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old man talking

Caveat and such: I have been sitting on this article for over six weeks because I wanted it to preface the new book I’m beginning next week that uses the fictional account of a pastor to examine the pivotal role of religion in the 1970s. So, to some degree, this is an enticement to excite you to read the next 20 weeks after this. Also, you need to know that the emotional hurt resulting from how the Christian Church has treated me colors both my attitude and perspective in writing. Normally, I at least attempt to mask the worst of my bias but I am unable to do so in this matter. For that, I would almost apologize except that victims don’t need to be the ones apologizing, do they?  Nonetheless, I accept that I have no objectivity as I write this and that it may be offensive to some. I do apologize for any undeserved offense.

“You are no longer welcome to worship with this congregation.”

The first time I heard those words or something to the same effect, they stung to my very soul. I grew up in church. My father was the pastor. For the greater majority of my youth, it was generally assumed that I would, in some form or fashion, follow in his footsteps. I was prepped. I was groomed. I was even allowed to take a seminary homiletics course when I was 15 (I made a B, which was better than what Poppa made in the same course). 

Then, there was a left turn. And another left turn. Without any direct intention, I was suddenly at odds with the very body that had raised me. I wasn’t welcome.

For a while, changing denominations helped. No one said anything when my pictures, of which I was quite proud, appeared in a publication with an article that made liberal use of the word “fuck.” I thought, for a moment, I had found a place where God and I could be cool together. That didn’t last, though, and eventually, I received that letter stating, “We feel it would be to everyone’s benefit if you worshipped elsewhere.”

While it was easy enough for the Church to walk away from me, it wasn’t so simple for me to walk away from them. Church was what I knew. Church was the core of my foundation. I kept trying, but the problem kept repeating itself. Either there was no substance to the congregation’s beliefs, which drives me nuts, or they felt the need to exclude people like me, people whose occupations are sometimes difficult to explain, work that many seem to think results in a lifestyle that is largely immoral. So, the letters kept coming.

“Your continued presence makes some members of our congregation uncomfortable ….”

“Public knowledge of your published works makes it difficult for some to worship alongside you ….”

“As a part of the body of Christ, we cannot associate with someone who is unapologetic for such blatant sin ….”

That last one didn’t just hurt, it made me angry. I challenged them to tell me, book, chapter, and verse any scripture defining my work as sinful. I never received an answer.

Eventually, I took the hint and walked away completely. On my own, I still kept some practices, privately. The music, to this day, still speaks to me. A running joke has been that I am most likely to be listening to religious music, specifically, the hymns and gospel songs of my youth, when I’m editing nude photos. Don’t ask me to explain why I have such a strange habit; it just feels right and reduces stress. 

Once, about ten years or so ago, my love for the music sent me to an Episcopal church across the street from where I was living. It was Easter and I had hope that the music might bring a sense of peace. The sign outside said service started at 11: 00 AM, so I wandered over about 10:45 only to discover that, because of the special day, the service had started early, at 10:00. I got there just in time for the final prayer. I took the hint. God didn’t want me.

Fast forward to this past November. Several churches in town have pipe organs of considerable rank. One, in particular, is especially notable and I harbored the fantasy that perhaps I could slip into a service, sit in the back of the sanctuary, enjoy the music and then leave without bothering anyone. The congregation has a reputation for being inclusive of my LGBTQ+ friends, so certainly it wouldn’t hurt for me to just sit and listen.

Once burned, twice shy, though, I found the church’s service streamed online and watched for a couple of weeks. I wanted to be sure that their reputation was one put into practice and that the message and style of the homily were not going to be counter to my reason for attending. I watched for a couple of weeks and in the homily of the second week, the pastor made a reference that reminded me of an experience Poppa once had. Feeling dramatically overconfident, I wrote the pastor, via email, relating Poppa’s experience. He returned the email with a kind and appreciative message. So far, so good. 

I went to acknowledge having received his message, though, and it all fell apart. When I hit “send” on the email, it immediately bounced back. Being rather surprised, and giving the pastor the benefit of the doubt, my first response was to check the email address to which I had replied. I had contacted the pastor via a link on the church’s website so perhaps he had replied using an email program that masked his address, making direct replies impossible. I checked and found the email address was correct.

The thing about returned email is that there is almost always a reason given somewhere in the body of the bounced message. Sometimes that reason can be difficult to find, but it’s almost always there and this was no exception. Scrolling down, toward the bottom, I found the reason my email had been rejected. “This email address is blocked due to offensive content.”

Offensive content? All I had said was, “Thank you for your kind response.” How was that offensive? The message made no sense.

I then thought that, perhaps, I had dropped an F-bomb in my original message without realizing it. That happens often enough in my speech that I wouldn’t be terribly surprised. I checked. Nope, no F-bombs. I was baffled.

I read over my original message again, finding nothing offensive. Then, again, a third time, because surely I was missing something. I had to be. Finally, on the fourth read, all the way to the bottom of my email, I found the culprit. My automated signature, which Gmail adds on without me even thinking about it, includes a link to my websites. Not just this one, which I consider to only be humorously offensive, but that other one, the photography site, which was, on that particular week, sporting a set of nudes from my Experimental Series, right smack at the top of the home page. 

The reason for the block seemed clear. Whether the pastor had clicked the link personally, or if their systems are advanced enough to send a spider or bot to check the content, one way or the other the decision had been made to block me from contacting the pastor any further. There would be no attending a worship service, no listening to that magnificent organ on the first Sunday of Advent, no association of any kind. Perhaps I’m petty, but if they were going to reject my email, I wasn’t going to give them the opportunity to reject me, too.

I closed the email, expressed some frustration to Kat, and then, after she left for the salon, sat in my office chair and cried. All I had wanted was to sit in the back and listen to that magnificent instrument. I wasn’t going to socialize. I wasn’t going to sing. I wasn’t going to take communion. I just wanted to listen.

Separating Sheep From Goats

I really shouldn’t be surprised by my frustrating outcome, should I? After all, exclusivity and division are core tenets not only of Christianity but every major religion. No matter where one looks, there are “chosen people,” or those “favored by [insert deity name here].” Religious belief banks heavily on how following a specific belief system that, a) makes one different from everyone else, and b) results in preferential treatment no one else gets. While specific details may differ, the primary draw is that those who believe are rewarded while those who don’t are severely punished. 

For millennia, that concept of reward vs. punishment, believe or die, has fueled infinite wars, crusades, inquisitions, political coups, and murder without the sponsoring institutions ever being held responsible for their endless litany of crimes. How could they? No religion recognizes any authority as being more powerful than they and governments have learned that it is best to not challenge them. With no one holding them responsible, save for the theoretical deity who never seems to be directly involved, religions have been given free rein to do whatever they please without consequence. 

Within the Christian belief system, which is my primary reference point, the alleged need for a division between “sinners” and “saints” is codified in scripture such as 25:32-46, the Parable of the Sheep and Goats. For those not immediately familiar with the passage, here it is in a popular translation:

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

New International Version (NIV) Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®

The division is rather blatant and many authoritative leaders stop reading with verse 33. They make the argument that by creating a division between sheep and goats now they are merely following the example Jesus sets. There are multiple problems with that interpretation, however, and I feel rather bound to unpack a few of them. 

First up, let’s look at the phrase which the NIV translates as “All the nations.” The Gospel according to Matthew was written in Greek, so the original phrase is panta (πάντᾰ) ta ethne (ἔθνος). At least, that’s where most translators start. “Panta” is generally translated as whole, and “ethne,” in case you hadn’t already guessed, is the plural root from which we get the word ethnic. Think “whole ethnicities.” “Ethne” is the focus and where we first run into trouble. 

Ethne, in various declensions (this happens to be the third and most difficult to translate), appears 53 times in the approved protestant canon, almost always translated as “nations” or, in older translations, “gentiles” [source]. However, that translation is unique to Christian teaching. 

Secular use of the word more frequently translates the word to mean “company, band, host; of men [source].” This is an important differentiation because how one translates this word defines the scope of the audience. If one translates the word as “nations” then the message is global. If one uses what seems to be the more common translation of “company” then the following judgment is strictly internal and using the scripture for justification of any external division is wrong.

How does one decide which translation is more likely correct? Let’s look at some details surrounding both Matthew’s version of the Gospel and how it has changed interpretations over the centuries.

First, consider that there is no original copy of Matthew’s treatise. Get used to that because it’s true for the entire canon. The oldest reliable manuscripts, and the ones utilized for the most accurate translations, are compiled in the Codex Vaticanus and the Codex Sinaiticus, both of which date from the 4th-century ADE. There are some external fragments as well, with a fragment known as Papyrus 4 possibly being as old as the second century [source]. The problem we find within those fragments is they show a high number of variations with regional differences that, in some cases, dramatically alter the meaning and direction of the text, including all of Matthew 25. Such textual differences make is logically impossible to consider any of them authoritative because there is no way of knowing which is authentic. 

Second, there’s the fact that the global “nations” or “gentiles” translation doesn’t even appear in religious texts until the 18th century [source]. Prior to the 1700s, theologians looked at the Church as an extension of the specific assembly of believers that were following Jesus in the days prior to his crucifixion. Mind you, they still used the passage to justify violence, making the leap that an even more severe separation would occur at the final judgment. What is important to our conversation here is that there is ample evidence to suggest this was strictly an internal conversation, hence the surprise on the part of those labeled as “goats.” Those who are not already believers are not likely to be surprised by the exclusion because they have made the conscious decision to be excluded. 

What happens with this text, the glaring gap of logic between what was intended and how the Church chooses to interpret the text, is not unique to Christianity. Islamic, Jewish, and Hindu texts hold many of the same issues. Buddhism has an even greater problem as many of its oldest texts have been destroyed completely, making academic comparisons and verification all but impossible. 

I find it interesting that we have no problem arguing the authenticity of Homeric text, which are similarly written transcriptions of oral history [source] but people of faith get all upset and butt hurt when religious tomes are given the same academic treatment. For faith in something unseen to be authentic requires accuracy in the translation of its supporting documentation. Without that accuracy, faith is nothing more than a fool’s adherence to mythologies and fables. 

This leads me to question why I’m so upset at being excluded from what may well be an exercise in multigenerational misguidance? If there is no authenticity in the texts used to claim authority, then there can be no real exclusion. Yet, here I sit, not listening to an organ and feeling very excluded.

Changing the Rules

Religious institutions have a way of changing the rules as it suits them. Mind you, the text they claim supports the original stance never changes, but how they are interpreted does. This creates an interesting dichotomy. In many cases, the changes are necessary for the Church to keep up with modern times. Yet, if the deity of their scriptures is unchanging, and if the authenticity of the supporting scriptures is to be believed, the message needs to stay consistent regardless of changes to society.

Needs some examples? Okay, Let’s take church music up through the 14th century. At first, harmonies had to consist of open fourth and fifth intervals, creating the open sound one typically associates Gregorian chant. That rule was dropped by the 12th century but they kept a ban on the augmented 4th interval, or tritone, because of its dissonance. Even now, while there is no outright ban on the interval, it’s heavily discouraged. Why? Uhm … well … No, there’s no justification for that one. Just a papal edict.

Then, there was the matter of charging interest. There is substantial biblical support for not charging interest on loans, especially personal loans. This is a standard originally found in all the religions based on Abrahamic traditions. During the Middle Ages especially, this tradition was critical to building the economy.

However, capitalism started creeping in around the 16th century, and greed being something the Church has never fought well, it caved. Completely. Only the Islamic faith has remained consistent in not allowing interest to be charged within the regions it controls. 

Oh, and don’t forget the slavery issue. Abrahamic literature, again, is heavy with references to slavery. The Church embraced slavery heavily and some encouraged introducing the gospel to slaves because they came from “heathen” lands. The Roman Church, in an edict by Pope Leo XIII, banned slavery in 1888 after it had been banned by most Western countries.  [source] Protestant churches, especially those in the deep South, waited as late as the early 21st century to finally acknowledge their role in perpetuating the practice and declaring it a sin. To this day, some minor Christian denominations still think the use of slaves should be permitted.

The use of Latin in mass and who could/couldn’t interpret scripture was a HUGE issue for the church. So significant, in fact, that it is one of the primary factors in Martin Luther’s 95 theses that he nailed to the door in Wittenburg, ultimately leading to the start of the protestant movement (not his original intent)[source]. Arguments over this one continue to this day, but the Roman church officially changed its mind as part of the Vatican II Council (1962-65). Mind you, the Church was stretching to find scriptural support for this policy in the first place, but there are still a number of Catholic theologians who feel the vernacular is too tainted and sinful to be used in pronouncing the “word of God.”

I could go on practically forever on this topic. I mean, we haven’t even touched the whole Inquisition thing, the use of mortification (self-harm)[source], the concept of limbo, paying indulgences (still a thing for some stupid reason)[source], and pretty much every other social issue that has seemed to put the Church in conflict with ever-changing societal norms. 

While it’s easy enough to pick on some of the larger issues to affect the Church, I remember some of the problems Poppa had to address during his tenure as pastor. Segregation was a massive issue that may have cost him one pulpit in particular after he did a pulpit-swap with the pastor of a nearby black congregation. Women wearing miniskirts to church. Whether or not an acoustic guitar should be allowed in the sanctuary. Rock music (don’t even get me started on this one). Women wearing pants in church. And to this day, if you want to really raise the dander of fundamentalist Christians, raise the topic of women as pastors, then duck because they’re going to start throwing things immediately. The same goes for LGBTQ+ issues. 

My point is that the Church, and religious institutions in general, place themselves in judgment over social activities with dubious authority. On most contemporary issues, their antiquated and time-sensitive documentation doesn’t remotely come close to addressing challenges such as whether marriage is an absolute requisite, the definition of baptism and whether it’s actually important, the intermingling of differing religious traditions, or even the liturgy of the worship service. 

Religions have sought to establish themselves as social and political authorities, in contemporary terms, since the 4th century. One might argue that religious belief systems were significant even in more ancient governments of Persia, Syria, and Egypt as far back as 6,000 BCE. They claim the authority and then order their postulants and followers to acknowledge their authority or be deemed heretics, a rather dangerous label in certain circles. 

What we fail to realize is that no religion has any true authority outside the spiritual belief system it creates. The United States Constitution, and those of several other Western countries, goes as far as creating distinct barriers between religion and government, barriers that cause religious leaders to chafe because it limits their abuse of power.

Religions want to control every possible aspect of our lives. The ardent and faithful follower is instructed to follow the guidance of their particular deity from the moment they wake up until they once again close their eyes to sleep, and some religious dogmas even attempt to dictate that schedule. Yet, there is no true authority behind their presumption of power, even within their own sanctuaries.

I find it interesting that only Matthew records Jesus allegedly saying, “Come unto me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28). Actually, that’s not one hundred percent correct. The Gospel of Thomas also records that statement within the same conversation, but since the book of Thomas isn’t considered canon (more like a blog account versus a published news story), we’re not supposed to quote it. Still, it’s a verse that’s pushed down within the hierarchy of scriptural commands. 

The problem for the contemporary Christian Church is that Jesus, repeatedly, attempts to remove any and all barriers between himself and people seeking some form of spiritual benefit. He doesn’t care how, or if, you’re dressed. He doesn’t care what one’s occupation might be. He was friends with Matthew before he finally told him to quit the tax-collecting day job and become one of the 12. The change in occupation was not a requirement for the relationship. 

There are few checks and balances here and for many denominations, Southern Baptists high among them, there is no authoritative hierarchy at all—individual Churches and pastors are free to make up whatever rules they wish, interpret scripture however they wish, and there’s absolutely no one with the authority to tell them they’re wrong.

Guilt By Association

I have recounted to several an experience I had while preparing to hang artwork at a coffee shop some 12 years ago. I was there taking measurements when a group of three men sat down at a table in close enough proximity that it was impossible to not overhear their conversation and they didn’t seem to care (perhaps they should have). It quickly became apparent that this was a meeting of the senior ministerial staff from a nearby church. The topic at hand was what to do regarding a junior staff member assigned to work with teenagers. The problem was that the young minister had a MySpace account. Remember MySpace? It was really big 12 years ago. 

Anyway, this youth minister had friended someone on MySpace. In turn, upon investigation, completely obliterating any hint of privacy, the senior pastor had checked and this friend had another friend, someone with whom the youth minister had absolutely no acquaintance, who was disreputable because it appeared that he “used drugs.”

Whether the youth minister knew that his MySpace friend was also friends with the disreputable person was unknown. Whether the youth minister had completely vetted every last one of the second-tier friends of all his MySpace friends, an act that would have likely taken dozens if not hundreds of hours was also unknown. How the hell the senior pastor had time to go through his staff’s MySpace friends wasn’t a question anyone at the table dared ask. Yet, because of this one possible but completely unconfirmed relationship, the senior pastor was recommending that the youth pastor be terminated because, obviously, he was not making good choices among his friendships.

And the rest of the staff agreed.

How anyone, anywhere, is supposed to live under such tyrannical rule, or why they would want to, is beyond me. Further, the fact that anyone would give to someone else the authority to act in such a loathsome manner in the name of a universal deity astounds me. Yet, you do. Millions of you. The willingness to condemn one person for the actions of others is astounding. 

There is a curious passage in Christian scripture where one is given a look at the criticism leveled at Jesus by the “establishment,” The passage occurs, almost identically, in Luke’s gospel as well as Matthew’s, increasing the likelihood that at least one of them was manipulated after the fact. Let’s stick with Matthew since we started there. Back up to chapter 11 and we find that John the Baptist has sent some of his followers to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?”

The question itself is interesting and please excuse me for not completely dissecting the Greek again; it would take far too much time for this conversation. If we were to put it in the vernacular, though, it could be accurately translated as something along the lines of, “Dude, are you ‘the One’ [secret code for the Messiah] or are you just jackin’ around, man?”

The question infers a couple of things. 1. John’s followers, who are more “underground” and hidden now that their leader is in prison, need some verification. No one is publicly using “the M-word” because it’s not safe. Claiming to be Messiah in that theo-political environment was a good way to grab the cell next to John’s. 2. Folks who are emotionally committed to this rebellious movement are getting a bit impatient to know whether to back this dude or not. This isn’t a gentle request. There’s an implied demand here that Jesus needs to either step up or shut up.

Jesus tells them to report back to John what they’ve seen and heard, implying they’ve been trailing him for a while and he’s noticed. His dismissive, “I don’t want to get in the way,” was sufficient in getting them to leave, though there’s no way of knowing whether they were satisfied with that answer. 

