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Genetic Revolution - Old Man Talking

Nobel prizes were awarded this past week. I didn’t win one. Again. I attribute that loss largely due to the fact I never got of my ass and decided to do anything that is significantly worthy of any kind of prize. I survived another year of being surrounded by idiots but so did several billion other people. There is no prize for surviving, merely the torment of knowing there is no end to that battle. One cannot take a vacation from surviving.

Do you know who did win a Nobel prize? Dr. Frances Arnold, a professor of Chemical Engineering,  Bioengineering, and Biochemistry at CalTech. She’s also one of the most amazing women in science currently living. She is the only woman and one of only eight living people to be elected to the US National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. She’s also a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, the American Society for the Advancement of Science, and the American Academy of Microbiology. Dr. Arnold is the type of role model we all want our daughters to admire and in whose footsteps we hope they follow.

Dr. Arnold shares the Chemistry prize with George Smith of the University of Missouri at Columbia and Gregory Winter at the Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge, U.K. Their work for which they won the award was not directly related with Dr. Arnold’s, as in there was no collaboration was involved, but there is a connection in that they both utilized Darwinian principles in creating new chemicals.

In announcing the prize,  Claes Gustafsson, chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry, said, “This year’s prize in chemistry rewards a revolution based on evolution.” That statement, Gustafsson’s choice of words, is significant because it states as accepted fact an area of science that a vast number of Americans still consider bogus. Then, it makes the principals of that theory fundamental to the development of these new chemicals. The chemicals are dependent upon Darwinian theory being true. The advances don’t happen if it’s not.

Now, this isn’t a science blog. I would only get a couple of sentences into explaining the research before I’d be in over my head. I recommend this article by Gretchen Vogel in Science. She explains the research in a way least likely to make one’s head hurt. Go. Read.

What this research, especially Dr. Arnold’s, sparks in my mind is the potential for broader levels of improvement. If the Darwinian theory can be applied to create chemicals that help eradicate disease (which is what the award-winning research by all three does) then perhaps those same concepts can be applied to improving other aspects of humanity. The potential is there to not only extend life but to improve how we live it.

FLAWED HUMANS, FLAWED HUMANITY

Human Revolution - Old Man Talking

I’ve been stepping out of my comfort zone in multiple ways the past few months. I’m getting my driver’s license back. I’m exploring new friendships and new activities. I’ve submitted work to more magazines and am planning for increased submissions to art shows next year. My theory is that by extending my range of involvement I increase the likelihood of finding something pleasurable and self-improving. However, by not applying any scientific principle to my method of selection, I’m randomizing the results in ways that may fail to produce the desired outcome.

For example, one of the things I did earlier this fall, something I’ve not done in over ten years, submitted artwork to a group show. I’m not especially a huge fan of group shows because what they inevitably end up doing, whether intentional or not, is making art competitive and prevent the observer from being able to understand the artist because of the limited exposure and distraction of different styles. Group shows are little more than resume fodder but I’ve not added any fodder to my resume in a while so I figured it was worth a go. If they turned me down, no big deal.

The call for art was vague: “Black and white.” No other reference. Anything black and white would fly. So, I submitted the maximum five images, choosing a range of topics in hopes that at least one might spark the interest of the curator. Interestingly enough, she chose the two that were closest in a topic, variations on the concept of the selfie.

When I dropped off the prints, I noticed that there were no other photographs sitting around at that point. Most were paintings, one was a 3D paper mache triptych of face masks, one was painted on a piece of corrugated tin. Another was on a canvas larger than the vehicle on which it was delivered. The curator had chosen a very diverse collection. That should be good, right?

Then, I sat there the next night, as the collection was opened to the public, and watched as people came, glanced at the very crowded walls, and kept walking. I can’t say they ignored the work on display. Most people at least glanced at it. Some actually stopped for a second or two. But then, they kept walking.

Okay, so the venue is a brewery that’s trying to draw a more art-friendly group of Millennials. This is what we wanted, right? Art everywhere. Art that is accessible to real people in real places. We’ve had art at coffee shops for a long time, and now we’re seeing art even more places, such as breweries and hair salons. Grants for public art puts murals on the side of buildings and the once-blighted underside of overpasses. Utility boxes on street corner are covered in local art. In Indianapolis, even manhole covers are covered in art. This is supposed to be wonderful!

But it’s not. As art becomes more prevalent in the ordinary places of our lives, the less we actually see. Our minds erase all those images on the walls so that we can focus on what we came to do, whether that is drink beer with friends, get our hair cut, drive down the street, or enjoy a cup of coffee. Turns out, our brains are wired to ignore distractions, even if those distractions are some of the most wonderful art on the planet (not saying it is, but it could be).

What we find is that our ability to appreciate art requires that we do more than just view it. We have to purposefully focus on the art, give it study space in our brains, temporarily shove aside that instinct that says, “Hey, there’s cold beer on tap and I’m really thirsty.” If we are unable to do that, the art becomes part of all the other background noise our brains filter out. 15 minutes later, those people who stopped and glanced for a couple of seconds can’t even remember that all the art was black and white, let alone any accurate details of the artwork.

One of the challenges to being human is that we’re encoded with the pretty much the same DNA that was present when our earliest ancestors first left Africa. That means we still carry a lot of the same instinctual characteristics that were necessary for early humans to survive. Our “fight or flight” instincts are a perfect example. When faced with a seemingly dangerous situation, our hypothalamus responds almost identically today as it would have when ancient ancestors were faced with stampeding mastodons. While that adrenaline rush was great back in the day, now it’s more likely to get us into trouble, such as gang wars and barroom brawls.

Similarly, our brains are hardwired to select a mate based upon their ability to provide a higher level of disease immunity to the resulting offspring. Our ancestors relied on how a person smelled when selecting a mate, something that was a result of one’s complex immune system. Today, though, we can manipulate how we smell. Our brains are still attracted to certain fragrances but those fragrances no longer mean one’s potential mate has a strong immune system.

All of these details embedded into our DNA, from a dislike of bitter foods to our ability to anticipate trouble before it happens, have been part of the human code from the very beginning. Unfortunately, not everything that once had a critical purpose still works in our lives the same way today. We have a greater need to control our emotions, focus on multiple things at once, and our very reason for selecting a mate no longer has as much to do with the survival of the species. In short, our DNA desperately needs an upgrade to help us move forward as a species. We need to not only see the art but appreciate it.

This begs the question, is it possible to use research such as Dr. Arnold’s and Dr. Winter’s to essentially hijack the normal, painfully slow process of evolution to create enzymes that counter some of those long-standing but no-longer-necessary instincts and replace them with something more humane and appropriate? I think it is not only possible but doing so would ignite a human revolution, one outside the boundaries of politics and nationalistic fervor so as to change the whole course of humanity going forward. The question is: do we dare?

SORTING THE ETHICS OF REVOLUTION

Human Revolution - Old Man Talking

I’m sitting in a bar one evening casually going through news updates on my phone while nursing an allegedly pumpkin-based beer that doesn’t remotely taste of pumpkin when I overhear another bar patron tell his accompanying partner that he finds it easier to retreat into a book rather than attempt a dialog with anyone regarding the current political situation. His experience is that no one really wants a conversation with any depth. Instead, they prefer to beat each other with their opinions, most of which are unsubstantiated.

I can appreciate his sentiment, but also note that his response is the intellectual’s equivalent of flight in the “fight or flight” response one has to in challenging situations. He’s intelligent enough to understand that his participation is not likely to affect anyone else’s opinion while his own brain is assaulted with less-than-intelligent attempts at backhanded reasoning. There is no “fight” that works in this scenario. Retreat into a book seems, at least on the surface, a more reasonable response.

There is little opportunity for positive change in any political situation, however, when intelligent people do not participate. Yes, staying sequestered safely between the pages of some philosophical tome might generate feelings of safety, but it leaves the world to be run by the ignorant horde whose decision-making abilities are horrifically dangerous. Civilization is furthered when those most intelligent among us do not back down in the face of overwhelming stupidity.

Medicine has long faced some of the same challenges. New diseases run rampant because, increasingly, they attack natural weaknesses in the immune system, hitting hard enough to prevent antibodies from developing on their own. They are, in effect, bullies.

Left to the course of natural evolution, it would take our bodies millennia to respond to these threats. What the Nobel-prize winning work does is demonstrate how to effectively speed up that process by introducing enzymes that push natural evolution forward at a significantly faster pace. In theory, as these modified, healthier enzymes are introduced and spread through the gene pool, the result is a healthier overall population.

If the enzymes of immune-related DNA can be altered to create a higher level of health, then it seems logical that other aspects of our DNA could be adjusted using similar methods. The difference is that with Drs. Arnold, Smith, and Winter’s research, the purpose is the elimination of destructive enzymes and bacteria in place of constructive pieces. Their target is easily identified because the negative impact is obvious and easily documented.

When we move out of the realm of eradicating disease, the DNA conversation becomes much more cloudy. Strictly relatively speaking, addressing disease is the easy part of bioengineering because the “bad guys” are easier to identify and eradicate. When we move into other areas of DNA research, though, the “targets” are not so easily or distinctly defined.

Studying genetics and behavior is controversial right out of the starting block because of some horrible experiments in the past, starting with a horrible thing called eugenics. Eugenics concerns itself, at large, with how selective breeding might bring about a stronger, better, healthier human. If that sounds unsettlingly familiar, it might be because eugenics was/is the concept behind the Nazi push for a “master race.” We know how that disaster ended.

When one purports to modify the genetic structure in a way to modify what has the appearance of “selective” behavior, or “free will” in the not-quite-accurate vernacular, or any genetic characteristic that might exist because of one’s racial or cultural background, then one is essentially claiming that choice or characteristic is wrong, undesirable, or possibly even criminal. Since genetics are not something one chooses (yet), to assign a morality to those things we do not control is ethically wrong.

Where the argument gets most sticky is in the extent to which hardcoded DNA influences choices we make. “Fight or flight,” is an easy example. When faced with what we perceive as a dangerous situation, it seems we have a choice to make: fight or leave. However, this is evidence to hint at the possibility that what we think is a choice is actually no choice at all. Benjamin Libet’s research in the 1980s showed that chemical changes in our brain make decisions for us before we are consciously aware that a decision needs to be made. What appears to be free will may actually be nothing more than following orders our brain gives us.

Since there is a tight link between one’s DNA structure and brain chemical structure, we already know that changes to one can influence changes to the other. Stress, for example, produces a protein that changes our DNA ever so slightly. That would appear to indicate that by utilizing Dr. Arnold’s work specifically one might be able to create a drug that would reject that protein and eliminate the negative effect of the stress (noting that it would not eliminate the cause of the stress).  We already adjust brain chemistry to address matters such as depression and anxiety. Would it be that much more difficult to also address character flaws such as misogyny, bigotry, jealousy, and hate?

As idyllic as it might sound to simply decode all the negative behaviors out of the human genome, humans are to complex to ever assume that z-y=x. When we change one aspect of the genome, we create a ripple effect through the entire structure, a ripple that can turn into a tsunami of negative response without any warning.

LIVING LIFE WITH WARNING LABELS

DNA Revolution - Old Man Talking

A question posted to Reddit some five years ago asked an interesting question: If we were all forced to wear a warning label, what would yours say? The answers have been both enlightening and humorous. Here are a few samples:

“Warning: Not for children 6 and under”

“Poor Impulse Control”

“Women exposed to this product for long periods of time may begin to be attracted to other women.”

“Contents under pressure. Do not shake.”

“Caution: Profusely sweats under most circumstances.”

“Not a dick, just awkward.”

“Caution: Dangerously Cheesy.”

“Warning: Severe allergies to peanuts, nuts, and shrimp. Epi-pen in backpack. Use when necessary (or for sadistic fun, your choice).”

“If malfunctioning, insert pizza into mouth.”

“May spontaneously get drunk and nude.”

As entertaining as those responses are, risk aversion is a serious matter for some. In fact, for that entire generation we refer to as Millennials, currently, ages 25-35, all those x-sport and adventure-filled vacations belie the fact that, financially, they are currently the most risk-averse generation since the Great Depression of the 1930s. An analysis shows that they are, as a group, cash hoarders reluctant to invest their savings, a matter that could seriously impact global economics down the road. They generally rely heavily on their parents, living at home longer than any previous generation of the modern age.  They put off getting married, starting families, buying homes and cars, and are more likely to still live in the same city ten years after graduating high school.

Why? Because life is scary. Stability is difficult to find and there are numerous reasons that situation persists, from global politics to global warming to the rapid pace of technological change. For those who try to pay attention to what’s going on around them, not only is there the matter of not knowing what we don’t know, we must also face the possibility that what we thought we knew is no longer valid. The rate of new research turning conventional wisdom on its head is astounding and while we can sometimes find those new discoveries exciting, at the same time they erode our sense of certainty in what is real.

French fashion house Courregés is using the phrase, “The Future Is Behind You” in touting its new spring/summer collection for 2019. The concept of going forward by looking back is not a new one, but we’re seeing a stronger glance to our history as we search for that stability not found in the present.

One way that search is evident is in the rise of personal DNA mapping. Websites such as ancestrydna.com offer to help one “find your origins” as we search for more than what our parents and grandparents have taught us. We have a desire to know why we have freckles, or how we got the only red hair in the family, or what strength enabled our ancestors to survive. For only $99, Ancestry DNA compares your DNA with a global database covering some 350 regions of the world, determines what influences are present, and in some cases, even offers one the opportunity to connect with people who are likely long-lost relatives. The possibilities have been intriguing enough for some 10 million people to give it a try.

The problem is that such online tests are not exactly accurate. How does one know?  Easy: test siblings. As long as everyone has the same two parents, the ancestral aspects of their DNA should be identical, correct? Not hardly.

While there have been scientific studies showing the online tests are inaccurate, perhaps the point is driven home a bit more severely with an investigative piece by the television show, “Inside Edition.” I know, that’s not exactly where one goes for accurate reporting of details. In this case, though, their work puts a vernacular face on scientific findings. They took three sets of identical triplets, whose DNA should be a near-exact match, and had them try popular online DNA tests. This should be a no-brainer. Each person should get back exactly the same results. They didn’t. For two sets of triplets, the results were confusing as they showed differing percentages of heritage from various European countries. Only one set of triplets, the ones using the Ancestry DNA kit, had their results come back matching. DNA studies of any kind are challenging.

While the technology has come a long way in a relatively short period of time, there are still numerous factors that can change test results and even more factors that can change how DNA responds to various factors such as the addition or subtraction of enzymes and proteins. Some of the most recent studies show that moving DNA to a different part of the nucleus changes how it reacts. There are myriad options, considerations, and variations in DNA that have the ability to dramatically alter the results of any research. This is why any work at the genetic level has to come with caveats as to the conditions in which a study was performed. When researchers are able to achieve certain advances within the confines of a lab, they are able to limit anomalies that might distort the results.

When one begins looking for ways to apply that research to real-world scenarios, however, one has to be aware that results differ to varying degrees with every individual treated. Hence, all the warning labels. For all the promise of Nobel-prize-winning research, there’s no likelihood of it helping more than a fraction of the population. Yes, it holds the ability to address how doctors treat cancer and heart disease, but neither this research nor any other holds a magic “silver bullet” that is going to completely eradicate either problem from the face of the earth. At least, probably not within my lifetime.

When we take a look at the warning labels on drugs, we get a glimpse at just some of the side effects that were encountered during testing. The number of potential side effects reflects the severity of the challenges scientists faced in bringing a drug to market. Scientists also have to look for possible contradictions with other medicines a patient is likely to be taking. For example, anyone who is Type II diabetic, like me, is almost certainly taking Metformin. Therefore, if one wants to create a new drug that can more effectively address the disease, it needs to not conflict with Metformin. In order to be approved for public use, drug makers have to demonstrate that the benefits of the drug outweigh the side effects, but in many cases, one has to wonder exactly which is worse.

For example, Lexapro, which is commonly prescribed for depression, often causes hallucinations. Some of those hallucinations are severe, completely altering one’s sense of reality. Which is worse, the disease or the side effect? The antidepressant Elavil? Turns urine blue. Okay, that’s not a life altering consequence but it is a bit weird. Paxil, another antidepressant, causes patients to gain anywhere from 20-40 pounds of weight that never comes off even after one stops using the drug. The severe weight gain often contributes to greater depression.

These are all things encountered from simply playing with brain chemistry, however. When one starts actually modifying DNA, the opportunities for even more severe consequences are dramatic and, to some significant degree, unpredictable. The only way to be completely certain that a DNA-altering drug is going to be effective in the way one desires is to tailor it specifically for each individual, a concept immediately limited by both scope and cost. As promising as DNA research is, and as important as the Nobel-prize-winning discoveries are, we cannot expect these new concepts to dramatically change human evolution without some bumps and bruises along the way.

The Revolution Comes With Warning Labels

DNA Revolution

Eventually, someday in the future, we will almost certainly see DNA research develop to the point we can remove negative characteristics, such as anger issues, depression, anxiety, and propensity for murder. There is also the distinct possibility that the ability to add desired traits, such as art appreciation, tolerance, patience, and empathy could be encoded into the human norm.

What we have to anticipate, though, is that there are going to be consequences to any alteration we make. Yes, the results might bring about a revolution that completely reforms governments and justice systems, making them equitable for all. As we do so, however, we are likely to encounter side effects that we didn’t expect. In fact, for DNA modification to truly have a chance of changing the evolution of the human species, such a large percentage of the population is going to need gene-modifying medication that we may all have to start wearing badges that contain our personalized list of potential side effects. If there is ultimately a revolution, it may come from pairing up people with similar side effects, or complimenting side effects, so as to mitigate perceived weakness.

As I’m attending an event largely populated by people I don’t know who are also several years younger than me, I wonder how changes to our collective genetic codes might alter the way they respond to the art hanging around the room. This time, it’s an actual gallery, people are here, ostensibly, to appreciate the art. But as I look across the room, more people are staring at their phones than looking at the pieces on the walls or scattered around the room. More time is given to taking selfies, an act encouraged at this event as long as one tags the event.

A second glance around the room reveals people grouped largely according to race. This is a fairly liberal-leaning crowd so no one is objecting to anyone else’s presence, but that long-standing inclination to group ourselves by skin color is still present and I wonder if it is possible to just nudge our evolutionary tendencies a bit so that we don’t carry that trait forward another generation.

What might the tradeoffs be for that kind of genetic tampering, though? Might we have to exchange our tolerance for alcohol for the complete removal of bigotry from our genetic essence? Is it possible that in becoming more generous we also have to put up with more frequent and fragrant bowel movements? Could persistent oily skin, and the pimples that come with it, be an acceptable side effect for eliminating our tendency toward violence?

Those all seem like reasonable inconveniences that could be acceptable if we’re making significant improvements into the overall DNA pool. However, what if the side effects are more severe? Where do we draw that line that says, cross this and we’re not playing anymore? What if accelerating music ability significantly increased the likelihood of a child being born without a limb? Are we okay with that, even temporarily? Are we willing to exchange a loss of depression and/or anxiety for severely limited muscle movement or the loss of some motor skills? Could we tolerate persistent asthma if it meant eliminating hate?

I’m playing it easy on the side effects. We cannot know what level of horror might accidentally be unleashed when we start trying to change some of the fundamental characteristics of being human. While we would like to think that we could keep everything manageable, anything is possible until we prove that it’s not. We do have a general safety valve in the fact that DNA modification is tightly controlled enough that it’s not likely for some “mutant” gene to be released on an unsuspecting public. It’s also extremely unlikely that any of this research results in us all being turned into Marvel comic book characters. Sorry, I know that crushes dreams for some.

Public access to any drug or treatment that fundamentally changes DNA is going to remain under severe scrutiny. One also has to consider that no matter how helpful genetic research is and how dramatically it might improve our existence, there are always those who will not participate. This raises the possibility that there could become two different species of humanoids. We’ve seen something similar to this in the development of Neanderthals and early humans. Where the humans continued to adapt and evolve, the Neanderthals didn’t and eventually died out, despite the cross-breeding with humans. Dramatically altering human DNA on a selective or elective basis could have similar results.

There are philosophical and medical and mental minefields scattered all over this topic and once one breaches the playing field all the hazards are in play. At the moment, I’m not aware of any active DNA research that goes beyond eliminating disease. Researchers are well aware of all the ethical issues we’ve raised as well as the potential for negative consequences. I’m not taking the conversation into territory that hasn’t already been trodden by more educated people than I.

Still, the fact that we are at a point in bioengineering where such a dream is possible, no matter how remote or currently impractical that possibility might be, is, for me, a reason for hope. None of the negative characteristics common to the human condition are new. Philosophers and religious zealots alike have all warned of their dangers as long as we’ve been able to communicate and we’re still here arguing over who has a right to live where, or has a right to live at all. Appealing to one’s conscience isn’t working. We’re not progressing sufficiently on our own at a rate that holds any hope of avoiding our ultimate self-destruction. If we are to survive ourselves we must find a way to fix ourselves and that means taking on some considerable risks.

I like the concept of a genetic revolution, of a giant leap in humanity that sees a destruction of diseases so that our grandchildren and great-grandchildren can live better lives. No, I don’t envision a sort of X-Men versus humans scenario, but there are risks to any revolution and many of those can’t be known until we’re waist-deep into the effort. We’ve not even touched on the mortality issue and how that lowering the death rate could make the planet uninhabitable. The number of variables is so large as to make my brain hurt.

Throughout this article, I’ve used imagery that might serve as a metaphor for genetic modification. Every little change made is an extra crumb, a tiny, perhaps splintered portion of the whole, replacing one element with another, altering the whole genetic terrain. While we can try to wash away the challenges to humanity, such as disease and negative character traits, underneath we still evolve as humans.

We have to support the move forward, though. First, we conquer cancer, heart disease, and immunity issues. Then, there are birth defects and diseases that appear to be related to lifestyle choices but may have a deeper genetic base. We crawl, then walk, and somewhere down the line perhaps we’ll fly. The ability to improve upon the human condition is tremendous. And each major step we take is its own revolution. 

Reading time: 24 min
Life Is Volatile - old man talking

If you try to hold on to some stable identity, job or world view, you risk being left behind as the world flies by you with a whooooosh.


YUVAL NOAH HARARI, On What The Year 2050 Has In Store For HumankindWIRED Magazine September/October 2018

Sitting in the coffee shop physically closest to where I live, I was leaning back in a soft chair, attempting to catch up on some of the reading that had alluded me for the past month or so when something happened that drove home the reality of what I was reading in an almost surreal way. Understand, the reason I’m sitting at the coffee shop in the first place and not on the couch at home is that the interruptions of people for whom I care are more intrusive than the less direct noise of someplace like the coffee shop, where conversations fade into the background as white noise. I want to read where I can concentrate on what I’m reading.

At this one particular moment, though, the words I was reading became alarmingly illustrative of what was happening with my brain in real life. What’s more, while I was acutely aware of what was happening, I felt powerless to stop it.

What I was reading came from an article in Inverse, by Emma Betuel“Scientists Reveal the Number of Times You’re Actually Conscious Each Minute.” This is the kind of article that highlights a biological issue and then tries to make everyone feel good about the fact we’re all essentially flawed. At the moment in question, Ms. Betuel quotes
Ian Fiebelkorn, Ph.D.:

“The brain is wired to be somewhat distractible,” he says. “We focus in bursts, and between those bursts we have these periods of distractibility, that’s when the brain seems to check in on the rest of the environment outside to see if there’s something important going on elsewhere. These rhythms are affecting our behavior all the time.”

