a surprising number come with added sugar!

There are a lot of people who have no choice but to get by on much less. I once met a family of seven whose monthly food budget was less than $200 and they were excited because they were better off than most of their neighbors. Everyone in their neighborhood was malnourished and the adults all had chronic health issues of some kind. Children were frequently ill and had to miss school, which meant one parent had to miss work as well. The situation was absolutely heartbreaking!

Here’s where we have to get real. As a society and as a government the United States has habitually made it easier to eat poorly than to eat healthily. Hold on, don’t give me any conspiracy theory crap about this being how “the man” keeps us down. That’s nonsense. To a large extent, we’ve brought this on ourselves. We created the demand for fast food. We are the ones who order the greasy stuff when there are healthy options on the menu. If grocery stores stop carrying healthy alternatives its because you and I wouldn’t buy them. Supply and demand is a significant factor in what’s available to eat and what we have been demanding for the last 60 years is not more vitamin-packed vegetables.

At the same time, however, farm-to-table costs have continued to rise to the point that the family of four with both parents working can only afford a monthly food budget around $200. That’s where government action comes in. An unreasonably low minimum wage and a lack of subsidies for farmers and food programs keeps costs higher than is reasonably affordable. Tack on the demographic fact that poverty conditions affect a disproportional number of non-white families and single women with children and it’s easy to see how the high cost of eating well directly contributes to increased healthcare costs.

The good news is that we can fix this problem and a lot of it can happen without any government involvement at all. That same economics law of supply and demand that helped get us into this situation can help get us out. How we spend the money in our food budget determines what’s available on store shelves and in restaurants. We cannot underestimate the degree to which you and I have control over our options. It starts with one less fast food visit per week. That’s it. It may not sound like much, but the average fast food bill hits right around ten dollars per person. That’s $40 for a family of four. $40 a week adds up to $120 a month that is now available to spend on real food. The impact is felt both directions. The combined loss to fast food forces them to re-consider their menus and pricing. When that money is spent on healthy choices at the grocery store, more healthy choices are added to the shelves. Increased demand both increases supply and, to a limited extent, decrease prices at the same time.

Solving the problems we create

photo credit: charles i. letbetter

Mind you, I’m not suggesting you cut your fast food habit cold turkey. We become addicted to fat and cholesterol more quickly and more severely than we do any regulated drug. We have to wean ourselves off that habit. Start with dropping one trip to McD’s or Taco Bell per week. Do that for a couple of months. Fight against the munchies you get in the middle of the night by using that money to buy healthy chips and low- or non-fat cheese. I buy a black bean chip that is significantly lower in fat, cholesterol, and carbohydrates than anything I can get from Lays® and the nachos I make actually taste better and do a wonderful job of killing those munchies. Backing off the fast food is one hundred percent possible if you decide that’s what you’re going to do.

The second step is learning to shop and prepare food that is more healthy. Everyone struggles here because we’ve all grown up on a steady diet of food cooked in fat. Have you ever wondered just how many tons of butter the cooks on the Food Network go through each month? They would probably save on production costs if they had their own dairy. We use butter in everything.  Consider, however, that one tablespoon of unsalted butter contains 100 calories and 17 grams of fat, 14 of which are saturated fat—the kind that is really bad for your heart. By comparison, a light margarine has only 35 calories per tablespoon and only 4 grams of fat, 2 of which are saturated.  Subtracting those 12 grams of fat makes a huge difference when it comes to the nation’s leading killers: heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. That’s just one tiny little change in our shopping habits that has a tremendous impact on our health.

If we, as a nation, did those two things alone, the impact on national healthcare costs would be absolutely phenomenal. More importantly, not only would we be paying out less for healthcare, we would have more time with the people we love the most. How many of us have lost someone to heart disease or high blood pressure? We can reduce that, not eliminate it entirely, but reduce the frequency of fatal heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes simply by making relatively minor changes in our food choices.

Let me emphasize, again, that I’m not advocating anything severe. There are no legitimate scientific studies that support a massive overhaul of the nation’s diet. Neither can I advocate trendy weight loss gimmicks like the Keto diet that everyone is currently raving about. The Keto diet isn’t all that different from the Atkins diet my father tried in the 1970s. While both can result in short-term weight loss, neither are sustainable over the long term. The Atkins diet is especially problematic in that the absence of fiber and reliance on red meat increases by more than double one’s chances of colon, stomach, or esophageal cancer. That’s not helping us reduce healthcare costs, is it?

I also don’t want to give anyone the mistaken idea that eating healthily means completely eliminating all the foods we enjoy. My doctor was amazed that I reduced my A1C from 10.5 to 5.6 in six months. He was concerned that I was being too restrictive in my diet. Yet, during that six months, we took my son to our favorite Indian buffet and did not hold back. We took the little ones to a new pizza buffet that opened in our neighborhood (pizza sucked by the way). We took a road trip and paid almost no attention to diets while traveling (I did avoid things such as soda and candy). There were plenty of other instances where what showed up on our table played more to our taste buds than our health needs. Yet, there was plenty of improvement in both my blood pressure and my sugar levels during that time.

Improving our health and lowering our healthcare costs is within our reach without any involvement from the government.  Screw Congress and their inability to legislate their way out of a wet paper bag.  We can do this ourselves.

Solving the problems we create

photo credit: charles i. letbetter

Not that we couldn’t use some help, mind you. Were Congress to decide to get off its partisan ass and do something constructive, there are plenty of things that could help, especially when it comes to the poor, who, not surprisingly, has some of the highest healthcare cost. Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian at Tufts University has researched this whole topic of lowering healthcare cost by eating better and came up with some rather simple ways that government could help without busting the federal budget.

  • Subsidizing the cost of fruits and vegetables by 10% could save 150,000 lives over 15 years.
  • A 10% tax on soda could save 30,000 lives and help pay for the subsidies.
  • Reducing salt in packaged foods by just three grams per day could save between $10 to $24 billion in health care costs annually.
  • USDA limits on additives that include trans fats, sodium, and sugars could save over $12 billion in annual health care costs.
  •  Wellness programs that incentivize participation save $3.27 in lower medical costs and $2.73 in less absenteeism for every dollar spent.

Dr. Mozaffarian has plenty of other recommendations based on extensive research, but the emphasis remains the same: we can significantly lower our healthcare costs simply by putting more focus on what we’re eating and making the right foods more readily accessible.

One of my most frequent frustrations with Americans is that we are fat and lazy. We are, hands down, the most obese nation in the world and we yell and scream about health care and Congress gutting the Affordable Care Act while doing absolutely nothing to lower health care costs for ourselves. We hold a lot more power than we apparently realize.

The same applies to other issues beyond healthcare. We can address issues of racism and inequality directly, immediately, simply by being more aware of how we treat other people. Across the board, we are, as a society, woefully blind to how horrible we treat each other on a daily basis even while thinking that we’re “good” people. We, you and I, could solve the world’s refugee crisis if we put as much effort into that problem as we do into supporting billion-dollar sports franchises.  Gun and domestic violence numbers go down when we are more directly involved in our schools and communities. There is plenty of research behind all of this. Doctors and scientists have been telling us these things for decades There are workable solutions that are readily within our grasp.

Where we fail, my friends, is that we are lazy. We are too self-involved to even realize we’re not taking care of ourselves. Our focus on having the best experiences in life, on making the most money, on making sure our children have the things we didn’t have, while not bad in of themselves, give us such tunnel vision that we don’t see how simple it would be for us to solve the problems that plague us as a society. Instead, we repeatedly look to a government for solutions when they have repeatedly over the past twenty years proven themselves incapable of doing much more than wasting billions of taxpayer dollars. If the government can’t even handle something as simple as fixing the hundreds of bridges that are dangerously ready to collapse how can we expect them to be proficient in addressing social problems that we, ourselves, created in the first place?

We, not the government, cause the vast majority of problems our society faces. That means we, not the government, have the ability to solve them. Should government help where it is reasonable? Absolutely. There are things best done on a broad, nationwide basis and only government can be effective in implementing those programs. Still, make no mistake, the bulk of the responsibility has to be our own. Me. You. Starting with reducing our healthcare costs by changing our attitudes toward food just a little. We don’t have to go stark raving mad in order to see dramatic results.

Don’t complain about the state of the world, of your country, of your city, if you are doing nothing to be part of the solution. That’s how life works, dudes. Make adjustments as necessary.

Abide in Peace,
The Old Man

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Solving the problems we create

photo credit: charles i. letbetter

Reading time: 16 min
Whiner in chief

Among all the character flaws one might attribute to the 45th president of the United States, one of the most annoying is that he is a chronic whiner. Almost every time he takes to Twitter it is for the express purpose of whining and complaining about one thing or the other. Here are a few recent examples:

These next three have to be taken as a single statement:

But wait, we’re not done yet. There are still these:

And those are just a few from the past month! Gripe, gripe, complain, whine. Rather reminds me of a three-year-old who needs a nap, doesn’t it?

Normally, we would compare/contrast this president’s actions compared to his predecessors to see whether such an attitude is normal. Unfortunately, Mr. Obama was the first president to use Twitter and that wasn’t until he was into his second term. However, what we can do is compare recent tweets from previous presidents. I’ll admit, though, I had difficulty finding anything that might be considered a complaint.  Here’s what I came up with:

That’s it. Just the one. Mind you, I checked accounts for George W. Bush (43), Bill Clinton, and George H. W. Bush (41). Neither of the Presidents Bush have accounts outside their libraries. I looked through Mr. Clinton’s account all the way back through October of last year, before the election, and found nothing. Well, almost nothing. There was this:

I don’t think many people would exactly consider that a complaint. More like poking fun.

So what, exactly do we do with a president who seems to do nothing but whine?

First of all, let’s admit that it just seems as though he whines all the time. He says a lot of things that begin with phrases like, “Honored to …” and “Thank you to …” and even, “It was my pleasure to …” There are a lot of those in his Twitter feed. Those aren’t controversial statements, though (well, most the time), and statements relating to policy are a different bucket of worms. We have the perception that the president whines a lot largely because we were not witness to the others whining at all. We never heard President Obama’s frustration with the whole birther issue (which the current president fueled). He produced his birth certificate then joked about the issue from there on out. President Bush (43) received tremendous criticism from almost every possible corner of the country and it would be unreasonable to think that didn’t bother him a great deal. Yet, those gripes and complaints were never made public. We don’t have a guide book for dealing with this president because none of his predecessors have been such public cry babies.

Back in June of 2012, F. Diane Barth wrote an article for Psychology Today that had the following recommendations for dealing with people who whine a lot:

1 – Acknowledge to them that you understand both the distress and the feelings of helplessness and frustration. With a colleague, this may mean saying something like, “I know how you feel. And it’s worse because there’s really nothing we can do about it.” With a toddler and/or a dog, it may mean offering physical soothing.  A pat on the head for the animal, a verbalization and physical contact for the child: “I know you’re hungry sweetie, but I don’t have anything for you right now. Can you hold my hand for a few minutes till we get home?”

2 – Recognize that you cannot change their feelings. They are trapped in a painful situation, and your advice – and even your soothing – will not be enough to change their experience. They will continue to whine until they develop more of a sense of competence and internal strength, which will not happen overnight.

3 – Try to let them know that you know that it is not their fault, or at worst, it is not completely their fault. They are already silently, often unconsciously, blaming themselves for their difficulties. But because they are feeling guilty, they are going to keep asking you for the absolution they cannot give themselves. In the end, it is not you who can let them off the hook.

4 – Set firm, clear limits on how long you can listen and what you have to offer. With an office mate, for example, you can say, “I know this is really bothering you, and I’m so sorry about it. But unfortunately I can’t sit and talk any longer. I have to get back to work.” With a friend or family member, limit the amount of time you can stay on the phone. Introduce other topics. Tell them about something that is happening in your life. In other words, distract them (which, by the way, is often one part of my advice for parents and dog owners as well). Paradoxically, by setting limits you are also letting them know that you believe that they can deal with a little frustration on their own – and as long as the frustration is not overwhelming, this will help them begin to develop the internal strength they need to stop whining.