What Jesus says after that, though, is somewhat confusing and one of the curious places where it appears words have been changed from the original text because anyway one reads the Greek it comes out confusing, leaving it open to the possibility that someone most likely decided to leave something out because the narrative takes a couple of odd leaps where it appears Jesus is babbling a bit, going from how great John is to referencing violence that was taking place. It is in the midst of this that there appears to be a massive gap in the text as Jesus goes from referencing John as “the Elijah that prophecies predicted,” to this odd and seemingly unrelated statement, starting in verse 16:

16 “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:
17 “‘We played the pipe for you,
and you did not dance;
we sang a dirge,
and you did not mourn.’
18 For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ 19 The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by her deeds.”

Part of what’s going on here is that John the Baptist and Jesus were two distinctly different personalities. John was austere, the guy who wore animal skin and ate all-natural non-GMO food. Jesus, by comparison, had the appearance of being a bit of a party boy, eating at the most popular bodegas, throwing or attending parties every night, hanging out with known con men (tax collectors) and party girls (prostitutes). His statement that “wisdom is proved right by her deeds” appears, based on a variation in the Greek at that juncture, to be a quote of some other well-known literature of the time, though there are no direct Torah references to back that up. What he is essentially saying is “Judge me by what I do, not how you think I live.”

Religious leaders of the day, though, were highly invested in the exact same game of guilt by association that we see church leaders engaged in today. They thought they had a good reason. Jesus wasn’t the only person running around threatening to undermine what we now refer to as Judaism. There was a whole underground resistance movement at the time. When Jesus mentions violence in Matthew 11, he is likely referring to the Sicarii (סיקריים), a group of zealots who carried knives in their cloaks and would attack Romans or Roman sympathizers in public then blend in with the crowd to escape. While it’s easy to dismiss the Sicarii as a splinter group, they scared the shit out of the religious establishment who feared Rome was going to shut them all down violently.  At least one of Jesus’ inner-circle of 12, Simon “the Zealot,” was likely recruited from the Sicarii. It is within the realm of reason, given his actions based on his ultimate disappointment, that Judas had similar anti-Roman sympathies. 

Bartholemew (Nathaniel ben Talmai) was Hebrew nobility and, like Jesus himself, of the house of David, though through Absalom. Modern translation: rich kid with a Nationalistic interest. He likely wasn’t associated with the Sicarii as he had been in Armenia prior to joining up with Jesus, but he still had a vested interest and was likely of the dominant view that the Messiah would be a military leader who would overthrow the Romans. This was a strong belief within the Hebrew community and gave religious leaders more reason to worry. Should someone step up looking to be a military leader, the vast majority of Hebrews would fall in line behind them, putting the religious leaders at risk.

Jude and his brother James ben Alpheus (aka James the Younger) were probably the two most quiet of the 12, but they, also, were known as zealots. This gave the group of disciples a strong connection with the many underground movements actively resisting the Roman government.

Too little, in my opinion, is made of the fact that Matthew was a tax collector. That they made themselves wealthy by overcharging people is well-known. What is understated is the various ways in which this happened. Publicans, as they were called, were legal con artists if we look at their activities in contemporary terms. Generally speaking, they were not to be trusted, but crossing one of them could cost one everything they had, including their life. There are even apocryphal accounts of them trading “favors” for “protection” from the Romans. If there was ever a Hebrew form of the Mafia, it started among the Publicans. 

The remainder of Jesus’ “disciples” were fishermen, a trade handed down from generation to generation. These would have, for the most part, been big, burly men with massive muscles and gruff exterior. Think of them as bouncers or “enforcers.” Now, imagine them being the ones taking up the offering when Jesus finished speaking. A wee bit intimidating.

If we remove the Euro-racist filters imposed during the Renaissance, we come away with a much tougher and, for religious leaders, a more frightening and intimidating picture of Jesus and his disciples than one tends to get in Sunday School. Imagine how they must have felt when this group came to town. It hadn’t taken long for them to become popular. Where they gathered more often than not tended to have a party atmosphere, especially in the evenings after the crowds had gone away. Jesus was likely attractive, his body well-toned from working as a carpenter alongside Joseph, a dynamic personality who naturally drew people to him. In modern terms, he might have been like a night club promoter or DJ. 

Accompanying them was a group of women that the Church paints as “supporters of the ministry.” That assessment would be pure white-wash. Sure, they “took care of” the boys in the band, but in terms that were common to wealthy men of the period, they were fun. They kept the party lively after dark and it is completely unreasonable to think they didn’t provide snuggling services to those who desired such. Yes, there were among them some who had been prostitutes, but the “sin” of being a prostitute wasn’t having sex but making oneself available to whoever knocked on the door. By being part of a consistent and limited group, their sexual services were legitimized and no one at the time would have given that an extra thought. It was only their former occupations that raised eyebrows. 

When Jesus and his group came to town, it was a disruption in the status quo. People who tended to stay in the shadows were welcome. People who had their own conspiracy theories were welcome. People who were marginalized were welcome. 

If we look at this group in contemporary terms and I impose myself into the culture that surrounded them, I would be welcome, because who doesn’t like party pics? There would be pictures of Peter lying unconscious on a pile of pillows, his brother, Andrew, using makeup borrowed from one of the women to draw crude pictures on his face. There would be pictures of people dancing, laughing, and telling stories. Not everyone in those pictures would be completely dressed, either. Mary Magdelene, who by all accounts was quite attractive, would likely have posed for me. Peter’s wife, who accompanied the group often, would have wanted pictures of the two of them, constantly, possibly to the point of annoyance. Someone like me, whose occupation is making other people look good, would have been welcome in the tents and hotels and homes where Jesus and the group stayed!

I would not have been welcome in the synagogue among the religious leaders, though, and any association with this group of disruptors would have been enough for them to shun me for life. Jesus, those who followed him, and those who dared to act like him, were a threat to everything the religious leaders knew. My, how little has changed over 2,000 years!  [source] [source] [source] [source] [source]

Moral Sin Versus Social Sins

Within every society, there is a moral code that governs basic behavior. By and large, that code is universal though it is expressed in different ways. In Jewish and Christian traditions, there are the Laws of Moses or the Ten Commandments. Islam lists 12 sins that prevent one from going to “heaven,” but unlike Christianity, they have no concept of original sin, so as long as one manages to not violate the major sins, they’re good. [source] Hindu’s, similarly, divide their sins between the five mortal sins and the ten venial sins, as defined by the Dharma Shastras. They don’t use the term “sin,” though, and appropriation of that nomenclature doesn’t adequately address the relationship between wrong-doing and the religious context. [source] Regardless of how they are enumerated, their tenents are basically the same: Don’t kill, Don’t steal, Don’t lie, and Don’t claim something/someone is a deity who/what isn’t.

That seems simple enough, doesn’t it? Apparently, though, it is too vague because every single religion has added a massive number of additional rules and laws on top of their base. The Jewish Mitzvot contains 613 additional laws and countless rabbinical rules and laws on top of that [source]. At least they bothered writing most of theirs down. Christians, Muslims, and Hindus are subject to a regional or sectarian guessing game where maybe it’s okay here but it’s not okay there and some very bad names have been called on those who accept LGBTQ people or put women in positions of leadership. It’s all dizzying to try and nonsensical to try and keep up with all the variations and divinations.

What’s interesting, though, is how Jesus took all these fussings and musings and laws and reduced them down to two. A common rabbinical argument of the time was which commandment was the greatest. The question was asked as a trap to accuse Jesus of belonging to a sect of outliers. His response caught everyone off guard. Oddly enough, only Mark, in chapter 12, records Jesus saying:

30 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ 31 The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”

The simplicity is astounding. While I could easily write 30,000 words dissecting those two statements, the more simple version is more impactful. Love God. Love others. Love yourself. That’s it. No qualifiers. No caveats. He doesn’t limit it to Hebrews, he doesn’t exclude people of any given profession, he addresses no social distractions of any kind. Instead, Jesus lays it out there bare with no need or requirement for interpretation. Love God. Love others. Love yourself.

I have yet, in my nearly 60 years on this planet, encountered a religious body of any kind that embraced the complete openness of Jesus’ statement. None of them.

The reason is that we’re always wanting clarification, hence we devise social laws to “fill in the gaps,” assuming that we somehow know what the deity intended. Again, this happens in all religions, even the most pacifistic among them. As these social laws build up over time, they create an effective wall between the religious body and the deity they claim to worship. “You can’t be part of our group because …”

As a result, the alleged representative of the deity on earth,  the churches, temples, and synagogues that build high shrines, those bodies responsible for bringing people into fellowship, inviting people to the party, end up creating more barriers than access points, more doors locked than open, too many VIP lists and not enough general admission.

Casting First Stones

I’m running over 6,500 words already and I know your attention span is not that long so let me try to concatenate a few points into one. One of the most well-known and mistranslated passages in the Bible is John 8, 1-7. I’m not going to use the most familiar translation because it’s flat-out wrong. Here’s one that comes closer:

2 At dawn he [Jesus] appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. 3 The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group 4 and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. 5 In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.

9 At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. 10 Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

11 “No one, sir,” she said. “Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”

New International Version (NIV) Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.®

While there’s a lot that one could unpack from that passage, including all the particulars of Mosaic Law and speculation over what Jesus wrote on the ground, what matters are two things. 1. He did not condone the woman’s behavior but defended her against the religious leadership anyway. 2. He made it clear that there is no ranking among sin—any violation creates separation from God that requires atonement. 

It is that last point that deserves considerable attention because, like the Pharisees standing in the temple court, there’s plenty of sin to go around. Look at the contemporary church. 

  • It’s been over 30 years since the abuse of children by priests was uncovered and yet it still continues and those responsible turn a blind eye. Protestant and Evangelical churches are just as bad but their lack of hierarchy makes it easier to hide.
  • Megachurches build multi-million dollar facilities in the midst of marginalized neighborhoods (because property values are lower) and then ignore the needs of the people who live there.
  • Church fraud exceeds what they spend on charitable causes [source].
  • Evangelicals are committing sin #1 by referring to the president as “the chosen one.”

Once again, I could continue for pages, but just one of those points brings home the emphasis that one sinner does not get to judge another. In defending the woman, he offered her acceptance, not rejection. Numerous apocryphal accounts and Roman church tradition hold that this woman was Mary Magdelene who, from that moment never left Jesus’ side (one wants to be extremely careful in accepting that tradition as truth). What if, after everyone had left, Jesus had said, “Look, your reputation proceeds you and we just can’t have you hanging around our group. You would be a distraction.” 

Which leads to my ultimate question: What am I doing that is so horribly wrong?

The answer lies in the first myth of Judeo-Christian tradition: Adam and Eve. The reference is Genesis 3:7 in the Christian Bible, but it occurs elsewhere in other religious traditions as well. The story goes that, upon eating the forbidden fruit, the first couple realizes they are naked and start looking for things with which to clothe themselves. God comes along and, much to the couple’s surprise notices that they’re not naked. Imagine trying to slip that one past a deity! He gets upset, but not because they’re naked. He’s upset because they were disobedient. Being naked has absolutely nothing to do with what God does next in kicking them out of the garden. Yes, the deity then kills an animal and uses its skin to cover them, but that was arguably to protect them from the elements, not hide their nudity. The late Southern Baptist pastor R. G. Lee identified this as the beginning of the bloodline through the Bible emphasizing that it was disobedience and nothing else that necessitated the shedding of blood right up to the crucifixion of Jesus. 

Nudity? Not a big deal. Ever. Why? Because it’s not a big deal. Ever. Culturally, from the beginning of humanity, it has been a natural condition of life. The prophet Isaiah spent THREE YEARS walking around naked, in public. Why? “…as a sign and a portent against Egypt and Cush” (Isaiah 20:3). 

Like it or not, laws and rules against nudity have ZERO textual basis and non-sexualized social nudity was common until the 1870s, which is relatively recent given the expanse of human history. Only several years after the invention of the swimsuit did it become mandatory to actually wear them [source]. Christian missionaries then led the movement from that point forward, classifying nudity as a sin despite there being no biblical context for doing so [source].

Thanks to the strong influence of Victorian England, the concept spread quickly around the world and soon public nudity was banned everywhere the crown had any influence. This is why much of Europe still has few laws against nudity, mostly for health reasons, while the UK still holds tightly to a non-nude policy in public. Prudes. 

American evangelicals, however, always on the lookout for something else to make them more exclusive, embraced the laws against nudity in the name of modesty, pitting one social construct against another. Aided and abetted by some horrible misinterpretation of scripture, the lack of modesty came to have explicitly sexual overtones, completely ignoring that an abundance of unshared wealth is also immodest, as is wearing extravagant clothing and flying on private jets, things that evangelicals seem to have no problem doing. 

So, in the face of all this overwhelming hypocrisy, I find myself asking, “Tell me again why you blocked my email address? Why am I not welcome in your churches?”

Ultimately, the answer lies in the fact that I don’t need churches, synagogues, temples, or any other artificial construct to explore my own relationship with deity. The fact that I feel the need to chase after acceptance from such an entity is the greater shortcoming. 

Randy Newman, you know, the guy who wrote ToyStory’s “You’ve Got A Friend In Me,” wrote a song called “That’s Why I Love Mankind.” It goes like this:

Cain slew Abel, Seth knew not why
For if the children of Israel were to multiply
Why must any of the children die?
So he asked the Lord
And the Lord said:

Man means nothing, he means less to me
Than the lowliest cactus flower
Or the humblest Yucca tree
He chases ‘round this desert
Cause he thinks that’s where I’ll be
That’s why I love mankind

I recoil in horror for the foulness of thee
From the squalor and the filth and the misery
How we laugh up here in heaven at the prayers you offer me
That’s why I love mankind

The Christians and the Jews were having a jamboree
The Buddhists and the Hindus joined on satellite TV
They picked their four greatest priests
And they began to speak
They said, “Lord, a plague is on the world
Lord, no man is free
The temples that we built to you
Have tumbled into the sea
Lord, if you won’t take care of us
Won’t you please, please let us be?”
And the Lord said
And the Lord said

I burn down your cities-how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
That’s why I love mankind
You really need me
That’s why I love mankind

Source: LyricFind Songwriters: Randy Newman God’s Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind) lyrics © Warner Chappell Music, Inc.

I don’t need a sanctuary or a congregation or a great edifice to achieve whatever spiritual fulfillment is appropriate for any given moment. Neither do you. If we can’t find our Jesus or Muhammed or Krishna or Buddha or whatever on our own, chances are it doesn’t actually exist. We don’t need artificially constructed walls, we don’t need the confines of social construct telling us what is right or wrong. We know. That inherent morality shared across every religion is inherent within us; we have it when we are born. 

HOWEVER. It is difficult for me to explain, especially to those who have never heard, the power that a well-played pipe organ holds. Since the churches Poppa pastored were all small, we never had anything more than an electronic organ. While those can, under certain conditions, sound sufficient for small sanctuaries, they can’t match the way 60+ ranks of pipe consume the listener’s body, lifts them out of their seat, and fills them with music. The experience can be transcendental.

Unfortunately, organs of that nature are massively expensive and the bulk of them reside in churches who had the funding to match the instruments to great cathedrals. There are a limited number of 36- or 42-rank instruments still functioning in old theaters, leftover from the early 20th century, but for the most part if one wants to hear great organ music, one has to go to a church somewhere. I can listen to Spotify or watch YouTube videos all day but that is never going to replace the experience of actually being there in a grand sanctuary with a well-tuned organ.

Nonetheless, I feel compelled, after all this blathering-on I’ve done for the past 8,000 words, to give you some taste of what I miss. Charles-Marie Widor’s Fifth Symphony for Organ ends with a Toccata that has become rather famous. It is constructed of variations on a set of arpeggios traveling from F Major in fifths to C, then G, then D while the bass works its way down chromatically in a beautifully melodic manner. Arguably, only Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d minor is more well known and we could debate for weeks as to which is more powerful. 

Widor edited the piece several times so it can change slightly depending on who is playing and which version of the music they learned. While I’ve always enjoyed listening to Dr. Andre Lash performing the piece, the beauty of the Internet gives us the ability to hear it on the instrument for which it was written, the Cavaille-Coll Pipe Organ at Saint-Sulpice, Paris. Here it is, played by that instrument’s titular organist, Philip Roth.

It pains me to no end that music like this is largely confined to institutions that might invite one in for a special performance with a paid ticket but would block that same person from regularly enjoying the litany of great music written for great instruments. This strikes me as an error equal to paid-admission-only museums that confiscate great works of art for viewing only by those whose pockets are sufficiently deep. Both acts are an immoral affront to humanity.

As I begin the new book next week, know that it experiences like these that color my perspective and opinions of memories of things that happened within the Church during the 1970s. The book, tentatively titled Pastors’ Conference, 1972, condenses into the story of a single year many of the things I saw and experienced as I accompanied my father to various events. The space of time allows me to view all that happened with a bit more objectivity, which in some instances means being disgusted by things that were passed over at the moment and sympathetic over moments when concerned actors lacked the power to stop certain disaster. Of course, we’re fictionalizing everything, changing all the names and places, altering descriptions, so that we’re not desecrating the memories of those beloved. Nonetheless, I hope you will find the story compelling.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some pictures to edit. I’ll be putting in my earbuds and turning up Walton’s Crown Imperial March. Peace be with you.

Reading time: 43 min
spirit of the holidays

Note: The photos heading each section were taken during the year being reviewed. That doesn’t impact the content in any manner but we thought you’d want to know.

Four inches of snow lie on the ground outside as I begin writing this week. More snow is coming. Assuming this publishes on Sunday, December 22, Hanukkah starts tonight and after that, it’s one seemingly endless stream of holidays right through January 1. This is, in theory, the most festive time of year, a celebration not only on religious terms but also of the ending of the year and the decade. There are lights blinking everywhere, including the racetrack, but you have to pay an ungodly amount to see them. Same for the art museum. Same for the zoo. No one wants to drive from neighborhood to neighborhood to look at lights anymore because you might accidentally stumble into gunfire. 

Holidays are here and with them, we’re supposed to feel happier spirits, a sense of thankfulness for having survived and a delight in being able to give to others. Yet, too often that’s not what happens. Charles Dickens, a person with an abidingly deep love for one holiday, in particular, wrote:

Christmas time! That man must be a misanthrope indeed, in whose breast something like a jovial feeling is not roused – in whose mind some pleasant associations are not awakened – by the recurrence of Christmas.

If Dickens is correct, then we have perhaps become a population filled with misanthropes. The end of our years now are filled more with dread than decadence, worry more than wassailing, regret rather than rejoicing. Many approach the holidays in sorrow, moaning the loss of one unjustly taken from them this year. Each calendar exchange seems to take us another step further away from the giddiness and anticipation that came not only with opening presents but also with seeing our favorite relatives, enjoying the company of cousins we hadn’t seen all year, and setting aside the stresses that had kept our brows furrowed the rest of the year.

Some might suggest that as thoroughly modern individuals we are simply more in tune and aware of reality than were our predecessors. We are too keenly aware of earth’s problems, from foreign wars that have no purpose to climate change that threatens our existence to the burden of insurmountable debt before one even claims their first job. Being “woke” comes with a price that leaves our spirits and our wallets too broke and broken for celebration.