Just at that moment, three people caught my attention. One was an attractive, model-worthy young woman picking up her drink. Another was a Democratic poll manager setting up shop for the afternoon. The third was an older gentleman wear a fairly odd hat. In that instant, my eyes left what I was reading and spent the next several seconds flitting back and forth between the three.

Now, the type of distraction I experienced isn’t necessarily what Dr. Fiebelkorn’s research was discussing. He’s looking at micro seconds of attention, coming to the conclusion that our brains essentially “check out” approximately four times a second. While many people are distracted easily, 240 times a minute is faster than our mind has the ability to comprehend on its own. We’re only aware of distractions that take place at a significantly slower rate, such as the length of time it takes an attractive woman to walk across the room and pick up her Frappucino.

Life Delights In Awkward Moments

Life Is Volatile - old man talking
Funny, she didn’t look like that when I took the picture

Fifteen, maybe even ten years ago, I would have acted on my distraction, gone across the room and inquired of the young woman as to whether she might consider modeling for me. Now, though, I’m too old to approach anyone without an obviously appropriate reason. Old men one doesn’t know are friendly enough sitting across the room, but creepy when they walk up to someone uninvited or without an obvious reason such as one’s hair being on fire. I won’t do it.

As a result, I sat there continuing to be distracted. While my eyes are reading  Randolph Helfrich, Ph.D. explain the multi-tasking benefits of brains that can switch rapidly between different items of focus, I can’t help thinking that what I need is a wing person. I need someone who understands what I look for in a model, or a friend, or a glass of scotch, and can approach someone without generating the instant feeling of threat inherent to old men. I need someone who can move from small talk to making an invitation without creating an awkward moment.

Unfortunately, life really seems to enjoy its awkward moments. Few of us are all that good at just walking up to someone and starting a conversation. Instead, we stumble over our own names, turn words and phrases inside out, or find our tongues hopelessly glued to the top of our mouths.

In an article on the website lifehacker.com, writer Aimee Lutkin suggests the following reasons for why we should work on doing better at small talk:

  • It Calms You
  • It Connects You
  • It’s How You Learn to be Brave

Wait a minute, who said anything about being brave? I don’t want to be brave! Brave people end up getting shot — or shot down. I don’t want my wing person getting shot, I want them to convince this young woman it’s safe to pose for my camera. Staring down a gun while sipping on a Frappucino would be incredibly awkward no matter how brave one is.

Be Careful What You Say

Life Is Volatile - old man talking
Her face had the perfect shape

One of the challenges to being the wing person for a photographer is that there is no easy way to ask someone if they want to be a model. The problem is that the way in which we frame words establishes these preconceived concepts and biases in our minds. We’ve already decided how to feel about a statement before the speaker gets to the end of the sentence.

What we’re up against is this thing called cognitive biases and whether we realize it or not our brain uses them all the time to shape what we feel and what we believe about the information we receive. Our experiences help shape those biases, along with the type of things we read, the movies we watch, and the music to which we listen. All of this works together to tell our brain how to respond to certain words.

There are at least 100 legitimate types of cognitive bias and reading through the list is enough to leave one with the opinion that life is just out to get us, derail us, and keep anyone from every succeeding. I’m betting you didn’t know a list could be so damn depressing. 

George Lakoff, a professor of cognitive science and linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley states in his book Don’t Think of an Elephant!

“The most common frames are learned as a toddler when you learn about the world and every time a neural circuit is used, it strengthens.”

Because of all the tales of young women being taken advantage, the word “model” frames a conversation in a negative manner right off the bat. Young women often assume that modeling too often requires nudity and up until the last few years that assumption is not necessarily incorrect. So, when one asks an attractive woman if they want to model, what the woman is essentially hearing is, “Will you get naked for me?” Unsurprisingly, not many women respond positively to that inquiry. When they do, it’s likely because that word carries a more positive frame for them, such as the glamour and fame associated with models like Kate Moss or Karlie Kloss, both of whom, it should be mentioned, have spent a fair amount of time naked in front of a camera.

We’re all victims of having cognitive bias used against us, though, and no example is more clear than observing how political operatives spin conversations to appeal to their base audience. Further more, overcoming those biases, teaching our brains to not give into them, may be impossible no matter how hard we try.

Ben Yagoda has this article in The Atlantic that takes a deep dive on the topic of cognitive biases and how they trick our brain. He goes looking for ways to get around all the framing our minds create as we’re growing up and experiencing things. If we can find ways around the traps our brains set for us, then we might actually lead happier lives, one’s life might not have all the predictable downfalls such as failing to save for retirement or relying too heavily upon the first piece of information we receive.

I’ve read and re-read that article at least a half-dozen times now and quite honestly it makes me scared. With each read I realize just how much of my own brain is locked into these cognitive biases. Toward the end of the article, Yagoda offers an example that is a bit painful.

“Let’s say there is an officeholder I despise for reasons of temperament, behavior, and ideology. And let’s further say that under this person’s administration, the national economy is performing well. Will I be able to dislodge my powerful confirmation bias and allow the possibility that the person deserves some credit?”

No. I don’t want to. That office holder is a sonofabitch if ever there was one and the sooner he leaves office the better.

But that’s the bias talking, isn’t it? The fact that we are, as a nation, so incredibly entrenched in our political views demonstrates just how challenging it is to overcome the biases our brains have constructed. 

That being said, the President would make a horrible wing person.

What You Don’t Know Can Hurt

Life Is Volatile - old man talking
Don’t worry, no one will ever know it’s you

Trying to correct my distraction, I return to my original article. I don’t get a great deal of “quiet” reading time so I feel some pressure to maximize this moment as much as possible. I go on reading:

“…  this research makes it clear that while humans spend so much time in search of hyper-focus, it’s likely an unachievable goal. Thousands of years of the struggle for survival have wired us to be distracted. Maybe it’s time to embrace it as a fundamental part of life. Helfrich certainly thinks it is: “It’s the core of what makes us human somehow.”

I can’t help wondering how this approach potentially affects how the psychiatric community might diagnose and treat Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD). If being distracted four times per second is hardwired into our brain function, are people with ADD experiencing an even higher level of distraction or are they merely responding to naturally the occurring distractions at a more frequent level?

The man in the odd hat removes it for a moment to scratch his balding head. I realize he’s probably not any older than I am, if as old. Genetics have just dealt him a bad hand in the hair department. No wonder he wears a hat, even if it is a bit odd looking. Summer temperatures were pretty warm that afternoon and no one wants a sunburned scalp.

The polling manager has had field agents coming and going, checking in and getting new territory assignments. I notice they’re all young, eager, and enthused about getting people their own age to actually turn out and vote this November. I also notice they’re all female while the manager is a tall, bearded, attractive male. My mind wanders into the territory of questioning whether the women doing the leg work are more enthused about which Midwestern white male gets elected to the US Senate or trying to impress the manager. After observing their body language and awkward speech patterns, I’m guessing the latter is their primary motivation.

Immediately, I catch my cognitive bias. I’ve opened myself to considerable error because I’ve made an assumption without sufficient evidence to support that reasoning. There is a lot about this situation that I don’t know, and I don’t even know the depth of what I don’t know.

This is called hypocognition. More than mere ignorance, hypocognition is the inability to communicate an idea or a concept or an emotion because we lack the linguistic vocabulary for adequately doing so. Hypocognition is about missing things in our observations because we don’t know to look for the flags and probably wouldn’t recognize the flags if we did. 

I need a better example. In an article for Scientific American, Kaidi Wu and David Dunning write:

Amid pitched political battles, partisans see only the concepts associated with their own side, hypocognitive of the principles that support the judgments of their ideological opponents. Liberals, for example, construct moral arguments primarily on two principles, harm/care and fairness/reciprocity, failing to recognize additional principles, such as in-group loyalty, respect for authority, and purity concerns that drive conservative opposition.

Recognizing hypocognition and taking steps to avoid it is an important attribute in a wing person. Actually, now that I think about it a little more, a good wing person avoids the hypocognition by being able to identify with the other person. There is a reason that a young woman being approached by a significantly older man comes off as creepy. The hypocognition between men and women is tremendous.

Journalist Caitlin Mora summed it up quite well:

 “Men’s tabula for women is completely rasa.… There are no templates for how to approach a woman in a jolly and uplifting manner, discover her sexual preferences, get feedback while you’re rolling around naked, and learn from her without feeling oddly, horribly emasculated.”

Okay, so maybe our goal isn’t always to get to the point of rolling around naked together. Sometimes we really just want a good, reliable, flexible, attractive model in front of the camera. That doesn’t seem like it’s too much to ask of a person.

When we approach someone who we know nothing about, a complete stranger, one starts making assumptions about their gender, their sexual preference, whether they’re single (check for that ring), their economic situation, their social standing, and their political opinions. We make all those judgments in a split second without even realizing the degree to which our cognitive biases have kicked in.

Then, one often blows the introduction because our hypocognition blocked us from considering the elements of the other person’s background that shape how they relate to people in public. However, one also has to be careful to not become hypercognitive, where we apply a concept or emotion to a situation where it doesn’t belong.

For example, we know that an alarming number of young women are sexually assaulted as teenagers. The Department of Justice states that women between the ages of 12-34 are at the highest risk for sexual assault. Knowing that information might lead us to be careful in our choice of vocabulary. However, since we don’t know when meeting someone for the first time what their background may be, the more careful vocabulary might be inappropriate as well.

Being a wing person is a tough job.

Life Gets Harder The Longer You Live

Life Is Volatile - old man talking
The crazy never really goes away

By the time one hits the age of 60, the average person has accumulated a cognitive vocabulary, the words we use and/or understand, of roughly 60,000 pieces. Before congratulating ourselves, however, one might consider the perspective that an unabridged English dictionary contains over 600,000 entries. Moreover, when we consider the depth of every other language in the world, English is one of the smaller vocabularies one might speak.

For example, did you know that English speakers have the fewest selections for describing shades of blue than any other major language in the world? We only have one, blue. Other languages have as many as eight! Consider how much more expressive one can be when one isn’t limited to a small selection of words.

Wasn’t life supposed to get easier as we got older? I’m pretty sure someone told me that life became easier to navigate as one “learns the ropes.” That’s complete and utter nonsense. Nothing in life today is easier and the bad news is that it’s only going to get more confusing.

Yuval Noah Harari, who I quoted at the beginning of this article, writes about what we could be looking at by the year 2050. I would turn 90 that year, which would mean that I’m probably not going to be at my absolute best. This is how Harari describes the future:

By the middle of the 21st century, accelerating change plus longer lifespans will make traditional models obsolete. Life will come apart at the seams, and there will be less and less continuity between different periods of life. “Who am I?” will be a more urgent and complicated question than ever before.

Life coming apart at the seams? Yeah, that sounds like a level of fun I’d just as soon avoid. The fact remains, though, that it’s not the change itself but rather the speed at which that change occurs that make it difficult to manage.

Consider that when I was growing up, which doesn’t feel as though it were that long ago, most of us only considered there to be two genders: male and female. What we understand now, however, is that gender and sexuality are fluid and where one identifies at one point in their life may not be where they identify later in their life. 

On one hand, it is wonderful that we’re recognizing that gender and sexuality are not so black and white. At the same time, though, these social changes happen so quickly that it cannot help but set up a certain amount of hypocognition. How can I begin to understand what a transitioning person experiences or feels when the very concept of transitioning is external to my personal reality? I want to be supportive but the opportunity for getting the vocabulary wrong and misspeaking is rather high.

We’re not aided by the fact that we’re not taking the time to actually study and learn in the same manner we once did. In fact, it seems questionable as to whether younger generations can slow their brains down long enough to comprehend deep levels of thought in what they read.

My reading list for the past year has been full of articles decrying the fact that we have become a society of people who skim rather than read. The research on the effect technology has on our brains and our reading patterns is growing rapidly and none of it is especially encouraging.

MaryAnne Wolfe, author of Proust and the Squid and more recently, Reader, Come Home, sums up the situation:

Skimming has led, I believe, to a tendency to go to the sources that seem the simplest, most reduced, most familiar, and least cognitively challenging. I think that leads people to accept truly false news without examining it, without being analytical. One of my major worries is that when you lose the novel, you lose the ability to go into another person’s perspective. My biggest worry now is that a lot of what we’re seeing in society today — this vulnerability to demagoguery in all its forms — of one unanticipated and never intended consequence of a mode of reading that doesn’t allow critical analysis and empathy.

As all of this is coming together in what’s left of my brain, which has become rather numb at times to the deluge of information, I cannot help but wonder if there is a link between our choice to skim and the rate at which our brains are distracted. If we cannot hyper-focus on something, or anything for that matter, doesn’t that make it more necessary to develop those skimming skills so that we’re taking as much information as possible from the different things that distract us?

Maybe, but at the same time, we are risking not actually knowing anything, including ourselves. Let that sink in for a second. How can we adequately relate to and have any kind of relationship with other people if we increasingly become unsure of who we our, ourselves?

Harari sees a danger point here as we may soon reach a situation where corporations, with their collections of big data, know us better, can predict our actions, better than we can.

To succeed in such a daunting task, you will need to work very hard on getting to know your operating system better. To know what you are, and what you want from life. This is, of course, the oldest advice in the book: know thyself. For thousands of years, philosophers and prophets have urged people to know themselves. But this advice was never more urgent than in the 21st century, because unlike in the days of Laozi or Socrates, now you have serious competition. Coca-Cola, Amazon, Baidu and the government are all racing to hack you. Not your smartphone, not your computer, and not your bank account – they are in a race to hack you, and your organic operating system. You might have heard that we are living in the era of hacking computers, but that’s hardly half the truth. In fact, we are living in the era of hacking humans.

Feeling scared, yet? I’m not sure “scared” is necessarily the best word. The framing makes life sound a little too much like a trip to a haunted house when what we are facing is, in fact, much more serious.

Fortunately, Harari has some thoughts on how we might combat this lack of cognitive connection.

Many pedagogical experts argue that schools should switch to teaching “the four Cs” – critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity. More broadly, schools should downplay technical skills and emphasise general-purpose life skills. Most important of all will be the ability to deal with change, to learn new things and to preserve your mental balance in unfamiliar situations. In order to keep up with the world of 2050, you will need not merely to invent new ideas and products – you will above all need to reinvent yourself again and again.

While that sounds good and makes perfect sense, Harari also understands that our brains aren’t quite as flexible and plastic at 60 as they are at 16. Someone significantly younger than me is going to process these rapid changes much more efficiently than I am. 

Hence, I really need a wing person. I need someone who is a lot younger than me, someone who is more in touch and who has a better grasp of contemporary society and its complexities. I need someone who can be gender flexible and talk with people anywhere on the spectrum without coming across creepy or aggressive. I need someone who offsets my own cognitive biases and balances out the inherent hypocognition that comes from having grown up in rural America in the 1960s and 70s. 

Fortunately, I have that. Kat is a fantastic wing person. The biggest challenge we face there, though, is other people’s cognitive bias that leads them to think that she must be my daughter or that our relationship must be monogamously restrictive. Some people block her ability to communicate before she ever gets close enough to speak. I’ve written about those challenges before.

Life is volatile and weird and strange and, in no small amount, kinky. We get so distracted by things external to what we are doing that we don’t notice what’s right in front of us. For example, did you catch that there is a naked person in all of the pictures in this article? There’s even a couple having sex in one of them. If you’re skimming through this article, that little detail likely escaped your attention entirely.

We are not the same people, the same society, that our parents or grandparents were. Old paradigms no longer work. Lessons once taught religiously don’t necessarily hold any validity for us.  Perhaps the key to survival is that we need to become wing persons for each other. Together, we can survive.

Reading time: 19 min
Fatth & The Superhero

Across history, humans have always looked to an external source, someone stronger, wiser, and infinitely more powerful who could not only address their sorrowful lot in life but give them hope for something better. Scholars debate endlessly as to which deity came first, with contemporary people of faith each claiming their own deity to be the original. Superheros, however, are a little more easy for us to track. Detective Comics (DC) introduced us to Superman in 1939 and that same year Marvel gave us Namor the Sub-mariner. Both deity and superheros have filled contemporary literature and influenced lifestyles from the moment we first learned of them.

At first glance, it may not seem as though there’s a lot of comparison between the deities of faith and the superheros of comic books. When we consider the current popularity of the two, however, perhaps we do well to give the matter more consideration. Marvel Studios has a list of superhero films mapped out more than 25 years into the future. At the same time, more young people are questioning the deities of faith their parents worshiped. While no one is claiming one is a causation for the other, the parallels point to ways in which one might easily replace the other.

What We Expect From Immortals

Faith and the Superhero - Old Man Talking
image by charles i. letbetter

There have been thousands of deities across the history of humanity and almost as many superheroes if one chooses to look at ancient literature in that way. Granted, Herakles had to rely on Apollodorus and others to tell his story rather than a comic book series but to contemporary Greeks (and later, Romans who knew him as Hercules), the demigod was a real superhero. One might claim that the biblical Moses was a form of superhero, or possibly King David (that whole slaying the giant thing), but their ultimate mortality makes them outliers.

Some have claimed that superheroes are the great American mythology, that even should the United States eventually fall into the ash heap of history, as all empires eventually do, these stories will live on. While some of the ancient beliefs still persist as what we call religions, what we expect from both superhero and deity are strikingly similar. Consider the following qualifications:

  • The most powerful immortals originate somewhere other than earth. The deity of the Abrahamic religions claims to have always been, which is an interesting twist, but Superman was born on the now-extinct planet of Krypton and the many incarnations of Green Lantern have come from all over the comic universe. Our assumption is that, since they’re not of this earth, both the deities and the superheroes can be more objective.
  • Superheroes and deities provide us with morality lessons. Not that we don’t know how to behave on our own, but we seem to need constant reminders to not steal or kill people or lay waste to entire planets. One can debate whether the tales are metaphors or reality but they all serve the same purposes in reminding us that behaving inappropriately is a bad thing and negative consequences are sure to follow.
  • Deities and superheroes protect our freedoms. Okay, so superheroes may have an edge here because deities sometimes get a little fussy when it comes to the whole freedom-to-believe-whatever-you-want thing. Certain deities don’t exactly have the best record on slavery and international relations, either. Superheroes have us well covered, though, and will fight raging robots from another solar system and/or the entire Nazi army single-handedly if necessary to make sure we are all free to pursue our own happiness.
  • Both superheroes and deities support friendships and family. Deities are a little closed minded as to exactly what constitutes a family, it turns out, but they’re very serious about keeping them strong and making sure they stay together. Superheroes are a bit more openminded on the subject and know that sometimes the best families are those not created by blood ties. Superheroes also tend to be more accepting of non-traditional lifestyles. Deities can be a bit slow about modernizing.
  • Civic participation is strongly encouraged by both groups. Deities tell their followers to do things like feed the poor, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, and we frequently see superheroes setting a good example by doing those very same things. Superheroes also encourage participation in democratic governments, but deities tend to shy away from that since it creates a conflict of interests.

Story lines that help us relate

Faith and the Superhero - Old Man Talking
Image by charles i. letbetter

Matters of Faith and the mythologies of superheroes are both inherently dependent on their story lines. Without a good story, we would neither believe in deities nor find comfort in the messages of superheroes. Sure, we treat holy books with infinite respect, but then,  many people feel the same way about a superhero’s original canon. Both Marvel and DC have received no small amount of backlash for daring to re-write origin stories and suggesting alternative canons for well-loved superheroes. Just ask Marvel about a female Captain Marvel, or Captain America being black. There were plenty of bigots who were just as offended by those changes as Christians are when someone suggests that Jesus might have been gay. People get attached to those stories.

The late Joseph Campbell wrote a book, Hero With A Thousand Faces, in which he finds the best superheroes have a similar and somewhat specific story arch. Interestingly enough, it doesn’t take a lot of faith to adopt that storyline to major religions, either. Here’s a very brief outline based on Campbell’s writings.

Ordinary World

In Campbell’s terms, this is wherever a hero exists before they become a hero. Maybe it’s Krypton. Maybe they’re on Mars. Maybe it’s Egypt. Everyone has a starting point and that starting point ultimately plays a critical role in the story.

Imagine what it would be like if, for example, Superman was from New Jersey. That would totally change how he responds to the challenges he faces. He could still be strong and rescue people, but he might need a super suit made of kevlar to pull off the bullet-proof thing.

Now, imagine if the prophet Muhammea had been born in Beijing rather than Mecca. Talk about a serious change to the story! Good luck tying that one back into the lineage of Abraham. Where gods and heroes start is a rather important piece of information.

Call To Adventure

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Image by charles i. letbetter

Just because a superhero has powers doesn’t mean they instantly start fighting off evil wherever it may be found. There’s always a pivotal moment early in the story where the hero has to decide to use their powers for good. Otherwise, Clark Kent might have stayed on the farm and done all the plowing in record time. He could have made his adopted parents rich with the advantages his presence would have given them. But no, Clark had a greater sense of duty. The country was at war. There were bad people everywhere. The world needed Superman.

Faith has its similar moments. Moses and the burning bush that talked comes to mind. Had it not been for that moment, an entire race of people might have been lost forever. For that matter, what if Abraham had not responded to the command to sacrifice his son, Issac? That was the old man’s Call to Adventure. Three of the world’s largest religions are dependent on this critical point in their shared story.

Refusal of the Call

Just because someone is called doesn’t mean they feel all that confident responding. Peter Parker’s malaise following the death of his Uncle Ben threatened to end his story before it ever began. Teenaged angst and insecurity presents problems for others such as Aquaman. The Flash hides his persistent insecurity behind a litany of sarcasm and wise cracks.

Resistance is a necessary part of the story if we are to relate to our heroes and gods on any level. There’s something off-putting about those who are too eager to take on challenges. Those are the people who try taming a lion, forgetting both whip and chair. Reasonable people don’t rush into danger like that and we need both deities and heroes to be reasonable.

Moses, again, was reluctant, claiming that  he had a speech impediment. Jesus had his 40 days in the wilderness that presents itself as a crisis of resolve. The fact that neither deity nor hero takes their place without reservation lets us trust their other decisions more readily.

Meeting The Mentor

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image by charles i. letbetter

Superman has the messages from his parents available in his Fortress of Solitude. Batman has Alfred. The X-Men have Professor Xavier. Superheroes know, or quickly discover, that they are not infallible. They need someone from whom they can learn, someone they can trust. We find this portion of their stories very relatable and necessary because we experience the same thing. We have teachers and mentors who guide us along both formal and informal paths in life. We understand the value of having a strong mentor who helps us avoid making some of the more obvious mistakes on our path to success.

Deities get a little wishy-washing on the whole mentor thing. The gods of Olympus had Zeus, sort of, though he could be fussy about when and how he might offer advice. Greek gods had Apollo, who had some similar personality disorders. Other deities, though, often go it alone and when they do we find our faith tested a bit as their stories force us into a level of confidence that makes us uncomfortable.

Christianity gets around the whole mentor thing by giving its deity three personalities, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This allows Jesus the frequent opportunity to talk with his “father,” especially when looking at a certain and painful execution. While that’s not quite the same as Alfred carefully chiding a careless Bruce Wayne, it serves the purpose of enforcing the need for guidance.