Now, Ms. Barth’s recommendations are designed for people we deal with in person on a regular basis, people with whom we have a daily relationship. Most of us can’t say that we have that kind of relationship with the president. Therefore, we need to adjust her recommendations somewhat. Here’s how I would apply her statements to the president:

  1. Someone needs to pat him on the head regularly and say, “I know you’re hungry. Here, have a Snickers® bar.” Be sure to stand ready with a wet wipe, though. You know he’s going to have chocolate all over his tiny hands.
  2. Recognize that the candy is just a temporary fix. He has to develop more of a sense of competence and that may not happen in the next four years.
  3. Let him know it’s not completely his fault that he’s president. Blame the Electoral College; it’s all their fault.
  4. Turn him off. Stop listening. Let him know we’ve had enough and we’ll start paying attention again when/if he starts making sense. Or he’s impeached, whichever comes first.

One thing on which the majority of psychologists now agree is that whining is often the result of giving someone too much attention and sympathy, such as often happens in psychotherapy sessions. Back away. Let him know that we’re still interested in what he’s doing, especially when he’s breaking things, but that we’re not going to indulge his tantrums. Don’t reply to his tweets. Don’t indulge his apologists such as Kelly Ann Conway. Just shut the metaphorical door and let him cry it out.

And maybe show some sympathy. Old people really are a lot like toddlers after all, and if we don’t die first we’ll all one day likely be just as fussy. We just won’t be in the embarrassing position of president of the United States. Hand him a candy bar so the grown-ups can get back to running the country.

Abide in Peace,
The Old Man

Whiner In Chief

Photo: charles i. letbetter

Reading time: 8 min
It's So Hard To Say Goodbye

September was not a kind month. Let’s take a moment to consider what all happened, in no particular order.

At least 70 known deaths from Hurricane Harvey in the Houston, Texas area. This doesn’t count the deaths in Louisiana and Mississippi nor deaths that occurred after the storm as a result of injuries sustained in the storm.

At least 75 deaths from Hurricane Irma all across Florida. Again, this isn’t counting deaths that happen well after the storm.

At least 320 people died as a result of two massive earthquakes in Mexico. Rescue efforts have largely been halted, but more bodies could still be found.

More than 1,200 dead from Monsoons in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal. Due to the nature of the flooding, actual fatality counts are impossible.

641 people were killed in various terrorist attacks around the world.

Human rights groups report 3,055 deaths in Syria’s brutal civil war.

And there’s nothing close to an accurate count of the hundreds, possibly thousands of Rohingya Muslims slaughtered in Myanmar (Burma).

So when we woke up Monday morning to find that October was starting with a new record, the new worst mass shooting on American soil, our hearts sank. The one-year anniversary of the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando, which claimed the lives of 40 people, was just this past June 16.  As I’m writing, 59 have been confirmed dead in this horrible event. The numbers will almost certainly go up, quite possibly as high as 70. Whose heart doesn’t break when things like this happen?

Late night talk show hosts have become the voice of America’s conscience in many ways and this time it was ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel who seemed to find the words so many were wanting to say. Take a look:

I no longer have the strength in me to be angry when things like this happen, not because I find any justification or fall into a well of apathy, but because the repetitiveness of running on this treadmill has left me exhausted. The pattern remains the same. An event takes place, in our pain, we focus on our anger, and then, as the pain normalizes (it never really goes away because we don’t deal with it), we move on to other things. Not only does the problem remain unsolved, we never actually attempt to address the problem at all. We just argue about it on social media using the exact same platitudes we did with the last mass shooting. Politicians wait out the mass hysteria and then continue to do nothing because they know we won’t hold them responsible for their complete lack of activity.

And here we are again, mourning the loss of innocent people, people who had almost certainly saved their money and looked forward to their trip to Vegas for months. As the names of the dead are confirmed, notice how few are from the Las Vegas area. They’re from all over the US. Teachers, nurses, police officers, attornies, single moms, loving dads, all of whom were there enjoying the music they loved, and then they died.

Over and over and over again this past month, people have died in large numbers and for anyone with an ounce of compassion, our hearts are ripped apart every time.  Our emotional wounds don’t even have time to heal from one assault before we’re blindsided with another.

And then, Tom Petty died.

Sigh. Big, deep, heavy sigh.

My late father was of the opinion that one of the reasons we are so horrified by moments like this, events that yield large numbers of dead, is because they force us to confront our own mortality. Who among those killed in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey or Irma had planned to die? Of all the people in Mexico City who were crushed under the buildings they assumed were protecting them, did any have time to prepare for their death? The people of Syria have lived under the constant reality of war for many years, but when a child is caught in the crossfire do his parents mourn any less? We see these things happening around us and are frightened because we realize that so often when death arrives at our door we have no warning. Life is just over. Done.

We react to horrible situations like these out of fear, fear that we might be next and that there may not be a damn thing we can do about it. We react because we don’t want to be the next one to lose a brother, or sister, or child, or parent or spouse. We fear our death because we are, despite all our alleged faith, not convinced of whatever comes next. We fear the deaths of those we love because we don’t know how to conceive of living without them.

Saying goodbye to life is hard because we view death as an end rather than the beginning of whatever comes next. We see a finality to death because we can’t imagine existence beyond the confines of our human bodies. We fear death because we count it as a loss rather than a transition.

Kahlil Gibran, in the final chapter of The Prophet, gives us some wise words regarding death:

You would know the secret of death.
But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?
The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.
If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.
For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.

In the depth of your hopes and desires lies your silent knowledge of the beyond;
And like seeds dreaming beneath the snow your heart dreams of spring.
Trust the dreams, for in them is hidden the gate to eternity.
Your fear of death is but the trembling of the shepherd when he stands before the king whose hand is to be laid upon him in honor.
Is the shepherd not joyful beneath his trembling, that he shall wear the mark of the king?
Yet is he not more mindful of his trembling?

For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is it to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?

Only when you drink from the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.

Struggle with this as I know you will, let me challenge our view of death. Killing people is a weapon only as long as we treat death as a loss. Yet, what is it we are losing? The very phrase to “lose my life” is a deception. I cannot lose my life; it isn’t going to fall out of my pocket as though it were loose change. I cannot “give up” my life because there is no one person or entity to accept it as terms of surrender. A life doesn’t “expire” like milk past its use-by date. Life does not end but simply transitions and moves on to the next thing.

We have so heavily bought into the notion that beyond death lies a place of punishment and pain that we will do almost anything to avoid that possible outcome. Never mind the religious activities that we hope might save us from that horrible doom. We still fear death because we’re never quite sure that we’ve done enough to escape hell. We like the concept of a salvation that cannot be removed from us, but at our core, we still don’t trust it, we worry that there is no heaven, or that we might not actually make it.

Strip all the centuries of mythology away, though, and look at death as a transition. Place on the other side of that transition whatever existence makes you feel better, but don’t make it something worthy of your fear. Rather, put on the other side of that transition a point of hope. Call it Heaven, Nirvana, or a Collective Consciousness; whatever works for you and your belief system, but embrace that and let it replace your fear.

I like Gibran’s very last line: “And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.” Think of what it would be like to always be tied to something, to have your arms and legs tethered so that you could move, but you couldn’t leave; to be anchored in one space that is yours. Then, just imagine what it would be like, after years and years of being tethered, to suddenly be let free, to be set loose. That, Gibran says, is what death does.

You’ve wrestled with this concept before, though in a different form. Think Shakespeare and Hamlet’s soliloquy. You know, the one that starts, “To be or not to be …” Jump to the end of that one and we find some interesting words:

To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life. 

The respect that makes calamity of so long life. Shuffling of “this mortal coil” frees us from the bonds and limitations of the vessel in which we are contained. Whether we sleep or, perchance dream, and whether those dreams are a reality on a different plane of existence, we transition into another level of existence that causes us to look back upon this life as a calamity for having been as long as it was.

Is it possible for us to not fear death? Is it possible for us to turn goodbye into “congratulations on your promotion?” Can we see death as a stepping stone, not a stopping point?

It's so hard to say goodby

photo: charles i. letbetter

We do not minimize the value of this life when we elevate the value of what lies beyond this life. What we do here does not mean any less if what happens next is even better. Love is love on every plane of existence and love itself is eternal. We are fond of the saying, “you can’t take it with you,’ and that is absolutely true of the material and physical pieces of a life tethered to this dust. But then, why would we want to take anything from here? If we break free of our bonds, do we stop to gather up the ropes that tied us down? I don’t think so.

Love is not one of those bonds, though, and the love we cultivate in this life, the things we do selflessly for others, the goodwill we forge simply by being nice to other people, all that is a positively charged energy that attaches itself to us and where we go all that love and peace and comfort continues right on into forever with us. As long as we have this life we have the opportunity to generate the love that carries with us to the next. What we do here is not wasted, but what we do here is not the limit of who we are.

Perhaps, just maybe, the reason it is so difficult to say goodbye is because that’s not what we’re supposed to be saying at all. And if we take away death’s ability to scare the bejeezus out of us we also take away the ability for madmen and terrorists to use it as a weapon against us.

What if, instead of mourning what we perceive as a loss we celebrated the elevation of our friends and loved ones to something better, shuffling off the bonds that limited their existence? What if, instead of holding funerals we held parties, complete with cake and champagne, or at least a very old scotch? Would that not be better than the torment we put ourselves through every time nature or insanity releases a number of us from our confines?

This is a difficult conversation to have even within me. Religious philosophy has so dominated our societies for so long that trying to reimagine death as merely a transition feels a bit like trying to put a coat on backward and inside-out. Yet, even within the confines of religion, where one believes that a better place awaits, do we not prove ourselves unbelievers if we let our fear of death send us into mourning? Should we not rejoice that great-grandma has left her pain and suffering behind, escaped the imprisonment of her body and transitioned onto her Heaven, whatever that may be? If paradise is what we believe waits for us how incredibly stupid are we being when we are afraid of reaching that milestone?

There is a Christian hymn written in 1898 by Johnson Oatman, Jr. that I grew up singing but never really understanding the insight of the words. While Oatman was obviously Christian and was making reference to that expectation of a Heaven, if one strips away the religious connotation and looks at it simply as about the transition from this life to the next, we find a solace and even a yearning that leads us away from fear.

My heart has no desire to stay

Where doubts arise and fears dismay;

Though some may dwell where these abound,

My prayer, my aim is higher ground.

I want to scale the utmost height

And catch a gleam of glory bright;

But still I’ll pray, ’til heaven I’ve found

“Lord, lead me on to higher ground.”

Those lines, which are actually part of the second verse, are some of the most common-sense poetry one might find. Fear, doubt, worry, trouble, are all inherent to this earth-bound existence but if they do not exist outside these carbon containers we call bodies then why would our aim not be that “higher ground” of which Oatman writes?

If we stop looking at death as an ending point we can also do away with all that nonsense about sending “thoughts and prayers” to those devastated by disastrous events. That part has never made a lick of sense to me. Thoughts and prayers don’t put food on anyone’s table, doesn’t rebuild the home they lost, doesn’t replace the clothes swept away, and doesn’t improve anyone’s life in any way. What thoughts and prayers do is assuage the guilt that comes from sitting on one’s ass and doing absolutely nothing in the face of someone else’s need.

Rather, if death is a transition point, then perhaps we can start having honest conversations about quality of life issues and easing that transition rather than allowing people to lie in bed for years, connected to machinery, unable to communicate, to perform any willful function, and suffer until their body erodes to the point that even the machinery can no longer keep them alive. If we accept that there is no loss but gain in death then perhaps we can adjust our concept of war and how it is waged. If we stop looking at death as a personal affront to our existence then maybe, just maybe, we can reconsider why we are so damned obsessed with weaponry, its size, and its firepower, in the first place.  Remove our universal fear of death and perhaps we’ll stop acting so fucking stupid.