I feel oddly obligated to at least attempt to correct this malaise that is set upon us. Surely, somewhere in the ethos of time and space there still exists some overriding reason to spend the remainder of this decade a little less curmudgeonly, a little more spritely, and perhaps, dare I use the word, happy. Taking a cue from Dickens’, I’ve summoned the Ghost of What-The-Hell-Happened in a search for meaning that might lighten our spirits just a bit. I’m not necessarily looking for a Frank Capra ending, but at least, perhaps, a grin.

It Started In 2010

 Spirit of 2010
2010

The decade started with the Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Having the games so close without having to actually suffer the insurmountable costs ourselves made the games so much more fun for Americans, and the Canadians, being everything that they are, did a wonderful job playing host. American skier Bode Miller finally won gold, and the US took gold in the snowboarding halfpipe as well thanks to Shaun White. The Olympics were a good start to what seemed as though it might be an outstanding decade.

We were listening to everything from Eminem’s Recovery to Lady Antebellum’s Need You Now, Drake’s Thank Me Later and Lady Gaga’s Fame. We watch a lot of sequels, from Toy Story 3 to Shrek Forever After and started the long and emotional process of ending the Harry Potter series. 

New Orleans made permanent enemies of the Colts when they beat them 31-17 in the Super Bowl, something many will never forgive. When it came time for baseball, the San Fransisco Giants made short work of the Texas Rangers, taking the World Series in only four games. The Lakers dominated the NBA and the Blackhawks took home the Stanley cup.

This was also the year that President Obama was able to sign the Affordable Care Act into law, giving millions of previously uninsured people a shot at healthcare coverage. While politicians have been arguing over it ever since the bottom line is that a lot of people have benefited and would be severely hurt if it is ever taken away.

All in all, it wasn’t that bad a year if you don’t look at the bad stuff. Most of the bad stuff happened on other continents making it easier for Americans to ignore. Sure, we had that one guy that crashed his plane into an IRS office in Austin and a brief bomb scare in Times Square, but we also ended the military’s Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell policy and put limits on the use of nuclear weapons. So, overall, as years, go, this wasn’t an especially bad one, which makes it good. Right?

Terrorism Takes A Bullet

Spirit of 2010
2011

Without question, the biggest news of 2011 was the killing of terrorist-in-chief Osama Bin Laden. The photo of President Obama in the war room as the event unfolded gave many people confidence that we had a competent Commander in Chief who was making good on the quest to hold responsible the person who masterminded the 9/11 attacks nearly ten years earlier. There was a lot of celebration in the US… and a lot of other people went and hid under their covers.

Oh, and Britain’s Prince William married Kate Middleton, which the biggest wedding since William’s own parents’ event. There was all manner of discussions about succession and tradition but at the end of the day, it was the bride’s sister’s butt that got a lot of attention and sold a lot of dresses.

I should probably mention the hope and joy and came with the Arab Spring movement, but given that ten years later we’re seeing how that didn’t turn out so well, maybe we’ll just skip that part.

More to our liking, the White House defined the Defense of Marriage act barring same-gender marriages as unconstitutional, saying that the Attorney General’s office would no longer defend it. On cue, the state of New York says “thank you, very much” and passes a law allowing same-gender marriages, setting off a tidal wave that would dominate conversations on holidays for the next four years.

We were still watching sequels in the movie theater, still listening to Adele, Gaga, Drake, and Lady Antebellum, and a whole bunch of people picked up The Help by Kathryn Stockett which set off a reading frenzy that lasted a couple of years. Not a bad thing at all.

Rangers made it back to the world series and this time it took all seven games before the Cardinals disappointed the Texas team again. Packers took the Super Bowl, Mavericks won their first NBA championship, and the Bruins took the Stanley Cup in a brutal beating of the Canucks. 

The downside to this year came in the loss of some wonderful people, such as Amy Winehouse, Steve Jobs, and Christopher Hitchens. We wouldn’t have minded had they stayed around a while longer. Still, overall, the year was positive enough to leave most of us feeling good about ourselves and about the future. We were going to the New Year’s Eve dance with a positive outlook.

Some Years Are Just Rough

Spirit of 201
2012

Being a presidential election year made 2012 a tough one from the very beginning and while the end result was positive it took a toll on the American psyche that is still playing out. This was a tough year to be in charge of anything, anywhere, and by the time it wrapped pretty much everyone, myself included, was glad it was over.

This was a bad year to be a kid. The horrible mass murder at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut was preceded by the mass shooting at a movie theater in a Denver suburb. This was a turning point in the national conversation on gun control that ended in mass frustration as elected officials across the country ran and hid.

The topic of same-gender marriage was frequently in the news. President Obama expressed his support for it and the state of Washington made it legal, but the state of North Carolina banned it. The Supreme Court agreed to take up the matter and while everyone in the LGBTQ community was publicly positive, there were still plenty of state initiatives to provide angst to the whole scenario, and nothing started a family argument any faster, except maybe gun control.

We did find some bright spots. The Summer Olympics in London came along in the middle of July and distracted us slightly for a couple of weeks. The biggest news was American swimmer Michael Phelps breaking the record for most gold medals ever. Yay! In fact, the US dominated swimming events for both men and women, which made us quite proud. We were also quite proud of Gabby Douglas for taking the women’s all-around gold in gymnastics and US women for taking the team gold. There was plenty of good news here and we were quite welcome for all of it.

Our music taste became questionable as Brit boy band One Direction dominated rather uncomfortably in what some wanted to term as a second British invasion that, thankfully, never materialized. The one highlight was Lionel Ritchie’s Tuskegee but too many people missed it and the opportunity to benefit from the conversation was lost. 

On the big screen, we watched our backs while Batman, James Bond, Spiderman, a Hobbit, and a talking teddy bear captured our imaginations. Security was a lot tighter in movie theaters the second half of the year, but we coped by buying more popcorn.

The New York Giants offed the Patriots in the Super Bowl, the World Series got tense as the SF Giants took game seven after ten nail-biting innings, Miami Heat took the NBA championship, and perhaps one of the most emotional games came when Roger Federer took the Wimbledon Championship from Andy Murray. There are Brits still heartbroken over that one. 

President Obama won his bid for a second term, of course, but one could feel the division growing across the country. This whole American experience began getting really uncomfortable and in the midst of it all, we lost Dick Clark, Etta James, Donna Summer, Whitney Houston, Andy Williams, Sally Ride, Davy Jones, Don Cornelius, Dave Brubeck, and Ray Bradbury. 

On the plus side, Kat and I met at a not-a-holiday-party party on December 6. That’s working out well, so far [evil grin]

Love Wins, Sort Of

Spirit of 2013
2013

The most important event of 2013 came on June 26 when the US Supreme Court determined that the Defense of Marriage Act prohibiting same-gender weddings was unconstitutional. Celebrations occurred. There were still battles to fight, though, as the decision tossed authority back to the states, damnit. 

Much of the rest of the year was a wash, though, as we saw blatant stupidity grow as the National Voting Rights Act was gutted, George Zimmerman was somehow found not guilty of murdering Treyvon Martin, and the whole Bradley/Chelsea Manning thing went down in one of the biggest debacles ever. Ick. Let’s just move on.

There was a 34-minute blackout during the Super Bowl, and no, it wasn’t because everyone had too much beer. Baltimore Ravens eventually won the game, but no one outside Baltimore seemed to care. Boston Red Sox took the World Series in six games and the Miami Heat took the NBA championship for the second year in a row. This was a great year for East coast sports, but the rest of the country responded with a massive, “Meh.”

Movies this year were so disappointing I’m not going to bother listing any of them. Music was slightly better, although we, nationally, listened to far too much Justin Timberlake. The rest of the time we were listening to Pink and Bruno Mars and Imagine Dragons and Florida Georgia Line. We read Dan Brown’s Inferno because we can’t stop. We also read Bill O’Reilly’s, Killing Jesus, Veronica Roth’s, Divergent, and John Grisham’s, Sycamore Row because we were largely scared of new authors.

Stuff falling from the sky was particularly big news this year, to the point one might begin to wonder if the deities were hurling things at us, quite literally, from their distant thrones. Debris from a meteor hit Siberia, killing 1,000 people. One doesn’t expect that on a normal day. Ever. A massive Category 4 tornado flattened Moore, Oklahoma again. Why they bother rebuilding at this point defies logic. They keep getting flattened. They’re not getting the hint. Then, to round out the year, November 17 comes alone and Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, and Tennessee see at least 60 confirmed tornadoes. 119 tornadoes were reported. The damage across the Midwest had FEMA managers feeling quite confused as to where they should be. 

We understand that feeling far too well.

There is practically nothing else about 2013 that is uplifting except Kat and I move in together and three weeks later I hurt my leg and haven’t walked right since. This year was a bitch.

Spies Love Us

2014
2014

2014 was the year the whole CIA domestic spying scandal broke wide open. When it was found that they had hacked and spied on the Senate Intelligence Committee and everyone else. As a result, Congress unanimously passed a law requiring a search warrant to access information on anyone’s cell phone. What that had to do with the Senate Intelligence Committee is still baffling but it made everyone feel good at the time.

The Supreme Court struck down laws in several states, including Indiana, making same-gender marriage legal in more states. This was a HUGE win for the LGBTQ community but simultaneously sparked another debate over transgendered people using public restrooms. Republicans ride the fear-mongering train to re-take the Senate and increase their dominance of the House in mid-term elections. This should have been seen as proof that the majority of Americans don’t give a shit about anyone’s civil rights but their own.

This is also the year the NFL gets nailed for failing to deal adequately with the violence issues of their players, primarily Ray Rice and Adriene Peterson. There are a lot of charges, a lot of press conferences, and in the end, nothing demonstrably was changed to reduce the amount of violence within the league. 

Hobby Lobby showed that privately-owned businesses can get away with any stupid thing they want, particularly failing to pay for contraception as required by law, as long as they claim a religious exemption. That they’re still in business doesn’t say anything positive about the American people. 

This is also the year an unarmed Michael Brown was shot by a cop in Ferguson, Missouri. We’ve yet to solve that problem, either.

The Seattle Seahawks win their first Super Bowl ever, which made something like 15 people happy. Giants barely defeat the Royals in seven games to take the World Series. San Antonio prevents Miami from doing the “three-peat” thing in the NBA. No one watched any other sports because we were either hiding from spies or afraid of the police.

We did go out to see Guardians of the Galaxy and Big Hero 6. This was also the year that Disney took the “on ice” thing literally and the song “Let It Go” became firmly ingrained in the minds of every six-year-old in the country, making it impossible for any adult to ever use that phrase again, ever. We also listened to Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, and for reasons yet to be explained, One Direction. We went to the bookstore and became obsessed with John Green’s novel, The Fault In Our Stars and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl.

I should probably also mention the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. They were the most expensive ever and more people began questioning whether it was worth hosting. Women’s hockey was a big deal, but so was doping on the part of the Russian national team, which eventually caused a number of medals to be vacated. This is yet another problem that continues to plague the games even into 2020.

We lost a lot of cool people this year. Robin Williams, Maya Angelou, Oscar de la Renta, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Joe Cocker, Pete Seeger, Ben Bradlee, and Harold Ramis are top among a very large list. 

We did land a space ship on a comet this year, though, so we have something of which we can be proud.

No Place To Hide

2015
2015

2015 sets a new bar for being scary. From massive earthquakes in Nepal to terrorism in Paris, this year was all kinds of fucked up in ways we hadn’t seen before. A co-pilot locked the pilot out of the controls of a Germanwings aircraft and flew the plane into a mountain, killing all 150 people on board. “Death by cop” became a real problem, and then some smarmy white kid walked into a black church in Charleston, SC and started shooting during a Bible study. A reporter and cameraman were murdered live, on-air. 

The Supreme Court finally made same-gender marriage legal across all 50 states. The feeling of glee was almost immediately ruined, though, when a self-righteous court clerk in Kentucky said it was against her religious beliefs to issue marriage licenses to same-gendered couples. She spent a week in jail and lost her battle but not before soiling what was rightfully a major win for humanity.

The Pope came for a visit. Catholics went nuts, but everyone else kept saying, “Hey, while you’re here, why not do something about that whole pedo-priest problem ya’ll have?” He didn’t. It’s still a problem.

Mass shootings were a bigger problem than ever. 10 people killed on a college campus in Oregon. Five people killed at a military recruiting office in Chattanooga. Three more at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs. Then, to round out the year, a married couple shot up San Bernadino. After all this, try telling your kids that yes, it really is safe to go somewhere. Anywhere. 

We were feeling a bit nostalgic as Star Wars, Mad Max, and Jurrasic World took over the box office while Inside Out introduced our kids to their inner emotions, giving them a sufficient vocabulary with which they started therapy. 

Adele said Hello, Rihanna wants to know if you have her money, and Silento ruined ever wedding reception with this whole whip and nae-nae thing that just got completely out of hand. We got all excited when a second Harper Lee book, Go Set A Watchman was published, but then came the question as to whether Ms. Lee was tricked into signing the papers allowing the book to be published. We felt confused, so we turned our attention to Paula Hawkins’, The Girl On A Train

Patriots cheated their way to a Super Bowl win. Kansas City finally got the World Series win they’d been wanting, then silently slipped into relative obscurity. The Golden State Warriors took the NBA Championship from Cleveland. A surprising number of people didn’t know the Warriors were a team.

This is the year we lost Leonard Nimoy, B. B. King, John Nash, Christopher Lee, Omar Sharif, Yogi Berra, and Jackie Collins. 

The year finished with a second terrorist attack in Paris. We never should have left our beds.

Electing Rich Oranges

2016
2016

2016 picked up where 2015 left off, further cementing the concept that, collectively, we’re a bunch of dumbasses who think killing innocent people solves things. The worst included three simultaneous bombings in Brussels, Belgium (35 killed); a shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida, (50 killed); a bus that plowed into a parade in Nice, France (80+ killed); and a truck that ran through a Christmas market in Berlin, Germany (12 killed). How did we respond? Why, with thoughts and prayers, of course. 

We weren’t the only killers, though. Hurricane Matthew came along and killed approximately 1,600 people before it was done. I can’t help but note that we’re getting a lot better at forecasting when and where these storms are going to hit but we’re not getting a lot better at preventing deaths. The disconnect there is rather bothersome.

We were afraid of catching the Zika virus that was running around everywhere and that kept some people from attending the most disastrous Olympic games ever in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. This was the perfect time to highlight the impossible burdens the International Olympic Committee places on host cities. Venues weren’t ready. Where venues were ready, guests and athletes had to venture through slums of people living in lean-to shanties without enough food to eat. Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, and Usain Bolt still put forth amazing performances that inspired everyone, but shortly after the games word of abuse on the part of the gymnastics team doctor began to spread and the fallout is likely to be felt at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.

There was some softening in US relations with Cuba but since most of those have now been rolled back they’re hardly worth mentioning. Don’t you hate it when you do something good and someone else comes along and ruins it for everyone?

Broncos (Denver) beat the Panthers (Carolina) in the 50th Super Bowl that was more spectacle than game. The world nearly ended, though, when for the first time in over 100 years, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. The curse was broken! Everyone was happy for about three minutes. It was the Cavs and the Warriors again in the NBA championship but this time the Cavs took the series, thanks largely to MVP LeBron James. 

Our taste in music this year was as questionable as our electoral choices. We listened to a lot of Beyonce but we also listened to far too much Justin Beiber. Sia, Ariana Grande, and a bunch of dudes all named DJ something-or-the-other were in the mix as well. This was a year when Shakira and Rihanna made more sense than most musicians.

We were much more content to escape to the theater, where Moana was inspiring, Dr. Strange was mystical, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them kept our Karry Potter hopes alive. Then, Marvel brought us the one hero with which most of us could relate: Deadpool. THIS was the hero we needed and we embraced him.

2016 was also the year most of America became aware of Lin Manuel Miranda’s musical, Hamilton, which largely swept the 2016 Tony awards. The impressive work inspired us to not only take interest in Broadway again, but also US history as we checked out who this Alexander Hamilton guy was. The roadshow continues to sell out theaters everywhere it goes.

Our reading got introspective and somewhat convicting as Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad took most the attention and Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Mathematicians by Margot Lee Shetterly were the hottest things on bookshelves. We were also rather interested in Max Porter’s Grief as social media puts a new spin on how we work through the loss of a loved one.

Then came that damned election. Reasonable people failed to understand how an orange made its way to the nomination. They certainly didn’t expect it to win. But then, to demonstrate that stupidity isn’t just an American personality trait, the UK voted to leave the European Union as well. Both countries have suffered ever since. 

Wait, What?

2017
2017

2017 was the year of the double-take as the reality of our 2016 errors set in and news came at us so fast we hardly had time to react to one thing before we were being hit upside the head from something else. Once again, there was way too much violence and this time the numbers were among the most shocking ever. This was the year some jackass took to the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel and killed 58 people attending a country music festival. The focus quickly turned to how-the-hell no one saw him taking an arsenal of weapons up the elevator, but no one did and a lot of people died, so Congress responded by eventually getting around to banning bump stocks. Yawn. That wouldn’t have stopped the jackass who walked into a church 35 days later and killed 27 more people. Congress responded by saying, “Well, maybe we’ll ban bump stocks.”

Oh, this was also the year that a bunch of fucking Neo-Nazis took to the streets of Charlottesville, West Virginia carrying fucking tiki torches and wearing polo shirts and chinos. Things did not go well. They met with considerable opposition. Then, one of those fucking Nazis drove a car into a crowd of protestors, killing Heather Heyer. Emboldened by the election of the orange, these fucking imbeciles seemed to think this was their time to shine. They seemed to have forgotten that we have a license to kill Nazis, a practice we might consider taking back up.

Mother Nature wasn’t much kinder to us, though, as we were hit with hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria all back-to-back. Massive failures of every kind happened, the most egregious of which came in the government’s lack of aid to Puerto Rico, apparently forgetting that they’re US citizens as well. To this day, we’re still not sure exactly how many people were killed by the storms and their aftermath.

Women factored strongly this year, starting with the Women’s March on Washington, DC one day after the orange was inaugurated as president. There were arguably more people at the march than there were at the inauguration. Women were pissed and that didn’t stop as they decided that if they were going to call out the president for his dirty and immoral deeds, they’d call out everyone else, too. The #MeToo movement began and while Harvey Weinstein was the biggest name to be held accountable, there was a crap ton of other men involved as well. For once, we listened and all those men immediately found themselves out of positions of power. It would be fantastic if this was the one thing for which 2017 is known.