Crossing The Threshold

This is where our deities and superheroes start getting down to business. Hercules slew the Nemean Lion then killed the Hydra before capturing the Golden Hind of Artemis, which isn’t nearly as kinky a story as it sounds. Those first feats of superpowers are exciting, thrilling, and help the hero make a name for themselves.

Of course, when talking in terms of faith, one generally refers to those feats as “miracles,” which in terms of the ancients that is easy to understand. Jesus turned water into wine. Muhammad split the moon. Lord Rama, the seventh avatar of Vishnu, dispensed with the multi-headed demon Ravana. Each act was, in its own way, a coming out party letting the world know they were open for business.

These starting points are where we tend to start paying attention to both superheroes and deities. Regardless of their origin stories or how they got here, it is their awesome powers on display that makes us anxious to follow and see what happens next.

Tests, Allies, and Enemies

If the stories of superheroes and deities were nothing more than a litany of fantastic feats and miracles, we likely would become bored rather quickly. After all, even awesomeness becomes ordinary when it isn’t challenged every once in a while. To flesh out the stories a bit, our heroes and deities have tests, establish allies, and inevitably create enemies.

While the tests are pretty obvious within the framework of each story, allies and enemies are not always as clear. Within the superhero universe, sidekicks are a common character, someone who can either be the reason the hero saves the world, or that extra bit of help in a time of need. People of faith tend to refer to the allies of their deity as disciples, with the concept being they are followers more than plot movers. Yet, even there, we frequently see those disciples yielding to temptation or creating difficult situations which the deity then addresses with a miracle.

No good deed goes unpunished, of course, and that maxim is especially true with superheroes and deities. Superheroes always have an arch villain whom they can never quite completely vanquish. Deities have it even more challenging, though, as they must deal with powers of supreme and pure evil. The powers of darkness loom large in stories so that the faithful are encouraged to not stray.

Approach to the Inmost Cave

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Campbell’s choice of verbiage here is a bit confusing. As we look at the complete arch of any story, this would be the part where matters start getting seriously tense. Bad actors have all been identified (for the most part) and their misdeeds are pointing toward one large, final misdeed with the hero/deity has to stop.  In the best stories, both religious and comic, this is where some setbacks are encountered, perhaps not everything goes quite as well as expected. 

This step is important because it not only begins setting the stage for the final showdown to come later, it also provides are hero/deity a chance to comment on the human condition. If there’s going to be an sub plot or morality tale, it likely occurs here. 

There are a number of plot mechanisms to be put into place here, but among the more common are a lengthy discourse to the sidekick/disciples, a prayer/monologue while alone, or a tense encounter with the enemy. Whatever plot tool is used, the end result is to assure the reader that, a: they are not alone in the challenges they face, and b: everything’s going to turn out okay. Our hero/deity exits this part of the story with confidence and determination.

Ordeal

The battle is on. Evil, in whatever incarnation it might appear, charges head-first at our hero/deity with the ultimate goal of unseating them and taking control of the world. Notice, it’s always taking control of the world. No one ever wants to just take control over Yonkers or a nunnery in the Alps. The stakes have to be as big as possible and while there’s always the universe at stake in some space stories, it is the fate of the world that concerns each of us more directly. We live on the earth. Few of us are anxious to be ruled by evil.

Expect a lot of buildings to fall during this battle, both in real terms and metaphorically. Stereotypes are shredded and traditional expectations are burned. At times, the two sides momentarily appear equal in power. The hero/deity thrusts, the enemy parries. While other challenges might have been met with relative ease, this one takes everything the hero/deity has.

This isn’t the final battle just yet, but it sets up the story for why the final battle is absolutely necessary. We see how dangerous the enemy is. The need for the superhero/deity to win becomes more apparent than ever.

Reward

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image by charles i. letbetter

Tada! The hero/deity wins in one fashion or another. Evil is put in its place, though one likely notices that it is never completely destroyed; it must continue to exist because we continue to encounter it in our own lives. Still, for now, the bad folks are out of the way and everyone can celebrate. Sort of. Over the centuries, “winning” has taken on different definitions to fit the morality of the society at the time. If the hero/deity becomes a martyr, that still counts as a win.

We also do well to note that saving humanity, either physically or spiritually, is always the reward. Heroes and deities are defined in large part by their willingness to sacrifice themselves so that everyone else may live.  Okay, so a few buildings get knocked down here and there and the end result of any Superman adventure is billions of dollars in infrastructure repairs. What’s a few dollars compared to the lives of the entire planet?

In fact, for both heroes and deities, financial gain is something they tend to avoid. Okay, so Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark are both insanely rich when they start. That part of their lives is largely separate from their superhero personas. Everyone else takes whatever is given and is thankful. Reward is succeeding in the quest, whatever that may be.

The Road Back

One might think that once the hero/deity has won the prize that the story would be over. Not hardly. There are still some loose ends to tie up, people to thank, repairs to be made. This is a mirror of real struggles, especially war. Wars are seldom won at home. When the peace treaties are signed, troops return to the place from which they came. Often, life is different than it was before they left.

Superman, for example, frequently returns back to the farm to check on his adopted parents after a particularly difficult battle. His return is grounding, reassuring, and confirms for him the reason he fights. Spiderman removes the costume so Peter Parker can return to Aunt May, his source of emotional support and teacher of morality. 

For stories of faith, this is often a final set of instructions and even saying some goodbyes. Where martyrdom is certain, there is a need to make sure the disciples know how to continue on in the deity’s physical absence. Jesus is even seen praying for an alternative ending, which doesn’t happen. This is the point where tears start to flow. We see what the hero/deity is giving up to save humanity.

Resurrection

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Critical at this point is that the hero/deity must face their greatest challenge of all, one that puts them face to face with death. Why? Because death is and always has been the biggest and most frightening challenge for all humans. Our faith requires that our deity and heroes have the power to overcome death, or at the very least, mitigate its finality. If our hero/deity can’t conquer death, what hope do the rest of us have?

The plot element here is on that has endured through even the earliest of ancient stories. The superhero/deity appears to die, in some legends does die, and then makes a triumphant return kicking evil and death to the curb in a final (for now) victory. Humanity is saved and hope is restored.

Holy books are pretty clear on this point and telegraph the ending long before it arrives. Only the other characters in the story are worried about the deity. Those reading the story today likely knew the ending before they ever picked up the book. Comics are a bit more troublesome, though. Superman has died more than once. Same for Batman and several others. The upside is, they keep coming back and winning.

Return With The Elixer

Campbell’s choice of terminology here refers to what was a common plot point in ancient stories where the superhero, often a wizard or wise medicine man, needed to secure a specific formula that would cure a disease plaguing the populace. These stories were born of real-world problems in an age where disease could easily wipe out entire tribes.

Contemporary superheroes/deities rarely return with a life-saving antidote any more as that particular plot mechanism has played itself out. Modern medicine takes care of most potential plagues so all it good on that front. Rather, our worshiped entities emerge from the final conflict having saved our souls and our very lives. They have secured our form of government, blessed our lifestyle choices, and left us waving giant flags of allegiance to whatever it was they were saving in the first place.

Here, the stories end, fade to black more or less, with the promise that both the deities and the superheroes are likely to return. When I was a kid, comic books managed to get through all 12 steps in roughly 30 or so pages. The formats have gotten longer over time as readers desired more detail. Religious stories tend to take longer, giving the deity plenty of room to speak at length because they are all so infinitely quotable. Still, the sun sets and there’s a feeling of happiness as one closes the book.

Where Two Paths Diverge

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The similarities and parallels between the hundreds of deities and thousands of superheroes are many. Whole, giant books have dissected many of those topics for the academic credit of having done so but the average person is likely content with even less than what I’ve already written on this page. Deities and superheroes are an awful lot alike. We get that. Most reasonable people don’t have a problem with it. Warner Brothers even provided pastors with sermon hints and outlines that compare Jesus to Superman. I wish I was kidding.

Not everything is quite the same, though. Without getting into the failings of any particular deity, the two groups diverge along some fairly important paths. Let’s consider some of those for just a moment.

  • Deities are out to save your soul while superheroes rush to save your life. There’s not really any crossover between the two regardless of what the faithful might claim. One never sees Odin or Allah sweeping down at the last moment to keep one from being hit by a speeding bus. Deities will let you die in this realm to welcome you to their version of paradise.
  • Deities tend to be jealous and rarely work together, even if they have identical backstories. Superheroes form alliances all the time in order to defeat a shared enemy, even if that enemy is other superheroes (see Marvel’s Civil War series). The lack of cooperation among deities results in some pretty brutal animosities between their followers. Remember the Crusades? Yeah, that whole nonsense could have been avoided had the deities played together a bit better.
  • Superheroes rarely shy away from the spotlight even when it might be to their advantage to do so, Iron Man. Deities tend to stay invisible, preferring to let oracles, preachers, imams, rabbis, and other “chosen” representatives deliver their message. This allows deities to perpetuate the concept of being everywhere all at once.
  • Deities take individual, personal requests for their services but don’t have the best track record for responding in a timely manner. Superheroes, on the other hand, don’t so much as list a Twitter handle but still manage to show up when danger comes a-knockin’. This discrepancy creates some trust issues among those who would be faithful.
  • Deities provide answers to critical questions such as, “Where did all this come from?” and “What happens when I die?” Those are extremely important questions that have plagued humanity from the moment we started using more than two percent of our brains. Superheroes, by contrast, don’t really care how you got here and are committed to not letting you die. From the superheroes perspective, if you die, they failed. That’s some serious performance motivation.

I could probably create a longer list but I think that’s enough to make the point. Superheroes and deities are not the same despite all the similarities in their stories. Each exists for a different purpose, which opens us to the possibility that perhaps we (as a society) need them both.

Do We Need All That Help?

Faith and the Superhero - Old Man Talking
Image by charles i. letbetter

The flip side to considering whether we need both deities and superheroes in our society is whether we need either of them at all. One can reasonably make the argument, and several people already have, that both deities and superheroes are emotional and intellectual crutches that keep us from accepting reality and looking for solutions ourselves. If a deity created the universe then do we still need to explore its depths? If we believe superheroes are going to save us, do we need to develop the ability to save ourselves? These are some pretty serious matters we need to consider before leaving the conversation. Let’s look at a handful of hot topics.

  • You can save yourself. Waiting for someone else, whether deity or superhero, to come along and scoop your ass up and deliver you to a better place is pretty much a guarantee you’re going to continue sitting right where you are now. Even faith requires some effort on your part. One has to be an active participant in their own life and living in a fantasy world of superheroes and opposing deities prevents one from doing that.
  • Good and evil are under your control. No one needs an external source to define good and evil for them. The seven “deadly sins” of lust, gluttony, greed, wrath, sloth, envy, and pride are largely universal and exist by various names in every society. How we respond to those, which ones we embrace and which we fight, is all a matter of personal choice, and one can always change their mind.
  • Strength is not always physical. I have always found it interesting the degree to which we form our images of deity to match our images of superheroes. Much more important than the ability to “leap tall buildings in a single bound” is the ability to determine the circumference of a circle, determine how much weight a bridge can hold, and how to successfully move your life forward. Best of all, there is no kryptonite to kill your brain unless you create it.
  • Being female is not a handicap. While there are exceptions among both, the list of deities and superheroes is largely dominated by patriarchal characters throwing their weight around. Women are too often relegated to support roles. Comics have done a better job of addressing this issue in recent years, and the latest incarnation of Wonder Woman is inspirational. Bottom line: women are every bit as powerful as men and only an evil character would get in their way.
  • One need not choose career over family. One just doesn’t find many moms within the deific or superhero realms.  Within the comic book realm, one is pretty much limited to Sue Storm (Fantastic Four) or Wonder Woman’s mom, Queen Hippolyta, who is pretty badass by her own right. Among the various religions, one pretty much has to go back into antiquity where the goddesses were respected and slept with both gods and demigods, which created no small amount of trouble. Both need to get with the plan and realize that anti-family attitudes are a detriment to society.

Again, the list could be a lot longer, but I think this is sufficient to make my point. We don’t need a caped crusader or a silent creator in order for our lives to be full and complete. Society fails when it cedes any level of control, spiritual, physical, or emotional, to a character whose only argument for existence lies in a story someone told a long time ago. 

Hence, faith and superheroes are two sides of a gilded coin; they can be manipulated to look good but at their core, they have no real value. Both make for good entertainment and perhaps even provide decent morality stories in some instances (though certainly not all). Building our lives around either, however, prevents us from realizing our own potential.

If the world ever needs saving it is up to us to save it. No one is going to come swooping down from the sky to rescue our pathetic asses. If we don’t do the saving, the saving won’t be done.

Faith and the Superheroe - Old Man Talking
Image by charles i. letbetter

Note #1:  This article was created using the new WordPress editor, Gutenberg. Hence, not everything laid out quite the way we wanted, especially with images. However, it is a lot easier to use than anyone around here anticipated and is likely to become more powerful as new options become available.

Note #2: The Old Man wishes to thank Rachel Notestine and Holly Hacker for playing the part of our superheroes in the images for this article. Both are parents with teenagers in their houses, making them real superheroes to their families.

Reading time: 23 min
Old Man Talking

Grammy® Award nominees represent the best of the previous year’s music but the Old Man found he recognized few of them. So, experts were called in to help.

January is here which means that awards season is upon us. 2017 saw a lot of artistic offerings across all the major forms of media, but when it comes to individually evaluating those choices only one area is really practical: music.

Sure, I would love to have the time to watch every movie or television program nominated for an award and heaven would be the ability to see every Broadway production so as to make intelligent Tony award predictions. No one is paying me for any of that, however, and the lights don’t stay on by themselves. Music is the only one where we can listen to the nominated songs and make reasonable predictions as to which might win, or which should win.

Pulling up the list of this year’s Grammy nominees, however, I discovered that I had a significant problem: I don’t know who any of these people are! What is a SZA? Why doesn’t Childish Gambino grow up? Why did someone write a song about a very specific time (4:44) and did we really need another song about a phone number (1-800-273-8255) when I still have 867-5349 stuck in my head from 30+ years ago?

That was when I realized that I have a fundamental flaw hampering my ability to judge the quality of music fairly: I’m old. My ears are no longer well-tuned to the sounds and nuances of contemporary music. I expect a discernible melody somewhere in the song. I expect a song to be about something, anything, even if it’s a duck. And, silly me, I really would like it if the people performing the music demonstrated some relationship to humanity.

Obviously, I need some help, an assistant who is younger, more in tune with today’s sounds. Someone who enjoys music and isn’t jaded by what seems to be a descent into a non-melodic hell. Yes, I realize that in typing that statement I sound exactly like my parents did in the 70s.

Fortunately, we have two such beings attached to our family and, on a particular day, we chose to listen to the nominees, an extra being filling the age gap between the first two. Since this is the Internet and not everyone reading can be trusted, we’ll refer to them as Li’l G, age 9, Tipster, age 7, and Extra Kid, age 8. The only question is whether I could get them to listen to music objectively for hours on end?

Knowing children as I do, I only had to say the magic word: party! They were all three instantly ready and eager to participate. Whether they would be able to endure through the duration of the project was uncertain but they were my best shot at getting a reasonably objective opinion even if we couldn’t reach a consensus on which songs are best.

Obviously, I didn’t subject the children to every category that the Grammy’s list. After all, there are 84 categories with five nominees per category. That makes for something in the neighborhood of 420 songs.  We would be here for days, especially considering that a hefty number of those are album categories. We just don’t have that kind of time. I also eliminated categories where the nominated songs were heavily laced with profanity (inappropriate for children) and instrumental genres that would be likely to put the kids to sleep. I also eliminated a couple of categories I knew would leave me heaving into a trash can.

Our end result isn’t necessarily a straightforward prediction of who will win and more of an opinion as to who should win. I tried talking with my young cohorts about the music and sometimes they gave me decent and surprising answers but other times there were rather ambivalent, especially with genres where the music tends to be slower and less enthusiastic. Children don’t chill. Ever.

I’ll add more analysis toward the end, but for now, let’s focus on the nominations and the various choices.

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Record of the Year

This is where we started, which sounds like it would be a strong beginning. It wasn’t. The nominees are:

  • Redbone

     Childish Gambino

  • Despacito

     Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee Featuring Justin Bieber

  • The Story Of O.J.

     JAY-Z

  • HUMBLE.

     Kendrick Lamar

  • 24K Magic

     Bruno Mars

The kids thought Redbone was creepy and didn’t understand the point of The Story of O.J. so, those two were out of the running from the beginning. Despacito, not surprisingly, all three knew and could sing along with in Spanish. The Extra Kid has Hispanic roots so she was especially fond of this one. The Tipster liked HUMBLE at first but then changed her vote to 24K Magic along with Li’l G. They both love Bruno Mars and the fact they can dance to his music is a large part of the reason why. In fact, there’s a bit of “American Bandstand” philosophy to their entire approach. If they can’t dance to a song they’re not as likely to enjoy it.

Personally, I fully expect Despacito to win this one if none of the others for which it is nominated. The song dominated airplay a majority of the year and even if we’re a bit sick of hearing it now that doesn’t diminish the way in which it impacted the entire music scene for 2017.

Song of the Year

Curious about the difference between the Record of the Year and Song of the Year? Easy: Song of the Year is the songwriter’s award while Record of the Year is directed more toward the artist (though producers and engineers get trophies for that one as well). Not that the kids cared, especially when there were duplicate nominees. The choices are:

  • Despacito

     Ramon Ayala Rodriguez, Justin Bieber, Jason Boyd, Erika Ender, Luis Fonsi & Marty James Garton Jr, songwriters (Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee Featuring Justin Bieber)

  • 4:44

     Shawn Carter & Dion Wilson, songwriters (JAY-Z)

  • Issues

     Benny Blanco, Mikkel Storleer Eriksen, Tor Erik Hermansen, Julia Michaels & Justin Drew Tranter, songwriters (Julia Michaels)

  • 1-800-273-8255

     Alessia Caracciolo, Sir Robert Bryson Hall II, Arjun Ivatury, Khalid Robinson & Andrew Taggart, songwriters (Logic Featuring Alessia Cara & Khalid)

  • That’s What I Like

     Christopher Brody Brown, James Fauntleroy, Philip Lawrence, Bruno Mars, Ray Charles McCullough II, Jeremy Reeves, Ray Romulus & Jonathan Yip, songwriters (Bruno Mars)

All three kids went with That’s What I Like. Two primary factors dominated here: 1) they already knew the song well, and 2) they could dance all over the room. For them, this was an easy decision. 4:44 was too confusing and convoluted for them and while they appreciated what 1-800-273-8255 tries to say the serious tone ends up being a real downer for them. They didn’t like how they felt after listening to it. Issues was pretty much a “meh” from them. That’s What I Like had them on their feet, which was welcome after the other four songs. These kids don’t like music that brings them down.

My take, however, is that 1-800-273-8255 is the right song for the right time. My concern is that I’ve not heard it before this listening, which means it probably hasn’t dominated airplay enough to win the Grammy. Suicide is a huge issue, though, and while these kids may not be dealing with the issue yet, there are plenty of teens and young adults who are.

Best Pop Solo Performance

Pop is the genre kids hear the most. They’re teachers play it at school and they stream it on their devices. They knew both the songs and the artists before we started listening so this is probably their most objective choice. The nominees are:

  • Love So Soft

     Kelly Clarkson

  • Praying

     Kesha

  • Million Reasons

     Lady Gaga

  • What About Us

     Pink

  • Shape Of You

     Ed Sheeran

What immediately caught the kids’ attention is that this is the only category that isn’t dominated by male artists. This is a problem for the industry. When even little ones notice that women are not represented as much as men record labels, music promoters, and radio execs should probably take notice. This isn’t the place to get neck-deep into the issue but women need to be more present in this field. After saying all that, though, all three kids voted for Shape Of You. They love the song and, quite honestly, it probably is more the song than who sings it that matters to them. Sorry, Ed.

For my money, though, Pink’s What About Us strikes me as the strongest of the nominees and all five nominated songs are pretty strong. All are going to have plenty of support, but Pink probably comes closest to capturing the emotion most of the nation is currently feeling.

Best Pop Duo/Group Performance

There was a lot of talk about this category as, again, the kids were up dancing pretty much through the entire set. They wavered back and forth quite a bit before making a decision. The nominees are:

  • Something Just Like This

     The Chainsmokers & Coldplay

  • Despacito

     Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee Featuring Justin Bieber

  • Thunder

     Imagine Dragons

  • Feel It Still

     Portugal. The Man

  • Stay

     Zedd & Alessia Cara

Of the group, only Stay had the kids yawning. The girls went with Something Just Like This. They were singing along while dancing their little hearts out. Li’l G, though, preferred the rhythmic Thunder. He said he liked being able to “feel” the music. Feel It Still probably came in a hard second place for them though there were moments they stopped dancing and asked, “huh? What’s that talking about?” Well … uhm … let’s just say “big kid stuff” for now.

I’m going with Li’l G on this one. Imagine Dragons has a song here that makes it almost impossible to sit still. Perhaps even more important is that one doesn’t quickly get the urge to strangle someone after hearing it three or four times in a row. The race is likely to be tight but I think they can come out on top to take home the Grammy.

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Best Rock Performance

Rock is a more adult-oriented genre so I wasn’t sure how well the kids would handle the categories. All three kids live in homes where rock is a regular part of the household playlists, though, so they did better than I expected. The nominees are:

  • You Want It Darker

     Leonard Cohen

  • The Promise

     Chris Cornell

  • Run

     Foo Fighters

  • No Good

     Kaleo

  • Go To War

     Nothing More

I understand why the late Leonard Cohen is on this list. You Want It Darker is a moving summation of his life and career. I get it. The kids, however, were begging me to turn it off. They weren’t impressed and found the song depressing. They liked the other four songs from a music perspective but thought No Good and Go To War were too negative. They were unanimous in their choice of Run for this category. I’m not sure they understood the song so much as they liked the concept of movement. They liked moving to Run.

Foo Fighters have had a strong year so it won’t surprise me if they take home the Grammy on this one. Don’t count Chris Cornell out, though. The Promise is strong, it just doesn’t carry the PR punch.

Best Rock Song

There are duplicates from the previous category here and the kids don’t like choosing the same song twice (they don’t think it’s fair). For them, there were really only three choices. The nominees are:

  • Atlas, Rise!

     James Hetfield & Lars Ulrich, songwriters (Metallica)

  • Blood In The Cut

     JT Daly & Kristine Flaherty, songwriters (K.Flay)

  • Go To War

     Ben Anderson, Jonny Hawkins, Will Hoffman, Daniel Oliver, David Pramik & Mark Vollelunga, songwriters (Nothing More)

  • Run

     Foo Fighters, songwriters (Foo Fighters)

  • The Stage

     Zachary Baker, Brian Haner, Matthew Sanders, Jonathan Seward & Brooks Wackerman, songwriters (Avenged Sevenfold)

Since the kids aren’t connected to the 70s like I am, they were completely unimpressed by Metallica’s presence on this list. None. I was rather disappointed as well. This seems like a nomination for nostalgia’s sake, not because the music was especially good. Blood in the Cut fared a little better but once again the kids found the message to deep and too depressing. The girls liked that there’s a female artist on this list but not enough to vote for her. The Stage was their unanimous choice.