I don’t like saying goodbye, even when I know there’s a hello coming around the corner. I get anxious every time the Young Woman leaves the house, whether she’s going to work or to visit her parents or hang out with a friend. I worry she won’t come back through no fault of her own. To be in this world puts one at danger from the carelessness of others and the inevitability of nature. One never can be quite sure when either might interrupt our lives.

Yet, if I try to set aside the gut-wrenching pain that comes with yesterday’s tragic news then I am perceived as cold, unfeeling, and unsympathetic. I like to think that I can feel empathy for those whose loved ones were senselessly murdered in Las Vegas, but am I being disrespectful if I drink to the transition of those souls rather than mourn their departure from this physical realm? What if I say “Congratulations” rather than, “Goodbye?” Would you be offended if it were your loved one?

Centuries of philosophical tradition and religious teaching are not set aside and replaced in a moment even if they were adopted in that way. I cannot, however, avoid the feeling that all our grief and anger and hostility happen because we are not yet enlightened enough to see the reality of what, if anything. waits on the other side of mortality. If we can find a way to set aside our fear of what comes after death then it stands to reason that we will see less death and with it a solution to the overwhelming disasters we’ve faced the past month.

There is no benefit in yelling and screaming at politicians, tilting at the windmills of changed policies. Rather, may we render terror ineffective by embracing death as a step forward, reaching the top of the mountain so that we might begin to climb onto higher ground. This may be the first step toward finding Peace.

And there, in Peace, may you abide.
-The Old Man

Reading time: 14 min
charlie and the chocolate factory

“I don’t know why (it was changed). It’s a great pity.” Liccy Dahl, Roald Dahl’s widow

There is so much about children’s literature that we love. We identify with the characters and sometimes even take on some of their traits. We look at how they solve the problems in their lives and much of how we respond to challenge is based off those characters. Even with all the videos and other media that children consume, there’s still nothing that holds the impact of children’s literature.

Every once in a while, though, we discover something new about a book or a character or an author that has the ability to fundamentally change how we view a book and/or that character. One of those discoveries happened yesterday, August 13, on what would have been Roald Dahl’s 101st birthday. In an interview with BBC radio, Liccy Dahl, the author’s widow, just casually dropped a bomb that seems to have caught the entire literary world off guard.

Now, let’s get real for a moment. Does the color of Charlie’s skin really matter?

I’m going to argue that yes, it does, for a number of different reasons.

First, there are precious few heroes in children’s lit that are people of color, and when it has happened there are often derogatory labels attached that make us, at the very least, uncomfortable. We don’t like having to deal with the fact that we have a severely racist history, both in the United States and Western Europe. A prime example is the frequency with which Mark Twain’s classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is banned from school libraries in large part because adults don’t know how, or don’t want to take the time, to explain the character of Nigger Jim to their children. We don’t like having those conversations.

Had Charlie been black, it would have provided children of color a hero with whom they could relate at a time when racism was rampant. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was published in 1964, just as the Civil Rights movement was a force of reality. Sure, Dr. King was a fantastic role model in the real world, but to have a literary character like Charlie, finding the Golden Ticket in a world where all odds and circumstances were stacked against him, could have given children of color a hero with whom they could have more readily identified. Charlie was just like so many of them, growing up in poverty, living with extended family, the roof over their heads literally crumbling around them. Charlie’s reality was one that children of color on both sides of the Atlantic identified with well.

If Charlie were portrayed as black, perhaps our parents and grandparents, the ones who were feeding us such wonderful books, would not have been so slow to view people of color in light of their humanity rather than only seeing them as protesters. The 60s were racially volatile and for the majority of white America, the only perception they had of people of color was what they saw on the evening news with Walter Cronkite. All they saw were people marching, people protesting, and in extreme cases, people rioting. Neither television nor newspapers of the time did anything to balance the perception. A black Charlie would not have been the cure, of course, but it certainly could have helped. If we look at Charlie, and presumably his extended family, as a snapshot of reality for many people of color during the 60s, perhaps we would see them more as people struggling against an oppressive system that prevented them from succeeding.

I also wonder how a black Charlie might change our perception of the Oompa-Loompas. If like me, you’re old enough to have read Dahl’s 1864 edition, you know that their appearance in the movies is not true to the book. Dahl originally portrayed the diminutive factory workers as black pygmies from Africa. He changed the description to small white people with golden hair, natives of Loompaland, in 1973 after conversations with members of the NAACP convinced him that the original depiction was too close to that of slaves. The orange-toned skin with green hair was strictly a product of the movie adaptation. Would a black Charlie have balanced in any way black Oompa-Loompas? Perhaps, or perhaps it would have sharpened Dahl’s original intent, that it was the white children who were “most … unpleasant.”

That this conversation would come up now, when we are once again challenged by the emboldened presence of white supremacists spreading hate through society, gives us an opportunity to not only examine who we are, but who we want to be. Can we, who grew up thinking that Charlie was a cute, blonde-haired white child, accept a Charlie of a different color? Does that change our appreciation of the book? If so, we need to confront directly and honestly how and why that change exists. Only when we are honest with ourselves as individuals can we begin to deal honestly with the challenges of our society.

While we’re at it, let’s talk about the apparent need in society, and especially in Hollywood, to whitewash everything. Even if Dahl had been able to convince his publisher to accept Charlie as a black child, the reality is still that the movie would have almost certainly cast someone white in the role. For all the talk about diversity and equality coming from actors and actresses, the fact remains that Hollywood producers, to this day, prefer a white male lead over a person of color. Sure, opportunities for people of diverse cultures have improved, but much of that comes only as people of color have risen to the position of being able to produce those movies themselves.

Let’s take, for example, our beloved Coen Brothers. Their movies are so very white that people have noticed. The folks at Funny or Die were sort of trying to be funny when they put the following video together, but they raise an important question as to why we don’t create strong characters for people of color. Why must they all be white? Watch the video:

Let’s get painfully real for a moment, dudes. Racism isn’t cool. Racists are not chill. Discrimination against anyone because of the pigmentation of their skin is a transgression we cannot allow to stand.

In the conversation with Mrs. Dahl, she intimates that this revelation regarding Charlie and her late husband’s original intent might be a good reason for a new treatment of the book. While there are always plenty of people who don’t like having their particular point of view disrupted, I think that, in this case, it could actually be a good thing. In fact, I would support a whole new edition of the book that is in line with how Dahl originally wrote it, social sins and all.

Our world is not whitewashed. We are past the time when we should stop trying to make everything look like middle-class white Europe or America. One cannot abide with racism.

Let’s fix this problem.

Abide in Peace,
the Old Man

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Reading time: 6 min

Hey, dudes! We’re glad you could join us again. I’ve been worried about some of you down in Florida and want to make sure those of you in Georgia and Alabama stay safe as well. Let’s get things started with an appropriately named playlist while you read. Let it get through the first couple of songs before you start. Maybe light a fat one if you have it. Take a deep breath before continuing.

“Without pain, how could we know joy?’ This is an old argument in the field of thinking about suffering and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not, in any way, affect the taste of chocolate.”
― John Green, The Fault in Our Stars

As I write this, the Young Woman to this Old Man lies in a bed at a local hospital feeling a tremendous amount of pain. Kidney infection was the initial diagnosis a week ago, but at the moment there is no general consensus and more tests or imminent. Meanwhile, she suffers.

As I write this, Hurricane Irma creeps every closer to Florida. Already, it has devastated many of the Caribbean Islands. The death toll currently stands at 20-something but that number is sure to grow. Those who can evacuate already have for the most part. Those that remain are either stubborn, committed to the safety of those in their care, or too ill to travel. Most every reasonable preparation has been made but by the time you are reading this, my dear dudes, they will be suffering the blunt force of the storm.

As I write this, mourners line the streets in Southern Mexico, carrying the coffins of the more than 60 people who died in an 8.1 earthquake on Friday. This was the largest earthquake to hit the region in over 80 years. Most affected were the poor. People across the entire region are suffering.

As I write this, a former television news anchor, recently fired from his job, is dealing with walking into the bedroom of his 19-year-old son and finding him dead. While the exact cause of the young man’s death is unknown at this time, the father’s public protagonists chided that the death was karma for his own sins. Suffering piled upon suffering.

I read through the post in various online Dudeism groups and see that many of you are suffering as well. A child goes to prison. A significant other leaves without warning, emptying the bank account and destroying reputations in the process. Illness strikes at the most inopportune moment. A job disappears.

Everywhere I look, I see people suffering. And while I want to be the person who can casually pass it off and say, “It is what it is, man,” I can’t. The human in me cares too much about the humans outside of me. I know that, on a level higher than the physical plane of existence, we are all connected. What hurts my brother and my sister eventually hurts me as well. What causes you pain creates ripples across the universe so that suffering become compounded and inescapable.

At some point, we find ourselves asking, “Why?” Why are our lives filled with what often seems like an endless litany of suffering? Why is it that just about the time we think we’ve achieved a desirable state of chill, something or someone interferes and knocks us down, backing us against a toilet while someone inexplicably pisses on our rug? Do we only stand up so that we can fall all over again?

There is an ancient and universal philosophy shared not only in Taoism but across almost every religion stating that pain and suffering are a necessary part of life. The Tao te Ching puts it this way:

“If good happens, good; if bad happens, good. ”

That would appear, on the surface, to be a workable philosophy; there is both bad and good and they balance each other out. We must be careful, though, for that is not necessarily what the Tao teaches us. Consider these words:

“Thus it is said:
The path into the light seems dark,
the path forward seems to go back,
the direct path seems long,
true power seems weak,
true purity seems tarnished,
true steadfastness seems changeable,
true clarity seems obscure,
the greatest seems unsophisticated,
the greatest love seems indifferent,
the greatest wisdom seems childish.

The Tao is nowhere to be found.
Yet it nourishes and completes all things.” 

Following that logic, suffering is inevitable, unavoidable, and the only way to get anywhere or achieve anything. Is it true that we are doomed to suffer and that it is only because of our suffering that we even have a concept of joy or happiness?

Be careful, my friends, for what we find here is a philosophical trap that keeps us so busy spinning in circles that we fail to see what is actually true. Suffering does not cause happiness any more than sour causes sweet. We cannot say, “If I suffer more now, I will know greater joy later.” Sorry, that’s just not the way it works, despite what many different people have told us.

Is All This Suffering Necessary?Being raised in a conservatively Christian environment, the concept of suffering was tied directly to the will of God. Both Islam and Judaism teach the same thing through their shared monotheistic mythology. God, who is in control of all things because he created all things, allows bad things to happen, puts suffering in our paths, to teach us lessons, to discipline those who don’t obey, to punish those who do wrong, and sometimes just because he thinks we need to be reminded who’s the boss and in charge of everything. You’ll find this line of thought throughout the Bible, the Quran, and the Talmud, often using exactly the same words and phrases. God is in control of our suffering and there’s not really a damn thing we can do about it. He wants us to look to him, to rely on him for strength to muddle through it all.

Where I run into problems with that philosophy is that it makes God out to be one really sick son-of-a-bitch. If our suffering exists because God causes it to exist, that makes him a fucking sadist. This is like the child who derives joy from torturing its pets or the bully who gets off on beating up smaller children. When we come across those same personality traits in human form, we lock those people away to protect society from the harm they do. Why in the world would we tolerate a deity with the same flaws? Even if God does not directly cause our suffering, if he has the power to stop our suffering and does nothing, that still makes him a mentally disturbed creature who has no useful place in society. Why does anyone bother worshipping a deity who isn’t protective and comforting but rather manipulative and aggressive?

Step away from that line of thinking for a moment. Those who believe have an answer for those questions and while I personally find those answers insufficient, to the extent that they provide a level of comfort and the ability to abide for those who do believe, I’m willing to let them go their own way and do their own thing. Cool. God bless you. Peace.