But it’s not. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick had decided a year earlier to take a knee during the national anthem to protest police violence against blacks. It made some people a little uncomfortable but the opposition seemed minor. In 2017, football players across the league joined in and suddenly the protest was mislabeled by the orange as being disrespectful to the flag and the movement became a problem for the NFL. What did the NFL do? Blame Kaepernick, of course. The quarterback was blackballed and hasn’t worked since. Meanwhile, police violence against people of color continues unabated.

There was a huge solar eclipse this year which got everyone excited. There were, of course, the demented leftovers from the Dark Ages who warned the world would end (it didn’t) and despite countless warnings from every medical source on the planet, the orange looked directly at the eclipse without any eye protection. Other than that, though, it was fun to see everyone get excited about science for a couple of weeks. 

We were listening to Ed Sheeran, Imagine Dragons, DJ Khaled, and occasionally Taylor Swift or Salena Gomez, but there was a significant imbalance in the number of music awards given to male performers over women and when we realized that we … just kept listening to the same things because that’s what we do.

At the theater, we were thrilled with Gal Godot’s portrayal of Wonder Woman and scared in a whole new way with “Get Out.” We were largely confused by the 8th installment in the Star Wars sage, though, and despite the Academy Award win, “The Shape of Water” still leaves a lot of people wondering if the movie is promoting sex with fish. The answer is no. 

To escape the lunacy, we read George Saunders, Lincoln on the Bardo and Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward among many, many others. 2017 was a good year for book sales.

After 51 years and only their second Super Bowl appearance, it looked as though the Atlanta Falcons might win one for once. No. The Patriots came back from a 25-point deficit and disappointed the entire nation. The Astros took the World Series for the first time ever in seven games against the Dodgers. In a routine that was starting to get boing, the Warriors beat the Cavs again for the NBA Championship. Hey guys, maybe let someone else play?

There was a whole giant truckload of political trash as well. Things we’d just as soon forget, such as the orange using Twitter to set policy. Delving into that mess would just be too depressing at this point. 

Getting Out Of This Mess

2018
2018

There were actually some decently good things happen in 2018, though they’ve largely been overshadowed in our memories by all the stupidity and nonsense in Washington. Let’s start with the fact that it was a united Korean team competing in the PyeongChang Olympics. That was a major milestone of diplomacy that hasn’t been seen in Korea in over 60 years. Norway’s Marit Bjørgen ruled skiing, taking home five medals. American Shaun White repeated as champion of the snowboard halfpipe, and Japan’s Yazuru Hanyu was the first figure skater to repeat gold since Dick Button did it in 1952. The games were a wonderful break that hardly anyone remembers anymore.

Fortunately, there was also a wedding to distract us and this time American’s felt as though they had a stake in the game as Britain’s Prince Harry married American actress Meghan Markle. There was some controversy, of course, because we can’t let love be love. Some were upset that Ms. Markle is biracial. Others were upset that she was divorced. Drama with her family didn’t help matters, either. In the end, though, the wedding was a spectacle and the couple wasted no time making babies that have practically zero chance of sitting on the throne but still get to go to the parties at the palace.

That’s pretty much where the uplifting news ends, though. Robert Mueller’s special prosecutor team handed down dozens of indictments and sent people to jail. There were two more school shootings that no one did anything about because apparently, kids’ lives only matter before they’re born. Sears and Toys ‘R’ Us both went bankrupt, driving home what we’ve known for several years that brick-and-mortar retail has a massive problem that no one’s solving. A racially-insensitive rapist was given a seat on the Supreme Court for the rest of his life. And then, to top everything, the government started separating immigrant children from their families and holding them in cages. Sure, there are some subtleties there but history doesn’t give a shit about subtleties. When Democrats took back control of the House of Representatives in November, the rookies started immediately making the Speaker uncomfortable with talk of doing something about the orange. Someone mentioned the word “Impeach” and all of Washington went nuts.

So, we looked for distractions. We listened to Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper over and over because their remake of “A Star Is Born” made everyone feel all gooey inside. Donald Glover countered that with a gritty “This Is America” that made us uncomfortable facing reality but not enough for us to actually do anything. Again. There were a bunch of other songs but, honestly, 50 years from now no one is going to remember them.

In addition to “A Star Is Born,” we were thrilled as Wakanda came alive and the “Black Panther” became everyone’s hero. “Avengers, Infinity War” left us crying, but fortunately there was “Spiderman: Into the Multiverse” and the long-anticipated “Incredibles2” to dry those tears and make us happy. The theater was a great place of escape in 2018.

We emersed ourselves in books such as Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, Confessions of The Fox, by Jordy Rosenberg, and Lisa Brennan-Jobs memoir, Small Fry, which is so raw that at times it feels as though she’s carving up her father, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and feeding them to the wolves, then immediately apologizing for the just criticism. 

The Philadelphia Eagles denied the Patriots a comeback and won the Super Bowl, showing some cracks in the Belicek/Brady armor that may hint at the decline of the Patriots empire. The Dodgers returned to the World Series but this time it was the Red Sox who took the series in an uneventful five games. NBA finals were a repeat of 2017 and the entire world is wondering if anyone else in the league even matters at this point.

Solidifying our angst was the number of really important people who died, people who shaped our youths and our understanding of the world. By the time we reached December 31, many of us were wondering if we could just skip 2019 and go straight to 2020. The answer would be “No.”

Crushing Any Spirit Left

2019
2019

Let’s be honest, by the time we got to this year, many of us were feeling beaten, discouraged, and ready to give up. This decade has been hell and we entered it without much spirit or hope for anything more than what we’ve seen every year: bad politics, mass shootings, international terrorism, racism, gender inequality, bigotry, religious abuse, and a deeper ideological divide than any of us can remember.

This is the decade that took David Bowie and Prince IN THE SAME YEAR. It also took Maya Angelou, Aretha Franklin, Stephen Hawking, and Neil Simon. All the nice people, all the people who encouraged us to think, all the people who made us happy, were gone.

Suicides skyrocketed this decade as well and it did so on every level, in every age group, among every socio-economic condition. As a result, there was practically no one in the US who was unaffected. Everyone lost someone.

Even sports didn’t have a lot to offer. The Patriots beat the Rams in the Super Bowl, the Toronto Raptors finally beat the Warriors in the NBA finals, and the Washington Nationals won their first World Series, but all those seemed to be little more than background noise thanks to all the garbage being spewed not only by the orange but everyone on Capitol Hill, resulting in an impeachment investigation that made it clear that not only is everyone in Washington a crook, no one outside Washington gives a damn as long as their team seems to be winning. 

So, where do we look for hope? Now that we’ve suffered through this exercise is there anything left that has a chance to lift the spirits that we pretty much buried in 2016?

A handful of things come to mind. Probably chief among those is the fact that SAME-GENDER MARRIAGE IS LEGAL across the US. Ten years ago, I doubt even the most ardent LGBTQ activist thought we would see this milestone happen so quickly. Transgender rights have improved dramatically as well, though there remains a lot of work to be done on that front. Acceptance has increased to a point where those who still want to argue the point are quickly shouted down by a chorus of LGBTQ allies before those directly affected ever get involved.

There were some serious medical breakthroughs this decade as well, particularly when talking about cystic fibrosis and Ebola. Where AIDS was once a near-certain death sentence, we have reached the point this decade where the disease can be prevented in most cases simply by taking a pill. 

While much of sports have seemed repetitive and dull, the US Women’s Soccer Team proved that they’re worth watching and deserve to be paid just as much as the men, pushing forward the debate about pay equity not only in sports but across the table for all women.

A teenager taught us about global warming when we refused to listen to actual scientists. She stopped flying in planes, made train travel popular, and, perhaps more joyous than anything, beautifully trolled the orange when he tried to belittle her. We’re still dangerously close to reaching the point where we cannot backtrack on the damage done to our planet, but there’s one voice of reason that’s shining bright in the darkness.

We’ve come to understand and accept a lot more about autism and how to respond to people who have it. As a result, schools have become places where therapy and help are available, kids are getting assistance rather than being kicked out for being disruptive. We’ve also paid more attention to nutrition and how food deserts affect kids’ ability to learn. We’re still not paying teachers anywhere close to a sufficient wage but we’re making improvements that mean kids that were left out in previous generations will survive in this one.

We’ve become more conscious than ever of the food we eat, thanks in part to a number of listeria and ecoli breakouts that forced us to pay more careful attention. At the same time, though, we’ve continued to overeat and are looking at nearly fifty percent of the country being obese by the end of the next decade. We have a long way to go, but raising awareness is the first step to solving the problem.

We’ve realized that there’s more to life than work and that a college education doesn’t mean you’ll get a job that pays enough to cover the debt created getting that degree. This led to a sharing economy boom with Air B&B and ride-sharing companies taking off in ways few saw as possible. Travel has once again become big business as more people are concerned about the quality of the experience over other concerns.

We carry in our pockets or our purses the answer to almost every question ever asked and it’s all available at a touch thanks to the new generation of smartphones that double has handy cameras. As we create memories, we capture and share them not only with family but everyone. We see more of how people want to live and sometimes that drives us to improve our own lives in the process. 

There ARE good things here. There are ALWAYS good things, every year. The problem is that the noise around all the bad things is so loud we lose the sound, and the memory, good things. That cheerful spirit of the holidays isn’t gone or dead, it’s being drowned out by a choir of Scrooges who want us to fear them and the possibility of what they might do if they don’t get their way.

Perhaps, just maybe, the way to get that spirit back is to respond to the Scrooges by turning down their volume, don’t give them the platform, and reducing their importance in our lives. Sure, we’re going to vote for president this next November, that is important, but we don’t have to let that conversation dominate our lives anymore. We know the orange is a thief and a crook and that there are other fruits that are just as bad and we need to remove them all. So, come November, we fix that.

In the meantime, we can work on regaining the happiness and the spirit we lost this decade. We can tell more stupid people to fuck off, focus more on getting good things done, supporting more medical research, being allies for those who are disadvantaged, buying more art (not just looking at it), singing more songs, meeting more people who are different than we are, and paying more attention to our own health so that we’re not killing ourselves off faster than we can procreate. Perhaps we can also take this opportunity to stay the fuck out of other people’s business, let people love who and how they wish, care more for the children after they’re born than before, do more to make healthcare universal for everyone so that no one is dying because they can’t afford to live, and getting more exercise for ourselves because we’re too damn fat and we’ve got to deal with that. 

We can do this. We can make the next decade so much better than this one we just barely survived. We can create more good things, do more things that matter, and shut down the old men who have lost their usefulness as our country’s leaders. 

On your mark, get set, LIVE!

Reading time: 34 min
Conversation With A Mad Man

As I’m writing this, it’s 4:30 AM Saturday morning. This is a rather late point in the week to start writing anything that is going to publish at 10:30 AM on Sunday, especially given that I also have to select and submit images for two major art shows by 8:00 PM tomorrow. Oh, and it’s also the Saturday two weeks before that wild and crazy holiday and it’s up to me to take the kids to choose gifts for other family members. The prevailing theory is that they need to see this as a season of giving, not getting and you already know that, at ages 9 and 11, what they get is the only thing on their minds. 

On Monday of this week, I started an article on greed. I’m over 3,400 words into that article. However, I forgot to plug in my Chromebook, which is where I do all my writing and ended up taking a forced break yesterday. That gave me a chance to go back yesterday afternoon and re-read what I’d written. I nearly fell asleep. Too much talk about economic theory.

So, here we are, you and I. It’s too late to do research on another article and get much past 400-500 words. I don’t consider it worth my time or yours to publish anything smaller than 2,000 words. We both have better things to do. I have from this moment until 6:00 AM when I have to go get gas so I can take Big Gabe to work this morning.  I’ll probably have another hour or so when I get back, but everyone will be up and making noise by then so I need to have set a pretty strong premise by then or this just isn’t going to work.

Here’s what’s going to happen: We’re going to have a conversation, you and I. I’m going to play the part of me and you are going to play the part of the voice in my head that keeps bugging me endlessly with questions I can’t answer. I’ll feed you the questions so you don’t have to think too hard about it. I’ll be designated by the letter M and you’ll be designated by the letter Y. We’ll see how accurately I am able to read your mind. I would say that if you disagree with the words I put in your mouth, let me know in the comments but the only people who ever leave comments are Chinese bots and I have to delete those. So, we’re just going to go with this and see what happens. It’s now 4:50 AM. 

Conversation WIth A Mad Man

Y: I don’t want to have this conversation. It’s too damn early.

M: Sorry, but this is the only time available. I don’t need you tagging along all day trying to get this done. We have limited time. Deal with it. Would you like coffee?

Y: Yes, please. WIth cream and two things of sugar.

M: (shaking head) Putting cream and sugar in coffee is one of the many things that’s wrong with this country. We’ve lost the fortitude to drink our coffee black, the way the gods intended.

Y: Yeah, well, it tastes like crap without the cream and sugar, so if you don’t mind, stop being an asshole and put the cream and sugar in my coffee.

M: The creamer we use is already sweetened. Taste it before I add anything.

Y: (taking a sip of the coffee) Yeah, that’ll do. Why are we doing this so early, again?

M: Because it’s the only time this house is quiet, and even then, “quiet” is a comparative state. Dogs are in and out, cats are… sigh, bouncing off the furniture one minute and then sleeping in the middle of the floor so that I don’t see them when I go to get dressed.

Y: Wait, you’re not dressed? I really didn’t need or want that mental image in my head.

M: Get over it. I’m wearing a t-shirt and boxers. The light bulbs in the kitchen emit a yellow light so my pasty white legs don’t blind anyone. Chances are, you may not be wearing pants, either.

Y: Well… even if I wasn’t I wouldn’t tell you, you pervert.

M: Hey, watch the name-calling. We’re not Republican Congresspersons here.

Y: You’re not going to make this whole conversation about politics, are you? If you are, I’m leaving.

M: Do what you want. Politics are responsible for roughly 90% of what’s wrong with this planet in the first place, though. It’s rather difficult to have a constructive conversation without coming back to how woefully inept our elected representatives are. We didn’t read all the way through Plato’s Republic before we started this experiment and it shows.

Y: (Blank stare)

M: You’ve not read Plato’s Republic, have you?

Y: (Blank stare)

M: See, that’s exactly the point I’m trying to make and what Plato warned about. The people doing the voting, ostensibly you and me, need to have a deep understanding of how the system works or else they elect people to office who fuck it up.

Y: Must you curse? I really don’t like it when you curse.

M: I’ll try to keep a lid on it, but the F word is such an ingrained part of my vocabulary that it just comes out. Most mornings, it’s the first word I utter when the alarm goes off.

Y: You’re probably not alone but I don’t think most people actually say it out loud, they just think it.

M: That’s an option? My mouth is open before I have a chance to hit the button. The morning F-bomb is instinctive at this point.

Y: That’s disappointing. You know your mother wouldn’t approve. She’d be very disappointed.

M: My mother would be disappointed with very large sections of my life the past 17 or so years. Don’t worry, she still haunts my dreams and reminds me of how inadequate I am and that if I had practiced harder I could have been an out-of-work musician at this point in my life.

Y: That’s a rather cynical viewpoint. Your mother was a very sweet person and supported you in pretty much everything you did.

M: Yes, mother was a very sweet person unless you crossed her and did something of which she didn’t approve. Then, she could be very biting in the most deliciously passive-aggressive sort of way. It was wonderful watching her do it to other people, especially pastors she considered inept, but it really stung to be on the receiving end. 

Y: Sounds judgemental.

M: It was, but one needs to understand it came from a perspective of wanting people to do better. She wanted everyone to be better educated, to think smarter and behave in an appropriate manner and when someone didn’t do that, especially when their actions affected other people negatively, she felt an obligation to say something to someone. Poppa was usually that someone and that was usually enough. She knew that saying anything publicly was as bad if not worse than whatever had offended her in the first place.

Y: She wouldn’t have done well with Facebook.

M: Are you kidding? Mother wouldn’t be on Facebook. She would have hated Facebook. She didn’t even learn how to use email until Poppa died. She hated the computer. She only learned to use it at all so she could see pictures of her grandsons. Otherwise, if there was something you needed to say to her, your options were to either call, write a letter, or drop by and talk. 

Y: Actually, that doesn’t sound like a bad way to handle things.

M: It wasn’t and we would probably do a lot better if we wrote more letters and communicated directly. I think too much of the time we get into a contest online, whether it’s Facebook or any other social media, as to who can be the most outrageous, or silly, or provocative. If we were forced to sit down and write letters, by hand, with a fountain pen, we would say a lot less and think a lot more.

Y: Why a fountain pen? I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone actually use one.

M: They’re wonderful, elegant writing tools that prohibit writing too fast. The nib of the pen has to hit the paper at just the right angle or you end up with a mess or nothing at all. There’s also no going back and applying spellcheck to what, you write. One has to stop and think before applying ink to paper. The result is inevitably more thoughtful and considered communication.

Y: But it’s not convenient.

M: No, it’s not, but a lot of our communication shouldn’t be built upon convenience. Convenience allows us to be sloppy, to not consider all the facts and subtleties in play. The only chance convenience has of working is if everyone in the conversation is well-read and of equal intelligence. Otherwise, there’s going to be a misunderstanding. 

Y: You underestimate people.

M: Do I?

Y: Yes, I think so. I think the average person is a lot more intelligent than you give them credit for being.

M. Says the person who hasn’t read Republic

Y: I don’t think people have to all read the same things and think the same way to be intelligent. You’re setting a very narrow standard where everyone thinks the same as you do or else you consider this less intelligent.

M. No, what I’m saying is that there has to be a base level of education to which we all have been sufficiently exposed or the whole system doesn’t work. The very phrase, “my tax dollars” if proof of that. If one understands how taxation works in a representational democracy you’re not going to say things like that because you know that money no longer belongs to you in any form. Those are not “my tax dollars” being spent on that fucking ridiculous border wall (sorry). Those are government funds being misdirected from other Congressionally-approved allocations resulting in a deficit of funds available for expenditures that were appropriated through legal means. The president is, in fact, stealing.

Y: That’s one way of looking at it. Or you could say that the liberals in Congress were never going to approve funding through normal channels so he diverted discretional funds to pay for a much-needed project.

M: That’s bull… Sorry, that’s a load of crap. Those are not “discretionary funds” being diverted. Those were specifically earmarked for named projects, projects that are not getting done because they no longer have the funds necessary because of a 100 percent useless wall.

Y: What do you mean useless?

M: They’re already scaling and/or cutting through the damn thing. It is, at best, a minor delay. It’s not stopping anyone. The wall is a waste of money, in addition to being a physical example of racism that paints the whole country in a bad light. Remember how negatively Americans considered Germans after WWII? That’s how the rest of the world looks at the US now.

Y: That’s not true and I wasn’t alive back then so no, I don’t know any of those Cold War emotions, Boomer.

M: Sooner. 

Y: What?

M: Nevermind. If you’re not from Oklahoma you wouldn’t understand.