I think there’s a very good chance Foo Fighters could take this Grammy as well if nostalgia doesn’t take over and give Metallica one last award. The Stage is good but I think Run has enough popularity going for it to get the trophy.

Best R&B Song

Time became a factor here and if I had it to do over I might have selected Best R&B Performance or even Best Traditional R&B Performance over this category. I wasn’t sure how the kids would respond to R&B so I went with what I thought they would appreciate most. Judging from their later response to the Gospel category, traditional R&B might have been more to their liking. Still, they didn’t fuss about this category, either. The nominees are:

  • First Began

     PJ Morton, songwriter (PJ Morton)

  • Location

     Alfredo Gonzalez, Olatunji Ige, Samuel David Jiminez, Christopher McClenney, Khalid Robinson & Joshua Scruggs, songwriters (Khalid)

  • Redbone

     Donald Glover & Ludwig Goransson, songwriters (Childish Gambino)

  • Supermodel

     Tyran Donaldson, Terrence Henderson, Greg Landfair Jr., Carter Lang & Solana Rowe, songwriters (SZA)

  • That’s What I Like

     Christopher Brody Brown, James Fauntleroy, Philip Lawrence, Bruno Mars, Ray Charles McCullough II, Jeremy Reeves, Ray Romulus & Jonathan Yip, songwriters (Bruno Mars)

Two songs dropped from consideration immediately. First Began was too mellow for their liking and Redbone can’t get out of the creepy box. Location was a bit tough for them to follow, though they liked the melody, and of course, they loved That’s What I Like. Surprisingly, though, they were unanimous on Supermodel. They liked that it was a female artist and all three really liked the song and were singing along by the end.

If SZA doesn’t get the Grammy for this one, which is probably my choice as well, Khalid delivers Location for its songwriters. Both are strong songs so it’s going to be a matter of the mood Grammy voters were in when they cast their ballots. This is a tough choice. The industry and the genre both need a female to take home this hardware. There needs to be a message that women’s voices are important and viable. At the same time, though, Khalid holds a lot of influence over the industry and has a lot of friends. Neither artist winning surprises me.

Best Country Song

Can city kids appreciate country music? Apparently better than I anticipated. Given their strong response to the R&B category, I was ready for complaints when we started this one, but those complaints never came. Who knew the kids could be so broad-minded? The nominees are

  • Better Man

     Taylor Swift, songwriter (Little Big Town)

  • Body Like A Back Road

     Zach Crowell, Sam Hunt, Shane McAnally & Josh Osborne, songwriters (Sam Hunt)

  • Broken Halos

     Mike Henderson & Chris Stapleton, songwriters (Chris Stapleton)

  • Drinkin’ Problem

     Jess Carson, Cameron Duddy, Shane McAnally, Josh Osborne & Mark Wystrach, songwriters (Midland)

  • Tin Man

     Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert & Jon Randall, songwriters (Miranda Lambert)

I didn’t tell the kids that Taylor Swift wrote Better Man. I was afraid that might sway their opinion too heavily. I needn’t have bothered, though. Both girls loved the song anyway. I have to wonder, though, if the fact that neither of the girls’ birth fathers is part of their lives influenced their decision. Li’l G, on the other hand, went with Sam Hunt’s Body Like A Back Road. He wasn’t so impressed by the song’s lyrics, though, as he just really liked the tune and the tempo.

When I look at this category I see a lot of sexism in the songs. Better Man puts all the blame for a failed relationship with the guy; he just wasn’t good enough–he should have been better. Meanwhile, Body Like A Back Road objectifies women in a way that’s painfully stereotypical of country music. The genre and society don’t really need either song. Tin Man and Broken Hearts are only marginally better. The whole “broken heart” scene felt really shallow. That leaves Drinkin’ Problem, which, again, is a bit stereotypical but at least doesn’t degrade and insult someone in order to feel good. Midland’s a strong band so they could carry this song for a Grammy win.

Old Man, Talking Merch

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Best American Roots Performance

Wow, the kids really caught me off guard on this one. They were plugged in from the very beginning and stayed in there through all five songs, which was saying something by this point in the process. The nominees are:

  • Killer Diller Blues

     Alabama Shakes

  • Let My Mother Live

     Blind Boys Of Alabama

  • Arkansas Farmboy

     Glen Campbell

  • Steer Your Way

     Leonard Cohen

  • I Never Cared For You

     Alison Krauss

Okay, so they still weren’t terribly enthused by Leonard Cohen. They did admit that he fits better here than in the Rock category. They really got down with Alabama Shakes and the Blind Boys of Alabama, though, and swayed along with Glen Campbell’s final song. Their unanimous choice, however, was Alison Krauss’ I Never Cared For You. They liked the full sound and the clarity of Krauss’ voice even though the song wasn’t as upbeat as some of the others.

Can Krauss win the Grammy for this one? I’m not sure. There’s a lot of sentimentality with the Blind Boys of Alabama, Glen Campbell, and Leonard Cohen on the list. Krauss has the stronger performance of the five but the tendency to give trophies to dead people is strong. Don’t be surprised if Glen Campbell steals this one from the grave.

Best American Roots Song

This is a strange category. Songs get dumped here when they don’t really fit anywhere else. This makes for rather diverse listening. The nominees are:

  • Cumberland Gap

     David Rawlings & Gillian Welch, songwriters (David Rawlings)

  • I Wish You Well

     Raul Malo & Alan Miller, songwriters (The Mavericks)

  • If We Were Vampires

     Jason Isbell, songwriter (Jason Isbell And The 400 Unit)

  • It Ain’t Over Yet

     Rodney Crowell, songwriter (Rodney Crowell Featuring Rosanne Cash & John Paul White)

  • My Only True Friend

     Gregg Allman & Scott Sharrard, songwriters (Gregg Allman)

By this point in the day the kids’ ears were getting tired and their bodies were getting restless. If a song didn’t catch their attention within the first ten bars or so they pretty much checked out for the duration. We were about half-way through It Ain’t Over Yet when one of the girls said, “These old guys are just depressing.”  and it’s a sentiment that has some merit. That may explain why Li’l G and the Tipster went with If We Were Vampires while the Extra Kid preferred Cumberland Gap. Both of those songs have a younger appeal and don’t get caught up in that one-foot-in-the-grave feeling of wishing one had lived their life differently.

I’m hoping David Rawlings takes home the Grammy on this one. Would I have liked for Gregg Allman to get one last award in? Yes, but the song nominated just didn’t cut the mustard. I think If We Were Vampires is out of place for this genre. Rawlings gives us a song with a historical feel to it that is encouraging. He deserves the award.

Best Music Video

Videos! Yay! Who doesn’t like music videos, right? Music videos are an art unto themselves and song doesn’t necessarily need to be that strong for the video to score points. The nominees are:

  • Up All Night

     Beck

     CANADA, video director; Alba Barneda, Laura Serra Estorch & Oscar Romagosa, video producers

  • Makeba

     Jain

     Lionel Hirle & Gregory Ohrel, video directors; Yodelice, video producer

  • The Story Of O.J.

     JAY-Z

     Shawn Carter & Mark Romanek, video directors; Daniel Midgley, Elizabeth Newman & Chaka Pilgrim, video producers

  • Humble.

     Kendrick Lamar

     The Little Homies & Dave Meyers, video directors; Jason Baum, Dave Free, Jamie Rabineau, Nathan K. Scherrer & Anthony Tiffith, video producers

  • 1-800-273-8255

     Logic Featuring Alessia Cara & Khalid

     Andy Hines, video director; Brandon Bonfiglio, Mildred Delamota, Andrew Lerios, Luga Podesta & Alex Randall, video producers

A video makes a lot of difference in how one perceives a song and that came out in Li’l G’s vote for The Story Of O.J. He said that he still didn’t like Jay-Z’s frequent use of the N-word but that the video helps explain what the song is about. The girls were not so convinced, though, and enthusiastically went with Makeba. They loved the rhythm and tempo of the song as well as the bright colors and constant movement of the video.

There are reasonable arguments to be made for all the nominees in this category so I’m not sure who might actually win. I’m still rather partial to Logic’s 1-800-273-8255. As strong as the song is, the video drives the message home even stronger. Show this as a PSA, please. Often. Humble and The Story of O.J. serve specific audiences and are too non-inclusive. Makeba is cute and fun but lacks substance. And lord knows what Beck was thinking. 1-800-273-8255 does a beautiful job of approaching a very challenging subject. Give them the Grammy, man.

Best Gospel Performance/Song

I saved this for last because I figured after everything else they’d heard all day the kids could use a little church if you know what I mean. There are some super-serious and often downright depressing songs among this year’s nominees and while they may be appropriate and reflective of society we still need someone, somewhere, coming at us with something positive. The nominees are:

  • Too Hard Not To

     Tina Campbell; Tina Campbell & Warryn Campbell, songwriters

  • You Deserve It

     JJ Hairston & Youthful Praise Featuring Bishop Cortez Vaughn; David Bloom, JJ Hairston, Phontane Demond Reed & Cortez Vaughn, songwriters

  • Better Days

     Le’Andria

  • My Life

     The Walls Group; Warryn Campbell, Eric Dawkins, Damien Farmer, Damon Thomas, Ahjah Walls & Darrel Walls, songwriters

  • Never Have To Be Alone

     CeCe Winans; Dwan Hill & Alvin Love III, songwriters

Again, I was concerned that the genre might be too laid back for the kids to pay attention, but I was wrong. Even with the softness of Too Hard Not To the kids were zeroed in, swaying with the music. You Deserve It had them up and singing along by the second verse. It was My Life, though, that received their unanimous vote and their reasoning is something that not only resonates for Gospel music but is a heads up for Christianity in general: don’t hit me over the head with God. My Life only mentions the deity once, preferring to use the pronoun Him instead. For the kids, that made the song more relevant.

Now, who’s going to actually take home the Grammy? I’m expecting CeCe Winans scores another one here. Of the group, hers is the most traditional gospel with very straight-forward religious lyrics and an encouraging message. Too Hard Not To and Better Days are both nice, melodic songs, but they both could almost be ballads in the Soul category if only the Grammys had a Soul category. You Deserve It got the kids’ attention but it’s more of the shallow, meaningless worship drivel that has made too many churches more of a feel-good experience than anything spiritual. Never Have To Be Alone carries a message on a beautiful voice, and CeCe is well respected in the Gospel community.

Summing Things Up

This isn’t the strongest Grammy awards we’ve ever seen but there’s a good reason for that: We were either too depressed or too angry or too frightened over the past year and the music we embraced is reflective of that. We don’t have songs that make us feel good because we didn’t feel good about our lives, our country, nor our future. 2017 was a rough year and our music shows that.

Unfortunately, the music also shows just how dominating men are in the music industry. On one hand, I’m a little surprised we’ve not seen more sexual abuse/assault allegations in the music industry, but then, considering what Kesha went through with Dr. Luke (which is reflected in her nominated song) who can blame women in music for being reluctant to step forward? Men have an iron grip on every aspect of this industry, one that’s not going to loosen just because Russell Simmons and Benny Medina are accused of rape. Industry execs will happily throw both producers under the tour bus in order to maintain their dominance.  

We need more women in music and we need them having better songs so that lists of future nominees don’t limit women to the pop categories. We also need more women in the production booth and running the labels. The music industry is still trying to figure out the whole digital thing and the men that have been in charge for eons are blowing it. Time to let the women grab the reins.

The Grammys also don’t reflect how people have turned away from mainstream genres in favor of more regionally-focused independent bands. Here, the music industry needs to start paying attention. Local bands don’t charge thousands of dollars for front row tickets. Local bands have better music that isn’t over-produced. Fans feel a stronger connection with local bands and their loyalty is more fierce.

In many ways, this year’s Grammy nominations show us where the music industry is failing. Consider the songs the kids preferred; upbeat, danceable, positive messages that don’t preach an agenda. They don’t care if you lost your boyfriend. They don’t care if you feel cheated. Those are your feelings and they don’t want them. The kids prefer music that ignites their imaginations and gives them a reason to dance.

As an industry, the music business has gotten so bogged down in whether labels are getting paid enough and whether they’re addressing the “issues” that they’ve forgotten the overwhelming reason people listen to music is so they’ll feel better.  Too many of this year’s nominees don’t do that.

But then, what do I know? When we began this quest I didn’t even know who SZA is. She’s a beautiful person with a killer voice. I learned a lot listening to these nominees so we can’t justly say that it was all a disaster. There is some very good music on this list. In fact, you can listen to all 51 of the songs on our list over on my YouTube channel. Listen for yourself and let us know whether you agree with our choices.

Of course, we’ll find out who really wins on 28 January. I doubt I’ll actually be watching live, given that I rather detest awards shows, but I’ll be paying attention the next morning, for sure. We’ll see if the list of winners warrants a follow-up.

This was an interesting experience with the kids. Remind me to do it again next year. Maybe we’ll even invite you next time.

 

Abide in Peace,
-The Old Man

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Reading time: 26 min
old man talking

We cannot discuss the inequality in society until we address the unfairness ingrained by thousands of years of history.

“That’s not fair!”

We hear those words almost every day. If one has children, the sentence is likely screamed rather than merely stated. A sense of fairness is instilled in all of us from a very early age. We all want the same things, the same opportunities, the same tilt in our favor, and the same bending of the rules that we perceive everyone else getting.

Mind you, what we perceive and what is real are seldom the same, but that sense of fairness, that insistence that we each be treated with the same favor we perceive others getting, drives some of our core perspectives of how we view the world. When we think we are treated unfairly in the matters that affect our lives the most, many of us yell, scream, and pitch a fit. We want the world to be a fair place.

“Life isn’t fair,” said every father ever.

And it isn’t. Consider the people who died of various forms of cancer despite having taken every reasonable precaution against it while others, like my late uncle, smoke two packs of cigarettes a day and manage to outlive their own children. Is that fair? No, but that’s life and fighting against that is pointless.

Not all injustices are naturally occuring, though. To the extent that we help in creating and propagating the disparity in what is and isn’t fair, we have a moral obligation to repair the damage done not only by ourselves, personally, but that done by a perhaps well-intentioned but nonetheless misguided society that came before us.

One of the words batted around like a beach ball in 2917 was inequality. Racial inequality. Gender inequality. Economic inequality. As a society, we were very much aware of the gaps that prevent some from being equal to others. No one likes to give up an advantage, though, so every time one group would claim a form of inequality against them, the opposing group would call them unreasonable, claim they were asking for something for free, and even charge some with playing the victim just for the financial gain.

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Hierarchy of Privilege

Not all privilege is alike, of course. You already know this. What happened when we were children on the playground might have established a foundation, but many of the privileges that foster unfairness have been in place for centuries, well entrenched by a society that is so dependent on that privilege staying in place as to be frightened to their bones at the prospect of the privilege being taken away. Huge family fortunes have been built around the power of privilege. Names like Getty, Rockefeller, Walton, and Bush stand like towers on the American economic and political landscape because the current generation excelled at nothing more than making certain the privilege stayed in place.

I would not be the first person to suggest that hierarchies are inherently immoral. The power and privilege they produce are not based on skill or knowledge but upon the removal of wealth and exploitation of knowledge of those in the lower ranks. One’s place in the hierarchy determines what opportunities and privileges are afforded to them as “rights.” When one attempts to claim rights outside of their hierarchical ranks, the power structure becomes frightened because in a truly fair world it is one’s skills and talents that wield power and privilege hold no sway.

Hierarchies have existed pretty much since the dawn of time, however. Social strata established as far back as ancient Mesopotamia and feudal China encoded many of the hierarchical challenges still causing problems today. We like to think that the advent of democracy and capitalism changed up those hierarchies and made life fairer, but if one substitutes “king” for “president” or “prime minister,” and “slaves” for “minimum wage workers” and we find there’s been very little difference over the past 2000 years.

Why have we not been able to supplant these hierarchies of unfairness? Certainly, movements such as the Bolshevik Revolution and the French Revolution took direct aim at upending monarchies and systems of peerage that were grossly corrupt and unfair, but looking at the governmental systems in both countries today one would have difficulty arguing that either movement had instituted any real and enduring change. Swap titles around and the flowchart looks pretty much the same.

Breaking an entrenched system of privilege is difficult because 1) they are so numerous, and 2) there are nested hierarchies within each system. Those two factors allow that system to dominate everyday life to the point of oppression when it serves the interests of the system. Let’s break down some of the highest levels of that system so we can see for ourselves just how overwhelming the whole thing is.

Religion

Belief systems have always had a hierarchical structure to them, typically with the priest class equating to the nobility of government systems. What we saw n the 4th and 5th centuries ADE, however, was the dominance of the religious hierarchy over all aspects of life and government, sometimes to the exclusion of everything else. With this violent movement, one’s belief system itself, whether one was Christian, Muslim, or Jew, established one’s place in the global hierarchy. It was during this time that the term “pagan” was coined within all three religions in an attempt to demonize anyone who did not hold to one of the Abrahamic beliefs. While each held the other in contempt and fought vigorously against each other, being pagan was a crime worthy of death in the views of all three. As a result, entire races and people groups were destroyed because they did not fit into the hierarchy.

Over the past 100 years, we have seen religion begin to be usurped on some levels by a growing movement toward secularism, a competing ideology that insists religion has no place in public life nor in the governing hierarchy. Secularism appears to be the solution to the many inherent ills found in a religious hierarchy. However, if history is any indicator, religion will not go quietly into the night. People want to believe in something and all it takes is a unifying fear to bring a religious hierarchy back into power.

Nationality

Nations create empires and empires rule the world just as much today as they did when Rome first started flexing its military muscle across Western Europe. Nations establish their hierarchy through their militaries and maintain them through diplomacy fueled by fear, also known as bullying.

In many cases, nationality and religion work hand-in-hand to create a more dominant hierarchy, such as what is seen in the Middle East and, arguably, much of the United States. To the extent religiously-motivated rules dominate national laws, systemic unfairness easily reaches the point of oppression and even slavery.

Where we see these hierarchies doing the most damage, however, is when they restrict movement. One prime example would be the current US ban on any person traveling from Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Chad, Libya, North Korea, Somalia, Syria, or Venezuela. The ban essentially tells people from those countries that the US considers them the lowest of the low, practically useless among humanity. Other similar instances would be when countries refuse to accept refugees flying inhumane conditions. It is at those points when one’s nationality establishes their rank among the world’s population and affects every aspect of their lives, often right down to the question of whether they live or die.

Race

Let’s get very real on this point: there is no post-racial society. The continued racial struggles of the US have been on global display over the past year while even more entrenched racism across Asia and Northern Africa continues to fuel violence and extreme unfairness among various peoples.

No matter where one is, the concept of “pureness” remains as painfully present around the world now as it did during the dark days of Hitler’s Nazi regime. Across Europe and the US, Caucasians still see themselves as the dominant and “most pure” race. Meanwhile, ethnic Chinese keep long lists of their genealogical history to prove they are more “pure” Chinese than their neighbor.

Humans find race to be an easily visible means of separating those who are not the same. If you look different from me then I must discriminate against you. Different people groups have pursued a pure bloodline for millennia causing great harm to anyone who wasn’t Jewish enough, or black enough, or white enough. Yet, what research has shown us in the past year is that the vast majority of us are not even 100% human. The parts of us that are human all came from a common ancestral source in Africa. Our concepts of race are entirely fabricated nonsense. The hierarchies we’ve built on that nonsense only exist because we refuse to let them be torn down.

Gender

Perhaps the most significant problem with the dominance of Abrahamic religions is their perpetuation of patriarchal hierarchies. From them, we get the ridiculous concepts that men are stronger, smarter, and more capable to lead. Never mind the mountains of real-world evidence to the contrary that have built up over the past 6,000 years of recorded history. If the deity is presumed male then that must be the dominant gender, right?

The gender hierarchy is so strong that even our terms for humanity, such as “mankind” support the social patriarchy. Our concepts of marriage and family are built on patriarchal hierarchies. Governments have institutionalized patriarchy to the point that it is illegal in many places to break away from that hierarchy.

Only within the past 100 years have some societies started actively challenging the patriarchy in ways that being to erode the unfairness of the hierarchy. More women are receiving the education they deserve. More women are receiving proper health care. More women are taking positions of power. More women are standing up to the men who have pushed them down. Dismantling the patriarchy takes more than a movement, though. Our entire social structure needs to change.

Sexuality

The past ten years have been a watershed moment for the LGBTQ movement. People who are something other than “straight” have come out of the closet and we are beginning, finally, to look at sexuality not as a rigid point that one either is or isn’t, but a fluid continuum along which one might move either slightly or drastically over the course of one’s life. Even being able to discuss the topic in a public manner is a significant improvement over everything that has existed prior to now.

The hierarchies of sexuality, though, have not moved nearly as much as we might like to think, though. Same-gendered partners still face considerable discrimination from society that considered being “straight” the norm. Even within the LGBTQ communities, trans people face ridicule from gays and those who are bisexual or fluid face even more discrimination from everyone.

Sexuality has been one of the most severe reasons for unfairness and discrimination across history. We like to think that because we’re talking about the topic that everything’s okay now, but it’s not. Just because the hierarchies are challenged in some places doesn’t mean they are absent from society. Suing one bakery doesn’t keep others from finding creative ways to deny business, and jobs, and opportunities to people who are something other than “straight.” This problem runs deep.

Economy

2017 saw the gap between the haves and the have-nots grow wider than it has ever been. The three richest men (all white, by the way) are worth more than the lowest 50% of the United States. We’ve talked about income inequality for several years now but no one has done a damn thing to stop the upward flow of revenue. In fact, the new tax code approved by the U.S. Congress at the end of 2017 guarantees that flow continues.

The economic hierarchy is actually a hierarchy of greed. Greed is difficult, if not impossible, to battle within a society. A fundamental flaw in the human psyche, greed, the continual desire for more, has been a driving factor throughout human history. For all the various concepts and methods of government that have been proposed, none of them have found an adequate way of overcoming the greed factor.

What matters at the moment is that where the economic hierarchy once held multiple strati where one might feel they were making some advancement up an imaginary ladder, the middle has been eliminated so that there is the upper one percent, and everyone else. That’s it. Making matters worse is that the relative economic power of the 99 percent continues to shrink as wages have remained stagnant for several years. Nothing anyone has done at any level of government has been significant in correcting this problem.

Education

Americans mistakenly believe that we have this issue under control, that every child has the opportunity to a general K-12 education and that anyone who shows sufficient initiative can go to college. Anyone who believes that scenario to be true, however, is terribly naive. Education continues to be one of the most significant unfair hierarchies that keep millions of people from reaching their potential.

Key to this discussion is understanding how opportunities are presented at different levels of the hierarchy. For the best private schools in the nation, teachers at every level hold advanced degrees, have access to the latest tools and technologies, and keep class sizes small enough that each child receives individualized attention when they need it.

For the poorest schools, however, of which there are thousands more, the situation is quite the opposite. Classes are maxed out in terms of the number of students per teacher while resources are practically non-existent. Textbooks are woefully out of date and in some instances contain severe misinformation that leaves undereducated children at a disadvantage in college classrooms and other situations. Teachers are grossly underpaid while having to meet continuing education demands and their wallets have shrunk even more now that classroom supplies they’ve been purchasing are no longer tax deductible.