Hinduism takes a slightly different approach that’s a little bit closer to what we see in Taoism. Hindus believe in this thing called karma and the loose concept of karma, that one gets what one deserves, has become quite popular in modern society. For many people, the concept of karma feels like one of ultimate justice: you do bad things, bad things happen to you; you do good things, good things happen to you. Karma is actually a spiritualization of Newton’s third law of physics (though it predates Newton by several centuries): for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Therefore, the stronger the good applied, the stronger the bad returns, and vice versa.

Wait a minute. Is karma not what we think it is? No, it’s not. Western society has tried to push and pull the Hindu notion of karma to fit its own needs and desire for justice and as a result, we’ve totally ignored just how incredibly complex karma actually is. Hinduism teaches three levels of karma: satvik karma, rajasik karma, and tamasik karma. Each has a different purpose and a different outcome.

Tamasik karma is that attitude of not giving a shit and doing things regardless of the outcome. Gandhi referred to tamasik as being rather mechanical, that the wheels go round, the cogs interlink, and things happen a certain, predictable way. Right and wrong are not a consideration. The machine is designed to do a function and it completes that function regardless of what is happening around it or how it might affect things outside the machine. While there is an efficiency to tamasik in that it gets things done, there is also a cruelty in that it doesn’t give a damn who gets hurt in the process. Tamasik is therefore ultimately selfish because it cares only about doing what it is going to do; nothing else matters. Suffering is inevitable. Sucks for you.

Rajasik karma is when we do things that we hope directly benefit us. Attitude is a major contributing factor here. We might be doing things that appear superficially good, such as volunteering at a homeless shelter or serving food at a soup kitchen, but our reasons for doing so are our own, such as padding a resumé or hoping to win an award. Good actions don’t necessarily mean a good heart is attached and therefore rajasik ultimately nullifies those good actions with negative results because we did them for the wrong reasons. At the end of the day, or the life, we end up with nothing and in the Hindu belief system that results in reincarnation as a lesser being. We bring our own suffering upon ourselves.

Satvik karma is doing good things because they need to be done. One often sees the word “unattached” applied to this level of karma because one holds no personal interest in the action taken. Satvik karma is finding an animal trapped by flood waters and rescuing it even though one doesn’t especially like animals and the frightened beats kicks, bites, and claws the entire time it is being taken to safety. Satvik is wholly selfless to the point of even giving up one’s own life if doing so serves the greater good of another. Satvik doesn’t avoid suffering, mind you, but takes on suffering so that others might not experience the pain for themselves.

Where we ultimately misunderstand karma is in our expectation of consequences. Karma, like Western religions, looks outside the present life for its rewards. As Hindus believe the actions of this life determine one’s place in the next, they do not expect someone who has done bad things to necessarily receive immediate retribution. Neither do they expect good deeds to yield immediate reward. Rather, they hope for better status in the next life as they journey toward Nirvana. As a result, suffering becomes a necessary part of our existence for how we respond determines what we have in the next life.

Well, shit. Does this mean we’re just fucked all the way around?

Since I started writing this, Hurricane Irma has taken a significant shift to the West. Those whose fate seemed certain a few hours ago are seeing a different future developing before them. There is no certainty here. Some will suffer, some will not. How are we supposed to justify these seemingly random acts that lead to suffering?

Paulo Coelho took an interesting perspective in his poetic tome, By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept:

“If pain must come, may it come quickly. Because I have a life to live, and I need to live it in the best way possible. If he has to make a choice, may he make it now. Then I will either wait for him or forget him.”

Is All This Suffering Necessary?There is something in that attitude that works: if something or someone is going to be a pain in the ass, let them do it and get the fuck out of the way. We have lives to lead and we need to live them in the way that does the most good.

Intrinsic to that attitude is a willingness, even an urgency, to get past whatever suffering might assail us. When we’re hit by something bad, we don’t try to get away from that bad and move on. Rather, we tend to wallow in it, looking for pity, hoping that someone else may come to our aid. As a result, we often spend much longer dealing with the pain than might otherwise be necessary.

Now, please don’t think for a moment that I’m casting any aspersions on anyone who legitimately needs help. Neither am I suggesting that we shouldn’t help someone simply because they are capable of doing things on their own. If I come across a hurricane victim repairing their home I should not pass them by simply because, “Hey, it looks like you’re doing a great job up there, buddy!”  By helping the one who is capable, he completes his work and ends his suffering sooner, freeing you both to help someone less capable. There is no good reason for withholding help from anyone.

Yet, we prolong much of our own suffering because when it hits we sit there and take it. Like a young boxer surprised by a sudden blow, we hesitate, sometimes at length, before we even attempt to get back up. We push the eight count rather than getting back up and into the fight. What’s up with that? If suffering is going to come, shouldn’t we do our best to get it over with quickly so that we can get on with our lives?

Taoism teaches there are two kinds of suffering: the avoidable and the unavoidable. At first glance, we might think the two distinctions are rather obvious; the avoidable suffering is that which we bring upon ourselves, the unavoidable suffering is what happens to us through no fault of our own. To a certain extent that is true, but the picture we’re getting is not entirely accurate.

Take, for example, the spate of hurricanes we’re enduring this season. First Harvey, then Irma right behind that, and next up is Jose, right behind Irma. Aggressive weather is normally considered an act of god, something over which we have absolutely no control and to a large extent, that assessment is true once a storm forms. However, we have to ask ourselves why so many serious storms are forming? Is this an inevitable, naturally occurring weather pattern that takes place when the universe feels it necessary or might we have contributed to the core cause of the storm by warming the planet and upsetting the natural flow of those weather patterns? Scientific wisdom argues that even if the storms did form on their own, they likely would not have been as severe were it not for the ways in which we have contributed to the deterioration of the environment. If that’s the case, then the suffering caused by these storms was totally avoidable even if we didn’t realize the harm we were creating for the planet.

In considering whether our suffering is avoidable or unavoidable, we have to first step up and take responsibility not only for our direct actions and their consequences, but for indirect issues where our attitudes, gestures, or habits might influence someone or something else to take actions that might ultimately hurt us. We have to look outside ourselves and see how we influence that part of the world that, in turn, influences us. When we do, we’re likely to find that many more of our sufferings are avoidable than we might have first thought.

Ultimately, though, I question whether it makes much difference in whether pain or suffering is avoidable or not. Sure, to the extent that we can foresee that certain actions are to our own detriment, then yes, it would be foolish to not avoid those actions. Don’t run out into traffic without looking. Don’t leap from tall buildings. Don’t stick your head in the mouth of a hungry lion. Much of what might be avoidable, however, happens because of our ignorance. When we fail to understand the ways in which we are connected to the rest of the world, it is impossible for us to see how our actions influence what later comes to us as a surprise.  If we don’t know that eating fatty foods increases our chance of developing Type II diabetes, then we are surprised to find we have the disease. Were we ignorant of the links between smoking and cancer, as we were for many years, we would most certainly blame other causes for a disease for which we ourselves are responsible. Our place within the universe is so incredibly interconnected that I’m not wholly convinced that we can ever say with certain accuracy that any suffering is unavoidable.

From an evolutionary perspective, suffering is not only unavoidable, it is critical to the evolution of any species. Without suffering, we have no need to improve and to evolve. Richard Dawkins put it this way:

“The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute that it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive, many others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear, others are slowly being devoured from within by rasping parasites, thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst, and disease. It must be so. If there ever is a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in the population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored. In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” 

Looking at the matter from Dawkins’ perspective, even the avoidable becomes unavoidable because the natural status of cause and effect insist that we do and behave the way in which we are going to do and behave. Only as species adapt to the suffering and evolve do we stop sticking our heads in lions’ mouths. Suffering does not offer us the opportunity to learn. Rather, suffering sits us down on our pompous asses and insists that we learn and continues teaching us the same lessons and over until we have them completed and mastered.

I don’t like this answer to our question. I want to agree with John Green that the taste of broccoli has absolutely nothing to do with the pleasure of fine chocolate. If we reject pain, if we deny the suffering like an infant refuses to eat strained peas, then won’t the universe eventually give up and give us the bananas we were wanting instead?

No, the universe doesn’t accept us acting like spoiled brats. We’re not all that special in the grand scheme of things and there’s little question that the universe will extinguish our species should we continually try to buck the inevitable. Immortality is not something we can create without putting the entire universe at risk. Whether human or plant or insect, the answer is no, you can’t escape the suffering. Yes, this current suffering is necessary and quite probably inevitable.

I want you to read very carefully the following words. Milan Kundera, the Czech author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, wrote in a subsequent book, Immortality:

I think, therefore I am is the statement of an intellectual who underrates toothaches. I feel, therefore I am is a truth much more universally valid, and it applies to everything that’s alive. My self does not differ substantially from yours in terms of its thought. Many people, few ideas: we all think more or less the same, and we exchange, borrow, steal thoughts from one another. However, when someone steps on my foot, only I feel the pain. The basis of the self is not thought but suffering, which is the most fundamental of all feelings. While it suffers, not even a cat can doubt its unique and uninterchangeable self. In intense suffering the world disappears and each of us is alone with his self. Suffering is the university of egocentrism.” 

One of my primary issues with religion is its insistence that suffering leads us to obedience to the deity who created the suffering in the first place. “Turn from your sins and God will remove your suffering.” The pretentiousness of such bullshit makes me want to vomit.

Yet, suffering really does lead us to deity: the deity within ourselves. In suffering, we find our true humanity, our reality, and quite possibly even our rightful place in the universe. Through suffering, we first look inward and then act outward to not only lessen our own suffering but that of others all the more so.

At the end of today’s playlist is the late Etta James singing Stormy Weather. Skip down there and listen with me for a moment. I think it is appropriate for more than the obvious reasons.

Don’t know why
There’s no sun up in the sky
Stormy weather
Since my man and I ain’t together
Keeps raining all of the time

Oh, yeah
Life is bad
Gloom and misery everywhere
Stormy weather, stormy weather
And I just can get my poor self together
Oh, I’m weary all of the time
The time, so weary all of the time

We grow weary of suffering. For too many, it seems as though suffering never ends, that we never can find a way of escape.

Let me encourage you, dude. Do not let your suffering drag you to the depths of despair. Rather,  let it be your guide on the path to finding who you are. At the end of that path is the place where you can abide.

Abide in peace, man,
the Old Man

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Is All This Suffering Necessary?

Reading time: 18 min

Dude! Thanks for stopping by! Let’s start this thing by clicking on this week’s playlist. Let it run for a few songs, get yourself into the groove ’cause there’s a definite groove. Maybe burn some green if you’re so inclined. Let’s chill together for a while.

Early one morning this week, I was sitting at the desk staring into space, something that’s not really all that unusual of an occurrence. The cats had awakened me far too early, the dogs had tried chewing on kitchen utensils, and we were already running late for a breakfast appointment. The Young Woman walks over and hands me the magic bowl of green herb and says, “Here, hit on this for a while before you blow something.”

She knows me well enough to recognize when I’m stressed.

The problem is that I’m a worrier. I let things get to me when they really shouldn’t.

For example, my middle son, the 22-year-old, is a U.S. Marine. For the better part of the past two years, he has been stationed in Okinawa, Japan. When he first received that assignment I was relieved; Okinawa is a fairly safe duty station, it wouldn’t be likely that he would find himself in a forward combat situation. Then, the crazed lunatic running North Korea started lobbing missiles into the Sea of Japan, egged on by the saber-rattling provocation of the U.S. President. Suddenly, I was worried about my son’s safety.

Are my worries warranted? Reading the newspapers would seem to indicate that they are, that war is almost inevitable. My son assures me, however, that I can relax. Most of his unit was just in the exercises with South Korea. They were there, up close, with full view of the real situation. The official USMC opinion is that the threat of actual conflict is small—really, really small, as in comparison to the size of the “esteemed leader’s” penis. No worries are warranted.

But I still worry, especially when a missile sails over Northern Japan. Something deep in my gut is afraid one or the other lunatic leader will say something that gives the other reason to do something stupid.