Y: Look, my point is that you claim to be all accepting and supportive of alternative lifestyles and opinions but you’re really judgy when it comes to people who disagree with you.

M: No, I’m judgy about people who demonstrate a severe amount of ignorance that I consider unnecessary.

Y: Right, people who disagree with you.

M: That is not accurate. One might hold the same viewpoints that I do but for inadequate reasons, such as wanting to go along with all their other friends. That’s why we see thousands of people sharing the same things on social media. We’re not sharing our own thoughtful opinions, we’re co-opting the opinions of others in hopes that it makes us look smart, or cool, or in-the-know. I’m just as guilty of it as you are.

[pause while I take Gabe to work]

M: Sorry, that was a longer delay than I expected. Things needed to be done.

Y: That’s okay, I took the opportunity to snoop through your stuff and steal all your passwords and credit card numbers.

M: Jokes on you, I don’t have any credit cards.

Y: None? Not even a bank card?

M: I have the requisite ATM card but that’s it. If I can’t pay cash for something, I don’t get it. It’s that simple. 

Y: You realize you are like the ONLY person on the planet who lives that way.

M: No, I’m not. A lot of people are in that situation. Some because they choose to be, like me, and others because they’ve no choice. The fact that our society expects everyone to have multiple credit cards is problematic and one of the reasons our economy is not nearly as strong as we think it is.

Y: Yeah, yeah, you do realize even the government runs a tab…

M: And that’s going to get us into trouble eventually as well. We piss China off the wrong way, and tariffs start looking like child’s play. They could literally foreclose on the country. Our debt is $22 TRILLION, the largest it’s EVER been, and there’s no plan to pay it down and no motivation on the part of Congress or the President to reduce it. 

Y: I think you’re over-reacting.

M: I think I’ll be dead before anything dramatic happens, but it WILL happen. Trust me.

Y: Why? What makes you think you’re an authority on anything.

M: I never said I’m an authority. What I am is educated and well-informed, someone who doesn’t trust a single source and verifies the information before speaking. Therefore, when I do make a statement it sounds authoritative because, unlike most of what one sees on the Internet, it tends to be accurate.

Y: No mistakes?

M: Meh, I’d give me about an 88% accuracy rating. Things occasionally slip past me.

Y: And sometimes, I’ve noticed, you don’t say anything.

M: That’s been a more recent development. I’m finding that with many issues now there’s so much noise that adding another voice doesn’t solve anything. If I’m going to be ignored then I might as well stay quiet.

Y: Sooooo, why do you keep writing things that no one reads? Like, the stuff here?

M: Ouch. That hurt. You’re right, but it still hurts. I write what no one reads for the same reason I create art no one buys. I can’t make people listen or appreciate what I have to say, there may be no one who understands, but it is better to have tried and failed than to have not tried at all.

Y: Okay, that makes sense up to a point. You KEEP doing it. 

M: Because I still have things to say. In my mind, there will come a day, maybe 200-300 years from now, some digital archeologist digging through this strange mix of nonsense called the Internet is going to come across this stuff, read it in the context of what is for them, history, and see from that vantage point what no one is seeing now. At least, that’s the scenario that plays in my head on a daily basis.

Y: So, you’re delusional.

M: Probably, with grandiose visions of self-importance if we’re being clinical about it.

Y: And that doesn’t bother you.

M: Oh, it bothers me a lot but the alternative, living in a world where I’m a singular, largely unidentifiable pinpoint in a world that has known over 15 quintillion pins, is too dark and too hopeless to keep me alive. I would have taken a dirt nap a long time ago if I weren’t my own biggest fan. 

Y: That’s… troubling.

M: The only thing I find troubling is that more people aren’t in exactly the same position. Or, perhaps, more people are not admitting they’re in the same position. Self-delusion can be a wonderful thing and there are plenty of institutions such as religion to help facilitate those delusions. Did I tell you I was approached by a Jehovah’s Witness while pumping gas this morning?

Y: No, you did not. That seems like a strange place to be approached. 

M: It was just after 6:00 this morning, so no one else around. I’m not sure the gas station attendant was even awake. So, it’s just the two of us out there, pumping gas. He’s a reasonable-looking gentleman in a camel-colored dress coat and a sock cap. I’m standing there in my boots and cowboy hat with a car coat on. He comes up and says something to the effect that I look like I read a lot and hands me this brochure, says that if I go to this website, which to me was easily recognizable as religion’s website, I can find six “modern” translations of the Bible and if I don’t speak English they have it in 96 other languages.

Y: What’d you say?

M: Thank you, and then returned to pumping my gas.

Y: You didn’t engage him?

M: Why would I? People of faith are not easily convinced by any reasonable argument under the best of circumstances and standing in freezing winds at a gas pump at 6:00 in the morning is far from ideal circumstances. There’s no point in wasting one’s breath arguing matters of faith because those who believe, and mind you, I’m not picking on one more than the other, but those who are committed to identifying with their belief system are already delusional. They don’t want to see the holes in the logic, nor the evidence of its fallacies, nor the massive gaps in its logic and reasoning. Faith, of necessity, transcends all of that.

Y: So, you’re saying people of faith are ignorant?

M: No, don’t put words in my mouth. 

Y: You’re the one typing.

M: (rolling eyes) There are many people of faith who are intelligent and many who even realize that the things they believe are out of sync with matters of logic and reason but still choose to believe. There are many people who are of the opinion that matters of faith transcend everything else. When one chooses such a belief system it is very difficult, perhaps impossible to convince them otherwise.

Y: That doesn’t stop you from complaining about them.

M: Only because they have this nasty habit of trying to impose their belief system on everyone and everything else. Belief systems are fine on a personal level—believe in whoever or whatever you want—but they are just that, personal, and to impose them on anyone or anything else is morally wrong on a more universal level.

Y: Shouldn’t a belief system affect one’s lifestyle?

M: Perhaps, but if it does, it is your life it should affect, not mine. No one has the right to legislate a belief system. Theocracy is wrong and, interestingly enough, goes against the tenents of every major religion! There is no deity that desires to be in the government business. 

Y: People of faith don’t seem to see it that way.

M: Yes, I’ve noticed. That’s because their organizations have been politically motivated for thousands of years, mistranslating their holy scriptures to meet their political needs, and claiming heresy when someone tries to point out what the scriptures originally said. It’s an underhanded and shameful way of manipulating people to get them to do what you want and if their deities do exist and there is an afterlife, both of which I question, then those deities are likely to punish those severely who have bastardized the belief and taken advantage of people.

Y: Strange to hear you say that. You were raised differently. You even worked in churches, went to a religious university and everything. What happened? How did you get so contrary?

M: A number of things. One was being exposed to all the people my traditional belief system was labeling as “wrong.” Maintaining a belief system is easy when cocooned within a community of like minds. When one steps outside that community and begins to relate with others, one is likely to find the horrible things said about those “others” is largely untrue and bigoted. 

Y: Bigoted? That’s a rather strong accusation.

M: Yes, but it’s accurate. There is an intentional lack of understanding within religious groups for those who exist external to them. They say they don’t want to be “polluted” with the heresy and “sin.” The truth is, it’s the only way to keep people inside the religion. When they find out that the “bad” people aren’t so bad after all, everything else starts to fall apart.

Y: So, if we all started hanging out with each other and understanding each other, religion would die away?

M: Probably not, as there is a need within a lot of people to believe in something and religions offer a well-packaged something. However, religious participation is declining across the board and most dramatically among younger people. The Washington Post did an opinion piece back in October about that very topic, and there have been several other observational pieces as well [click here to read the WaPo article]. Religious institutions are not the authoritative source they were even ten years ago. People are tired of feeling manipulated.

Y: Is this why you’re so grumpy all the time? You do realize no one ever sees you smile.

M: Okay, let’s get some things straight. First, I’m not grumpy all the time. Most times, inside my head I’m quite pleasant. That’s in part because most of my day is spent alone and there’s no one around to upset me except the animals. Conversations with Kat and Gabe are usually pleasant. It’s when I look at the news that my mood goes sour. If people external to me weren’t such assholes I’d be a much better person to get along with. I’d probably be a lot more quiet, too.

Y: You’re telling me it’s all everyone else’s fault you’re an old grouch?

M: For the most part, yes. I mean, sure, I’m rather short on patience at this point in my life. Not that I’ve ever had much. A lack of patience has been a problem going all the way back to college and probably further. I set what I think are reasonable expectations and when those expectations are not met I tend to get frustrated, especially when what is delayed effects something or someone else. The computer is the worst offender. I expect it to work. Always. Efficiently. 

Y: Computers are inanimate objects, though. 

M: Are they, really? AI is growing by leaps and bounds and I’m not so sure but what there isn’t already a small, limited amount of sentience in every electronic device created at this point. Just enough to know when to slow down or turn off an app right at that critical point where hours of work are lost.

Y: You’re smiling. Please tell me you’re not serious.

M: Probably not, but, maybe.

Y: You’re nuts.

M: I thought that was a given.

Y: So, dramatically changing the subject, what do you do for fun?

M: I don’t.

Y: You don’t have fun?

M: As an explicit act, no, and that’s a failing on my part.

Y: There’s nothing you enjoy?

M: That’s a different question. There are plenty of things that I enjoy. I enjoy taking pictures. I enjoy spending time with Kat. I enjoy conversations with my sons. I enjoy intimacy and sex. I enjoy intelligent conversations with the few people who don’t mind associating with me. I enjoy good food. But I don’t view any of those things as recreational. Fun, in my mind, implies a recreational aspect on some level, and recreation isn’t something I’ve allowed on my schedule. I should, I know I should, I would be a lot closer to something sane if I did, but I don’t.
Studies consistently show that we need playtime, it’s built into our DNA. I get that. I have trouble turning off this brain, thing, though. If I’m not doing something that has a specific output for a determined purpose, I feel though I’m being lazy and inadequate, two things I won’t allow myself to be.

Y: That sounds dangerous. Don’t you ever relax?

M: Sort of. I reach points at the end of the day where my eyes hurt from looking at screens all day or my head hurts from trying to make sense of things that don’t make sense and I’ll stop, have some scotch and a cigar, chat with Kat a bit, and sometimes have some sugar-free ice cream. That’s relaxing. And I nap, though, increasingly, that’s a necessity. I’m old.

Y: Sounds like a rather unpleasant level of intensity.

M: Does it? I don’t know. I’ve done it for so long I’m not sure how I’d function any other way. I know I’m not looking forward to reaching that point where I’m no longer physically or mentally able to do something constructive. That’s going to be hell.

Y: You’re not looking forward to retiring?

M: I don’t think I get to retire, honestly, until I reach that point I can no longer hold a camera or form coherent sentences on paper. I think retirement is a privilege of the rich and I’m far from rich. When I reach that point where I’m no longer of any use to anyone, I’ll be happy if Kat lets me sit quietly in a corner drooling on myself until I expire. 

Y: You don’t sit still very long, do you? You’ve been up and down through this entire conversation.

M: No, I don’t. My mind is constantly thinking of something else I need to do. If my coffee cup starts getting low, I need to make coffee. If I see the cats have knocked clothes onto the floor, I need to do laundry, and all those are things that if I don’t get up and do right then while I’m thinking about them, they won’t get done. The worst is the floor. The living room floor needs to be vacuumed but everyone’s still asleep. I’ll forget by the time everyone’s up and it won’t get done and I’ll remember again in the morning and go through the whole thing again.

Y: It makes it difficult to have a conversation with you. I get the feeling you’re not paying attention.

M: I’m absolutely paying attention at the moment. I hear everything being said and do my best to respond intelligently. That doesn’t mean I’ll remember anything five minutes after we finish talking. I forget a lot and the older I get the more difficult it is to remember things. Like the 80s. I remember pieces, special events and all, but on the whole, it’s a big blank in my memory banks. 

Y: Does that bother you?

M: More than you can possibly imagine. Granddaddy, Poppa’s father, had Alzheimer’s and I remember too distinctly how dementia slowly took over, how he lost his sense of time and place, and how, toward the end, the most gentle and loving soul in the world became so mean only certain members of the nursing staff at the facility he was in could administer his medication. His last days were tortured and I don’t want to fall victim to that.

Y: Wait, what just happened? 

M: I burned my thumb on a pan I just took out of the oven. 

Y: But you had a potholder, I saw you.

M: Yeah, but the tip of my thumb still managed to come into contact with the pan. This sort of hurts.

Y: Do you need to put something on it?

M: No, it’s extremely superficial, hardly even red. It will go away in a few minutes. 

Y: And just like that, you move on. You’re typing full speed again. The pain doesn’t bother you?

M: I feel it, sort of, but no, I don’t let it bother me. I can’t. If I let pain bother me I’d never get anything done. 

Y: You burn yourself that often?

M: (laughing) No, not too often, but there’s always pain. After that egregious misdiagnosis with my leg and foot seven years ago, pain has been a constant. My choices were either dangerous and addictive meds or try to work it out. I refused to be a victim of opioids, so I decided to work with it on my own and here we are. It took some time, about three years, and I still don’t have full mobility, I don’t expect I ever will, but I get around and do what I need to do and the pain is simply a background thing I’ve learned to ignore. 

Y: Do you take anything?

M: Maybe an NSAID on the really bad days but that’s it. Masking pain isn’t beneficial. Pain is how our body tells us something’s wrong. If we ignore the pain, if we ignore changes in the pain, we do more damage. 

Y: So, you don’t think people should take pain meds?

M: There you go putting words in my mouth again. No, people should talk to their doctors and do what makes the most sense for them. For me, it is a matter of learning to live with my decision one way or the other. There’s no “fixing” the problem now without rebreaking and attempting to reset all the bones in my foot. The odds of that making things worse are higher than the chances of actually improving anything. Someone else in a different situation may make other choices and there’s nothing wrong with that.

Y: You have a cat in your face.

M: That’s Lyndy. Those things happen around here.

Y: Why? So many cats in such a small house?

M: Because Kat’s crazy? (laughs) Because we’re too compassionate to turn them out and let bad things happen to them. They’re all rescues of one sort or another. It’s a challenge to keep up with them and it makes it almost impossible to have guests over because no matter what we do there is going to be cat hair. I’m not even the world’s biggest fan of cats, but at this point, I can’t see us getting rid of any of them, unless there’s one you want to adopt (smiles).

Y: Uhm, no, thanks. You’re a little over 5,000 words now, by the way. Do you want to continue?

M: I don’t care. Do you think anyone is actually still reading at this point? I could probably say something really outlandish and see if anyone notices. Not that anyone ever comments, anyway. Those few who do read rarely say anything. That disappoints me, but I’ve gotten accustomed to it No one ever checks my references, either. I could be pulling information out of my ass and posting links to Disney porn and no one would know the difference. 

Y: Disney porn? That’s a thing?

M. Yeah. It’s illegal as hell but it’s out there and it gets a lot more hits than I do. 

Y: That bothers you.

M: Of course it does. I don’t like being ignored.

Y: Why do you think no one pays more attention to what you’re doing?

M: A couple of reasons One is that I went cheap and give this website a .xyz domain. It cost less than a dollar to register and I wasn’t sure what I really wanted to do with it. If you look back through the archives, we’ve done a lot of different things here and I can’t say we won’t do something even more different in the future. I don’t know. Anyway, the .xyz domain pops up as being untrusted on some networks. Like, if there’s a comment, usually spam, that I need to moderate. I get an email giving me a link to that comment. If I click on that link, my mail program instantly pops up an alter because of the xyz domain warning that the site may not be trustworthy. I know it’s okay, but for other people, that’s enough to avoid the site and go elsewhere.
The second reason is that there’s already so much other information out there and it’s difficult to cut through the clutter, and most of it is just that: clutter. People would rather look at pictures of Lyndy than read anything informational. Our brains are overloaded to the point we cannot consume anything of any depth. 

Y: I should probably mention at this point that you are dressed, have been for some time now, given that you went out and came back. Just making that point of clarification.

M: Thank you. I’d hate for anyone to think I’d gone to the gas station in my underwear.

Y: You roll your eyes a lot.

M: Do I? Kat says I do but I’m almost never aware of it. It annoys the hell out of her and I can appreciate why but I’m genuinely not aware of it happening so it makes it difficult for me to control. 

Y: You do, and I can understand why Kat would feel slighted. You’ve done it like thirty times through this conversation.

M: I apologize. Perhaps that’s a sufficient reason to end here.

Y: Sounds good. Any idea what you’ll write for next week?

M: Meh. Maybe something spirited. I almost hate to guess, though, with the Impeachment vote coming up this week. I don’t trust the overwhelming stupidity of everyone in Washington. Writing something positive is difficult when the level of inane ridiculousness reaches such a fevered pitch. We’ll see.

Y: Thank you for your time.

M: Thank you for listening.

Reading time: 29 min
Already Disappointed in 2020

Warning: Unlike every other article I’ve ever written in the past two months where seriously relaying well-documented fact was an explicit goal, this week’s essay is an attempt at humor and, like my father before me, I sometimes botch the punchline. Roll with it, okay?

Note: For those visiting for the first time, we don’t underline links here. If you see something in bold italic try clicking on it. Most of the time it will take you somewhere.

I woke up on Monday of this previous week not knowing what I was going to write. What I had on my calendar wasn’t going to happen because the research couldn’t be completed. Shove that one down a couple of weeks. I couldn’t really replace it with something scheduled for later because that research hadn’t been done, either. In my hour of need, I turned to Dave Barry.

For those who either are too young to know or too unenlightened (a long word that is meant to be insulting but you wouldn’t have known that had I not told you), Dave Barry is a humorist who wrote a syndicated column for the Miami Herald from 1983-2005. I read his column religiously through the 80s because one needed all the comic relief one could get to survive that decade. He “retired” when the McClatchey’s who own the Herald decided that there was no more news in Miami and started printing a daily comic book. Then came the 2016 election and you see where we are now. Everything is connected, primarily through secret tunnels under pizza chains. [That’s not true and you know it—satellites hovering over the pizza chains are what connects everything. That’s not true either, but someone will repeat it in a meme anyway.]

What inspired me to look into the future was a book Dave wrote some 22 years ago when, on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday, he looked into the past; specifically his past but in a more general tone that reflected on pop culture and the major events from 1947 forward that are largely responsible for contemporary society being as fucked up as it is. This book is considerably different from Dave’s new book, A Field Guide to the Jewish People, which he claims isn’t nearly as racist as the title sounds because it was co-written with two Jewish people, Alan Zweibel and Adam Mansbach, who presumably wrote everything except the title since Dave’s Presbyterian. I’d tell you the name of that other book, but I’d have to get up and get it from the bathroom which is where I’ve always read Dave Barry’s material. It’s cold this morning and if I get up from my warm seat and walk to the bathroom, I’ll inevitably be followed by one dog and at least three cats who want to know why you’re just sitting there rather than feeding them. 