The end result is that privileged children grow up well-balanced and capable of meeting educational challenges while underprivileged children often fail to complete high school, have severe literacy issues, and feel out of place in society. This is only in the United States. There are plenty of places around the world where the problem is even more severe.

Each of these hierarchies, all of which are long-standing and well-entrenched matters of privilege, represent a level of unfairness that leads to discrimination and inequality in society. While discrimination and inequality might make for more palatable sound bites, we cannot justly address either of those issues until we first approach the basic unfairness of the hierarchical privilege that leads to such injustice. We need to start at the foundation and work upward from there.

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A New Fairness Doctrine

Google the term “fairness doctrine” and the results contain multiple pages of articles related to the Fairness Doctrine of the FCC that was repealed and unlikely to be replaced. That rule simply stated that holders of commercial broadcasts licenses were required to give equal time to opposing viewpoints on matters regarding controversial and/or political subject matter. Removal of that rule is what has allowed certain aspects of commercial radio and television to become severely partisan in their content.

In the US we already have sufficient laws that should, in theory, guarantee fairness for everyone. Unfortunately, those laws are rendered moot when they are not enforced justly, or at all, have loopholes to exempt those privileged, exclude certain people groups, or are completely overwritten by new laws taking precedent. Passing more laws isn’t going to fix what is fundamentally a social issue involving individual attitudes and actions.

What we need instead is a new Fairness Doctrine, a statement of belief, a personal commitment that supersedes what might be allowable in following the strict letter of the law and prevails upon the highest level of fairness in how we deal with each other on every possible social level. We need a doctrine that specifically breaks down long-standing hierarchies and replaces them with fair standards and practices that are immovable and cannot be skirted by unscrupulous dealings in backrooms. We need something around which we can take a firm stand.

Doctrines are beliefs, however, and beliefs are somewhat ethereal until they are put into words. Given that our most frequent relationship with doctrines is in the form of religious beliefs (ie. the Doctrine of Salvation in Christianity or the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism), perhaps we would do best to establish a Fairness Creed through which we can express our beliefs in fairness and by which we can be held accountable for our actions. Through such a statement perhaps we can establish a sense of solidarity that begins to dismantle hierarchies of privilege and moves us toward a most just and fair society.

Therefore, I propose the following statement of fairness, something around which people all over the world can hopefully unite for the improvement of lives and society everywhere.

I believe:

 

  • That there is no race inherent to Earth but the human race of which we are all an equal part and that no one is diminished in their humanity for any reason or under any circumstances;
  • That as humans we all have an inherent right to life as we choose to define it for ourselves without oppression from any government or religious entity nor interference from any person or group;
  • That no force nor power nor individual has the right nor the authority to take or control the life of any other human whether individually or corporately for any reason save in an event wherein the necessary and willful sacrifice of one might immediately and inherently save the lives of innocents;
  • That to each human shall be afforded the right to sufficient sustenance prepared according to one’s physical needs and personal beliefs without regard to economy, geography, nor any other factor that might deprive one of nourishment;
  • That dry and safe shelter is required to sustain life and that all humans have a right to such housing that provides comfort, light, security, and protection from both elements of nature and predators of any kind;
  • That no one country, belief system, nor grouping of any form or cause is superior in nature or intent and that no human shall be required to practice, adhere to, swear an oath, or pledge their allegiance to any entity or government save by their own willful determination; neither shall any corporate entity, whether formal or informal, exercise undue authority over any individual through any means electoral, or through exclusion, nor by intimidation;
  • That each person has an inherent freedom to travel, to explore, and to reside in any portion of the globe which they find hospitable to them and to live without hindrance, oppression, or subjugation from any government, religion, or other established group;
  • That knowledge and open access to information are necessary for the advancement and peace of the species and that no entity of any kind or purpose shall infringe upon or deter access to such information whether through established education programs or individual access through whatever means might be available;
  • That education is critical for all humans to intelligently participate in a functioning society regardless any real or presumed limitations and that the quality of any education should not be limited by anything other than the individual desire and willingness to learn;
  • That all persons have fundamental value and as such shall be compensated for their employment in a fashion that guarantees one’s ability to fully provide for their own needs and comfort and that all such recompense should be equal with no discerning factors save skill and demonstrated level of responsibility;
  • That universal health care is a responsibility of humanity toward itself, not a profit center to aid the economic advancement of a few and that as such there should be no treatment nor medicine refused to anyone in need and that it is the responsibility of society to insure that care is received;
  • That where there is no victim there is no crime but that a crime against one is crime against all; therefore, where crime does exist it must be judged fairly, by one’s true peers, defended rigorously without regard to compensation, and if one is found guilty then punished in such a way as to provide recompense for those most directly harmed, saving incarceration only for those whose threat to society cannot be controlled through any other means.

 

There you go, a creed that outlines a new doctrine of fairness.

Of course, like any creed, it is an abbreviation of a full doctrine. You would stop reading if I attempted to flesh out all the nuances of these twelve articles. For that matter, I would probably grow bored and stop writing if I tried to put everything into a single post.

While I’ve given these a lot of thought, I do want to flesh them out more, a separate article for each. These are important issues and without addressing them adequately billions of people suffer. Those of us in the US are fortunate that our ability to think out loud in this fashion and to publish our thoughts in this manner has not yet been curtailed. I don’t think we give enough thought to the privilege we have through this act alone.

Such privilege demands we be responsible for bringing the same level of freedom, the same access to information, the same ability to speak without fear of reprisal, to every person in the world. No, we are not going to like what many of them have to say. Yes, we are going to disagree and our disagreements may at times cause severe divisions between us. Yet, I am firm in the opinion that to argue for equality on any level, for any cause, we must first address the level of unfairness that exists not only in the United States but around the world.

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A Call To Action

Talking is never enough, but talking is a start and at this particular moment I’m doing all the talking. That needs to change. I don’t normally do this but to encourage real conversation I ask you to comment in the section below this article. Tell me about what points you have questions and concerns. If you think there is evidence to the contrary, please share a link. Engage at the highest level you possibly can.

Then, share the article. Please. Share it on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and wherever else you might have appropriate access. In doing so, encourage others to participate in the conversation. While talk holds limited value there is no successful course of action that does not first begin with a deep discussion.

I sit here most days by myself, reading, doing research on these articles, happy if at least ten people bother to read what I’ve written. This year, with all the critical issues the world faces, I want more. I want you involved. Time and space limit my ability to come and have coffee with everyone individually so it is here that we must meet and work out these details.

Changing the world is not something one does alone. I often wonder if anything I write will endure long enough for someone to grasp it and say, “Hey, this makes sense, let’s do this.” I do know that nothing I type makes a damn bit of difference if no one read it.

This is my first post of 2018 and it signals a change in how I treat this website and the manner in which I want to interact with people. We need to talk. We need to interact. I need more than ten sets of eyes.

If you desire a world that is fairer and subsequently more equal, or even if you think I’m totally off my rocker (which is always a possibility), please comment and then share this article. Let us improve the world not only for ourselves but for all humanity.

 

Thank you,
-the Old Man

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Reading time: 22 min
charles i. letbetter

When authors die they leave behind a piece of themselves in each book, making them immortal.

This is the time of year when we see the Internet is filled with a lot of lists, most of which are rather useless. Do we really benefit from re-hashing the year’s top ten disappointments or worst makeup trends? No, not in the least. They’re easy page fodder prepared in advance so that editors can take the week off.

I don’t really get time off. The kids are out of school for two weeks, though. I spend most my time breaking up fights and telling them to clean their rooms, neither of which, like end-of-year lists, does any good.

So, in a deep desire to do something of value, I’ve created a different kind of list, one which deserves to be bookmarked because it is too long for you to remember everything on it. This is a list of books written by authors who left us in 2017. Some are names, or at least book titles, you’ll recognize, but most are probably new to the majority of people, which is rather sad.

This is a heavily curated list, mostly out of necessity. Had I included every person who passed who ever wrote a book, this list would be about three times longer than it already is. As it is, I left off most non-English texts, specifically religious titles, strictly academic textbooks, those whose work was not collected outside periodicals, and those who made a career of being intentionally offensive.

That’s not to say there aren’t some challenging authors on this list. Some have had portions of their work criticized for being less than ethical, inaccurate, or inflammatory. I considered those criticisms in light of the full body of work and was careful with the titles chosen. One title in particular should be read with a healthy amount of skepticism, but I firmly believe such critical reading is helpful in maintaining our comprehensive skills.

What I ended up with is a list of books that should last through a fair portion of the year. Not that you shouldn’t read new books as well, but to the degree that many of these titles have been overlooked or outside one’s normally preferred genres they are worth adding to your list. We’ve even provided links for purchasing each.

As sad as we are to lose any good writers, we do their memories well by continuing to read their books and passing them on to future generations.

January

Paul Goble, The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses. One of the things that made Goble unique was that, having been born in England, when he moved to the U.S. he adopted his new home in the most native way possible, living with native peoples in the Great Plains. As a result, his children’s books reflect the lives and legends of those people in a way that is true to their storytelling tradition. The Girl Who Loved Wild Horses was the Caldecott winner 1979 and a beautiful book to read and share. Goble died of Parkinson’s Disease 5 January.

Ricardo Piglia, The Absent City, While Piglia did not write in English, he is generally recognized as the most important Argentine writer of the last decade and it would be unthinkable to leave him off this list. The Absent City was translated by Duke University Press and does a good job of keeping Piglia’s original tone. While the setting is that of a detective novel, what resonates in this moment is how it comments on totalitarian regimes, the kind established through the populist movements we’re currently seeing around the world. Piglia died of  amyotrophic lateral sclerosis 6 January.

Nate Henthoff, The Day They Came To Arrest The Book. Strong free-speech advocate Nate Henthoff wrote for every major US publication across his long career, but one of his most important works may be this fictional account of an all-too-common issue: censorship. The topic remains as timely now as ever. Nate died of natural causes 7 January.

William Peter Blatty, The Exorcist. When this book first hit shelves in 1971, it flopped. Then came an interview on the Dick Cavett Show and suddenly the book was a best-seller for 55 weeks. If you’re only familiar with the movie, know that Blatty hated the ending. You may also want to know that many of Blatty’s other works were comedies. Take another look. Blatty died of multiple myeloma on January 12, 2017

Peter Abrahams, Mine Boy. Why would a book first published in 1948 be important? Mine Boy  was the first book to shed light on the horrors of Apartheid. Abrahams was born in South Africa and raised under the horrible conditions there. He moved to Jamaica as an adult and did his writing from there, but his words resonated straight back to the land of his birth. Sadly, Abrahams was murdered in Jamaica, 18 January.

Emma Tennant, Two Women of London: The Strange Case of Ms. Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde, Who wouldn’t want eternal beauty? That’s the underlying motivation behind this retelling of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Tennant was a British post-modern writer with feminist twist and this story is probably one of her best. Every single mom can relate.  Tennant died on 21 January 2017, in a London hospital, from posterior cortical atrophy, a form of Alzheimer’s disease.

Douglas Reeman, The Blackwood Saga. When it comes to war novels, we like to see some authenticity on the pages, evidence that the author knows their topic. Remman gives us just that over this five-book series that spans 150 years of British maritime history. A twice-wounded WWII vet of the British navy, his knowledge of the Royal Marines is solid and his descriptions put the reader right in the emotion of the action. Reenab died 23 January.

Harry Matthews, Tlooth. Matthews himself was an interesting character. He was the first American recognized  for membership in the French literary society known as the Oulipo. He may or may not have been a spy for the CIA. He could go off on strange tangents not explained until a hundred or so pages later. Tlooth is an equally interesting, and sometimes puzzling story that is a good introduction to his work. Matthews died of natural causes 25 January.

February

William Melvin Kelly, A Different Drummer. You need to read this book. Sure, white folks liked to think that racism was behind us, but this year has proven how wrong that view was. A Different Drummer brings us back to the base issues of the Civil Rights movement. Framed around a compelling story of growing up in the Deep South, Kelly’s narrative is a much-needed punch to the gut. Kelly died of complications from Kidney failure, 1 February.

Richard B. Wright, Clara Callan. Wright is known for creating believable characters but it’s not known whether the Canadian author actually intended to write a significantly feminist novel. The book that follows the lives of two sisters has won numerous awards and even caused some of Wright’s previous works to be reprinted. This is a solid story with plenty of meat between the lines. Wright died from a stroke 7 February.

David Seals, The Powwow Highway. I’m a sucker for a good story that portrays native North American peoples accurately and this one is a classic. Award-winning author David Seals deftly avoids stereotypes and delivers a story with depth and emotion that makes this a novel worth reading more than once. Seals died 12 February.

Nancy Willard, A Visit To William Blake’s Inn. Nancy Willard gives us a chance to break away from the heavy topics with her 1982 Newberry Medal winner. This is one of those collections that one delights holding in their hands while reading to wide-eyed little ones awestruck by Willard’s amazing characters. Think family heirloom. Willard died 19 February.

Frank Delaney, Ireland. NY Time best seller from the prolific Irish author NPR once referred to as “the most eloquent man in the world.” This very hefty book brings the oral history of Ireland, its legends and tall tales, to life. While this isn’t a quick read and a bit graphic in places, it’s well worth the time. Delaney died 21 February in Connecticut.

Jay Cronley, Quick Change, This one is a bit personal. Jay Cronley was a long-time Tulsa Tribune and later Tulsa World columnist. He was bright, sarcastic, and seemed to delight in taking aim at sacred cows, something Oklahoma grows by the dozens. He picked on anyone who crossed him and seemed to favor the company of his dogs more than people. I can relate. That same wit and humor is present in the book that was made into a 1990 movie with Bill Murray, Geena Davis. As usual, the book is much better. The world is sadder without Jay. He died 26 February of natural causes.

Nicholas Mosley, Natalie Natalia. Ready to have your morals and ethics questioned? This book may just do that. Baron Mosley was of British peerage and, yes, a member of the House of Lords for a while. His father was imprisoned for fascist activities which seemed to set Nicholas off in a slightly different direction, but kept alive his sense of questioning, This story still reads as though it were stripped from the headlines, demonstrating how well Mosley understood human nature. Mosley died 28 February

March

Paula Fox, The Slave Dancer. On one hand, this book deserves to be on this list because it was the 1974 Newberry Medal winner. That should be enough, shouldn’t it? Oh, but wait until you hear the author’s story.  Rejected by her own mother, who would have killed the child, Fox was raised by a preacher in upstate New York. She grew up and had her own daughter, whom she put up for adoption. This daughter, Linda Carroll, gave birth to musician Courtney Love. Yeah, THAT Courtney Love. That means Frances Bean Cobain is Fox’s great-granddaughter. Interested now? Ms. Fox died 1 March.

Bonnie Burnard, The Good House. Canadian writer Bonnie Burnard was primarily known for short stories. When she did take on long form, though, she did so with an amazing story that covers 50 years of a family’s history. There’s nothing about this book that is over-the-top. Instead, it’s a story that’s relatable because it could just as easily have happened in any small town to any seemingly normal family. You can understand. Burnard died 4 March.

Robert James Waller, The Bridges of Madison County. Sure, you saw the movie. Maybe your book club discussed the book. Now that the hype has all passed, though, go back and really read it again. Linger on Waller’s word choice. Pick up on the parallels between the novel and his personal life. They’re there, you know. This Indiana University alumnus made sizeable donations to his alma mater thanks to this book.Does it still resonate? Can you relate? Waller died March 10 from multiple myeloma.

Amy Krouse Rosenthal, Encyclopedia of An Ordinary Life. I did not handle this death well. Seeing her name again still causes a knot in the pit of my stomach. I saw her TED talks. I’ve read her children’s books. I felt like I knew her in that way we all feel like we know someone we’ve never met. Then, being the inventive person she was, Amy announced she had ovarian cancer in a New York Times piece fashioned as a dating profile for her husband. She died 11 days later on 13 March. This may be the most creative and inspiring autobiography you’ll ever read. Just maybe keep a box of tissue handy.

John Wheatcroft, Catherine, Her Book. This entry comes with a caveat: if you’ve not read Wuthering Heights, you’re going to be totally lost. Wheatcraft takes us through the romance of that book’s two main characters from the woman’s perspective in a way that gives one a whole new perspective. Wheatcroft was a prolific writer, poet, and teacher, who served on Pulitzer committee for Poetry in 1996, He was also the first director of Bucknell University’s Stadler Center for Poetry. Wheatcroft died 14 March.

Christina Vella, Intimate Enemies: The Two Worlds of the Baroness de Pontalba. It’s not often a work of historical fact reads like a novel, but that’s exactly what Vella pulls off in this amazing tale of a 19th century woman whose life continues to impact both Paris and New Orleans today. A writer of European history, Vella’s first book received the most critical acclaim and was nominated for a Pulitzer. You’ll forget this is not a novel. Vella died 22 March.

Donald R. Burgett, Seven Roads to Hell. One of only 12 of the 200 D-Day paratroopers to survive to the end of WWII, Burgett was the very definition of a war hero. There’s a lot of fiction surrounding what happened in the latter days of that war, but Burgett was there and sets the record straight. While he penned several accounts of the action he saw, this book specifically details the Battle of the Bulge and the seemingly impossible conditions troops encountered. Burgett died 23 March.

Elizabeth Wagele, The Enneagram of Parenting. For anyone who doesn’t understand their children, read this book. Wagele made the subject of Enneagram (the nine personality types) relatable to non-scientific readers primarily through the use of her cleverly drawn cartoons and a vocabulary that avoids clinical jargon. Even if your child is already grown with children of their own, you’ll probably find this book quite helpful.  Wagele died 27 March.

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April

Patricia McKissack, Dark-Thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural. Read the stories in this book aloud, right at dusk, in that moment before day becomes night, and see if your listeners, even the adults, aren’t watching the shadows with extra caution. A frequent winner of the Coretta Scott King Award, this Tennessee writer used stories out of African-American history told by her mother and grandmother with chilling effect. These stories need to be read to someone, though. Don’t keep them to yourself. McKissack died 7 April.

Blossom Elfman, The Girls Of Huntington House. The question of whether creative parents raise creative children comes to bear as this winner of the ALA award for Best Young Adult Novel in 1972 was also the mother of composer Danny Elfman. Elfman’s stories come from her experience teaching English in, of all places, a home for teen moms. One might see a connection between the humor in her prose and the whimsical tones of her son’s compositions. Or maybe that’s just me. Ms. Elfman died 10 April.

Marlys Millhiser, The Mirror. Imagine being pregnant and waking up to find you’re still a virgin. Worse yet, imagine you’re a virgin in 1900 and wake up in the present, pregnant. This book has time travel, gender issues, and a good horror plot all rolled into one. The mystery author of the Charlie Green series had the ability to use words in a way that would raise goosebumps and make you leave a light on at night. She died 20 April.

William Hjortsberg, Falling Angel. While Hjortsberg penned his fair share of novels, it is this one, his first, that won him the most acclaim. This is a sell-your-soul-to-the-devil tale with its far share of horror fashioned as a detective novel. The concept works surprisingly well. The book became the 1987 film “Angel Heart” with Mickey Rourke, Robert De Niro, and Lisa Bonet but the best thrills were left on the printed page  Hjortsberg died. 22 April.

Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. One of the “must haves” on any literary bookshelf, this book raised awareness for Eastern thought more than any other. I had lost my copy midst all the moving around I’ve done and upon hearing of Pirsig’s death immediately went and purchased another copy. With all the concern society has for living a better life, Pirsig nailed the solution a half-century ago. Re-reading it now brings home just how accurate he was. Road trip, anyone? Pirsig died 24 April.

May

John Schultz, The Chicago Conspiracy Trial: Revised Edition. While Schultz’s greater contribution may be as the originator of the Story Workshop, his account of the 1972 Democratic Convention, and the trial of The Chicago Seven that followed, is important given the nature of current political events. Schultz’s talent as an investigative reporter through the entire ordeal and its aftermath should be required reading for anyone politically involved in today’s messed up situation. Schultz died 6 May.

Jean Fritz, Homesick: My Own Story. Every once in a while one stumbles upon a piece of children’s lit that is so compelling one wishes there were a more adult version. This is one of those stories. Born to missionaries and raised in China until age 12, Fritz’s autobiographical work won multiple awards, including runner-up for Newberry Award in 1972. It’s been almost 100 years since the events detailed in that book actually took place and the comparison between China then and China now is worth noting. Fritz died 14 May.

Ann Birstein, American Children. What was it like growing up in Hell’s Kitchen when it was its most hellish? Ann Birstein knew because she did it and those experiences flow heavily through this coming-of-age story that still resonates. I almost didn’t list it because finding copies isn’t easy. While it can be had through Amazon, one might do well to check used book stores first. If obtaining a copy is a bit challenging, know that the effort is worth the reading. Birstein died after a long illness on 24 May.

Denis Johnson, Tree of Smoke. This book has been called a classic and was on the NY Times list of Best Books of 2007 in addition to being a winner of the National Book Award for Fiction in 2007. That alone earns it a place on this list. Perhaps more compelling, though, is the manner in which Johnson approaches the difficult and often emotional topic of the Vietnam War. Divergent story lines bring together conflicting perspectives that leave us rethinking our attitudes about that conflict. Johnson died of liver cancer on 24 May.

June

Charles Simmons, Powdered Eggs. This winner of the William Faulkner Foundation Award in 1960 is not for the faint of heart. One initial reviewer labeled the book as “more outrageous than Catcher in the Rye.” The basic premise is one with which a lot of writers can identify: a wanna-be reporter frustrated by the menial tasks he’s assigned. Many of us have been there. This was 1960, though, and that whole sexual revolution thing was just getting a good start. So … Simmons was also a long-time editor of the New York Times Book Review. He died 1 June.

Helen Dunmore, Zennor in Darkness. This is another of those hard-to-find titles as well as a first novel that did exceedingly better than anything that followed. Zennor in Darkness was the 1994 McKitterick Prize winner among other things; a compelling story set in WWII using D.H. Lawrence as the main character. Dunmore was both a novelist and poet won several awards over her too-short career. She died of cancer 5 June.

Irene Brown, Enigma Variations: a Memoir of Love and War. How has this book not been made into a movie? This is real life. Brown was a WWII codebreaker. Her husband also worked in the Secret Air Service. Neither could talk about their work at the time, even to each other. Then, in 1944, he went missing along with his entire regiment, creating one of the greatest mysteries and losses of the entire war. This is her account of everything, a love story, a war story, a woman’s story, all wrapped in one. Brown lived to the ripe old age of 98, dying on 7 June.

John Dalmas, The Puppet Master. A Sci Fi writer known mostly for his series, this is a stand-alone novel that is a bit chilling given the current political climate. One can read an AI villain into this story if they wish, or a sinister bioengineering scientist, depending on one’s perspective. Dalmas cleverly takes the noir genre and sets it in the future, creating an uncomfortable situation where one constantly is surprised. Dalmas died 15 June.

Diana Vacallo, A Bridge Of Leaves. This is another hard-to-find book that never should have gone out of print. Vacallo was a Fulbright Scholar who wrote frequently of growing up in an Italian-American neighborhood in Pennsylvania. This is one of those stories, centering around the passage of childhood to adult and all the people who influenced that journey. Vacallo died 17 June.

Janet Lunn, The Root Cellar. While Lunn was a naturalized Canadian citizen, she was born in the US and carried with her many stores involving US history. This one is no different, taking her heroine back from 1980 to 1860, smack in the middle of the Civil War, via a root cellar, which is as much a metaphor as an actual place. The award-winning book is typical of Lunn’s style and a good introduction to her children’s literature.  Lunn died 26 June in Ontario.