Now, is there a damn thing I can do about my son’s safety? No, absolutely not. The matter is totally out of my control. I shouldn’t waste an ounce of my time or energy worrying about the matter.

Worrying is a trait well engrained. I blame my mother. She never met a day she couldn’t load down with worry. If it was raining, she worried that the ground was too wet. If the sun was shining, she worried that the ground would get too dry. If I called, she worried about how the grandkids were doing. If I didn’t call she worried that something was wrong with me. I do not remember a single day of her life when she didn’t have something to worry about.

I like to think I’m not as bad as my mother was, but the truth is that I still worry far more than is healthy, assuming that any level of worry is healthy in the first place. I don’t need to look up a medical study to correct myself. Worrying is not healthy. There is absolutely zero chill when one is worrying. We cannot abide in worry; it just doesn’t happen.

On one hand, I’m not alone. According to a Washington Post survey conducted back in July of this year, 74% of Americans are worried about war with North Korea. While not everyone has the same reason for worrying (74% of Americans are probably not specifically worried about my son), the general feelings of concern almost cross all the social divisions of Americans. War isn’t the only thing we’re worried about, either. A quick Google survey shows that we’re worried about finances, keeping our jobs, retirement, race relations, moral decline, discrimination, and clean drinking water and those are just the tips of the proverbial iceberg.

At the same time, however, for many places in the world, worrying is almost unknown and it’s due largely to the difference in how language deals with the future. In English, we have this wonderful, or horrible, thing called the subjunctive tense that, especially when used as an adverb, allows for the possibility of hypothetical “what if” situations. As Americans, we use subjunctive tense rather frequently, not realizing how it gives voice to our fears. “I lost my toothbrush this morning and missed being on the airplane that crashed.” “If that car had crashed just three feet to the left a dozen people could have been killed.” We think and talk in the subjunctive tense so often that we rarely realize we’re doing it.

Try explaining those same situations to someone who only speaks Italian, for example, and they’re not likely to understand what you’re saying, and if they do they’re not likely to show any concern. Italian is one of many languages that does not have the subjunctive tense. As a society, they are not confronted with hypothetical fears, therefore they are not worried by them. Sounds rather nice, doesn’t it?

Language isn’t the only reason we worry, though. Age has a lot to do with how much we worry. As we go through life and see bad things happen to other people, we become more cautious with our own lives. Barely surviving a close call often causes people to worry they might not survive the next time.

Old Man Talking

photo credit: charles i. letbetter

Health is probably one of the biggest sources of worry, though. We’re afraid of dying. The more aware we are of our mortality, the more we worry about dying and that, in turn, leads us to do things to prevent that from happening. We exercise not because we especially enjoy working up a sweat and making our muscles sore but because we’re afraid of dying sooner if we don’t. Neither are we thrilled about spending thousands of dollars on medicines that have to be taken in the correct order at a certain time of day with or without food and other restrictions. Yet, we keep making those trips to the pharmacy because the consequences for not taking those pills is going to be pain. So we worry. What if we lose our insurance? What if the pills don’t work? What if the doctor misses something?

This particular worry hits home pretty hard at the moment because I have to do something new this week: get a colonoscopy. I have never been a fan of sticking anything up my butt. I generally consider that to be an exit only orifice. My insurance company, however, called my doctor (not me) and said, “This dude is getting old. You’d best check out his butt ASAP because we don’t want to pay for cancer treatment.” Someone at the insurance company was worried that I might cost them a lot of money.

My response to this news was, as usual, to do a lot of research. I was pleased to find out that, as medical procedures go, this one is pretty safe. The mortality rate is only .5 percent. That’s not much at all! Well, not as a percentage goes. There are approximately 14 million colonoscopies done in the US each year, with that number increasing as our population gets older. Do the math. One percent of 14 million is 140,000. Half that is 70,000. All of a sudden, I’m a lot more worried. One-half of one percent is next to nothing. 70,000, though? That’s a lot of dudes dying from having something shoved up their butt!

What I’m experiencing is nothing new, mind you. Worry has been part of the human existence ever since that first cave-dwelling person went out looking for food and ended up being food. It has always been as the Stranger said: “Some days you get the bear. Some days the bear gets you.” So, we tend to worry that this might be the bear’s day.

We know better. We know we know better. Wisdom literature admonishing against the folly of worry is as old as the written word itself and permeates every culture and religion. Chances are you’ve heard some of these before.

Al-Ghazali (Muslim) said:

What is destined will reach you, even if it be beneath two mountains. What is not destined will not reach you, even if it be between your lips.

The Bhagavad Gita (Hindu) instructs:

The secret of human freedom is to act well, without attachment to the results.

From Talmud, Yebamot 63b (Jewish) come these rather frightening words:

Don’t worry about tomorrow: who knows, what may befall you this day?

Jesus, the Dude that Christians look to, expounded at length on the subject. This is from Matthew’s account in chapter 6, starting with verse 25:

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? 
26 Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? 
27 Can any one of you by worrying add a single hour to your life? 
28 “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the flowers of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 
29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 
30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? 
31 So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ 
32 For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. 
33 But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. 
34 Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Of course, I would be remiss among my fellow Dudeist here if I did not include words from the Tao Te Ching, chapter 20

What’s the difference between yes and no?

What’s the difference between beautiful and ugly?

Must one dread what others dread?

Oh barbarity! Will it never end?

That’s just a few of the countless religious passages dealing with worry and every last one of them tells us that we’re wasting our time. For some reason, though, we tend to not listen to religious texts, at least, not on this topic. I mean, how many times did my father preach that we shouldn’t worry with Mother sitting right there on the front pew in front of him? She’d be nodding her head up and down, agreeing with everything he said. Then, she would no sooner set foot through our front door before she’d say, “You know, I’m afraid if they don’t get that leak repaired in the ceiling, the whole thing’s going to fall in right on top of the choir. Probably while they’re singing. Vibrations would shake it loose.”

Don’t laugh at Mom too hard, now. You know good and well you’ve said something similar even though you know worrying doesn’t gain a damn thing.

Across history, there have been some people who viciously tried to keep worry from their lives. One of the most ancient anti-worry philosophies was Stoicism, which was a thing from about 300 BCE until 300 ADE. Probably the best known of the Stoics was Seneca, who wrote rather extensively on the subjects of worry, anxiety, and fear. His take on the subject sounds quite Dudeistic:

It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives; so look forward meanwhile to better things. What shall you gain by doing this? Time. There will be many happenings meanwhile which will serve to postpone, or end, or pass on to another person, the trials which are near or even in your very presence. A fire has opened the way to flight. Men have been let down softly by a catastrophe. Sometimes the sword has been checked even at the victim’s throat. Men have survived their own executioners. Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime, it is not. So look forward to better things.

The penultimate sentence in that paragraph may be the most important: “Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime, it is not.” In other words, “Dude, if nothing bad is happening now, Abide, man.”

Here’s the thing, dudes: the more we want, the more anxious we become about not having what we want, or not being able to obtain what we want. When we get what we want, we worry about losing what we want. Worry becomes a self-feeding monster that gobbles at our souls and our minds until we are totally consumed, wanting everything and simultaneously afraid to reach for anything because, you know,  “What if …”

British philosopher Alan Watts sounded very Buddhist, though I’m sure unintentionally so,  when he wrote:

There is a contradiction in wanting to be perfectly secure in a universe whose very nature is momentariness and fluidity. But the contradiction lies a little deeper than the mere conflict between the desire for security and the fact of change. If I want to be secure, that is, protected from the flux of life, I am wanting to be separate from life. Yet it is this very sense of separateness which makes me feel insecure. To be secure means to isolate and fortify the “I,” but it is just the feeling of being an isolated “I” which makes me feel lonely and afraid. In other words, the more security I can get, the more I shall want.

To put it still more plainly: the desire for security and the feeling of insecurity are the same thing. To hold your breath is to lose your breath. A society based on the quest for security is nothing but a breath-retention contest in which everyone is as taut as a drum and as purple as a beet.

A few pages later, he adds:

The real reason why human life can be so utterly exasperating and frustrating is not because there are facts called death, pain, fear, or hunger. The madness of the thing is that when such facts are present, we circle, buzz, writhe, and whirl, trying to get the “I” out of the experience. We pretend that we are amoebas, and try to protect ourselves from life by splitting in two. Sanity, wholeness, and integration lie in the realization that we are not divided, that man and his present experience are one, and that no separate “I” or mind can be found.

To understand music, you must listen to it. But so long as you are thinking, “I am listening to this music,” you are not listening.

Our challenge, and dudes, this very much is a challenge unlike any other challenge, is how we turn all these admonitions and warnings into something constructive, something that allows us to be more Dude-like, enabling ourselves to abide? All the great advice in the world is meaningless if we are unable to turn it around and use it to our benefit. I think that one major reason all those religious admonitions have never worked over the thousands of years they’ve been taught is that all they ever tell us is, “Don’t.” That’s not really that much help. If we are going to make any progress, we have to have some sense of How.

Old Man Talking

photo credit: charles i. letbetter

Wander through the Internet, as we tend to do in these situations, and one can find some questionable advice for how to address all the worry in your life. Things like, “Just believe in yourself,” “Be more positive,” and “Try to not think about it,” not only don’t help but can actually make things worse. If you catch yourself saying those things, perhaps it would be better if you put duct tape over your lips for a while.

There are some methods, though, backed up by scientific studies, that might help. I want to be careful here in saying that there are no guarantees to the effectiveness of any one method, or any combination of methods. What works for you, or anyone else is going to largely depend upon one’s specific circumstances and state of mind at any given moment. This is also a good place to mention that if you have worry and anxiety to the point that it is debilitating in any way, and I know plenty of people who do, then please seek professional assistance. Counseling and even, in some cases, medication can help tremendously.

That being said, to the extent that we can reduce the worry load for ourselves we should at least try. We’re not likely to make the worrying any worse and any step forward is a good one. Write these down or print them out and consider what might work best for you.

1.Don’t stop the worry, accept it. This can be really important because there are some worries that are justified,  such as whether one can pay the rent. Not everyone has a landlord as understanding and talented as The Dude’s, you know. What’s important is that we not try to suppress or stop the worrying. The science: A 2005 study in the journal Behaviour Research and TherapyTrying to shove those unwanted thoughts into the closet can actually result in making the anxiety over the matter that much worse. Rather, we are more likely to be successful in limiting the worry if we accept that the thing we worry about is real. The rent is due by the 10th, man. Nothing we can do about it. Let’s call this the “It is what it is” approach.

2.Stay busy. Mother’s worrying became worse after she retired from teaching in part because she had more downtime during her day. The more idle time she had, the more she filled it with worry. Staying busy, especially doing things that keep our hands occupied, blocks our ability to worry as much because our minds are occupied with the thing that we’re doing. This may or may not include playing a game of football with neighborhood teenagers. One’s worries take a break when you’re trying to tackle the brat who keeps tossing his soda cans in your yard. Here’s the science: the American Association for the Advancement of Science studies show that keeping busy interferes with the mind’s ability to keep and store visual receptors, blocking our ability to visualize our worries. Let’s call this the “Something Better To Do” approach.

3.Exercise. Dammit dude, ya’ gotta get up off the rug every once in a while, man. Lying around all the time, sitting there staring out a window, not only doesn’t help alleviate your worries but may even be partly responsible for why you have them in the first place. Get up and go bowling, man. Research, a lot of it, shows that exercise not only increases the brain’s output of serotonin, which tells us that we feel good even if we don’t, it also reduces the amount of stress derived from a lack of oxidation. Having more oxygen in our blood is a good thing. The science: a study done at Southern Methodist University found that it only took two weeks of exercise to produce a significant reduction in “elevated anxiety levels” compared to those who did no exercise. We’ll call this the “Bowling is Good For You” approach.