Actually, if you have ever been a parent of a small child, you may already be familiar with Adam Mansbach’s work. If not, you need to acquaint yourself with the wonderfully appropriate children’s book, Go The Fuck To Sleep which feels as though its peering into every nursery in the world and delving into the mind of every exhausted parent of a toddler whose grandparents fed them 150 cookies and 12 cupcakes one hour before bedtime. You want to click that link, though, because the book is wonderfully narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, whose intonation of the word “fuck” has permeated our culture to the point that he is hardly known for anything else. 

Alan Zweibel has written some other stuff, too, but Samuel L. Jackson didn’t narrate any of his books so, meh. 

What struck me as I was reading through Dave’s 22-year-old book, is just how disappointed 2020 already is despite the fact that it’s not going to be here for at least another three weeks. If there’s a government shutdown on the 24th, who knows when 2020 will get here. We may be stuck on New Year’s Eve for a whole month or better, which might be a nice alternative to going into another presidential election year without the benefit of hip-waders. Hip-waders are one of the most underrated garments ever created, by the way. People who grew up in the country already know that because you’re issued your first pair of hip-waders along with a shovel and told to get to work in the barn about the time you first stand upright on your own. Country folk don’t waste time. The primary reason they have children is for cheap labor. [That’s not true. Country folk have children because the drug store won’t sell condoms without her Daddy’s permission. I wish that wasn’t true, either, but now that pharmacists are allowed to exercise their religious prerogative apparently the only place where condoms are plentiful is the District of Columbia where a case of Trojans is delivered to every new federal employee the moment they arrive.]

The fact is that movies from the 60s and 70s misled us into thinking that the human race was intelligent enough to advance to a point of impressive achievement with global peace, international cooperation, public space travel, and apparently no need to ever go to the restroom ever again. What those movies failed to get accurate is the fact that somewhere in 1980, the United States had a collective brain fart and thought that electing an overrated out-of-work actor as president was a good idea. We continued farting through the election of Newt Gingrich and his cache of demons, two Bushes over three terms, and whatever the fuck that thing is occupying the Oval Office currently. As a result, not only have we not progressed in the way those movies promised, we’ve regressed to the point people are actually arguing over whether or not Nazis are bad people. Didn’t our great-grandparents already fight that war? Oh, wait, we wouldn’t know because we’ve cut education funding to the point no school can afford history teachers anymore.

As we approach the end of this year and this decade, there is no reason to be happy and hopeful because we’ve already blown it. Instead, we should be angry because Tesla’s don’t fly, we’ve not eliminated hunger with little pills that taste like steak dinners, and we haven’t even started trying to cure diseases caused by contact with an alien race some 42 million lightyears away. In fact, there are a lot of reasons 2020 is doomed to be disappointing. Let’s me totally depress you with a few of the reasons why.

Missing The Boat On Transportation

For as long as I can remember, there has been a standing promise that at some point early in the 21st century we would have flying cars. Or cars driven by robots. Or possibly even cars driven by apes. The whole concept here was that this whole thing with traffic and slower-than-snails modes of transportation should have been gone by now. Sitting around at stoplights, putting on makeup and yelling at kids would be gone, not because we’d done away with makeup or kids (though we seem to be working on that last part), but because we should be zipping along through the atmosphere without such limitations. We should be flying!

This has been a prediction far too long for there to not be overwhelming disappointment with the fact that not only are we still bound to the ground, fussing over potholes and flat tires but that it still takes thirty minutes to get from one point in Indianapolis to another point just seven or eight miles away. Seriously, one could almost walk faster if there were actually enough sidewalks to facilitate walking without getting hit by all those land-bound cars. 

One of the earliest such predictions I could find in my deep and maddening research through the Google archives came from artist and science fiction writer Albert Robida in 1882. Yes, you read that correctly. There were people in the 19th century who had laughable faith in our ability to escape the bonds of fear, ignorance, and this silly thing called gravity so that we could go zipping around from place to place through the air. Of course, Robida was French and a contemporary of that Jules Verne guy, so what did either of them know? He also thought stereoscopic 3D imaging, which they actually did have back in 1884 and it was quite popular, would have been the norm for over a century by now. It wasn’t and we’re still arguing over how to do the whole digital 3D thing. 

There was also a prediction that if we couldn’t fly we’d at least be zipping around in giant pneumatic tubes. That prediction came as late as 1970 by David Rorvik. By that time, pneumatic tubes had been around for quite a while having been somewhat efficiently used by banks, factories, and department stores to whisk messages back and forth from one part of the building to another. I distinctly remember standing at a Sears checkout counter somewhere in the late 1960s, and watching with astonishment as the cashier put my father’s check into a metal container that was then whisked away to somewhere on the third floor of the building where it presumably bonked some poor accountant on the head as it came flying out the other end of the tube. The accountant approved the check and then put it back in the metal container, sent it back through a separate tube so it could bonk the cashier on the head. This is why no one uses checks anymore. The headaches were getting to be a bit much. 

Rorvik, who has since been all about cloning and more efficient ways of making babies for when we get tired of doing it the “old fashioned” way, envisioned a 21st century where we’d simply drive to the nearest pneumatic tube station, pick a tube, and be whisked to our next location. Sure, there are dozens of problems with that idea, but we can excuse Rorvik for getting this prediction wrong. After all, he was writing in Playboy magazine at the time and was likely distracted by all the breasts he wanted to clone or something like that.

The point is that we were supposed to be traveling much further much faster by this point in time and we are so much not doing anything close to that. In fact, we’re moving in exactly the opposite direction. In 2014, the Indiana State Legislature, being one of the most backward groups of people to have ever existed since the Neanderthal inbred themselves into extinction, banned anyone from even considering developing light rail in the state (source). Heaven forbid we zip across mile after mind-numbing mile of cornfields at 200 miles per hour or faster Indiana politicians want to keep everyone moving slowly in hopes that we can eventually turn back to a time where the state was among the leaders in producing multi-ton steel vehicles that were large enough to double as tiny homes. 

Not only were we supposed to be flying through the air in cars that would make George Jetson jealous by now, we were also supposed to have a helicopter in every garage, and jetpacks in place of those boring North Face backpacks that are only good for holding smelly gym clothes and those “extra” things one needs when they “unexpectedly” spend the night with a new friend they just met on the floor on this bar that had a special on bananafanabodana daiquiris. In short, by this point in human history, we were not supposed to be bound by those pesky laws of physics that keep our feet planted on the earth. We were supposed to be soaring into the heavens.

The reason we don’t have anything propelling us upward likely has to do with the fact that to do so safely and efficiently means using a fuel source other than anything petroleum-based. Why? Because fossil fuels have this nasty habit of doing unpleasant things such as polluting the earth and, oh yeah, blowing up unexpectedly. However, if we stop using fossil fuels, then all those big oil companies that so generously support environmental causes might go out of business. [I’ll pause here and drink a couple of cups of coffee while waiting for the laughter to die down from the absurdity of that statement.]

Seriously, though, why are we still using the exact same fuel source that we were when Mr. Ford first had underpaid workers push the Model T off the assembly line? Explain to me how that makes sense. Don’t try telling me that battery-powered electric cars are any better. Okay, they don’t use fossil fuels but where are we going to put all those used-up batteries in say 10 or 15 years? From where I’m sitting, that looks like exchanging one massive environmental disaster for another. 

Back in the 1950s, which was one of the few points in history when we silly people thought we could do anything if we just put our collective brains to the task, there was a guy heading up Ford Motor Company’s engineering and research department who was totally sold on the concept of flying cars. He was convinced that there was a way to use something called the “ground-cushion phenomenon” that would allow vehicles of his future, which was apparently remarkably different from the future the rest of us got stuck with, to essentially glide along on a cushion of air. Imagine that! Air! His concept made it as far as the Congressional Committee on Science and Astronautics, which is something the Congress no longer has because half the people there don’t believe in science or astronauts anymore owing to the fact that astronauts are not in the Bible. Eventually, however, someone brought up the fact that air is sort of free and if cars were flying around for free then how could anyone make an unreasonable four-gazillion percent profit? That killed the project and only crazy people have talked about flying cars since. [Like the two dudes who died after strapping airplane wings to a Ford Pinto. Seriously. They apparently didn’t believe in science too terribly much, either.]

My point is, we really should have taken off on this topic by now, meaning that we shouldn’t even be walking on the ground. Our shoes should have us hovering precariously so that we no longer have to worry about stepping on those damn Legos® that are seemingly invisible until one punctures the sole of their foot on one. Our concerted lack of effort and investment behind getting cars off the ground is one of the greatest disappointments of this century. We’ve let the entire 20th century down. They had faith in us. We blew it. Every engineer should go stand in a corner until they’re ready to solve this problem.

The Unending Bafflement of Technology

“Ooh, look! It’s another meme with that white cat slapping back at a lady who clearly forgot to use water-proof mascara and could possibly wreak havoc on the whole planet if that other lady wasn’t holding her back!”

This is the culmination of modern technology. We have the wealth of the world’s history and literature right here in the palm of our hands. Chances are you are using the palm of your hand to read this article. Okay, maybe not the actual palm of your hand but the device you’re holding might as well be considered part of your anatomy given how infrequently we set them down or stop looking at them. We have all this information readily available, so why aren’t we smarter, why isn’t technology making even larger advances and doing all the things that people a century or more ago were sure we’d be able to do by now?

Simple: it’s all Tim Berner Lee’s fault. He invented the Internet and ever since then we’ve been using this wonderful global technology to look at cat memes and naked boobs. That’s it. We’re totally distracted and not a damn thing has gotten accomplished in the field of technology that doesn’t involve making it easier to share cat memes and look at boobs. That’s it. That’s where technology has taken us. Mind you, this isn’t the fault of the technology. The technology itself is wonderful and still holds a tremendous amount of potential. The problem is that we would rather look at pictures of cats and boobs than actually doing anything that solves serious problems.

Oh, we also use the Internet to yell at each other. We like to yell at each other online because there’s no way in hell that we would ever be able to get away with it in person. Someone would punch us right smack in the face and we would probably deserve it for being so loud and inappropriate in the first place. Normal social rules don’t seem to apply to the Internet because we don’t want them to apply to the internet. Spelling rules don’t seem to apply, either, because the speed at which we can post something is more important, even if said message sits in someone’s inbox for three days before they reply. At least we got it there. Reading is the other person’s responsibility.

There are other aspects of technology that are disappointing as well. The fact that we require transportation to get us from one place to the other is on par with never having gotten the Superman pajamas that were in the Sears Christmas Catalog, despite repeatedly dog-earing that page and circling the product number for more years than I really should have been looking at that section of the Sears catalog. We all know the real action was over in the lingerie department where none of the women ever wore shirts. The lack of teleportation is a disappointment on that same level.

Michael J. O’Farrell, the founder of The Mobile Institute, is the one who got my expectations high. He was certain that by 2020 we’d be zapping things and people back and forth without having to spend thirty minutes looking for the car keys that either the cat knocked off the table or the toddler kindly placed in the trash that’s now sitting out by the curb. O’Farrell saw potential there in the technology that was available. He saw what we could do. He had a vision for how humanity could benefit by bouncing around from one place on the planet to the other without having to climb over ill-conceived walls or declaring 4,326 seashells when going through customs. We should have teleportation, but yet, to date, the only teleportation that has been achieved was with a laser beam and that was all the way back in 2002, down in Australia [source]. 

Oh, I almost forgot, there was that time Chinese scientist teleported a proton [source]. Now, I’ll admit, there are a lot of things and more than a few people that I would happily transport out to the middle of space and leave them there. I’m pretty sure there were some laws written by Gene Roddenberry (the creator of Star Trek and therefore the authority on teleportation) that prevent that manner of cruelty. There’s also the fact that people are composed of many parts larger than protons and we remember well that Bones’ objection to teleporting was he feared all his protons not being reassembled in the right order. Technology needs to get its act together and fix this problem. 

Guglielmo Marconi, the guy that invented the radio, ushering in the whole wireless technology thing, set some pretty high expectations when he predicted that wireless technology would make war “impossible” because it would be “ridiculous.” What Signor Marconi seems to have missed is the fact that politicians are “ridiculous” which makes the absence of war “impossible.” Instead, the Russians use the technology to troll and interfere with foreign elections and we let them get away with it because it lets the “ridiculous” people stay in charge. 

One place that it’s probably best for technology to fail is time travel. In 1994, this really bad movie TimeCop predicted we’d all be hopping back and forth through time by now. You and I both know that even if the technology worked for a moment, it would ultimately fail. Why? Because instead of using the technology to leap forward and advanced humanity at a faster rate, we’d go back to when we were kids and introduce cat memes which would distract everyone from ever becoming the scientists and engineers who solve the problems of time travel in the first place. 

Or maybe that’s exactly what happened …

Same-old Homes and Fashion

There are some other predictions that haven’t come true and probably shouldn’t. Thomas Edison famously predicted that everything, including houses and furniture, would be made out of steel by now. His concept was that we would be able to just hose down everything and keep it all sparkling clean. This brilliant concept coming from a guy who couldn’t get electricity right without stealing the technology. I have enough trouble finding a comfortable chair as it is. I can’t imagine that having them made of steel would achieve anything more than making the chair easier to fall off. I can’t imagine steel beds being all that comfy, either, though it might cut down on the non-sleeping shenanigans that occur in them.

What disappoints me, though, is that we don’t have houses that relocate themselves. Arthur C. Clarke, a British science-fiction writer/inventor/television host, came up with this idea back in 1968 in connection with improved energy sources. At the time, he said, “The house of the future would have no roots tying it to the ground. Gone would be water pipes, drains, powerlines; the autonomous home could therefore move, or be moved, to anywhere on earth at the owner’s whim.”

I know, the initial concern about such a contraption is that everyone would try to move their house to the same beachfront property in Florida, but that’s silly because Flordia is going to be completely underwater within the next 20 years so the enviable beach property is going to be somewhere just South of Atlanta, probably around Macon which isn’t currently doing anything else so it won’t be too upset to suddenly become a beach town. 

Clarke envisioned seasonal mass migrations where everyone would move their houses, in unison, to more temperate environments, leaving the cold harshness of winter an unpopulated wilderness. What he failed to realize is that there are a lot of people who would do exactly the opposite simply for the reason that they have a deeply held need to not go along with the status quo. These are the same people who dye their hair purple because blonde and brunette are so boring, or wear flannel shirts in the summer because sweating profusely is the sexiest thing ever. The same people grow hot and scratchy beards on their chins while delicately and precisely shaving the top of their heads because it seems foolish that one’s entire head stays warm through natural means when there are so many sock hats one could be wearing.

Speaking of what one could be wearing, we’re not wearing anything nearly as interesting as the multicolored jumpers that were supposed to be standard by now. We’re all familiar with the outfits proposed by every future-oriented sci-fi show and movie from the 50s forward, most notably those of Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) in the 90s. 

The answer to this one is disappointing. I’ve seen the jumpers on the runway, but there are consistently two problems. One is that they’re boring as hell. The costumers at TNG were infinitely more creative than what I’ve seen on any runway or in any store. At least those on the TV show looked interesting. What has come down the runway is too often monochrome which is boring and unimaginative, too frequently made of Lurex or some metallic fabric so that it’s reminiscent of Barbarella, or so utilitarian that the wearer gives the impression that they’re about to go out to the garage and change the oil in the car that doesn’t fly. Your great-grandfather wore the same thing, in light blue, with a little belt around the waist that served absolutely no purpose at all because what he was really doing was slipping outside to have a smoke and a beer. 

More importantly, though, the reason we are not all wearing one-piece jumpers is that no one has yet solved the problem of how to go to the bathroom without completely undressing. I understand there are a handful of very attractive and overly-sexualized people who actually enjoy wriggling out of their clothes when they have to go poop, but that scenario doesn’t work so well for most of us, especially when the reason you’re in there in the first place is that you chased those 14 road-side tacos with seven shots of tequila and if you don’t get your ass over a toilet RIGHT NOW there’s going to be an embarrassing mess for someone to clean up. I especially fail to see the efficacy of creating a jumper that zips up the back so that you have to have assistance to get out of the damn things. No one wants to be manning your damn zipper when your bowels explode. 

I really had higher hopes for the fashion industry as a whole. There’s no good reason everything we wear isn’t sustainably sourced and easily recycled or repurposed. The technology has been there for at least ten years. There’s also no reason for women to still be forced to wear high heels. Those instruments of torture should have been outlawed by the 80s at the very latest. By 2020, we should have footwear readily accessible that is designed to fit the idiosyncrasies of our feet and we shouldn’t have to pay $350 for something made in horrible conditions by economic slaves in Southeast Asia. 

What and where we live should have been much more efficient and cool and cheaper than they are, although I’m very happy that our houses aren’t made of glass as Smith Rairdon of the Owens-Illinois Glass Company predicted in 1958. There are too many people I don’t enjoy seeing with their clothes on, I certainly don’t want to look across the street and see them in the shower. Which, now that I’ve mentioned it, why have we not solved the problem of having to get naked to do that? I fully expected we’d be able to walk into a chamber of some kind that would steam clean both us and our clothes at the same time. If it could restyle our hair while we’re in there, that would be great. 

So much of this is our own fault, though. The ideas are out there. Go to any home show in the US or particularly any London fashion show not given by someone with direct ties to the music industry and one sees fantastic ideas that never take off because we’re all still too stuck on looking like we live in the 19th century rather than the 21st. We could be living in incredibly modernized homes that not only check our heart rate and blood pressure when we walk through the door but mix and serve the appropriate cocktail to help combat both, prepare individualized meals based on our exact nutritional meals, and aren’t financially out of reach for 87 percent of Americans. Oh wait, that’s the next section. Scroll down.

Magic of Food, Health, and Welfare

2020 was supposed  to be better

Food, Health, and Welfare are lumped together here because one is totally dependent on the other two. What we eat affects our health and our ability to consume healthy foods is determined by our income which is likely to be lower if we’re too fat or get sick a lot. There have been so many predictions across these three areas that have not come true and these are some of the predictions I find most disappointing because they’re totally possible.

For example, remember that moment in Back To The Future II where Marty simply says “Fruit!” and a huge basket just lowers itself from the ceiling? Why do we not have this? How much healthier would we all be if fruits and vegetables were constantly available on demand? Okay, maybe not all fruits and vegetables should be available on demand. Brussel sprouts? I don’t think so. Stink fruit? Definitely not. They smell too much like ten-year-old boys. Still, there are plenty of choices that could be taking up some of that wasted attic space that we’re not using. 

I’m also a fan of Star Trek’s food replicator. Given the way we’re mistreating the planet, we need to pretty much give up on the concept of fresh food within the next 30 years anyway. If we’re going to have to get used to artificial alternatives, they might as well come piping hot out of a device capable of perfectly replicating an endless supply of mac-and-cheese and “chicken” nuggets.