Michael Bond, Paddington Bear. A beloved writer whose career spanned 59 years. Who hasn’t at least heard of the Paddington Bear series, if not read all 35 books? Even if you’ve grown old and grey, these are still wonderful bedtime reading. Bond created a literary phenomenon that will doubtlessly live well into the future. Few authors are so mourned outside the literary world as Bond was and sales of the books and merchandise spiked hard through the summer, corresponding with the release of the movie, Paddington Bear 2. The author may be gone, but many generations yet to come will remember the lovable character he left us.  Bond died 27 June.

Rae Desmond Jones, The Lemon Tree. Primarily a poet, the novel gives him a chance to release long paragraphs of angst that seem to have built up from the limitations of his poetry. The story is compelling and different if for no other reason than we really don’t get too many books about growing up in Australia. His prose is descriptive and imaginative, the vocabulary of a poet in long form. US readers not familiar with his work are missing out.  Jones died 27 June.

Miriam Marx, Love Groucho: Letters from Groucho Marx to His Daughter Miriam. Yes, the daughter of the comedian, and one of his long-time writers, wrote a book that is a must not only for Marx Brothers fans but for anyone who has a challenging relationship with their father. These are his letters to her, his advice and admonition, as she was growing up during the time when the Marx Brothers were at the height of their fame. This is an incredibly intimate behind-the-scenes look at a comedian whose work still stands apart from anyone else in the industry. Miriam died at 91 on 29 June.

William Sanders, The Next Victim. This is another author to whom I have a personal connection, though I’m not entirely comfortable admitting that. This writer of alternative history, who lived in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, never failed to make me laugh. He was a fantastic storyteller, one of the few who could match my Uncle Windjammer Buck when it came to creating stories of questionable reality. Could anything he said be taken all that seriously? Yet, he is a somewhat-controversial choice in that Sanders could be accused of being anti-Muslim in later years, though he denied such. I’m including him based on my memory of him and this book that is the first of his Taggart Roper series. Sanders died 27 June.

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July

Spencer Johnson, Who Moved My Cheese? While his children’s ValueTales series was more prolific, it was Who Moved My Cheese? that first got my real attention in 1998. The timing was just right and the book became a near-instant best-seller. The book works because he utilizes an elementary metaphor broken down to a level that’s easy to digest without a lot of technical jargon. Dr. Johnson has been accused, whether justly or not, of feeding the “get rich through positive thinking” movement seen in “motivational speakers” such as Tony Robbins. The book is definitely worth reading. Whether one finds it genuinely helpful is a personal matter. Dr. Johnson died 3 July.

Kenneth Silverman, The Life and Times of Cotton Mather. If you ever considered biographies boring, you need to read this book. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize for this incredible work, Silverman has a way of searing this story into your conscious. Sure, you know Cotton Mather as one of America’s earliest leaders, but Silverman paints him not so much as an immigrant fleeing Europe and more as the base form around which being American is defined. Silverman died of lung cancer on 7 July.

Thomas Fleming, When This Cruel War Is Over. Somewhere in this book is a romance but for those of us living in the Midwest, this is also a tale of how we almost blew the Civil War. What may be even more disturbing is recognizing that many of the sentiments expressed in this historically accurate novel still exist among many Indiana and Kentucky residents today. Fleming was first and foremost a historian with as many non-fiction titles to his name as there were works of fiction. He uses actual letters from Abraham Lincoln and others in suspenseful manner to create a story that, if nothing else, sheds light on our troublesome past. Fleming died 23 July.

Robin Gardiner, Titanic: The Ship That Never Sank? I’m not one to give much for conspiracy theories, but Gardiner put his entire life into the notion that it wasn’t the Titanic but a damaged Olympic that sank. Moreover, he claims that the White Star line that owned both ships perpetrated the sinking on purpose for the insurance money. Gardiner’s account is so detailed that he may just change your mind, though I don’t think the official history is changing any time soon. Gardiner died of stomach cancer on 23 July.

H. A. Hargreaves, North by 2000+. Canadian short-story fiction came to life in Hargreaves’ work. He had a way of working with speculative science fiction that defined the genre. These short stories were a best seller when they were first printed in 1975 but were reprinted with five additional stories not found in the first edition.This anthology is a must for any sci-fi fan. Hargreaves died 27 July.

August

Mark Merlis, Man About Town. This award-winning LGBT writer took on gay themes in his novels when it wasn’t yet popular to do so. More than just chasing stereotypes or trying to disprove them, Merlis gives us an intimate glimpse into the world of a middle-aged gay man and the real-world challenges of that reality. His story is compelling and relatable, sympathetic but not to the point of inviting undue pity. Merlis died 15 August from ALS.

Brian Aldiss, Greybeard. How does one select a single title from a writer with over 80 published works to his name, not including all the short stories? Aldiss was a science fiction powerhouse heavily influenced by H. G. Wells. Where he takes this story, though, is a bit frightening. He imagines a world where all men have become sterile. Reproduction is no longer possible. For some, that might seem ideal but Aldiss understands human nature far too well to make this a painless read. What’s even more astonishing is that he wrote this in 1964. The whole story feels astonishingly real. Aldiss died 19 August, the day after his 92nd birthday.

Susan Vreeland, The Passion of Artemisia. There aren’t many authors who can take on art history and turn it into a compelling story but Vreeland does just that. Transporting us back to the 17th century and the post-Renaissance art world in Italy, Vreeland recreates the life story of an amazing female artist, Artemisia Gentileschi. While male-dominated history writers focused on male artists, Artemisia was as popular, if not more so, than any of “the guys” and didn’t have to die before her work became profitable. This is more than an art story, but a story of a strong woman succeeding in a male-dominated world. Vreeland died 23 August.

September

Kate Millett, Sexual Politics. Anything you know about second-wave feminism probably had its roots somewhere in this book or others from this writer. The current #MeToo movement certainly would not exist without this book. Based on her doctoral dissertation, which caused an incredible stir in `970, Millett provides the evidence that skewers the male patriarchy of the literary world and everything around it. Here is where hard core feminism begins; the book is considered a Bible for many. Millett died 6 September.

J. P. Donleavy, The Ginger Man. Considered by many to be a modern classic, The Ginger Man was originally banned for obscenity in the US when it was first published in 1955. Donleavy had to go to France to find a publisher willing to take on the wild and raucous story he had created. Donleavy shatters any delicate sensibilities with a tale that, at times, seems irresponsible by contemporary standards but at the same time accurately portrays a rebellious young man at the very beginning of the sexual revolution. You need to read this just to see what all the hullabaloo was about. Donleavy died 11 September.

Kit Reed, The Story Until Now: A Great Big Book Of Stories. If short stories are your thing, you’ll fall in love with this book, assuming you don’t already have it in your collection. There are a number of reasons to love this collection of short stories but where the collection takes on added meaning is in Reed’s ability to write in a transgendered fashion impactful for those growing up in a world where gender and sexuality are more fluid than older stories address. Ms. Reed was a fantastic storyteller and each tale is a new delight unto itself. She died 24 September.

Nora Marks Dauenhauer, Russians in Tlingit America: The Battles of Sitka, 1802 And 1804. There is not a lot of native peoples’ literature written by native writers. Even fewer among the Tlingit people of Alaska. Nora Dauenhauer was one of the best and most prolific. Native North American peoples have a long history of being mistreated, primarily by European invaders. The Tlingit, however, had to deal with an enemy other tribes never saw: Russians. This story doesn’t have a happy ending but is important for us to realize why these native peoples need our protection now. Dauenhauer died 25 September.

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October

Nora Johnson, The World Of Henry Orient.  Johnson’s first novel, written in 1957, was made into a movie starring Peter Sellers and Angela Lansbury in 1964. What a way to start! The book has endured over the years, still a favorite of young girls, especially. For Johnson, though, this was just the beginning. It was her article for The Atlantic, “Sex and the College Girl,” that really set tongues to wagging. She continued writing her entire life, most often in shorter forms. Still, this first novel is a delightfully fascinating read. Johnson died 5 October in Dallas.

Joan Blos, A Gathering of Days won both the U.S. National Book Award for Children’s Books as well as the Newbery Medal in 1979 because Blos’ writing style is as relatable for adult readers as it is for the young tweens to whom it was directed. Anything from Joan Blos serves as a good example of why adults should be active readers of children’s literature. This is a well-crafted and beautifully written story that doesn’t bog itself down in vain attempts to be overly smart or misuse impressive vocabularies. The prolific children’s author died 12 October.

Erwin Moser, The Crow in the Snow And Other Bedtime Stories. If you have little ones, especially grandchildren, you’ll want to keep this book handy. Translated from Moser’s native German, these tales make wonderful bedtime reading because the one-page stories are concise, open a child’s imagination, and fuel their dreams with the author’s beautiful artwork. While copies can be obtained through Amazon, one might also consider checking at used bookstores as well. Moser died 12 October.

Julian May, The Many Colored Land (from the Saga of Pliocene Exile series). Prolific Sci-Fi writer Julian May published under several pseudonyms so as to not become bogged down in any one style. A lifelong fan of science fiction, though, she was most at home with this more than any other genre. The Saga of Pliocene Exile is one of her most popular series and one that sets up a number of ethical questions as both society and humanity itself continues to evolve. May died 17 October.

Donald Bain, Coffee, Tea, or Me? Talk about under appreciated. You don’t know his name because he ghost wrote his best-known books, including the Murder She Wrote series as Jessica Fletcher. Overall, he penned 115 titles over 40 years but very few of them contain his real name. Bain had an incredible way of understanding a woman’s perspective on things, ar at least, what he assumed was a woman’s perspective. He created a number of stereotypes around flying and the jet-setting lifestyle of the early 1960s, not to mention a few misconceptions regarding police work. Still, everything remains a delightful read. Now you know who was behind it all. Bain died 21 October.

Jane Juska, A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance. Here’s a retirement goal for you: Juska was a retired English teacher, 67-years-old, when she explored sex as a senior by putting a literary personal ad in the New York Review of Books. Nothing that followed was expected or what we might consider “normal.” The book became an award-winning play starring Sharon Gless. More importantly, it raises awareness of the fact that just as old men remain randy and promiscuous, so, too, do older women maintain the capacity for a very active sex life. Juska died 24 October.

November

Nancy Friday, My Secret Garden. Friday went where no woman before her had dared to go: women’s sexual fantasies. Not without controversy, though. Because she solicited stories from women, the content was considered “unscientific” and some accused her of making up the whole thing. Still, the book broke ground that opened doors for millions of women to talk about their sexual fantasies, scientific or not. The book has been reprinted several times and still enjoys a large audience, selling several thousand new copies a year. Friday died 5 November.

Jill Barklem, Brambly Hedge series. A classically trained illustrator, Barklem’s husband encouraged her to turn her drawings into books. She first through his idea was incredulous. When she relented, though, she discovered that both adults and children could appreciate the diversity of her talent. There are eight books total, in addition to other titles, all of which are equally beautiful. Barklem died 15 November after a long illness.

Anne Bushnell, aka Sara Craven, The Innocent’s Shameful Secret. I’ll admit I’m not the world’s biggest fan of romance novels, but they remain the most commercially lucrative genre in all of bookselling. Bushnell wrote over 80 romance novels as Sara Craven covering the entire spectrum of the genre. The Innocent’s Shameful Secret is one of her last books, published earlier this year. Bushnell died 15 November.

John Gordon, The Giant Under The Snow. Before there was Harry Potter, there was John Gordon’s The Giant Under The Snow. In fact, I wouldn’t be the first person to suspect that J. K. Rowling was almost certainly influenced in some way by Gordon’s book. Supernatural fiction focused on three teen heroes set in the English region known as The Fens? Nah, there couldn’t be any relation there at all (he said with sarcasm dripping from his lips). First published in 1968, Gordon’s tale of magic and suspense, good versus evil, is every bit as compelling as the crew from Hogwarts. Gordon died 20 November.

December

William H. Gass, The Tunnel. While he was generally more of a philosopher and critic than a writer, when he did write he tended to win awards. The Tunnel won the American Book Award in 1996, which I’m sure was a relief considering it took Gass 26 years to write it. This is a deep, thoughtful, and introspective read that one isn’t going to fly through in one setting. Gass raises all the major philosophical questions about life, ethics, and society but in a fashion that doesn’t feel as though one is reading through a lecture they might have slept through in college. This is genuinely a phenomenal book. Gass died 6 December.

Kathleen Karr, The Boxer. Here’s another topic I don’t typically give a lot of my time: sports. Too often the stories either gloss over the athlete’s fault or swings too far the other way in romanticizing their shortcomings. Karr finds a delicate balance in this tale of a young man who struggled between supporting his family and his desire to escape poverty. The Boxer won the Golden Kite Award for best fiction in 2000. Karr died 6 December.

Clifford Irving, The Hoax. Most writers are known for the books they penned. Irving is known for the one he didn’t. Namely, an autobiography of Howard Hughes in 1972. Irving went to prison for the con job and then wrote The Hoax about the whole affair, which later became a movie starring Richard Gere. He really did write over 20 other novels, but no one seems to care about those. Even his obituaries headlined the hoax while ignoring everything else he actually wrote. In fact, most of his other books are out of print and completely unavailable. The caper was something he was never able to escape, despite several attempts. Irving died 19 December.

Sue Grafton, Y is for Yesterday. The year ends with the death of one of the U.S.’s most beloved mystery writers. Since 1982, Sue Grafton has carried along the tale of Kinsey Millhone as he worked his way through the alphabet solving one mystery after another. This past week, Grafton died on 28 December after a two-year battle with cancer. Y is for Yesterday is her last book. Even though Z is for Zero was scheduled for release next year, Grafton was insistent that none of her work be ghost written, even by her own daughter. So, the alphabet, and the year, ends here.

Conclusion

Every year there are hundreds of thousands of new books published, each struggling to find its audience and hopefully create even a modest payday for its author. Most authors never see much profit and end up dying in relative obscurity. As much as we all enjoy new books, there’s something to be said for going back and re-examining the works of those who left us. I hope you’ll find at least a few from this list to your liking.

Read well.

Reading time: 32 min
Surviving Holidays

Just as a puppy can be more of a challenge than a gift, so too can the holidays. —John Clayton

I strongly dislike Black Friday and holiday sales in general. I find the greed sickening and the false notion that one is helping the economy is grossly ignorant. The economy does better when one spends a fairly even amount each month rather than discount-fueled spikes [source and source]. I have long held a general disdain for those foolish enough to spend frigid hours in line waiting for some discounted television instead of being at home, sleeping, which is what any sane person does after a huge Thanksgiving meal.

The older I get the more I can identify with Dr. Suess’s Grinch:

Then he growled, with his Grinch fingers nervously drumming,
“I MUST find some way to stop Christmas from coming!”
For Tomorrow, he knew, all the Who girls and boys,
Would wake bright and early. They’d rush for their toys!
And then! Oh, the noise! Oh, the Noise!
Noise! Noise! Noise!
That’s one thing he hated! The NOISE!
NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!

Where I differ with ol’ Grinch is that it’s not just the one day that’s the problem, but the whole month between Thanksgiving and December 25 that is so incredibly full of NOISE. With holiday ads and the same holiday carols that haven’t changed since my late parents were children and every child one sees is screaming, “I want … I want …” there have been years when I would like to have dug a hole and crawled into it. Wake me after New Years.

What some people consider a “joyous season” is nothing but absolute chaos for many others. We don’t like it one bit. We prefer peaceful, quiet conversations; casual, uncrowded trips to the store; and the gentle sounds of Jane Machine streaming, or we would if Jane Machine had more than two songs available.

Winter holidays are built around belief systems, which is all wonderful and cheery for those who hold to those belief systems. For those of us who consider themselves more practical, perhaps even logical, and definitely more scientifically-minded people, getting excited about a group of myths and fairy tales stopped making sense about the time we realized there is no Santa Claus. When one isn’t into the greed of, “What I want for Christmas,” one feels rather left out of the loop. Even the concept of charitable acts of giving become depression points when one doesn’t have anything left to give.

“Going Walter” is a term Dudeist use to refer to those moments when we lose our cool. The Big Lebowski character of Walter Sobchack, played perfectly by John Goodman, is that by-the-rules guy we all tend to be on those days when we look around and see how much everyone and everything has gone off the rails. Walter is the antithesis of The Dude. His emotions are constantly right out front, obvious and unapologetic. He doesn’t sit back and wait. Walter cocks his pistol and gets shit done.

December, for many of us, brings out our inner Walter. From our perspective, the world is more chaotic now than it has been the previous eleven months and as much as we’d like for it all to stop we know it’s only going to get worse. The music is only going to get louder and more annoying. More people are going to scream, “Merry Christmas,” because, you know, there’s apparently a “war” on that holiday. And then there’s that annoying habit people have of wearing felt antlers or light-up noses and ugly-ass sweaters that make eye gouging a serious temptation.

Take a deep breath. I know, getting worked up over the trepidation of the month happens without warning. We don’t have to spend the next 30 or so days trying to avoid “going Walter” on everyone around us. There are things we can and probably should do to help us abide more peacefully with all the really stupid and ignorant people around us. They’re not going away, after all. No one is going to suddenly be less annoying. We are not going to change anyone and there’s no logical argument for trying. Rather, we have to change our own activities and our focus to help us find the inner peace that allows us to abide.

Get A Massage—Or Four

One of the things that happen in December is that all our combined frustrations work together to leave us feeling tense and irritable. Tense and irritable never leads to anything good. At the very least, our blood pressure rises which increases our risk of stroke and/or heart attack. Therefore, doing something that alleviates all that tension works for the ultimate good.

While meditation and yoga might seem like natural go-to remedies, they are likely to only address your tension if you’ve already been practicing them for a while. Meditation, especially, as helpful as it is, takes some practice before it starts delivering positive results and even then some people never quite get to that stage. Massage works even if you’ve never had one before. The potential is significant as a well-trained and licensed professional knows exactly where to manipulate your body to help get rid of all the physical nastiness resulting from our emotional turmoil.

What is especially popular this year is something known as “Visceral Manipulation,” or deep organ massage [source]. There are only about 24,000 trained and licensed practitioners in the United States and, as one might expect, the majority of those are in major cities on either coast. If there’s not one near you, a normal deep-tissue massage works almost as well. The difference is that visceral manipulation focuses on particular organs in the torso that are known to respond negatively to tension and stress. The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association says the practice can even help heal post-surgery abdominal adhesions.

The only danger I see here is that whenever I have any kind of massage I’m usually worthless for anything productive the rest of the day. I’ve even fallen asleep on the massage table before. Being fully relaxed isn’t the best condition if one has to do things like drive, either. Consider taking a taxi home or calling a friend.

Spend Some Time At The Library

Libraries are always a pretty good place to escape the noise of the world any time of year. After all, they do have that whole “be quiet” thing going for them. They tend to carry an added benefit during the holidays in that there generally aren’t as many people roaming about. General attendance tends to be down for the month with the exception of special events that can be avoided by consulting posted schedules. That means one can sit and read or listen to music (with headphones on) without having to tolerate a constant barrage of holiday wishes or seasonal carols.

What is especially beneficial for libraries is that the modern institutions have become so much more than a repository of books. Libraries are learning centers with programs and resources available year-round that strengthen and enlighten one intellectually, spiritually, and emotionally. Libraries know that they serve a diverse audience and do their best to provide something of interest for every group within that audience. Not only are we escaping the noise of the holidays, we have an opportunity to learn something at the same time.

Perhaps most important, though, is the opportunities libraries provide to help other people. Different libraries have different systems so I can’t give much detail on what is available on a general basis. Do know, however, that there is almost always an opportunity to read to those who can’t, to assist those who don’t know their way around computers, and give back to your community in very tangible ways. They probably won’t give you a t-shirt and not everyone you help is going to show any form of gratitude, but putting some genuine good into the universe at a time when most people are faking it yields a higher level of a reward than we might ever know.

Take Up A New Hobby

Most people wait until after the first of the New Year to start anything new. This is your chance to get the jump on all of them by going ahead and starting a new hobby now while everyone else is running around like chickens. This isn’t exactly the worst time of year to be assembling supplies, either, as one might just find some discounts, especially online shipping discounts, apply no matter what one is purchasing.
Where one is most likely to stumble in this venture, unsurprisingly, is choosing a hobby that one is likely to actually continue. Just because something sounds like it is enjoyable doesn’t mean one actually enjoys it once we’ve started the activity. A little bit of planning and objective-as-possible self-examination is necessary if we’re not going to also quit our new hobby before everyone else.

One good resource to help one decide on a new hobby is Hobby Lark which offers an article on 150+ Hobby Ideas Broken Down By Interest And Personality. They’ve done a very good job of breaking the more popular hobbies into categories such as “Cheap Hobbies” and “Hobbies That Help Others.” They’ve also separated some by season, though the holiday-disenfranchised probably want to stay away from their winter selection. If one doesn’t find something on that list, they have a quiz that might help, also.

The Internet is a pretty decent resource when one is considering hobbies. Take advantage of that and have some fun!

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Write Your Own Book

Yes, I’m well aware that November is the whole writing-your-novel-in-a-month thing. That’s a good program if one has absolutely nothing else going on in their life during the month of November. Personally, I’m far too busy writing here and elsewhere to complete an entire novel in a month, or a year, or five years for that matter. Let’s just say I have problems focusing on long-form writing.

Writing is an excellent way of blocking out everything else that is going one outside of one’s own personal existence, however. Just ask The Young Woman (TYW) how am I when I’m working on an article. I can totally zone out and ignore everything else in the room. Even the dogs know that if they want my attention while I’m writing they have to get up in my face to do so. Writing gives us a chance to reflect, be creative, and explore topics and ideas that have been lingering in our heads the entire year.

Of course, if one is going to write a book then one needs to know how to publish that book when they’re done, right? Maybe. Publishing in today’s environment isn’t at all like it was even five years ago. The Old Man chose to self-publish his book, Rethinking ‘Merica but while there are advantages to that approach, there are significant disadvantages as well. We recommend taking a look at this video from Breed Magazine to help ignite some ideas. One has plenty of choices. Choose the one that is most likely to work for you.

The world can never have too many books. Please, add your story to the stacks.

Visit Independently-Owned Coffee/Tea Shops

We live in a world where there’s a Starbucks or a Caribou Coffee on nearly every corner. Those are the places that are bloated with seasonal activity as people are scurrying about making nuisances of themselves with their ugly-as-hell holiday sweaters and 47 different renditions of “The Little Drummer Boy” on their playlist. Those of us who take issue with the holiday seasons consider places like these to be the perfect culmination of everything we absolutely loathe about the holidays.

Now is the time to explore the alternative: independently-owned coffee and tea shops. Yes, Virginia, they do still exist. Some of them even do their own bean roasting. They’re scattered around all over the world and even smaller towns are likely to have one or two places. Not only does the small-batch roasted coffee tend to taste better, they also tend to be quieter places without all the hubbub and activity that one finds at the chain stores.

Tea shops are probably the gems here, though, in that they still haven’t achieved the level of popularity that coffee shops have. Even an independent coffee shop can get really busy during peak times of the morning. Tea shops, however, tend to consider anything more than five people in the shop at the same time as a rush. If one is looking to really escape, these can be wonderful places to go.