4.Unplug from social media. Actually, depending on your browsing habits, you might want to drop kick technology completely every once in a while. Not that technology in of itself is bad, mind you. After all, you probably wouldn’t have found me without it. What’s hurting us is all the worry-inducing news we find in our newsfeeds on Facebook and Twitter and such. Good news rarely makes headlines and there has been a lot of worry-inducing news to report of late. We need to take a serious break. How long depends on how strongly it affects you. For some, an hour a day might be sufficient. For others, that hour is too long and you might be better off only plugging in every other day or so. The science on this one is bulky, but one of the easier reads comes from Anxiety UK, which finds that controlling one’s technology use reduces anxiety levels. We’ll refer to this one as the “Get the fuck off Facebook” approach.

5.Write down your worries. This approach is a bit old school, but for a lot of people, it works. Write down what’s bothering you and address each item directly. The emotional impact of getting the worries out, writing them down and seeing them in front of you, then being able to take that paper and burn it or throw it away tends to have a positive impact on certain kinds of stress. The science here was done primarily with students at the University of Chicago and found that women benefit from the exercise more than men. The method may not work across a broad range of worries, either. The studies done have been rather limited. Still, this might be worth a shot for those of us who are very visually oriented. Why don’t we call this the “Writing Your Novel” approach?

6.Zen out. For many dudes, this one is a given: meditate. Use whatever method works for you, whether it’s music, or chanting, or mindfulness, or yoga, they all have the same ability to help relieve anxiety and worry. The reasons are not necessarily spiritual, though they may feel that way for some. Studies, by real doctors and such, show that meditation affects the anterior cingulate cortex and ventromedial prefrontal cortex brain regions. In other words, that state of mental and emotional occupation alters what’s going on in the parts of our brain that involve emotions and worrying. Research published in the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience shows a reduction in measurable anxiety levels by as much as 39 percent. I think we should call this the “Tapping Your Inner Buddhist” approach.

7.Give yourself a fucking break, man. I need this one more than any of the others. We are too often our own worst enemies, expecting more from ourselves than is reasonable. There’s only so much you can do, dude. When you’ve done your best, you gave it your all, then ease up on yourself. We don’t have to follow all the rules. Being diabetic, this has been a rough lesson for me. I’m not going to die if I put strawberries on my morning cereal instead of blueberries. If we’re dining out and a dish ends up having more salt than I really need, I’m probably not going to slip into a coma on the way home. Just this past week a new study says that fat isn’t as bad for me as was originally thought. The science here is a little softer. I’m referencing the book Live A Little! Breaking The Rules Won’t Break Your Health by Drs. Susan Love and Alice Domar. They work off several studies showing that moderation, not strict rule following, is better for us. That doesn’t mean we toss out the rules completely, mind you. I still have to watch my diet rather severely. However, I don’t have to go into a panic if the barbecue sauce is a little too sweet, either. We’ll call this the “Everything In Moderation” approach.

As with other aspects of life, what we’re ultimately looking for is a balance between the yin and yang of probability and fear.  There are times we legitimately need to worry. Yet, we do not need to be consumed and disabled by our anxieties. For example, I used to worry about being homeless until I actually was and discovered that I could survive. While the experience is not one I care to repeat, I no longer fear that monster because I know I’ve faced it before and kicked that son-of-a-bitch in the balls. I have achieved a reasonable, workable balance on the issue.

19th-century philosopher René Descartes compared hope as the yin to worry’s yang in his treatise, The Passions of the Soul. Long before any of us worried about making a 7-10 split, he understood that we need a little bit of both in our lives, but that either can be equally debilitating.

When hope is so strong that it altogether drives out fear, its nature changes and it becomes complacency or confidence. And when we are certain that what we desire will come to pass, even though we go on wanting it to come to pass, we nonetheless cease to be agitated by the passion of desire which caused us to look forward to the outcome with anxiety. Likewise, when fear is so extreme that it leaves no room at all for hope, it is transformed into despair; and this despair, representing the thing as impossible, extinguishes desire altogether, for desire bears only on possible things.

Dudes, the worry is going to happen. There’s no escaping it. Consider The Dude’s concern for Bunny when Walter tossed the case full of underwear out the window. “They’re gonna kill that poor woman, man! What am I gonna tell Lebowski?” He hadn’t yet figured out the scam and his concern for Bunny’s safety at least seemed legitimate from his perspective. The danger, though, turned out to not be real, much like many of the things we worry about. What is important is that The Dude used his worry to solve the problem and then went on living his life. He left the worry and the Big Lebowski behind.

Here’s where you need to take another look at today’s playlist. Back in 1972, Queen guitarist Brian May wrote a song that ended up on the flip side of the band’s first single: Keep Yourself Alive. The song speaks to how we handle the ups and downs that life throws at us, the worries and the hopes. Ultimately, what matters is that you keep yourself alive, dudes. We cannot stop everything from coming at us. Some of us will lose pets that are dear to us. Some of us will lose parents or children. There’s a lot of bad things that could happen. At the same time, there is a lot of good things for which we hope. Some of them may happen. At the end of the day, though, what matters is that we keep ourselves alive. Here are the lyrics to the song. If you’re not to this point in the playlist just yet, jump ahead and listen along.

Take off
I was told a million times
Of all the troubles in my way
Mind you grow a little wiser
Little better every day
But if I crossed a million rivers
And I rode a million miles
Then I’d still be where I started
Bread and butter for a smile
Well I sold a million mirrors
In a shopping alley way
But I never saw my face
In any window any day
Now they say your folks are telling you
Be a super star
But I tell you just be satisfied
Stay right where you are

Keep yourself alive yeah
Keep yourself alive
Ooh, it’ll take you all your time and money
Honey, you’ll survive

Ow

Well I’ve loved a million women
In a belladonic haze
And I ate a million dinners
Brought to me on silver trays
Give me everything I need
To feed my body and my soul
And I’ll grow a little bigger
Maybe that can be my goal
I was told a million times
Of all the people in my way
How I had to keep on trying
And get better every day
But if I crossed a million rivers
And I rode a million miles
Then I’d still be where I started
Same as when I started

Keep yourself alive, come on
Keep yourself alive
Ooh, it’ll take you all your time and money honey
You’ll survive – shake

Ow
Keep yourself alive, wow
Keep yourself alive
Oh, it’ll take you all your time and money
To keep me satisfied

Do you think you’re better every day?
No, I just think I’m two steps nearer to my grave

Keep yourself alive, c’mon
Keep yourself alive
Mm, you take your time and take more money
Keep yourself alive
Keep yourself alive
C’mon keep yourself alive
All you people keep yourself alive
Keep yourself alive
C’mon c’mon keep yourself alive
It’ll take you all your time and a money
To keep me satisfied
Keep yourself alive
Keep yourself alive
All you people keep yourself alive
Take you all your time and money honey
You will survive

Keep you satisfied

Songwriters: BRIAN MAY
© Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC

Keep yourself alive, dudes, without all the worry and may you abide in peace.
The Old Man

Dudes, we’re passing hat again this morning. Those who are refugees of Harvey are excused. For everyone else, though, we could really use your help. We had a client cancel this morning (for a very good reason) and while we sympathize with their circumstances that doesn’t make our bills go away. We spend over 30 hours a week preparing and managing these pages. If you appreaciate what we do, please give.

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The Old Man Talking

Reading time: 25 min
Old Man Talking

Has the whole world gone crazy? Am I the only one around here who gives a shit about the rules? 

-Walter, arguing with Smokey

Rules. There are times when they are absolutely necessary, such as bowling, or football, or most any competitive event. They lay out the framework that allows everyone to participate in a fair and equitable manner. We benefit from having rules, most of the time.

Unfortunately, there are also times when rules are just stupid. They don’t make a damn lick of sense, they discriminate against people, and they’re only necessary because someone is wanting to exert power over someone else. Those rules are bullshit.

Now, Dudeist tradition is to take a “fuck it” attitude to just about everything, and that certainly includes stupid rules that don’t make a damn bit of sense. Walter may get bent out of shape and pull his gun over a foot fault, and in a competitive situation, I can see why he might not be pleased with Smokey thinking it’s not a big deal. Was it serious enough to warrant the gun, though? No. The Dude encouraged Walter to put the thing away, but Walter wasn’t in the mood to listen.

There is a dichotomy at work here, though, because while Walter is ranting and raving about Smokey following the rules, he is simultaneously breaking rules by pulling out his gun, firing it, and making threatening gestures toward Smokey. Walter, like many people, likes the rules when they benefit him, not so much when they get in his way. But then, if Walter had taken more of a “fuck it” attitude, it would have been a much less interesting movie and we might not be having this conversation.

Part of the problem here is that we want rules to be absolute when there are no absolutes. “Don’t kill” sounds pretty fucking absolute, doesn’t it? We have myriad laws that provide for rather severe punishment when we kill someone. But then, there’s war, in which case one may have no choice but to kill, even when one doesn’t believe in the reasons for the war in the first place. When one is in the military and given an order to kill, the severe consequences come if one disobeys the order rather than fulfilling it. That conflict messes with our heads and puts us in a position where we question whether there is any point to rules at all.

Like every other aspect of life, there is a yin and yang to rules. Where rules keep us safe and prevent people from doing stupid shit, we need and want those rules. Society would break down into anarchy without rules and few of us would survive absolute anarchy; it’s not at all how the Mad Max movies depict it. Anarchy makes it extremely difficult to abide peacefully.

The flip side is that sometimes it’s the rules keeping us from abiding. Where rules stand in the way of us being able to live our lives in a peaceful and meditative manner, there’s something wrong and we have to make a decision how we respond.

My significant other person, let’s call her the Young Woman (contrasting the Old Man), is a stylist. As she was leaving for the salon this morning, I asked if she was looking at a very busy day. Knowing what’s on her books helps me know whether it’s safe to bug her with stupid shit, as I tend to do. Her response caught me a bit off guard. One of her clients today is a young woman whose school has told her that her hair is “too blonde” and that she must remedy that condition today or face suspension from school.

Stop and think about that for a moment. What the fuck is TOO blonde? I mean, that’s just really rough for me to grasp. I let the Young Woman dye my own hair a few years ago and we went really blonde with that. Look at this picture and tell me: is this too blonde?

Old Man Talking

photo credit: charles i. letbetter

I mean, I can see where a school might consider a vivid purple or bright pink distracting. I don’t agree with that assessment, but I can give that more of a “fuck it” than I can too blonde. Blonde is a natural color for a lot of people. How the fuck can too blonde be against the rules? The rule just doesn’t make a lick of sense!

What really got my goat, though, was this thing called the Nashville Statement. This incredible piece of work comes from a religious organization who claims to have authority over pretty much everyone, even if we don’t agree with or follow their belief system. That factor in of itself is so very uncool as to make anything these people might say worthy of a giant “fuck it.”

The Nashville Statement is worth mentioning, though, because of the incredible amount of harm it can do to some really cool dudes (using the word, again, in the most nongender-specific way possible). In fairness, if you want to see the full statement, you can find it here. This statement is a direct and intentional affront to everyone is not straight, Christian and either married or celibate. That’s right, they’re insulting The Dude himself, not to mention most of the rest of us. Are we offended yet?

For example, Article 2 states: “We deny that any affections, desires, or commitments every justify sexual intercourse outside marriage ….”

To quote The Dude: “You mean coitus?”

Yeah, Dude. They have a rule against coitus with anyone to whom you’re not married. Please, tell me I’m not the only person who shudders at that thought.

Oh, but that’s still not the worst of their rules. Articles VII through X specifically and deliberately takes aim at gay, lesbian, and transgender dudes, calling their sexuality “unnatural” and a sin. Article XIII even goes so far as to infer that transgender dudes can be made “straight” because … Jesus.

A Facebook acquaintance who teaches at a fairly liberal theological seminary reminded me, “It’s the same mean people doing the same mean things – just better web design.” His response to the Nashville Statement is much like that of The Dudes: “Yeah, well, you know, that’s just, like, your opinion, man.” And that’s wonderful if you can get to that place of abiding.