Of course, our seeming inability to feed ourselves food that is actually good for us necessitates that if we have food replicators, they need to also come with the ability to deny our requests based on a quick health scan. If we can step up to the replicator and as for a double-stuffed pizza loaded with tacos, steak, and chocolate cake, the replicator needs the ability to respond, “Dude, your heart rate is 145, your blood pressure is 187/116, and your blood glucose level is approximately that of sugar cane. Here, have a listeria-free salad courtesy of your friends at Monsanto.”

Which reminds me, Monsanto was building sample houses of the future back in 1957 that were all elevated, presumably because even back then executives at the company knew we were going to ruin the planet and not be able to actually touch the surface. Besides, we were going to have flying cars, so the ground was irrelevant. 

A lot of sciency-type people predicted that we would be getting all our nutrition from specially-designed pills by now, which I’m surprised the people who run online fulfillment centers like Amazon haven’t invested in because it would mean the elimination of meal breaks and they could kill workers at an even faster rate than they do now. This would also solve the problem raised by the fact that no one under the age of 50 knows how to cook anymore. The dominant means of “preparing a meal” involves piecing together a GrubHub order so that they’re able to bring you food from five different fast food places without an extra charge. There are already children on this planet who are convinced that food just automatically appears at the front door every day at 6:00 and that the delivery driver may be their real dad. 

We don’t especially like taking pills, though, and “health food” stores have done a good job of convincing us that pills and powders don’t actually work but you won’t know that until you buy this $500 plan and let it sit in the deep, dark, cavernous spaces of your kitchen shelves for 18 months, at which point you go back and purchase $300 of different pills and powders to counteract the side effects of not taking the first set of pills and powders. 

The fact that our food is seriously lagging is a large part of the reason our health sucks. Of course, the fact that we in America have managed to reach the year 2020 without anything that remotely resembles a comprehensive healthcare plan doesn’t help, either. If the Netherlands, who still hasn’t figured out that shoes can be made of material other than wood, can figure out how to run a healthcare system, one might think we could do the same. Again, we’re totally blowing this 2020 thing.

Truly, predictions for healthcare from doctors in the 50s were aggressively positive. They were sure we’d have a vaccine for stupidity by now, for example. They also thought that we’d have rid the planet of bacteria-born diseases and that they’d be making house calls by having people stand in front of their television and sticking out their tongues. We have to understand that they were making these predictions from behind the fog of a five-pack-a-day cigarette habit that, they assured us, was just fine and would help us calm down a bit. Perhaps they didn’t have the best judgment. 

Where we’re really lagging, though is with nanobots that were supposed to be injected into our bloodstream and completely take over our biology. Ray Kurzweil made that prediction back in 2005 and practically nothing has happened in the field since. His take is that they would improve all our biological functions at the cellular level, eliminating diseases such as cancer and even changing the way we consume food and expel waste. We wouldn’t need doctors because the nanobots would be constantly assessing our health and making the necessary changes to accommodate. No word on whether they would actually give me those six-pack abs my body is incapable of achieving. For that matter, there’s nothing in his prediction about them building muscle tissue at all. I’m sure they’d have us all healthy and good looking within no time, right?

And being good looking is important because then we would all make more money, assuming we still need money. One of the predictions of the future that is prevalent in science fiction is that no one needs money anymore. I mean, look at those unitards, where would you even put a wallet, or car keys, or used tissue when you can’t find a trash can? Notice that there are no science fiction movies where anyone is carrying a purse. There aren’t a lot of details as to how this economic equality is achieved, we just never see anyone paying for anything. That leaves the whole matter open to a lot of speculation about implanted chips connected with some life account or other spooky scenarios where one’s value is calculated according to their contribution to society, which is really tough on babies whose nanobots haven’t figured out how to control the whole poop thing. 

Of course, financial equality also means the elimination of the super-rich and the much-desired occupation of coat-tail-hanger-onner. The only people who are likely to complain about that are the super-rich and 98 percent of people really don’t care about the opinions of the super-rich unless they’re fucking up our own lives in some manner. You know, like when Elon Musk makes some stupid statement about Mars that causes Neil Degrasse Tyson’s head to explode. 

One thing that is very specific, however, is that by 2020 we were supposed to have eliminated poverty. Fail. If anything, we’ve only made it worse, especially in urban areas [source]. Actually, what the government has tried to do is move the “poverty line” so that it looks like there are fewer people in poverty. Never mind those people living under the bridge over there, or all those school kids who can’t afford lunch. They don’t really exist because they don’t vote, or something like that. Our elected officials also refuse to raise the minimum wage because forcing people to work multiple jobs makes it look like the economy is doing great. Hey, unemployment is at an all-time low, unless you’ve been out of work more than six months at which point you cease to exist as a statistic because you would spoil the numbers. 

Seriously, shouldn’t the elimination of poverty have been more of a priority by now? Inventing flying cars is a lot more realistic when no one is having to worry about where their next meal is coming from or if they can pay the damn electric bill. This is the one area where there’s really no excuse. We have the means, we have the power, we have simply failed and I am, for one, disappointed at the entire country for not making this more of a priority in everything we do and especially the way in which we vote.

Bottom line: everyone’s lives were supposed to be so much easier and more fun and equal by 2020. Geeze, talking about letting the dream die! It’s as though the whole country has become disillusioned or something.

The Limits of Infinity and Beyond

Of course, no one back 100 years ago thought we’d still be hanging around this old planet by now. Everyone who was looking upward was sure that we were going to be racing around the stars and populating planets in a rush to see who could do the best Darth Vader impersonation. 

[Insert Maury Povich screaming, “You are NOT the father!”]

Where’s the warp speed? Where are the interplanetary colonies? Where is The Federation when you need them?

The reason we’re not seeing any o these great advances in space travel and exploration is because we’re still too busy paying $120,000 for a banana duct-taped to a wall [source]. Seriously? It’s probably a good thing we’re not interacting with any aliens because they’d quickly discover that we’re the stupid planet. Or maybe they already have.

Actually, there’s one person who’s trying to at least get us to Mars and that’s Elon Musk. Musk can afford to fund things like SpaceX because he has more money than the federal government thanks to those loopholes that don’t require him to pay any taxes. He’s all about getting a colony on Mars set up as soon as possible. Of course, as recently as Friday evening, Neil deGrasse Tyson was oh so gently reminding Elon that if we’re going to populate Mars and do all this running around that it might be helpful if he were to stop playing around with cars and trucks and invent warp drive. Subtle, Neil is.

Musk, the person not the scent, isn’t alone, though. An even richer billionaire, Jeff Bezos of Amazon infamy, is trying to do the whole space travel thing as well. Again, this is the advantage of having more money than god itself. Apparently, however, it takes more than money. While the two competing billionaires have enough cash between them to buy half the universe, money doesn’t necessarily buy brains and the brains they’re buying are having some difficulty overcoming annoying problems like physics. Newton must have been high on apple juice when he wrote those physics laws. They are real downers (look, it’s a bad physic joke; try to not groan).

Still, when it comes to the subject of space and interplanetary travel, we’re hitting 2020 well behind the curve that was imagined for us. As recently as 1997, which is plenty of time to have dome something constructive, Peter Leyden and Peter Schwartz predicted that we’d be on Mars by 2020. There were plenty of people before them who were sure we’d be there sooner. Yeah, it’s nice that Musk & Co. are working like gangbusters to get us there, but by his own admission Musk we’re still 7-10 years away, and that’s only if the windows on those space ships do better than the ones on that Tesla pickup (the “unbreakable” windows shattered; you can read the story here). Musk has a great and wild imagination, which is absolutely necessary for great and wonderful things to ever be done. I’m not sure I’d want to be the first person to take one of his spacesuits for a walk, though. Know what I mean?

Even if we’re not on Mars yet, we were supposed to have colonies on the moon by now. 2001: A Space Oddessy promised us that. Expectations were set! Music was composed! Computers were taught to talk! But once the Apollo program ended in 1972, the cool geeks at NASA decided that the moon wasn’t that big a deal and we needed to focus elsewhere. Even as recently as 2013, NASA’s chief was saying that any additional missions to the moon weren’t going to be made by the US [source]. 

That news didn’t sit well with anyone, including NASA, so now, since we’re all busy celebrating the 50th anniversary of the first two moon landings, NASA’s saying, “Haha, made you look! We’ll be back up there by 2024!” [source] Of course, that still doesn’t mean we’ll actually be setting up colonies on the moon as they did in Space Odessy. We are nothing if not abundantly cautious. We don’t want a repeat of Apollo 1, which killed the astronauts on the launch pad, or Space Shuttle Challenger, which killed a teacher, or Space Shuttle Columbia which pretty much killed the entire shuttle program. It’s one thing if there are a few bugs in the cars that we drive back and forth to our meaningless and demoralizing jobs every day—914 recalls effecting over 47.2 million vehicles in 2018. We feel much differently if our space exploration doesn’t work perfectly the first time every time. 

Getting space travel and exploration perfect is only going to get more difficult. While space is a vast and amazing place, we’re walling ourselves off from it. Amazon’s super-billionaire owner of everything Jeff Bezos is apparently concerned that if we colonize the moon he’ll have to figure out a way to deliver packages up there in 24 hours or less. So, he’s making that task a little more difficult by surrounding the planet with 3,200 satellites [source]. 

Okay, so Bezos says that all those satellites are so everyone can have Internet access all over the world, which means that Amazon will sell more wireless devices that need universal Internet access, such as the Nintendo Switch, a device that, according to my youngest son, should have come with its own Internet Hotspot. 3,200 satellites in low orbit are going to essentially create a satellite net, making it necessary for rockets traveling outside the net to “thread the needle” in order to get past them. We’re not making this whole space travel thing any easier for ourselves!

Personally, I think we’re putting all our development power in the wrong place. There were 150 gazillion new video games created in 2019 (okay, so the real number was closer to 9,050, but that’s still about 9,000 more than necessary). That’s a lot of creative computing power spent building fictional worlds in outer space that could have been put to work building real worlds in outer space with only a slightly larger chance that one would die before completing their mission. I don’t think we’re tapping all the creative and intelligent resources that are available to us. My son should be complaining that he’s not getting a signal on his Switch as we pass Venus, not while we’re loading groceries at Kroger. 

Being Satisfied With What We Have

is this 2020

My childhood was spent collecting these promises of something better. Now that I’m 12 months away from turning 60, I’m ready to start collecting on some of the investments made in those dreams. I fully expected us to be in a better place by now. I was looking forward to a George Jetson experience and am instead worried that my latter days are going to be more like the late actor William Holden, who was drunk, alone, and in Santa Monica when he tripped over the rug that held the room together. If we had anti-gravity shoes we wouldn’t be tripping over rugs like that. If we had homes that could move on their own, we wouldn’t be living in Santa Monica. 

That last sentence may not be true. Santa Monica has grown into a lovely place where even the cockroaches spend their days playing beach volleyball. I’m guessing people who like Tommy Hilfiger fashion shows might want to stick around. 

Perhaps what has happened is that the spread of zen Buddhism has tried to teach us to be satisfied with what we already have, to not constantly be wanting for something more or better. Of course, their teaching isn’t working given that we’re the most materialistic nation on the planet. Still, the concept has lodged in our brains so that we’re okay with our cars being stuck to the ground, not being able to teleport to the beach, homes that stay in one place, clothes that are boring, food that doesn’t come in pill form, and the worst healthcare system of any industrialized nation on the planet—you know, the one on which we’re still living rather than the moon. We’re comfortable not having to deal with advances in everything coming at us so fast that we need directions to know how to get out of the bed that’s floating on air every morning. 

I guess I can accept slower modifications to the status quo, as long as there’s no quid pro to my quo. Look! Who thought we’d still be throwing Latin phrases like that? Every other part of me is moving slower than I would like, anyway, there’s no reason for the rest of existence to not move slow as well. That’s why sloths have become such popular animals. I’m pretty sure these young kids in their 40s regard sloths as the ultimate example for how life should be lived and, you know, they’re doing a fantastic job of emulating those ugly-to-the-point-of-being-cute creatures with dangerous claws. 

I’m not kidding this time. Consider that sloths,

  1. Get stressed out easily
  2. Have a death stare that will freak you out
  3. Females scream when they’re ready for sex and the guys take for freaking ever to get there
  4. Get cold if the thermostat dips below 80
  5. Have a slow metabolism so there’s no way you’re making them move any faster
  6. Have razor-sharp claws that could kill you if the clean-up weren’t so much trouble.
[source] If that’s not practically every person under the age of 45 or so, I’ll eat the breakfast that I had to stop what I was doing and make for myself because there’s no device to which I can say, “I’ll have two Belgian waffles with strawberries and sugar-free whipped cream with a side of bacon, two eggs, and hashbrowns.” Oatmeal it is. Again. 

What disappoints me more than anything is that we’re hitting 2020 and we’re still as far away from Peace as we ever were. When I was a kid, I was pretty sure that we’d be able to put this whole war and racism and nationalism thing behind us. I really thought the world could live as one. Then, they killed John Lennon, on this very date, December 8, and it’s been downhill since 1980. All we’ve done since then is to increase the size of the military-industrial complex a trillion times, and no, I’m not kidding this time. Well, not by much. 

Maybe our inability to resolve the Peace issue first is why we are so embarrassingly lagging everywhere else. We can’t get along well enough to be flying our cars or living in space or moving our houses around. If we had flying cars, we’d likely be outfitting them with lasers and shooting each other out of the sky in fits of road rage. If we had colonies on the moon, we’d likely levy sanctions against them for not producing enough moon dust. If our houses were portable, there would be too many people who would relocate when it came time to pay local taxes or a person of color dropped their house next door. We’re that petty and racist and you know it. We elected an orange as president just to make sure we could keep our pettiness and racism alive. 

As long as Peace is not the primary focus and motivation behind everything we do, everything we invent, we’re going to end up with disappointing results. If our actions are not explicitly designed to unite us then they will more certainly divide us. If the things we invent do not result in a better life for everyone, we doom our entire species. 

So now, we look forward to 2050. That’s the year when climate change is supposed to either be fixed or leave our planet uninhabitable. Based on what we’ve achieved by the year 2020, you’ll forgive me if I’m not the most optimistic in my expectations. I suppose relocating to the moon might be an option, but if we’ve not taken concrete steps toward that goal in the past 50 years why would I think we’ll do any better over the course of the next 30?

I’m not making any big New Year’s Eve plans this year. I’m already disappointed even before the band doesn’t play my favorite song or miss kissing Kat at midnight. Maybe I’ll just stay home and read Dave Barry’s book about Jews. 

Thanks, Dave. 

Reading time: 41 min
Are we Fit Enough to Stay Alive

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My birthday is December 1, the day this article is scheduled to publish. Whee. This is one of those “throw-away” birthdays, although it is a prime number now that I think about it. You would think ages that are indivisible would get more attention than they do, but they never have before so I don’t see any point in celebrating them now. To do so would feel rather like arriving at a dinner party two hours late when there’s only one extremely thin slice of cake left, and it’s rather mangled but the hostess will make you a sandwich if you like. Actually, that’s exactly how this birthday feels—an ill-timed imposition that could have been better received had it not decided to show up between Black Friday and Cyber Monday. No one wants to stop shopping long enough to have sugar-free cake.

To be honest, I don’t recall this having been a problem before, landing in the middle of shopping season like this. It has, back in 2013, but I was having difficulting walking that year and my attention was more on staying alive. Shopping during and round this weekend has shifted over the past six years, though. According to Statista, digital Black Friday shoppers only spent $1.19 billion in 2013. They spent more than double that last year while shopping at brick-and-mortar stores has fallen to 35% and that’s only if the sales are good at a level where stores are losing money. Busy stores are no longer the thrill they once were and a quarter of would-be shoppers say the discounts, as severe as they are, still aren’t worth fighting the crowds. 

Not that I’m the likely recipient of any of that shopping. One’s birthday is easily overlooked when people are focused on spending money “for the kids,” because, you know, every child needs a new 72” flatscreen. Even people who share the same birthday with me, Bette Midler, Carol Alt, Sarah Silverman, never invite me to their parties. Disturbingly enough, Woody Allen was born on the same date. I’d have to turn down that invitation if it ever arrived. 

There’s also the fact that the “holiday season” keeps expanding further and further back into November. Birthdays falling in December and January have always been subject to the “this is for your birthday and Xmas” cheap-ass syndrome. Now, it’s engulfing birthdays in November as well. Winter birthdays are being slighted and it’s not fair. But that’s okay, we only complain when no one’s listening.

What really matters, though, is that we keep having them. Every year, there are millions of people who celebrate their last birthday and for some, perhaps, maybe those over 90, or who have hit the century mark, that’s okay. Perhaps they’re ready to go. Those who have suffered fatal illness and were in great pain likely don’t mind passing, either. Everyone else, though, would have rather stayed alive had circumstances been different. 

Consider some of the people who left us this year before we were quite ready for them to do so:

  • Laurel Griggs, the 13-year-old Broadway actress who died following a severe asthma attack.
  • Former Pixies bassist Kim Shattuck was 56 when ALS ended her creative life.
  • House Hunter Suzanne Whang was also 56 when she passed in September from breast cancer.
  • Kylie Rae Harris, the singer known for Twenty Years From Now, was 30 when she was killed in a car accident.
  • 46-year-old actor Gabe Khouth suffered a heart attack while riding his motorcycle.
  • Boxer Pernell Whitaker was 55 when he was hit by a car.
  • Actor Cameron Boyce was 20 when a seizure ended his young life.
  • A stroke took 51-year-old director John Singleton.
  • A stroke also took 52-year-old actor Luke Perry.
  • Journalist Soni Methu, the first Kenyan to host CNN’s Inside Africa, was only 34 when she collapsed and died.

If you didn’t recognize some of those names it’s likely because they were still young and just starting to make what would have been an indelible mark on the world. Of course, there were more. Millions more. Every year it’s the same, smart, bright, talented people whose lives who don’t have a chance to make it to an age where death seems reasonable. 

This is why birthdays matter. We have reason to celebrate the fact we’ve survived while the planet has made another trip around the sun. We’ve no idea the number of times during a year where we “almost” didn’t make it, we “almost” became victims had one small detail been different, we “almost” were in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

For all the “almosts” though, there are millions of people who die each year for one basic reason: they didn’t take care of themselves. Maybe that wasn’t the direct cause of death, but they unwittingly hastened their departure from this life, setting themselves up for heart attack or stroke, or some other “natural” cause, because they didn’t to the things necessary to prevent or at least, delay or mitigate those events. 

Now, let me stop right here before someone gets all upset and admit that no, strokes and heart attacks are not always preventable. There are elements at work in our bodies we know nothing about until it is too late. I get that.