Be aware, however, that even independent shops often go in for the holiday decorations. Sure, they’re probably not going to be as obnoxious as the chain stores but if one is trying to completely avoid the red and green and tinsel and glitter then a little careful research might be necessary.

Rent A Cabin At A State Park

Sure, this option isn’t cheap but it is very effective. The year both my parents died we rented a cabin at a state park in Georgia because we were all emotionally drained and unable to deal with all the normal holiday festivities without my parents being involved. Getting away from civilization in a well-appointed cabin in the middle of the woods was the perfect answer to a holiday season that had us missing some very special people.

Renting a cabin does require some planning, however. First, one wants to make sure that the cabin either has cooking facilities or that the park has dining facilities that are open for the holidays. Ours had both. We were able to prepare breakfast and lunch for ourselves and then went to the park’s restaurant for dinner. We did have to make reservations for Christmas dinner, but even that was incredibly low key compared to anyplace we might have gone in Atlanta.

One also has to be prepared for the fact that Internet access is likely to be slim to none, depending on where one goes. We took a couple of laptops capable of playing CDs and DVDs back in 2003 but those options are not necessarily available on newer models. In fact, Windows 10 doesn’t even support playing DVDs anymore.

Consider this a good time to catch up on all those books everyone’s been telling you to read all year. I just updated my Goodreads list in the margin at the right of this article. There are plenty of “Best of … “ lists being published about now, also. Pick a bunch and enjoy the peace and quiet.

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Volunteer Your Time Where It Does The Most Good

We’ve already mentioned volunteering at the library as a potential escape from the holiday insanity, but there are plenty of other places that really could use a helping hand this time of year. Since you’re not busy shopping and participating in the season of greed then chances are you have time to help people who have the most severe needs. Again, one might have to endure an occasional “Merry Christmas” or “God bless you,” but those are insignificant compared to the amount of suffering some people experience during this month.

Generally speaking, there are four places that need the most help through the holiday season: Hospitals, nursing homes, shelters for battered women and children, and blood gathering organizations such as the American Red Cross. However, one needs to be very aware that each of these places, while having severe needs for help, cannot accept just anyone walking in off the street. Security, health, and training are major issues for all these organizations and going through the volunteer acceptance process can take some time.

The help one can give to these organizations, however, exceeds any material gift one could ever give or get. Hospitals, especially, are flooded through the holidays and most of these facilities are already short-handed. Nurses I know are working seven days a week already. While there is a limited number of ways in which volunteers can help, the services they do provide are valuable and highly appreciated. If this sounds like something that you can do, check with your local hospitals and shelters and see what requirements they have for volunteers. If you start now, chances are you can be helping out when their need hits its most critical point late in December.

Organize That Mess Around The House

Look around you. Look at the stacks of magazines you always meant to read but never quite got around to perusing. See that pile of laundry that’s clean but hasn’t been put away. Consider that stack of used popsicle sticks you keep telling the kids you’re going to use. Oh, wait, that last one’s probably just me. Still, for a great many of us, things have a way of piling up and now is as good a time as any to get a handle on the mess. Organizing one’s personal space now is a good way to get a fresh start on the new year while also helping one avoid the nonsense taking place in the outside world.

Where we most often run into problems with cutting the clutter at home, however, is not knowing exactly where to start. I hear the same complaint every time I tell our seven-year-old that she needs to clean her room: “I can’t! There’s too much stuff!” Chances are most of us know exactly how she feels. Realistically, there probably isn’t that much stuff. One doesn’t have to own a lot for it to look like a huge mess when it’s not organized.

Fortunately for all of us, there are plenty of resources like the kind folks over at Organized Home that offer practical advice on where to start and how to keep going once we’ve started. Follow their tips and chances are pretty high that by the time this holiday mess ends so, too, will the mess around your house. How much one does on any given day is, as always, subjective to one’s personal drive and other scheduled and unavoidable events, such as buying the food necessary to sustain these organizational activities. There’s no right or wrong answer as to how much one does. Any improvement is going to help improve the atmosphere around us and might even help improve our mood a bit.

If All Else Fails, Buy Noise-Reducing Earphones

Despite our best efforts, we cannot always avoid all the holiday noise that permeates our society. Even the most innocuous of places, such as the auto parts store, seem to feel the need to participate in trying to elevate the holiday spirit. Escaping the barrage can be practically impossible. We still have to work, we still have to buy groceries, and plenty of other reasons force us to interact with the public.

Noise-reducing earphones can help and some of them have gotten especially good at blocking out unwanted sound. While different models employ different methods, the point of any good noise-reducing earphones is to block out as much external noise as possible. Most of the really good ones are found in health/safety supply areas, especially those related to firearms and aircraft maintenance. At the high end, one can stand dangerously close to a jet engine or the front row of an AC/DC concert without experiencing any hearing damage. At the low end, the annoying little hums and twitters and department store background music all go away.

Some cautions have to be applied here. First, not all earphones are created equally. There are some that are super-cheap and are designed primarily to protect kids whose parents drag them out to the shooting range every weekend. They can help reduce enough noise to allow one to focus but aren’t going to completely eliminate annoyingly loud conversations or the incessant holiday soundtrack on infinite loop at your favorite restaurant. Pay more, get more.

Second, be aware that some of the best noise-canceling earphones are big and bulky, which means it’s going to be obvious you’re not paying attention to all the environmental noise. Sometimes, that obvious ignorance is acceptable, but if you’re trying to escape the noise at work you’ll want to find an in-ear solution that works. There are some out there, but getting a good fitting can be challenging.

Finally, know that different companies define “noise reduction” in different ways. Companies like Bose are referring to the background noises common to recorded music, not the sound of the screaming child seated directly behind you on a flight from Newark to Seattle. Read the product description carefully before making a purchase.

Give The World A Break

At some point, no matter how much we might try to escape the holidays and their associated activities and annoyances, we have to realize that the vast majority of the world is rather excited about whatever holiday they’re celebrating. Winter holidays hold a lot of significance and meaning for people of diverse belief systems. Celebrating these holidays make them happy and, for most, when they wish you Season’s Greetings in whatever manner they choose, what they are simply trying to do is share their happiness with you.

We don’t have to participate in the holidays to make other people happy. We don’t have to buy everyone gifts. A smile, saying, “thank you,” and opening the door for someone whose hands are full help put everyone in a better mood and puts a positive energy into the universe. A little kindness on our part can help make someone else’s actions a little less annoying.

The last time I gave two hoots about the holidays was back in 2005. What I experienced that year, and frequently since, gave me plenty of reason to loathe the season. I don’t need the greed, the selfishness, or the flaunted materialism in my life. What is often billed as “The Most Wonderful Time Of Year” has consistently been the most miserable.

That doesn’t mean we have to be the negative force that brings everyone else down, though. There are things we can do to survive this holiday season without hurting anyone else. We can avoid the temptation to do damage to everyone who crosses our path wearing a stupid reindeer sweater. We have options. Decide which ones work for you and enjoy your holiday season even if the only thing you celebrate is waking up alive each morning.

Abide In Peace,
The Old Man

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Reading time: 19 min
Why Black Friday Needs To End

The days of waiting in line all night for a chance at a bargain need to be over.

 

charles i. letbetter - goodbye black friday

[Note: The following article was originally published at Charles I. Letbetter Creative about this time last year, which is why some of the image content is NSFW. They kindly gave us permission to re-publish the entire thing so that the Old Man wouldn’t have to write something all-too-similar this year. We’ll stop complaining when the situation changes, which means we’ll have to do something else again this time next year.]

I am doing well to move this morning. No longer being accustomed to standing on my feet for hours on end, yesterday’s marathon of ten hours in the kitchen did me in. My ankles were throbbing as I fell into bed early last night. This morning, walking the dog was painful. None of my joints wanted to cooperate. This is all beside the fact that I still feel totally overstuffed from dinner. After yesterday, I don’t see how anyone can even think about getting up too damn early and standing in line for an alleged deal.

Black Friday used to be a tradition for a lot of families, but that tradition seems to be waning rather heavily.  I took note as we walked through the neighborhood this morning. Several cars were missing yesterday as many had gone to visit relatives for the holiday. However, everyone was back home this morning. No one was out shopping at 4:00 AM. The only vehicle out was the local newspaper carrier.

While it’s still much too early to get many reliable reports, lower numbers seem to be the case elsewhere. Britain tried adopting the U.S. tradition a few years ago, but reports this morning are that UK shoppers and retailers have largely turned their backs on Black Friday. We’re accustomed to hearing tales of chaos and fighting, but Business Insider sent someone out early to Wal-Mart and they reported everything was quiet, calm, and not the least bit overcrowded. Black Friday as we once knew it is dead. Sure, there’s still shopping, and greed, and one-day sales, but the whole event has changed and isn’t likely to return to the madhouse it once was.

This is a good thing.

The Myth Of Black Friday

charles i. letbetter - goodbye black friday

Black Friday has never been the big savings bonanza people tend to think. Prices are marked down on a few highly visible loss leaders in an attempt to get people into stores. For decades, that plan has worked. Here’s a hilarious video that explains the whole concept:

For years we’ve fallen for this piece of retail fraud. We like the idea of sales. In fact, we’ve conditioned ourselves to not pay what we think is full price for anything. Retailers know this. So, that “full price” is falsified so that the actual “full price” looks like a bargain. We fall for the trick every time.

We also like the holidays and for many Black Friday shopping is a part of their holiday routine. Whole families have been known to go out together, setting up tents in frigid temperatures, and pretending to love every minute of it because, hey, it’s the holidays and it’s families. Retailers know that as well and they’ve pushed store openings earlier to the point that many now open on Thanksgiving day itself. Why? Because they know you just can’t wait to start the holidays.

So, while retailers may be guilty of starting the whole Black Friday ruse, we’re the ones guilty of perpetuating it and making it worse. The ridiculousness only works because we buy into the whole myth. If we actually applied intelligent thought to the matter, the whole event would quickly go away.

 

But Wait, Something Is Changing

charles i. letbetter - goodbye black friday

This year Black Friday is noticeably different. Multiple news sources are finding that Black Friday is losing its focus and online sales surged yesterday as more people decided to stay home and shop online. Major big-box retailers, such as Wal-Mart and Best Buy as well as online powerhouse Amazon all started their Black Friday sales two weeks in advance for those savvy enough to be paying attention.

In some ways, Black Friday isn’t just a one-day event, but an entire shopping season unto itself. With online sales having grown by over 16%, brick-and-mortar retailers are having to scramble harder and getting much less in return. Last year’s Black Friday numbers were some of the most disappointing ever, leaving a large number of stores still looking at red on their accounting books rather than black. The hope this year has been that by expanding the sales as well as embracing online shopping that disaster might be averted.

Take note, though: US retailers weren’t hurting nearly as bad as they let on. Sales numbers at discount merchants, which is where most of you are shopping in the first place, have been booming. Deep discounters, such as Dollar Store and Dollar Tree are actually expanding, building more stores, and hiring more staff. Who’s left hurting are high-dollar luxury goods stores and high-end department stores such as Macy’s and Nordstrom.  Mall stores such as Abercrombie & Fitch and American Apparel are at risk of having to close more stores if this holiday season does not improve dramatically, and there’s no indication it will.

Sure, we still love a good sale, but fewer of us are willing to get out of bed at some ungodly hour on a cold morning in November to actually take advantage of those sales. We’d rather sit home, surf on our phones, and buy that cute sweater online. Black Friday as a day of chaos and high sales appears to be all but dead.

Controlling Our Greed

charles i. letbetter - goodbye black friday

I’ve complained about Black Friday before. In fact, these photos were first part of a Black Friday rant four years ago. Unfortunately, we lost that particular article when the server crashed a couple of years ago. Still, my point is that this exercise in sheer greed is not new. Just because the shape of Black Friday is expanding beyond a single 24-hour period doesn’t mean that we’re buying any less. We’re not. If anything, our constant consumption has taken our shopping to new heights. While the bash-em-in-the-head version of Black Friday might be over, what we’ve done is expand the scope and methodology of our greed. We’re buying more.

Sure, where we’re shopping has changed. We’re buying more from local stores, which improves our local economy. We’re buying more online, which helps the environment a little bit, allegedly. We’re still buying, though, and not necessarily so we can give to others. While the numbers vary wildly from one report to another, a fair portion of us useBlack Friday sales to buy things for ourselves. That new big screen TV? Yeah, that’s going in our own living room. We can call if a family gift if you want, but we still know the actual reasoning was pure selfishness. We deserve it, right? That sweater? Hey, it’s getting colder out and that one you bought last year is looking a bit ratty. And you can never have too many pants.

We don’t need to have a Black Friday to be greedy. We just are. We always have been. Each year, we say we’re going to give more to charity. Each year, there are more opportunities to real good. Each year, we just let those opportunities slip right on by. Why? Because those boots are40% off the price previously marked up 50$. We’re not buying them for the kids, or for Aunt Ella. Those are going in our own closets. We’re greedy.

Herein lies the perpetual hypocrisy of Thanksgiving, a reflection of much of the hypocrisy other countries see in all of America. We claim to be so concerned about others. We claim to want what is best for the world. But in the end, it’s our own fat asses we take care of. We give thanks for what we have and then demand more.

I made sausage balls yesterday and set them out for everyone to snack on throughout the day. My hope was that they would be enough to keep the little ones out of my hair. It didn’t work. They looked at the overflowing container and asked, “It this all we’re getting?”

We learn greed young. We need to get over our fat selves. Let’s kill Black Friday for good. Stay home. Don’t shop for what you don’t legitimately need. Stop the greed.

Reading time: 7 min
New bill introduced, president to resign

NOTICE: THIS IS SATIRE, NOT THE NEWS

We know the headline grabbed your attention but we want to be extremely clear: what follows is satire, not the news. We want you to share the article, but please make sure everyone knows this is satire, not the news. There is enough of a problem with fake news without anyone adding to it. Nothing that follows is real, at least not when we wrote it. We do not have any control over what may or may not happen in the future. Thank you for reading and sharing.

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THE WHITE HOUSE
WASHINGTON

OFFICE OF COMMUNICATIONS
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
21 NOVEMBER 2017

(WASHINGTON) The White House announced this morning that it is backing a bill introduced to both the House of Representatives and the Senate known as the Anti-Sexual Assault Surveillance Bill of 2017. The bill is co-sponsored in the House by the female members of the Congressional Victim’s Rights Caucus, and the Congressional Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus. The Senate version of the bill, which contains nearly identical wording, is co-sponsored by Senator Jeanne Shaheed, representing the Senate Ethics Committee, and Senators Shelly Moore Capito and Amy Klobuchar, representing the Senate Committee on Rules and Administration. The bills were introduced under special rules that allow them to be passed without the vote or participation of any male members of Congress.

The 237-page bill, initially distributed only to female members of the White House Press Corp,  details a system wherein all U.S. citizens receive and must wear at all times video cameras attached to the forehead. Cameras are inherently in the “on” position and can only be turned off in the event of the death of the citizen. Cameras would utilize a proposed national Internet wi-fi system to live stream the activities of the wearers wherever in the nation they might be. Additionally, cameras would be required of foreign guests, including visiting heads of state, for the duration of their visit to the United States. Live streams would be monitored and police would be immediately dispatched at any moment any form of sexual assault or unwanted sexual advance was detected. Perpetrators would then be detained and tried by an all-female court. Punishments established by the bill would range from fines of $500 for the first offense committed by someone under the age of 18, to life in prison for a two-time offender over the age of 25, or a three-time offender between the ages of 18-25.

“We are obviously doing our best to deal with an epidemic of sexual assault,” explained Victim’s Rights Caucus staff member Melanie Horrorwitz. “Studies by the women on these committees and caucuses have determined that one hundred percent of men over the age of 35 are sexual predators. Some have been sly enough to prevent any of their victims from actually remembering their crimes, but we are as sure that all men are guilty just as we are certain that all women are victims of male sexual assault, domination, and oppression, regardless of their age. This is the first serious step toward preventing any other women from becoming victims and re-educating the entire male gender of the population to respect women and keep their distance unless specifically beckoned.”

Senate Ethics Committee staffer, Stephanie Richmond, added, “Women across the United States have sent a very loud and clear message that they’re fed up with the continued litany of sexual harassment and the difficulty of bringing charges against those who perpetrate such crimes. The Anti-Sexual Assault Surveillance Bill provides hard evidence and allows anyone watching a live stream to serve the interest of justice by registering as a witness to the crime. The testimony of those witnesses then corroborates the victim’s account of the situation, providing for quick and certain justice. Our hope is that once this system is fully operational, courts can move quickly and achieve justice within 48 hours of the commission of a sexual assault crime.”

While none of the Members of Congress were immediately available at the White House press briefing, staff members for Senators Kamala D. Harris and Patty Murray of the Senate Budget Committee confirmed that the measure would be funded by removing funds currently earmarked for items such as 3D-printed pizza for Congressional staff birthday parties, surveillance droids still searching for former-President Obama’s real birth certificate, the remote-controlled flying pigs project, and slashing by as much as two-thirds President Trump’s self-tanning allotment. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the budget revisions could free up as much as fifteen billion dollars from the self-tanning allotment alone.

Ms. Horrorwitz denied that the bill is inherently “anti-men,” stating, “We’ve looked at the numbers and realize that there are some predatory women out there who are going to be caught in this net, and that’s as it should be. Sexually predatory activity has to end regardless of how it is being wielded or who is wielding it. We’eve existed too long on this planet being treated as objects of possession. This bill gives women the opportunity to take back their lives, to find respect as a human being.”

Ms. Richmond added, “Not all men are monsters, but men are a minefield. Not every inch has the power to devastate but devastation lies hidden everywhere. We’re willing to give up a little privacy in order to turn the tables on this long-standing ‘good ol boys’ network of power and corruption. We are fairly certain that the world is going to be a better place once this bill becomes law. No one should have to wear a mask of complicity as a survival tactic.”

White House To Lead Implementation

White House head intern Janna Mueller confirmed that the bill has the full support of the Trump administration and that the White House plans to lead by example. “Cameras have already been secured and labeled and are ready to be distributed to all White House staff members, including the White House Press Corp, just as soon as the bill is passed. We appreciate the efforts of special envoys Jessica Drake, Karena Virginia, Cathy Heller, Summer Zervos, Kristin Anderson, and Jessica Leeds, among others, who helped convince the President and his administration to participate in this vital program. The program enjoys especially strong support from the First Lady who has said that she will personally help fit the President with his camera.”

“The President was a little reluctant at first,” added Terri Scott, spokeswoman for the First Lady. “Terms like ‘witch hunt’ and ‘all Obama’s fault’ were thrown around for a while, but once the First Lady put his cell phone in a place where the President isn’t allowed to grab he came around and agreed that this really is the best thing for everyone. This bill is a giant step toward making America great. We all believe that.”

According to the terms outlined in the bill, once the White House staff has been fitted with cameras, Members of Congress and their staffs, as well as the Justices of the Supreme Court and their staffs are next. From there, implementation is based upon a hierarchy of historical abuse with Hollywood producers, musicians, fashion photographers and editors, comedians, and light-night television hosts being among the first non-elected citizen groups to receive the video cameras. 

While the majority of Americans should receive their cameras within the first six months after the bill’s signing, there is some concern that citizens in more rural areas of the United States, specifically places currently without Internet, cable news, or easy access to newspapers, may receive their cameras in the mail without understanding their purpose or how to use them. The Congressional Budget Office report estimates that as many a 1, 397 people could be affected. Ms. Richmond downplayed that number, however, stating that special agents would be dispatched to these areas to help people fit the cameras to their foreheads and teach them how to use the viral network. 

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Voyeurism Key To Program's Success

Critical to the success of the program is the assumption that Americans cannot resist the opportunity to spy on the lives of other people, especially those they don’t like or they feel have wronged them in any way. As the images are streamed live across the Internet and accessible on all Internet-capable devices, Americans whose cameras are also online and registered will have the ability to watch any feed and vote on the “C-Factor” of each particular feed. The “C” stands for “Creepiness,” a subjective level of predatory activity that causes the viewer to feel uncomfortable or that persons involved in the interaction might potentially be in danger.

“Actually, we got the idea from an episode of “The Orville” on Fox,” Ms. Mueller explained. “Since what is or isn’t creepy differs from person to person, we decided it would be best if everyone viewing a stream was allowed to weigh in as to whether the activities of the person they’re watching warrant intervention by law enforcement. The whole process is very democratic. If the majority of people viewing feel that a person’s actions are out of line, the system automatically notifies local authorities and that person is immediately picked up and their trial scheduled. We don’t want perpetrators on the street any longer than necessary, but at the same time, we want to give everyone a fair shake. Letting viewers from all over the country watch each other is probably one of the most democratic actions Americans have ever undertaken.”

Adding to the incentive of camera use is the ability for people to make money according to the number of viewers watching their live streams. “We understand that in live streaming one’s entire life that we are giving up a certain amount of privacy,” Ms. Richmond explained. “We compensate people for giving up that privacy by paying them $100 a day for every 10,000 viewers they have watching their feed. So, people whose feeds are likely to be popular, such as Katy Perry or Lady Gaga, could easily earn several thousand dollars a day from the program. At the same time, we hope that it leads people to think about engaging in more interesting activities so that other people have a reason to watch. No one is going to want to watch you eating a plate of nachos or reading a blog on how to boil water. They are much more likely to be interested in those accounts that involve some level of action, such as snow skiing, playing sports, or masturbating in front of a mirror.”

The bill immediately came under fire, however, from diverse groups such as the Catholic church, the American Psychological Association, and the American Bar Association. Robert Mugambo of the American Bar Association expressed alarm at the implications for invasion of privacy. “This absolutely strips away any hint of attorney/client privilege. No one is going to be free to talk with their attorney in an open and honest manner if they know that everything they say is being broadcast across the Internet. “

Gary Kakaramen of the American Psychological Association expressed similar concerns. “The bond between a therapist and their clients is sacred. The information shared in therapy sessions is not something to be voted on or subject to public discourse,” he said. “The last thing we need is a couple hundred thousand amateur psychologists sitting at home watching these sessions and passing judgment on people who are simply trying to put their lives back together. When someone goes to their therapist and admits they have a problem, they need compassion and understanding as they work through that issue, not a thumbs up or thumbs down vote.”

Especially vulnerable is the Rite of Confession, something considered necessary for forgiveness within the Catholic church. “I can’t imagine any priest being able to hear confession under these circumstances,” said Cardinal John Paul George Ringo of the Liverpool diocese. “The confession is sacred and must be held to the utmost secrecy. Priests are forbidden from ever revealing what is told to them in the confession. Allowing live streaming of those confessions is absolutely not possible.”

Ms. Richmond challenged those assertions, however. “Consider who it is complaining,” she said. “Lawyers, so-called therapists, and a group of clergy with a long-running record of pedophilia they’ve been trying to hide for centuries. Why would we want to allow them to continue practicing in secret when we already know that the secrecy is being used to prevent women from talking about these long-standing patterns of abuse? These are exactly the types of people this program is designed to expose.”