What we must realize, however, is that for dudes who have to put up with such a constant stream of bullshit and people who don’t even know them and aren’t even playing the same game trying to push rules onto them, things like this Nashville Statement really hurt. Our LGBTQ dudes are not only being told that they’re sinners, which, whatever with that bullshit, they’re being told by this group that they’re not natural, as though being gay or transgendered makes them some kind of alien or mutant. That’s a transgression that goes beyond pissing on someone’s rug, man.

We, as Dudeists, teach being yourself. Lao Tzu wrote in Tao Te Ching:

“Knowing others is intelligence;
knowing yourself is true wisdom.
Mastering others is strength; 
mastering yourself is true power.”

As we strive to master ourselves, we struggle enough with who we think we are versus who we truly are. When someone else, especially someone taking a presumptive place of authority, tries to block us from achieving that goal the task becomes all the more challenging; so much so that many have died in trying. Can we know ourselves, acknowledge ourselves, accept ourselves when there is someone yelling “NO!” in your face, your ears, and in everything around you?

Here, Lao Tzu has some challenging words for us. First, he gives us these sage words:

“Because one believes in oneself, one doesn’t try to convince others. Because one is content with oneself, one doesn’t need others’ approval. Because one accepts oneself, the whole world accepts him or her.” 

Then, later, he follows with a rather serious warning:

“Care about what other people think and you will always be their prisoner.”

Old Man Talking

photo credit: charles i. letbetter

Wow, that’s kind of rough, man. In many ways, his words fly directly in the face of everything contemporary society tries to demand of us. Sure, we’re fine with the condensed soup version: Believe in yourself; Be content with yourself; Accept yourself. We’ve heard those words before and no one would argue with them. Look, however, at the follow up; that’s where the challenge lies. Don’t try to convince others of who you are. You don’t need other’s approval. While it may sound good, the reality is that following that advice is very difficult, especially when we are young and really wanting to fit in with the crowd.

I know many LGBTQ people would raise an eyebrow at the words, “Because one accepts oneself, the whole world accepts him or her.” The very fact that the Nashville Statement exists seems to defy Lao Tzu’s words. How many gay and trans people have been violently attacked because they chose to be their glorious selves in a public setting that refused to accept them?

Thus saith The Dude: “This aggression will not stand, man!”

Ancient Jewish literature instructs how to deal with such matters:

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy. 

Do LGBTQ people really fit under that instruction, though? We’ve seen the parades and the rallies, they seem to be reasonably adept at speaking up for themselves. Why do we need to get involved in defending them?

Because they do not have a strong voice in how laws and policy are made, and they especially don’t have a voice among religious tyrants, some of whom refuse to even recognize LGBTQ people as human. They are effectively silenced among people in power and their numbers are not yet sufficient to hold dramatic political sway without the intervention of allies.

When we stand against bad rules, even if we are not directly affected by the rules, we stand against injustice, we stand against those who would piss on someone else’s rug, we prevent them from becoming the prisoners of someone else’s opinion.

The relationship between The Dude and Walter is a good example here. Sure, The Dude was perfectly capable of standing up for himself. He went to visit the Big Lebowski on his own. Yet, not only did Dude’s visit not solve the problem, it actually ended up making things worse as the Big Lebowski tried taking advantage of The Dude.

Enter Walter. Did Walter need to insert himself into The Dude’s problem? Not really. Did Walter need to put his underwear at risk in exposing the scam? Absolutely not. The situation was such, though, that had Walter not intervened the story would have likely had a very different ending with The Dude being put in a very bad place. Only because Walter teamed with The Dude was there any level of justice served.

Sure, Walter’s methodology is very unDudelike and waving a loaded gun around, especially inside a bowling alley, is generally NOT the type of behavior one wants to emulate. Coming to the aid of a friend, however, is a trait all of us should have, no matter who we are. Remember, even Donny ran into the parking lot when shit hit the fan. That’s what friends do, even if it gets us cremated.

Tao Te Ching drops this wisdom on us:

“When people see some things as beautiful,
other things become ugly.
When people see some things as good,
other things become bad.” 

Here is the source of bad rules: the desire for all things to meet one’s definition of what is beautiful and good. Deity-based religions quite frequently make this mistake, declaring anything outside their definition of good to be a “sin.” Demanding that followers of a deity be without sin forces them to deny themselves, regardless of what form that might take. If a deity demands that people with red hair are bad, then, what hope do redheads have of pleasing the deity while also accepting who they are? If rules establish that only one lifestyle is acceptable, then how can those of alternative lifestyles abide by those rules?

Honestly, the whole situation is sometimes enough to make me think Walter was under-armed. Break out the F-15, man.

But again, Lao Tzu instructs us:

“Respond to anger with virtue. Deal with difficulties while they are still easy. Handle the great while it is still small.” 

A school’s over-restrictive dress code may lead us to anger. Going to the salon and getting one’s hair toned down in responding with virtue. An organization’s inflammatory rules create difficulty but those rules are not yet law and likely, hopefully, will never become so, making it easier for us to deal with them now before they become pervasive.  We are not powerless in standing against this aggression or others that deny anyone the ability to abide.

But first, my dear dudes, may we be sure to know ourselves. We cease to abide when we allow ourselves to leave that presence of knowing; when we try to be that which we are not. The Dude cannot become Walter and remain The Dude.

We may defend. We may defy. But first, we must abide.

Some rules are good and necessary. Some rules suck. Choose carefully the rules you break and how you break them, but do break them so that you and others can be free.

Abide in peace,
the Old Man

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The Old Man Talking

photo credit: charles i. letbetter

Reading time: 11 min
Old Man Talking's "Rethinking 'Merica"

Are we excited around here or what?

The Old Man has published a new book! Rethinking ‘Merica is an examination of the current state of the country with practical suggestions for what we can do to actually make it better.

This isn’t ear-tickling political garbage, mind you. If anything the Old Man runs counter to any political mainstream currently active in the U.S. He’s much more liberal than the average Democrat and doesn’t mind making suggestions that defy the status quo on every possible level.

Relying heavily on the wisdom of Plato and other philosophers, the Old Man uses the metaphor of mowing the lawn to make his argument for a complete overhaul of social, economic, and political systems. He’s thought this through with a goal of creating a world where everyone can be themselves, find their own Nirvana, without judgment or interference.

A little idealistic? Perhaps. Most books like this are—they have to be. Setting an ideal is necessary as a goal to be achieved. Compromise inevitably pulls away from that ideal, but ends closer to that goal than the current status.

Consider these words from charles i. letbetter’s forward:

Our founding fathers were extremely careful and wise in constructing the government on which this country was built, but there have been so very many inventions and changes to society along the way that many of their original concepts just don’t work anymore. When the Constitution was ratified, only land-owning white men could vote. We’ve obviously changed that rule more than once since then, but where we sit today, in 2017, is at a place where there are actually people, including the President, who want to see some of those laws rolled back to a place that benefits them politically. Racism and bigotry are more a part of the American reality than ever. The ranks of poverty are swelling to levels not seen since the Great Depression. The middle class is nothing more than a memory.

The United States in which I was born no longer exists, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing if we use the current situation as a foundation for creating something better. When it comes to better, there are a lot of good ideas out there that show a lot of promise. They’ve worked in smaller communities, which leads me to believe that there’s a chance they can work on a national basis. This is their moment. We need to try some alternatives.

We are VERY excited about this book and hope you’ll enjoy reading it as well. Don’t hesitate or delay. Click here to order your copy today!

Reading time: 2 min
Happiness

Good morning, dudes! If this were a traditional church, we would probably begin by singing some hymns or maybe having a live band guide us through some of our favorite songs. This is not a traditional church, though. I mean, you can hum something if you want, we won’t fault you for that. For those so not inclined, though, we’ve created a playlist specifically for this morning’s homily. We encourage you to listen to a few songs before beginning to read.

So much of our social philosophy is summed up in the songs we play the most. That’s not especially unusual, mind you. Popular music has always been reflective of society, whether intentional or not.

One such song comes from the 1996 movie Space Jam and was, at the time, a hit for the now-disgraced artist, R. Kelly. A couple of lines from that song particularly stand out:

If I can see it, then I can do it
If I just believe it, there’s nothing to it

The song is meant to be inspirational and encouraging, but anyone who follows that advice is almost certain to be disappointed. Just because one believes in something, even with all their heart, doesn’t mean it is going to happen. Having faith doesn’t actually move mountains.

Do you know what does move mountains? Dynamite and dump trucks, baby! Actions trump beliefs every time.

Unfortunately, since the early part of the 20th century, that’s not what we’ve been taught, and that’s holding us back. In 1936, Dale Carnegie wrote How To Win Friends And Influence People. The book became an instant bestseller and only the Bible has sold more copies. There are Dale Carnegie courses all over the world, teaching people to succeed by simply believing that they can succeed. Carnegie wrote:

If you believe in what you are doing, then let nothing hold you up in your work.

We hear that and we think, “Hey, that sounds pretty good.” So, we practice believing in what we are doing and we try as hard as we can, putting all our faith into our effort, and … we fail.

Downer, man.

Then, in 1952, a New York City pastor, Norman Vincent Peale, published the book The Power of Positive Thinking. Again, the book was an instant bestseller and has been touted by hundreds of business people. Our current president (#45) even attended Peale’s church when growing up. All these people were listening when Peale said:

Believe in yourself! Have faith in your abilities! Without a humble but reasonable confidence in your own powers, you cannot be successful or happy.

Once again, people all over the world latched onto these words of encouragement, making Peale and his church very, very rich in the process. The system worked … for Norman Vincent Peale. Others, though, had a little more difficulty.

Over and over throughout the twentieth century, this philosophy of believing things into reality has been preached by both business leaders and clergymen looking to make a quick buck. Within religious circles, the practice is known as “Prosperity Theology.” Some of its best-known proponents are the late Oral Roberts, Robert Tilton, Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, Kenneth Copeland, and Kenneth Hagin. They all preach that all one has to do is believe. Have a positive attitude (buy their books)! Live a healthy life (buy their supplements)! Give generously (to their ministry)! Do that, and you cannot help but succeed!

Their congregants number in the tens of millions, every last one of them thinking that the only reason they too aren’t on Forbes’ list of millionaires is just because they’re lacking faith, they don’t believe quite enough, they need to be a little more positive.

So, why aren’t those ministries millionaire factories?

One of the most well-known preachers of the 19th century saw this trouble coming and tried to head it off at the pass. Charles H. Spurgeon, a British preacher whose works continue to be studied in seminaries and was a particular favorite of my late father, put it this way:

“I believe that it is anti-Christian and unholy for any Christian to live with the object of accumulating wealth. You will say, ‘Are we not to strive all we can to get all the money we can?’ You may do so. I cannot doubt but what, in so doing, you may do service to the cause of God. But what I said was that to live with the object of accumulating wealth is anti-Christian.”

Now, let’s take his words out of the capsule of Christianity and apply it to just normal folks like you and me, and what he’s saying is that if money is your only goal, you’re just not chill, man.

Even more important, though, is that we realize we cannot simply “believe” ourselves into being happy. Happiness, that state some refer to as Nirvana, requires some actual effort that goes beyond positive thinking.

The number one issue with the whole positivity thinking philosophy is that it is severely flawed psychologically. To maintain a constant state of positivity, one must repress the negative emotions and feelings that naturally occur. Repressing emotions, positive or negative, is a very dangerous practice.

There are two ways to look at this problem. The first is through science, which should always be where we look first. Scientific research shows over and over again the unhealthy effects of repressed emotion. This gets serious, dudes. I mean, you could die from holding stuff in.

A study from the University of Rochester and Harvard School of Public Health shows that people who repress anger, specifically, have a 70 percent higher risk of dying from cancer. Ouch, dude. That right there seems to be a pretty good argument for not putting a cork in what we feel.

The  Journal of Psychosomatic Research published a study from Kings College that compared 69 patients with breast cancer to a control group of 91 patients with benign breast disease. What did they find?

“There was a significant association between the diagnosis of breast cancer and a behavior pattern, persisting throughout adult life, of an abnormal release of emotions. The abnormality was, in most cases, extreme suppression of anger and, in patients over 40, extreme suppression of other feelings.”

The level of scientific research on the topic is rather considerable and it all demonstrates that repressing emotion is bad for us.

Anecdotally, we have the bad example of the stoic fathers of previous generations who never showed any emotion. Their children grew up starved for love, attention, and any sense of affirmation. As they became more detached, their wives divorced them. They were misunderstood, accused of not caring, and died premature deaths from stress and heart disease. Theirs was not a pleasant existence and it is good that we have, for the most part, put those bad habits behind us.

We are also warned on a more spiritual level against repressing our emotions. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche, a Buddhist teacher well-known in some circles, wrote in his book, Penetrating Wisdom:

“When we recognize an emotion, such as strong passion accompanied by jealousy, we are actually breaking down the speed of that emotion. The total sense of recognition is important in both Sutra and Tantra. In Sutra, it is mindfulness. In Tantra, if we see that nature and look at it nakedly, we will see the nature of that wisdom. You don’t need to logically apply any reasoning. You don’t need to conceptually meditate on anything. Just simply recognize and observe it….We will have the experience of that wisdom by simply being with it without conception. Therefore, recognition is quite important.

“The first step is just simply to observe it. Simply recognize the emotion and then watch it as it grows or as it continues. Just simply watch it. In the beginning, just to have an idea that [the emotion] is coming is very important and effective. In the Vajrayana [Tantric] sense, the way to watch these emotions is without stopping them. If we recognize the emotion and say, “Yes, it is passion,” and then try to stop it, that’s a problem. Rejection our emotions is a problem in Vajrayana.

Happiness

photo credit: charles i. letbetter

The whole concept that we can just will ourselves into happiness, that we can shut everything negative out of our lives and be successful, is misguided at best. We are approaching the concept of happiness from the wrong direction, with a mindset that prevents us from being able to abide peacefully.

Happiness and contentment, that condition known within the Church of the Latter-Day Dude as being a dude, comes not from shutting out the negative and clinging desperately to the positive. Rather, it comes from finding the balance between the positive and negative in our lives.

Kahlil Gibran, a Lebanese-American philosopher dude, wrote of joy and sorrow and gets it right for dealing with all our emotions:

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.
And the selfsame well from which your laughter rises was oftentimes filled with your tears.
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.
Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?
And is not the lute that soothes your spirit, the very wood that was hollowed with knives?
When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Some of you say, “Joy is greater than sorrow,” and others say, “Nay, sorrow is the greater.”
But I say unto you, they are inseparable.
Together they come, and when one sits, alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.

Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.
Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced.
When the treasure-keeper lifts you to weigh his gold and his silver, needs must your joy or your sorrow rise or fall.

When we go hunting for happiness, we look for something that immediately becomes invisible to our eyes. Happiness is not something we can capture in a net, quantify with statistics, or place in a container and dole out as we desire. Rather, happiness is a state of balance between all aspects of our lives, not merely emotions, but the physical and spiritual as well.

A truth of our existence is that if we let any one aspect of our lives get out of balance, we feel troubled, out of sorts, and perhaps even disgruntled. The imbalance doesn’t have to be large or significant. Following Gibran’s metaphor, even the smallest sliver of weight tips the scale. Spilling a bit of coffee on a clean shirt. Missing the turn signal at an intersection. A child disrupting a moment of meditation. In the grander scheme of things, none of those events truly matter. Yet, each one has the ability to tip the scale, putting us out of balance, sometimes for an entire day.

We must realize that we can no more will ourselves into happiness than we can cause a flower to bloom on command. Happiness does not come and go at our beckoned call. Rather, happiness is a condition of our condition; a state of contentment that finds acceptance in whatever life chooses to throw at us.

I find it deeply disturbing that we expect someone to lay out a path to happiness for us when genuine happiness is a journey we must travel for ourselves. My experience cannot be duplicated even if you attempt to follow immediately in my footsteps for once I have stepped upon the sand, the sand has changed and responds differently to each step that comes afterward.

Lao Tzu said:

A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.

There is no 7, 10, or 12-step plan toward finding happiness. One cannot create a list and check off each element as it has been achieved. Sure, the Internet is full of so-and-so’s “steps to happiness” but what we must realize that we only find happiness when the steps are our own. We cannot find happiness at the end of someone else’s path.

Why do we search for that which is impossible to find? Google does not have the answer. Joel Osteen does not have the answer. All the books on all the shelves in all the libraries do not have the answer. We do not find nor control happiness. Happiness finds us and then lets us be.

How does happiness find us?

For happiness to find us, we must first be open to being found. We must know who we are and what we want. Lao Tzu wrote:

At the center of your being, you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want.

We put up roadblocks against happiness when we deny who and what we are. Start with the fact we are human–at least, most of us are. Work outward from there and meditate on what it is that defines you, your passions, your being. What controls your attitudes and your actions?

The answer is there at the core of your being. Accept it. Don’t mask it, excuse it, or blame your reality on anything or anyone else. Run with it. Embrace it. Only when we are first open and honest about who and what we are can we be open to happiness coming into our lives.

We must also make ourselves open to the influence of others in our lives. The Dude had Walter, Donny, Maude, and even the Stranger, all of whom influenced his state of being. When Donny died, The Dude felt sadness in part because he had lost one of the sources through which some portion of happiness and completeness funneled into his life.

Likewise, we need those friends, those relationships, who accompany us on our journey as they travel their own. Not that we need anyone else to make us happy, but that in the camaraderie of others we open wider the doors of our life so that happiness might find us. Through those shared pieces of life, the conversations, the experiences, the travels, the frames bowled, we dismantle some of the walls that keep us from achieving balance and allowing happiness into our lives.

Happiness finds us as we are doing the things that we love–the things we are good at doing. The character of Donny in The Big Lebowski is an apt metaphor for this truth. Happiness finds Donny when he’s bowling. While he has plenty of shortcomings in other areas, the one thing Donny does well is throwing one strike right after another. Putting that bowling ball onto the polished wood is Donny’s moment of zen.

Happiness

photo credit: charles i. letbetter

Each of us has something that is our thing, our particular ability, the one thing we do better than anything else we might be asked to do. Perhaps it’s a talent with which you were born, or a skill carefully honed through hours of learning and practice, but it’s there. Doing that thing at which we’re good opens the door to happiness, making it possible to be content with our work.

What saddens me is the frequency with which people are denied doing that thing they do best. They’re told, “you can’t make a living at that,” or “you’ll never get rich doing that thing.” Don’t let anyone push you away from what you do well. Embrace your abilities and happiness is more likely to embrace you.

We also make our lives more open to happiness when we reject the complexity and confusion that life tries to force upon us. Remember what Lao Tzu taught us:

Simplicity, patience, compassion. These three are your greatest treasures.

We know well the metaphor used in Tao te Ching about water being murky when it is stirred and clear when we are still. We are admonished to be patient and allow the water around us to be calm.

Being still when it seems like everything around us is going to shit is one of the most difficult things we might try to do. I am far from having this mastered. Mediation works for some. Yoga works for others. For me, it’s the peace and quiet contemplation that comes with being alone with a cup of coffee early in the morning. Finding that place of simplicity is important for each of us for many reasons, not just happiness.

Simplicity, though, sometimes takes some serious work on our part. Many of us grew up in a society that places undue value on materialism, the accumulation of things that we allow to surround us. Those possessions complicate our lives. We feel we have to protect them and that somehow our value as a person is lost if we don’t have them.

Happiness finds us most easily, however, when we have nothing. Consider the many peoples of third world countries who struggle even to find food to eat. Yet, they dance and sing and experience happiness at a much higher level than we do because there is nothing blocking happiness from reaching them.

Compassion opens yet another door to happiness and it is here that I fear we are mostly unfamiliar. Greed and selfishness drive so much of our society that fully embracing a life of compassion puts us at odds with much of what those around us consider normal. We shy away from being overly compassionate because we fear people might see us as weird and even question our motivation.

The Tao te Ching teaches us to act without expectation, however. This is a universal truth we find in all the world’s major religions, to demonstrate compassion and not expect rewarded just because we did something good.

Remember the Big Lebowski, how he had all the trappings of riches and even manipulated The Dude and stole from the foundation in an effort to make himself richer. Yet, in the end he’s left helpless on the floor, crying.

Compassion changes our course, away from complexity and down a path where we look to help those around us rather than trying to benefit from them. This does not mean that we shouldn’t be paid fair wages for legitimate work that we do, mind you. But neither should we expect or demand tips for doing the decent thing, such as helping change a flat tire or attending the landlord’s interpretive dance performance. Being compassionate removes significant barriers between us and happiness.

You know what else smooths the path to happiness? Music. There’s a reason that music is such an integral part of many religious rites and services. Music both calms our spirits and frees our minds from troubling thoughts, allowing us to focus on the things that truly matter, like not burning the nachos.

This is why I include a playlist with our Sunday postings. When you come here, burdened as you may be with whatever is going on in your life, I want to give you music that allows you to set those worries and concerns aside for a while. My hope is that in doing so you are better able to focus on the abiding truths we hope to present.

What music works in this regard? That, dear dudes, is totally up to you. Today’s playlist runs a wide gamut of old and new, instrumental and vocal, calm and excited. Not everything will speak to everyone, but chances are everyone finds something there that works for them.

If happiness rides a horse, then surely the name of that horse is music.

Finally, my dear dudes, I encourage you to lay aside the pursuit of happiness and strive to abide in the joy of the moment. Be present now and let the happiness of the moment wash over you. We can do nothing to alter the past and the future is best left to fend for itself. We gain nothing from guilt or worry. We gain everything from embracing the present.

The Buddha taught us:

The Secret of health for both mind and body is not to mourn for the past, worry about the future, or anticipate troubles, but to live in the present moment wisely and earnestly.

Here is where I feel some more “traditional” religions fail us. They would have us looking toward some future event of deific significance. As a result, their followers spend entire lives so consumed with worry and anxiety over being prepared for what they believe is coming that they are incapable of participating in the joys that are here for them now.

Happiness cannot be sitting out somewhere in some static place in the future waiting for us to arrive for our paths may never take us to where it is seated. Rather, we must give happiness the opportunity to embrace us now, where we are, doing what we do, being who we would be.

The final song in today’s playlist was chosen because I think it might embody the state of mind in which happiness is most likely to find us: Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay. We’ve traveled far. Trouble won’t leave us alone. Yet, there is a sense of peace, of being at home, just sitting there watching the tide.

Feel free to jump ahead in the playlist and listen along:

Sittin’ in the mornin’ sun
I’ll be sittin’ when the evenin’ comes
Watchin’ the ships roll in
Then I watch ’em roll away again, yeah

I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooo
I’m just sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time

I left my home in Georgia
Headed for the Frisco Bay
‘Cause I had nothin’ to live for
It look like nothin’s gonna come my way

So I’m just goin’ sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooo
I’m sittin’ on the dock of the bay, wastin’ time

Look like nothin’s gonna change
Everything, still remains the same
I can’t do what ten people tell me to do
So I guess I’ll remain the same, yes

Sittin’ here restin’ my bones
And this loneliness won’t leave me alone, yes
Two thousand miles, I roam
Just to make this dock my home

Now I’m just gonna sit, at the dock of the bay
Watchin’ the tide roll away, ooo yea
Sittin’ on the dock of the bay
Wastin’ time (whistle)

Songwriters: STEVE CROPPER, OTIS REDDING

© Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., Universal Music Publishing Group

My dear dudes, as we go about our lives this week, may we not pursue happiness, but rather open the many doors that allow happiness to come to us. May we not fall victim to those telling us we can find happiness in thinking positive and repressing other emotions. Instead, may we embrace the balance that our emotions bring to our lives, be still when the waters around us become agitated, and dance to the music of the air.

Abide in peace,

-the Old Man

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Happiness

photo credit: charles i. letbetter

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