 Ms. Mueller added, “This is just part of tearing down the misogynistic infrastructure of power that has dominated lives and abused women for centuries. I think the key is a zero-tolerance policy and that is what this program provides. Too many people grew up thinking that the scenes in movies like Animal House, Revenge of the Nerds, and Porky’s are the correct way to treat women. Those people need to be removed from society and re-educated, introduced to movies such as Raise the Red Lantern, The Color Purple, An Angel at My Table, and Meek’s Cutoff. People are slowly waking up to the fact that a woman’s positive demeanor is often hiding fear, confusion, disgust, or misplaced shame. The days when men in power could ride roughshod over women are no more. This bill ends the nonsense.”

President To Appoint New VP Before Resigning

In a separate statement, White House Communications Director Hope Hicks announced that President Trump, Vice President Pence, Chief of Staff John Kelly, and all male members of the President’s Cabinet will resign in the interim between the bill’s passage by Congress, making way for a new President, likely the country’s first female President, to sign the important bill on her first day in office. “Circumstances being what they are, the President and other male members of his administration see no way that they can effectively govern without the inherent misogyny that brought them to power,” she said as she read from a prepared statement. “The President has consulted his closest advisors and we think the plan being introduced today does a good job of transitioning power to more intelligent and level-headed people capable of governing from a position of compassion while maintaining the agenda set by the current administration.”

According to the agenda distributed to the White House Press Corp, Vice President Mike Pence will resign first, most likely within an hour of the passage of the bill in the Senate. At that time, President Trump will send the Senate his nomination for a new Vice President. While no one was willing to speak on the record as to who that nominee might be, speculation runs high that the President will nominate his daughter, Ivanka.

An anonymous White House source, known by the code name “first daughter,” told gathered members of the press, “I think the President would have liked to nominate his wife, Melania, so he could at least continue living in the White House but apparently, there’s some silly clause in the Constitution about having to be a natural-born citizen to be President and, at the moment, there really isn’t time to change the Constitution. So, the President’s next choice is likely to be one of his daughters and we all know that Tiffany just doesn’t have what it takes to run a country. I mean, she has trouble picking out a decent ensemble for going to the gym. Ivanka really is the President’s only other choice.”

Once Congress has approved a new Vice President, then President Trump and members of his staff and Cabinet will resign, making way for the new Vice President to become President, something that has not happened since Gerald Ford took office after the resignation of scandal-ridden Richard Nixon. According to sources close to the situation, the elder Trump would then be referred to as Trump I while Ivanka would officially take the title of President Trump 2.0. 

When asked whether she would keep the existing female members of the Cabinet, Ivanka stated that Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao was likely to be the only Cabinet member that would maintain her position. “She’s so cute and has such an infectious smile, there’s no way I could let Secretary Chao go,” Ivanka whispered through a keyhole in her White House office door. Other Cabinet members would not be so fortunate, however. “DeVos might as well pack and leave with the guys,” Ivanka said. “She reeks of old lady soap and whoever is doing her makeup needs to go back to beauty school. I might keep Elaine Duke at the Department of Homeland Security, but only if she can change the codes on the nuclear football so that my dad can’t play with them.”

Ms. Richmond said all male members of Congress were expected to resign as well, though no timetable has been established for that to happen. “There is some question as to whether we need to first wait for male Governors to be replaced so that we have reliable, compassionate people in place to appoint new Members of Congress,” she stated. “In most cases, I think the Governor’s wives are likely to take their places, ensuring that general political agendas continue and the partisan imbalance of power is maintained going into the 2018 general elections. What we don’t want to risk is another massive foul-up like that whole Roy Moore debacle in Alabama. That kind of nonsense is exactly what we’re trying to eliminate from Capitol Hill.”

Once the new Congress was in place, then male members of the Supreme Court would likely resign, though, being in place for life, they are under no obligation to do so. “I think the cameras will help determine whether further resignations are necessary,” Richmond said. “No one has really had any clue what goes on in the judges’ chambers before now and I’m sure there will be plenty of people watching those live streams to see what exactly takes place. Should any justices commit an act of sexual assault, they would, of course, be subject to the same arrest and re-education as anyone else, which would likely force them to resign. We are already concerned about Justice Thomas, given his personal history.”

Ms. Hicks stated, “I heard someone on television say that this is a moment that demands a frank and honest assessment about where we stand and more generally the safety of women. There is no excuse for the behavior that we have tolerated and are just now giving a voice. We cannot walk back from where we are. We cannot allow men to continue to dominate and ruin lives. The cameras are the only way to stop this infection. No longer is it going to be my word against his. No longer is a perpetrator going to shame his victim. Never again will any accusation be doubted or belittled. This situation is systemic and pervasive and this bill is the first step toward ending this horrible problem that men do their best to ignore.”

When asked what additional steps might be taken following the passage of the bill, Ms. Richmond said that no firm plans have been made yet. “I think we have to do something about changing some basic laws, but I don’t think there have been any firm conversations as to how to make that happen. I do know that I, as an attractive young woman, want the freedom to be able to walk stark naked down the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue if I want without feeling any fear, or threatened by any catcalls, or shamed for that pudge I get after eating a whole plate of cheese fries the night before. Free the Nipple should be more than just a slogan. That’s a goal, but we’ve not really discussed how to get there from a practical perspective. And that’s really just a warm-weather activity. My skin dries out below 65 degrees. We’ll just have to see.”

Some of the statements in this article were borrowed, revised, or summarized from the Twitter accounts of @stannieholt, @ClaraJeffery, @MonicaHesse and @NorahODonnell. Under no circumstances is any endorsement implied in either direction, though we’re sure they’re all wonderful and compassionate people who are fed up with men behaving like jackasses.

Disclaimer

We again want to emphasize that THIS IS SATIRE! Nothing in the article above is real. Should you choose to share this article on social media, which we encourage, it is up to you to present it as SATIRE. Help fight against fake news by clearly labeling this material as satire, no matter how much you might wish we were being serious. 

Abide in Peace,
The Old Man

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Reading time: 17 min
How to be single without starving

Americans will eat garbage provided you sprinkle it liberally with ketchup. -Henry James

My mother started early teaching me how to cook. She was convinced, even when I was a child, that I would likely grow up to be single and alone. Fortunately, at least for the larger portion of my adult life, she was wrong. However, her lessons have been valuable as frequently I have been the one responsible for the family’s meals.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to pass that trait on to my own children. At least, not the oldest. I’m not the only one from my generation to have made that mistake, either. As a result, there is an entire generation of people who don’t have the first clue how to take care of themselves. This is why many of them are still living at home. We don’t necessarily want them to live at home, but we’ve not given them the skills to survive so we’ve left them with little choice. If our children don’t live with us, or at least with some other reasonably skilled and responsible adult, they will die.

We have to fix this situation. I’m sure I speak for many parents when I say we want our lives back. We thought we would get them back when the youngest of our children turned 18. No, that didn’t happen. There’s still a 25-year-old living in the basement. While there are admittedly times when that extra set of hands and feet come in handy, for the most part, their presence is that level of intrusive that keeps us from being able to have sex during the day while the little ones are at school. Not cool. 

While there are actually a number of survival skills a young single person needs before they can successfully leave home without boomeranging right back at us, I’m choosing this morning to start with teaching them the basics of feeding themselves. This is important because young adults are well known for eating their weight in food every four hours or so. Not only is that rough on the ol’ food budget, but it’s time-consuming when they are constantly asking, “Hey, parental unit, can you nuke me some food or something?” Saying “no” that often really does eat into my productivity.

So, while we’re not risking any serious culinary feats, what we provide here is a set of basic instructions that, at a very minimum, keep our children from starving.  This isn’t an especially healthy menu, mind you. If they want to bulk up or adjust their weight one direction or the other, or if they feel compelled to eschew meat and go vegan, they’re going to have to figure out those details for themselves. My time and willingness to help is limited. I’m just covering the basics for now and if they can survive that without burning down their house or apartment then they can move on to more advanced culinary concepts.

Boiling Water

Boiling water sounds so very easy. I mean, it’s water. It boils. How difficult could that possibly be? Yet, entire houses have burned down because someone who was attempting to boil water wasn’t paying attention and/or didn’t know what they were doing. Believe it or not, boiling water can be a very dangerous event in the hands of the wrong person. Please, don’t be that person.

On the plus side, there are many things one can do with boiling water if it is handled correctly. One can make tea, or coffee if your skills are advanced. Boiling water also opens the door to various adventures with Ramen and other dried food. In short, boiling water can keep your ass alive, especially when your food budget is next to non-existent. Don’t feel bad, almost everyone has been there at one point in their life or another. What’s important is that you handle the pot and the water carefully. Pay attention.

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Step One:  Find a clean pot, not a pan or a skillet, and fill it with water. What’s the difference between a pot and a pan? A pot is deeper for things like boiling water and often comes with a lid. You don’t need the lid for this, though. Leave the lid alone. Boiling water and lids lead to explosions. Stay away from the damn lid.

Step Two: Put the pot with water in it on the stove. We assume you know what a stove is. If you don’t, stop now and go ask a real adult for help. Once the pot is on the stove, turn on the appropriate burner under the pot. Don’t turn on any of the other burners as that leads to fire and things blowing up. Only turn on the burner under the pot. Yes, you can turn it on high. This is only water.

Step three: Watch the pot. Ignore the saying that “a watched pot never boils.” That’s nonsense. A watched pot boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit (100 degrees Celsius) if you are at sea level. If you are higher than sea level, the water boils faster. Since you probably don’t know your exact altitude and probably don’t have a kitchen thermometer, do not leave the pot unattended. When the water reaches a full boil it will look like the picture at the left. Turn off the burner under the pot. Make sure it is all the way off. Then, using an oven mitt because the handle is hot, remove the pot from the stove. 

There. Now you have successfully boiled water. Give yourself a pat on the back and pour the water down the drain before it hurts someone.

Cold Cereal

I’m pretty sure my younger brother would not have survived college without cold cereal in his life. The nice thing about cold cereal is that, when hard pressed, one doesn’t actually have to put the cereal in a bowl or pour milk over it. Cereal can be eaten straight out of the box in emergencies, such as when you’re already 15 minutes late for work. Not that we encourage that kind of behavior, mind you. 

On the plus side, we don’t have to worry about cereal catching fire and burning the house down. While there are a few other dangers, cereal, for the most part, is relatively harmless and benign. Even better, cereal is always there for you, even in the middle of the night or after a good cry. No popcorn while you’re watching that movie? Try cereal. The fact that most cereals come fortified with vitamins and such make them the single person’s best friend. Develop this skill early and use it often.

Note: We were not compensated for the use of a Cheerios box in these photos. We were not compensated by anyone for any of the pictures here. We just grabbed what was handy. No endorsements are intended. That being said, try to eat healthy so you don’t end up too fat to leave your parents’ basement.

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Step one: You will need a box of cereal, a clean bowl, milk, and a spoon to successfully make cold cereal the way General Mills intended. The kind of cereal is largely irrelevant, though the older one is the more one should probably stay away from those cereals that are nothing more than brightly colored sugar. Diabetes is a real thing. So is heart disease. Eat healthy, dudes.

Step two:  Carefully pour the cereal into the bowl until the bowl is about half full. Don’t just tip the box up and start pouring, mind you. That’s a good way to end up with cereal all over the floor. Use care. Pour a little at a time. Don’t over-fill the bowl or you won’t have room for milk.

Step Three:  Carefully pour the milk into the bowl. Again, use caution or you’re going to have a mess to clean up. Pour just enough milk until you can sort of see it under the cereal. If the cereal is floating you probably poured too much. If the bowl goes from being half full to completely full you probably poured too much. When the milk sloshes over the side, you definitely poured too much. Take it easy, don’t get so excited, and you’ll enjoy your cereal more.

Don’t forget to put the milk back in the ‘fridge before you eat your cereal. Leaving the milk out on the counter leads to bad things, like sour milk. You’ll forget the milk if you don’t put it back in the ‘fridge right now. Do it. Don’t argue with me, Felicia, you know I’m right.

Prepackaged Salad

Eat your veggies. Your parents always taught you that you needed more in your diet than candy. Vegetables are a necessary part of nutrition. In fact, not eating enough fruits and veggies can result in some rather nasty ailments that you really don’t have time to suffer through. The problem lies in cooking those veggies. While many can be eaten raw, we know you’re not inclined to do that. Heaven forbids you to wash a head of broccoli and start munching.

Lucky for you, prepackaged salads are available. They come in a variety of styles and sizes so you can decide whether you want carrots or spinach or cabbage in your salad. None of those are bad choices, by the way. Prepackaged salads remove the risk that you’ll open the refrigerator door three weeks from now and find an entire head of lettuce wilting on the shelves and replaces that with the risk that you’ll open the refrigerator door to find a wilted half-eaten bag os salad. At least you ate half the bag.

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Step one:  You need a package of salad, a bowl, salad dressing of your choice, and a fork. Again, we make no brand or flavor endorsements. However, be aware that high-fat dressings can remove the health benefit of the salad. Also, be aware that there is no health benefit to iceberg lettuce. It’s nothing more than filler, which is okay if you’re trying to lose weight. You’ll be hungry again in ten minutes, though.

Step two: Pour the salad into the bowl. More. No, that’s not enough, pour a little more. I’m telling you, this isn’t cereal you’re pouring here. Fill that bowl as high as you want. One thing about salad is that it’s never quite as much as it appears. There’s also the theory that one can never have too much salad. We cannot confirm that, however. We’ve never tried having too much salad.

Step three: Pour on the salad dressing. Now is when one has to exercise some caution, especially if the salad dressing bottle doesn’t have a squeeze top. Salad dressing is one of those condiments that tends to start slow and then pick up speed suddenly so that one ends up with a lot more on their salad than they had intended. If one has a measuring spoon and knows how to use them, about two tablespoons of salad dressing is all one needs. Not many single people have measuring spoons, though, nor do they know how to use them. Your mom may have snuck them into a drawer someplace. Just be careful with the dressing, okay?

Salads can be topped with things such as cheese, or croutons, or even fruit in some cases. Leftover sliced chicken breast works well, also. Be careful with anything that requires cutting, though. If you’re eating prepackaged salad should you really be playing with knives? Our experience is that single people damage themselves more frequently than coupled people. Exercise caution.

Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich

Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, or PBJs as they’re often known, are a fundamental staple of life in the Western culture. We start eating them pretty much as soon as we can tolerate solid food and don’t give them up until we can’t figure out how to fit our dentures in our mouths. There are many different kinds of sandwich in the universe, but PBJ is the original gateway sandwich from which all other sandwiches derive. Master this skill and the sandwich world opens its door to you.

Here’s the thing: my nine-year-old can probably make a better PBJ than can the average unskilled single adult. He understands that a good PBJ has to balance the basic elements or else it becomes one giant mess that ends up all over you, your clothes, and half your belongings. Once the peanut butter and/or jelly falls off the bread, it spreads, infecting everything that can possibly succumb to its sticky gooeyness. Clothes are destroyed. Recorded media is ruined. Lives are permanently altered in ways we dare not mention. Pay careful attention to these instructions. The world you save may be your own.

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Step one: Assemble all the necessary ingredients: bread, peanut butter, jelly, and at least one clean butter knife. If you’re not going to wash the knife between the peanut butter and jelly, go ahead and get two. No wonder you’re still single. We also don’t distinguish between smooth or crunchy peanut butter nor between jellies and jams and preserves. We prefer preserves but if you want to be a jelly heathen go right ahead.

Step two: Using a butter knife, because it’s not as sharp and won’t shred the bread, spread the peanut butter across the width of the bread. A thick application of peanut butter is okay as it’s not likely to run. However, never put peanut butter in the ‘fridge as that makes it impossible to spread without tearing the bread. No one likes torn bread. Now, put the lid back on the peanut butter and wash the knife. 

Step three:  After washing the knife spread the jelly/jam/preserves onto the other slice of bread. Do not spread it directly on top of the peanut butter as that makes a ridiculous mess. Also, be careful to not spread the jelly/jam/preserves too close to the edge of the bread as jelly/jam/preserves tend to not stay in place. Too much jelly/jam/preserves on your sandwich increases the likelihood that you’ll be wearing said jelly/jam/preserves. Being single is difficult enough without looking like a toddler who has escaped its mother. Go easy on the jelly/jam/preserves.

Now, put the two pieces of bread together with the peanut butter and jelly facing each other. If you have either peanut butter or jelly on the outside of your sandwich, you did it wrong. Go back to the prepackaged salad. You’re not ready for the sandwich.

Grilled Cheese

Now that you have the basic skills of sandwich making down, we’re going to risk actually cooking something and make grilled cheese sandwiches. Recipe change alert: we’re not doing this in a skillet like your mom did when you were a kid. Your mom was not only skilled but talented. You’re neither at this point in your life. You’re single. Still. We still have high hopes for you, but you’re not there yet. If you were, you wouldn’t need this tutorial. We’re going to take it easy and use the oven instead.

Be careful, now, as making warm sandwiches is a semi-advanced skill. We don’t want you causing any danger to yourself or others. If you have any doubts about your skill level, especially if you’ve not quite figured out where the oven is in your kitchen, don’t be ashamed to ask for help. Follow the instructions with extreme care. For safety, you might want to put any potentially flammable pets or roommates in a different room. 

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Step one: Preheat the oven to 400° and assemble the ingredients: bread, butter/margarine, pre-sliced cheese, butter knife, baking sheet. Preheating the over means turning it on and leaving it alone until you’re ready to use it. A baking sheet is a thin metal pan like the kind your mom used for baking cookies. If you don’t have one, you’re screwed. Butter can be used in place of margarine only if you left it on the counter and it’s soft. Cold butter doesn’t spread at all.

Step two: Spread butter/margarine on the outside of each piece of bread. We use 100% whole wheat bread in this example because it’s healthier. You need to start making healthy choices, you know. At this rate, you may be single forever and who is going to take care of you when you’re old and broken down? Mind your health now so that no one has to help you change your adult diapers when you’re old. Place the bread, butter side down, on the baking sheet.

Step three:  Place the pre-sliced cheese onto one of the pieces of bread. The cheese goes on the side that is not buttered. The kind of cheese one uses doesn’t really matter a lot. Cheddar, jack, and mozzarella do really well and taste good. Crumbly cheese such as blue and feta isn’t really the best choice. One can also add other things like pre-cooked bacon, tomatoes, or spinach, but you’re not ready for that yet. Don’t over-extend yourself on the first try.

Step four: Place the other piece of bread on top of the cheese, butter side up. This is important if you want your sandwich to take good and brown properly. Position the bread in the center of the baking sheet and put the baking sheet in the oven. Yes, you should use oven mitts. Yes, you will burn your hands if you don’t. 

Let the sandwich bake for four minutes. Set a timer. No, seriously, you’re going to get distracted. Set a freakin’ timer already so the sandwich doesn’t burn. After four minutes, open the oven door and use a spatula (that thing your mom used for flipping pancakes) to turn over the sandwich. Do not touch the sandwich with your hands! Hot! Burn! No-no! Shut the oven door and let the sandwich finish baking another four minutes. Set a timer. Yes, again. You know damn good and well you can’t focus on anything that long. Set the timer so you don’t burn down the whole house.

When the timer goes off, use oven mitts to remove the baking sheet from the oven.  Set the hot baking sheet somewhere safe, such as the stove top. Use the spatula to transfer the sandwich from the baking sheet to a clean plate. Allow the sandwich to cool for at least one minute before you pick it up and try to eat it. The cheese is going to be hot, silly. If you take a bit now it is going to burn the roof of your mouth. 

This may be too complicated for you. After all, there’s a good reason you’re still single. We’ve talked to your mother. She told us how you tend to self-sabotage your relationships. If you’re not ready to love you may not be ready to cook, either. Don’t worry, you’ll get there. Maybe you’ll even have grandchildren before your parents are too old to hold them. Parents have dreams too, you know.

Frozen Burritos

This final skill involves using one of your most valued appliances: the microwave. Microwave ovens are wonderful appliances because they allow us to create warm food without actually having to use fire. Keeping single adults away from fire is often a good thing. Not everyone has the skill necessary to successfully manipulate an open flame. That’s okay. There is a whole word of frozen, pre-packaged food just waiting to be warmed up and eaten.

Microwaves come with their own danger, however. Specifically, THEY BLOW UP! What is critical to understand when dealing with microwaves is that you can never, ever, put anything metal into a microwave. This included the metallic-painted trim on some dishes. Here’s a hint: if the item does not have the words “microwave safe” stamped on it somewhere then assume that it isn’t and don’t put it in the microwave. Very, very bad things can happen in you do.

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Step one: Remove the frozen burrito package from the freezer. We strongly recommend buying the family pack because you know damn good and well that you’re going to eat more than one. Family packs are cheaper, provided you don’t eat all of them in one sitting. If you do eat all of them in one sitting you’re in more trouble than we anticipated and should probably call your therapist first thing in the morning and make an appointment. You’re single and your life is a mess, Karen. You need help.

Step two: Read the directions on the burrito wrapper. Place one or two burritos on a microwave-safe plate and put them in the microwave. Set the timer according to the directions on the package. Note that the directions are often for a 1,100-watt microwave. Your microwave may not be that powerful. If not, you’ll need to add about 30 seconds more time. If you are cooking two burritos, as we show here, you need to double the time, though, again, different microwaves produce different results. Start with what’s on the package and increase in 30-second increments until your burrito is done.

Step three: Remove the burritos from the microwave and let sit for at least one minute. Warning: the plate is freakin’ hot! This especially applies if you cooked more than one burrito. Use a hot pad to remove the plate or else you’re going to burn your fingers, drop the plate, and have a mess all over the floor. The dog will end up eating your burritos and you’ll have broken glass all over the floor. Is that really what you want? No, of course, it isn’t. Use a hot pad.

We should also mention than microwaved foods don’t always brown. Don’t be surprised if your burritos come out looking the same as when you put them in the microwave, just less frozen. Also, don’t be surprised if the very center of your burrito is still cold. That means you have a weak microwave. Just add 30 seconds more time the next time you make one. 

A Single Person Can Survive

We know that being single isn’t easy. Even the Old Man was single once, but that was long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away. [It’s just a coincidence he has a passing resemblance to actor Mark Hammil. ] Things were different then. Being single was just a temporary condition before one got married. Now, a lot of people are staying single their entire lives. They never know the joys and sorrows of sitting down to dinner with their spouse and children who don’t care about ever giving their parents grandchildren to love. All they know is late-night loneliness and a sea of empty take-out containers littering the floor because they never learned to pick up after themselves. We know, it’s all our fault. We coddled you too much and failed to teach you. 

Don’t worry, you’ll be okay. Take these recipes one at a time. Don’t stress yourself. You have plenty of time to learn how to cook. After all, it’s not like you’re going to have a hot date coming over anytime soon expecting you to be a four-star chef. Learn from these recipes and if you do well, that is, you don’t burn down the house, we’ll consider adding a few more in a couple of weeks or so, after the holidays, where you can go home to mom’s cooking and actually have a good, well-balanced meal for a change. You’re coming in early, aren’t you? Your parents will have your old room all fixed up for you.

Uhm, that’s assuming you actually left home at some point. If you haven’t, then don’t worry, we’ll just spray pine-scented air freshener to cover whatever the hell that smell is coming from your room. Just try to wear something that doesn’t look like it came from the failure box at Goodwill.

A single person can survive on their own. There are lots of single people out there. Surviving. Sort of. More or less. Disappointing their parents. Don’t worry, we still love you.

Abide in Peace,
The Old Man

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