However, the numbers don’t lie and the numbers show that a significant number of deaths could have, perhaps should have, been delays or completely prevented had someone simply taken better care of themselves. This leads me to my motivational question for this week: 

Are we fit enough to live?

Be Thankful You’re Not Already Dead

How many of us were sitting around a large table this past week telling each other how thankful we are while simultaneously stuffing our faces with more food than some third world people eat in an entire month? I’ll admit to being one of those. I love roast turkey, especially when I’m not the one cooking it. While turkey is supposed to be one of those “good for you” foods, the 17th helping, you know, the one where you’re picking the slivers of meat off the carcass, is taking it to excess. We all love to celebrate, but as a society we tend to take things too far, not realizing when we’ve had too much of a good thing.

I’m more than a little disturbed by a study released this week by the Journal of the American Medical Association.  “Life Expectancy and Mortality Rates in the United States, 1959-2017,’’ doesn’t bring good news as we head into the season of continual parties and overindulgence. The study especially points out a problem with the Midwest, and particularly the state of Indiana. We’ve got a problem, folks. Here’s the bad news straight from the lion’s mouth:

During 2010-2017, midlife all-cause mortality rates increased from 328.5 deaths/100 000 to 348.2 deaths/100 000. By 2014, midlife mortality was increasing across all racial groups, caused by drug overdoses, alcohol abuse, suicides, and a diverse list of organ system diseases. The largest relative increases in midlife mortality rates occurred in New England (New Hampshire, 23.3%; Maine, 20.7%; Vermont, 19.9%) and the Ohio Valley (West Virginia, 23.0%; Ohio, 21.6%; Indiana, 14.8%; Kentucky, 14.7%). The increase in midlife mortality during 2010-2017 was associated with an estimated 33 307 excess US deaths, 32.8% of which occurred in 4 Ohio Valley states.

Here, please allow me to translate. 1. A higher number of people between the ages of 25-64 are dying. 2. A third of those deaths are in Midwestern (Ohio Valley) states, including Indiana. 3. There are multiple, largely preventable reasons for this problem.

There are a number of reasons this study is alarming. Let’s start with the fact that from 1959 to 2014, life expectancy increased annually. While the rate of increase had already begun to decline, in 2015 it started going backward and that trend has not changed. I know, anecdotally that seems diametrically opposed to the fact that we’re seeing more people live well beyond 100. The good news is that if you make it past the age of 64, yes, you are likely to live longer. The problem, however, is that fewer people are living long enough to meet the standard retirement age of 65. Since life expectancy is calculated as an average, the number of people dying at middle age skews the overall life expectancy downward.

This is explicitly a middle-aged adult problem. During the same study period, infant mortality rates dropped, mortality rates among children ages 1-14 dropped, “retrogression” occurred among those 15-24, and people aged 65-84 did especially well. So, why are we failing at the point in life when we should be the most vital and most successful?

There are a few hot spots. “Between 1999 and 2017, midlife mortality from drug overdoses increased by 386.5% (from 6.7 deaths/100 000 to 32.5 deaths/100 000),” the report says. Read that sentence again. This isn’t the 60s. From 1999-2017, overdose deaths increased by 386.5%. While opioid deaths certainly account for a fair percentage of that, we’re obviously not dealing appropriately with the overall problem.

Alcohol-related disease, particularly cirrhosis, comes in a strong second. “ …during 1999-2017, age-adjusted death rates for alcoholic liver disease increased by 40.6%.” Compared to 396%, 40% doesn’t seem so bad but wait, the news gets worse. If we narrow the range down to look specifically at adults 21-34 that percentage jumps to a whopping 157.6%. Young adults, millennials, are literally drinking themselves to death. Yeah, maybe put down that 14th glass of wine, Karen.

I doubt anyone is surprised that suicide is on this list, having increased 38.3% for the group overall and 55.9% for those 55-64. What’s interesting is those suicide deaths among younger groups, especially celebrities, tend to get more attention because we realize the lost potential in those young lives. That the greater increase comes between those 55-64 is what should alarm us. These are the parents of millennials, the once who have financed their adventures, done their jobs, and should, theoretically, be planning for retirement. Instead, an increasing number are saying, “fuck it, I’m out.” This seems to indicate something larger than just an ongoing undiagnosed mental health problem. Ramifications are here for workplace stress and long-term economic worries as well. 

To some degree, we can look at those three areas of increased mortality and say they all directly involve personal choice. These aren’t things that just “happen,” but are the results of deliberate choices people make. While that opinion is a gross over-simplification of the matter, the point of personal choice is still there.

What may be most disturbing for the majority of middle-aged Americans, and especially those living in the Ohio Valley, is the less glamorous category the report describes as “Organ System Diseases and Injuries.” If that strikes you as a vague umbrella term, it is. Fortunately, the report gives us some definition. To start, “heart disease and lung (notably chronic pulmonary) disease, hypertension, stroke, diabetes, and Alzheimer disease,” get the obvious nod. Those areas had already been increasing since the late 1990s. What broader examination revealed, though, was that hypertensive disease (stress), alcoholic liver disease, infectious disease, mental and behavioral disorders, obesity, pregnancy (didn’t see that one coming), and injuries (such as pedestrian-vehicle collisions).

Again, digging down into the details paints a gruesome picture. “Deaths from mental and nervous system disorders were second only to deaths from drug overdoses in influencing changes in life expectancy and were the leading contributors to decreased life expectancy among white females. Among white females, respiratory disease mortality was a larger contributor to changes in life expectancy than either suicides or alcohol-related causes and accounted for more deaths in rural areas than drug overdoses.” Among men, drug overdose deaths dwarf every other cause of death studied. Mind you, that’s across all age groups. 

If you’re a non-Hispanic indigenous person or black, your community is at significantly greater risk than the parallel white group. The dramatic increase in all-cause mortality started in 2010 and has moved steadily higher since then. Again, drug overdose is the dominant cause factor, but increases in alcoholic liver diseases, suicides, and hypertensive diseases are nothing to be ignored. 

Oh, and let’s not miss this gem hidden down in the details: “The gradient in life expectancy based on income has also widened over time, with outcomes at the lower end of the distribution explaining much of the US disadvantage relative to other countries.” Translation: America’s poor are dying faster and in greater numbers than poor people in other developed countries. Let that sit and stew in your brain as you’re contemplating another sandwich of turkey leftovers. 

We’ve known that there is a health crisis in America for some 30 years. We, collectively as a society, didn’t want to hear it when, as First Lady, Hillary Clinton introduced a comprehensive health plan back in 1993. Even liberals within the Democratic party thought it was excessive. Now, we’re finding out it wasn’t and we’re also discovering that, once again, we’ve ignored a problem so long that we’re dramatically behind the curve in looking for a solution. 

In fact, given the dramatic nature of this report, you should probably be thankful that you’re alive to read this article and haven’t fallen victim to any one of the some 20-plus increased causes of death mentioned in the report. If we’re going to live longer than the generation before us, which is already pushing at that century mark rather frequently, we’re going to have to make some changes. We’re each going to have to take our own mortality more seriously than we have to this point. I would hate to think that this might have been your last Thanksgiving, but statistically, it could be.

Addressing The Most Critical Issues

I grew up thinking that the most likely cause of deaths for individuals in the United States is either cancer or some variation of heart disease. Statistically, that’s still true. However, the study released this week shows that the US has made dramatic improvements in treating both those areas, well above advances made in other countries. A US citizen with a cancer diagnosis is A) more likely to have been diagnosed early, B) more likely to receive aggressive treatment to put cancer into remission than are patients in other economically developed countries. That doesn’t mean everyone lives, we all know too many people who have died too young, but one’s odds are better here than anywhere else.

What this demonstrates is that when we decide to focus on a problem, we are fully capable of finding solutions to those problems. However, as a country, we have terribly short attention spans and only seem able to focus on a handful of things at a time and we do so to the almost complete exclusion of everything else. The opioid crisis isn’t new. Suicide isn’t new. Alcoholism has been with us as long as we’ve been a country. We’ve largely ignored those issues, comparatively speaking, and now they’re biting us in the ass, killing people faster and younger than ever before.

The Opioid Crisis

One of the matters I find interesting is that there has been a huge push among states Attorneys General to hold Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyCotin and other opioid manufacturers responsible for their role in causing the current crisis. That’s good and there’s no reason to not support that effort. However, not nearly as much energy is being put into actually stopping the crisis now that it’s here.

Don’t get me wrong, there are people who are trying. I’ve looked through at least a dozen governmental and medical reports (it’s a damn good thing I can translate academic obfuscation to English) and there are people who know what to do, people providing the money to do what needs to be done, and programs in place to get resources to the right people. It’s all there and most have been there since at least 2016 if not longer. So, why is this still a problem?

A couple of huge issues continue to be problematic, and I’m concatenating a number of sources so please excuse me for not listing them (Google is your friend if you’re really interested). First, doctors are finding it difficult to treat severe pain without opioids. No, I’m not going to give untested homeopathic “remedies” any oxygen. Let’s stick with what actual scientific study tells us. The CDC’s recommendation for physicians (which is delivered in a hilariously simple slide show presentation) first states that opioids should not be prescribed for routine pain. That’s cool, and necessary unless one happens to have liver disease, or is pregnant, or has renal or certain gastrointestinal disease, in which case many of the NSAIDs recommended can’t be used. Even the CDC recognizes that physician training in identifying appropriate non-opioid pain treatment is lagging, stressful, and time-consuming.

The second issue is getting treatment to more rural areas where the effects of the opioid epidemic are staggeringly high. I find it interesting that, anecdotally, “small-town boredom” gets blamed for rural opioid deaths. That’s bullshit. Opioid dependency is rural areas starts with a doctor’s prescription in over 90 percent of cases. Once addicted, resources in rural areas are few and where they exist they are overwhelmed with the number of people needing help, causing delays and insufficient treatment. Managed recovery from opioid dependency is time-intensive which makes it extremely expensive to provide. Despite millions of dollars in grants having been provided to address this situation, ongoing funding has lagged and many clinics established just two or three years ago are having to close, leaving people in rural areas without options. 

However, the CDC does recommend some non-drug interventions and high among them is exercise therapy. Keep that in mind, we’ll get back to it a little later.

Millennial Alcoholism

Alcoholism is also high on the mortality list and the report specifically calls out millennials, people ages 24-35, as being most likely to die from alcohol-related diseases. This comes despite the frequent public appearance that millennials are doing a better job at sobriety. After all, they initiated Sober September and other peer-oriented campaigns to at least help people drink in moderation. However, the reality is that young adults are drinking more and drinking more often than their predecessors ever considered. 

A number of reasons persist for why this statistic exists. Most point to a litany of stressors unique to the millennial age group at this particular time in history, such as frequent periods of unemployment caused by the gig economy, oppressive college loans, parental pressures and excessive expectations starting when they were children, prolonged effects of childhood trauma (think growing up in an age where school shootings are a real threat), the socially welcoming environment created by the explosion of small/local breweries, and extreme cases of undiagnosed or undertreated anxiety. 

What’s certain is that traditional alcohol abuse programs, especially 12-step programs that require attending meetings on a regular basis, aren’t working. Again, there are at least a dozen reasons (75 percent of AA members are over 40, 62 percent are male, just for starters). While every treatment center I consulted says they have new and modified methods for treating millennial alcoholism, none could say they’re seeing any significant level of success (I won’t embarrass them by calling them out, but if your insurance covers them they were likely contacted). 

Here’s where the medical community is letting millennials down. I’ve looked. There is ZERO medical consensus on how millennial alcohol addiction and abuse should be treated. While almost everyone agrees traditional programs don’t work, opinions on treatment are widely varied and, most importantly, severely undertested. There’s also precious little oversight of so-called treatment centers as to the efficacy and success rates of their programs. For parents concerned about their adult child’s drinking problem, dropping them into the closest rehab center has an extremely low chance of doing anything other than completely alienating your child. 

What has show promise, in some cases, is exercise therapy. Again. Stick that in your pocket, we’ll be back.

Responding to Increased Suicides

Over the number of decades I’ve been alive, we’ve seen the response to suicides move from one of absolute silent denial, to shaming the victim for being selfish or cowardly, to blaming undiagnosed mental illness, to blaming peer pressure and other external stressors, to cautiously and controversially acknowledging a person’s right to die. Watching this spectrum develop across nearly 60 years has been depressing because as our responses have changed the problem itself has grown increasingly worse. There are more suicides per capita in the United States than ANY other developed country. The numbers aren’t even close.

What’s particularly bothersome in this JAMA report is that it shows a significant increase coming from a seemingly unlikely demographic: adults between the ages of 55-64. This hits home because these are my peers and if I’m totally honest I understand perhaps better than I care to admit how attractive suicide can appear in one’s mind. For men of this age, there are too many times when we look at our situation, consider the possible alternatives and the amount of effort needed to address any of them and feel the desire to simply say “fuck it all,” and remove one’s self from the equation—let someone else deal with the bullshit. And while we sometimes may hate to admit that we’ve put ourselves in these difficult situations, where we feel the most desperate is when one feels powerless to affect the outcome in a way that doesn’t bring pain to someone. 

Now, let’s be very clear, the guidelines for helping someone who may be suicidal, regardless of age or gender, haven’t changed. Here they are again because we can’t repeat these too often.

  1. Reach Out. Ask direct, impossible to misunderstand questions. Don’t hint, don’t beat around the bush. “Are you thinking about suicide?” is never inappropriate.
  2. Listen. If you ask a question, don’t dismiss the answer. Give people room to talk even if to you it sounds petty and irrelevant. To them, whatever they’re saying is likely important and meaningful. Ignoring or dismissing someone’s feelings only makes it worse.
  3. Check their safety. Damn, but this is super important. We live in a culture where people say they just want to be left alone. That’s fine up to a point. When someone disappears for periods longer than what is normal for them, check. Even if that disappearance is digital, such as not posting stupid memes on Facebook. Check on them. The person that suddenly stops being part of their normal group? Check on them. Sure, they may have perfectly legitimate reasons for the change in behavior. Still, check on them.
  4. Decide what to do, together. Talk about what needs to be done to keep them safe. Don’t “take over” and tell them what’s going to happen. Involve them in the conversation and, going back to #2, listen. Create a plan that’s good for them or it’s not as likely to work.
  5. Get help. You should already know the Suicide Prevention Hotline number is 1.800.273.8255. Click that number and you will be connected to the service’s chat line. The service is also available in Spanish and for those with hearing issues. If the helpline seems too extreme for the situation, look for a service provider that is appropriate, such as your regular doctor, a school counselor, a therapist, or friends and family who can be supportive (if family is too deep in their own issues or the cause of someone else’s issues, it’s okay to leave them out of the equation). The important point is that there’s a community of solid, understanding help.

I wish I could sit here and tell you how to prevent suicides, especially among men ages 55-64. That statistic is going to haunt me for a while. The problem is that single risk factors don’t predict suicide well at all. For all the research that’s been done toward preventing suicides, psychologists have no reliable tools to work with. They have to rely on their intuition and as a result some people inevitably slip through the cracks. [source]

There is some improvement in intervention tactics (read about them here) but they require a qualified clinician which makes them a budget item many resources can’t afford. They also, based on previous trends, tend to skew toward identifying and helping younger people. Not as much effort has been put toward protecting people on the back side of being middle-aged.

What seems to make as much difference as anything is for people to be there for each other and, increasingly, we’re not terribly good at that. We’re more plugged into reading our phones rather than each other’s faces. We don’t pay enough attention to pick up on the subtle clues that maybe something’s wrong. 

Oh yeah, guess what gets mentioned as one of the ways to address suicidal ideations: exercise. Keep reading.

Fitness, Exercise, Diet, and Staying Alive

When I started writing this article at the beginning of the week, my whole purpose was to talk about fitness and exercise. I’d already done the interviews, had the quotes pulled, and was ready to write. Then, the JAMA study hit my inbox and it was too important to ignore. Further, the deeper I looked into the studies behind the report, the more a continuing thread became obvious: fitness and longevity have an important connection

There are a handful of caveats before getting too deep into this topic. First, and most importantly, consult with your doctor before starting or dramatically changing any fitness or exercise regimen, especially if you have already been diagnosed with high blood pressure, heart disease, arthritis, or at risk for a stroke. Many people have justifiable limitations in what they can do and nothing discussed in this article intends to suggest that doctors’ instructions should be ignored.

Also, anyone just starting a new exercise regimen should keep a close eye on their heart rate and blood pressure for the first six weeks. When one’s body has adjusted to being sedentary it may not always respond in a predictable manner. Keep watch until a routine is developed that is appropriate for you. 

Finally, the material that follows is a mix of science and experience. While I believe everything is accurate at the time of publication, there are always exceptions for which we cannot be held responsible. Again, if you have ANY questions or concerns, please consult your doctor.

Fitness and I have already had a challenging relationship. As a kid, I remember someone coming to school and distributing posters supporting the President’s Physical Fitness program. I convinced my mother to let me hang the poster on the dining room wall and started doing the prescribed exercises every day after school. For additional motivation, I hung a Marine Corps. recruiting poster next to it. Being a Marine was the ultimate goal because they had the coolest dress uniform. For Christmas that year, my parents even splurged and bought me a weight set. We’re talking old school dumbells and barbells. I tried, probably doing things that were potentially dangerous because I had absolutely no supervision in my quest. 

My motivation didn’t last long enough to see any positive results. I was that skinny kid who had trouble breaking the 100-pound weight goal. The only muscles I had were the ones required to keep me ambulatory. Not seeing myself turning into any version of the hulking machine I desired to be, I gave up.

My next serious attempt was in 1986, weeks before my wedding. A new gym had just opened in McAlister, Oklahoma, just down from the Braum’s Ice Cream shop. Fitness was cool at that moment, with everyone including Jane Fonda releasing fitness videos. The cost fit my budget so I joined. My first workout was with a trainer who also happened to own the place. He was a big guy with massive muscle structure. He started me on a very basic workout. I made it 20 minutes before I threw up all over the gym floor. I wish I was kidding. I went back a couple of times after that but was ultimately too embarrassed to keep it up.

I would try a chain gym later, around 1989 I think, again with the trainer, and this one lasted for the better part of the year. Still, when I didn’t see the results I thought I should see, still looking for those massive muscles or anything that looked like it might be a muscle, I decided it wasn’t worth the $50/month I was paying.

For the next several intervening years, I convinced myself that the physical requirements of my job was sufficient enough exercise, and had those tough assignments come every day that might not have been wholly inaccurate. There were trips where we were climbing rocks, repelling into canyons, and doing all those things that require putting your worn clothes in a separate bag for the trip home. Those were the exception, however. Most days were spent in a studio where the craft services table was too laden with donuts and too convenient for perpetual snacking.

When fitness really hit home was after the event that took out my left leg. Faced with a doctor who wanted to push pain killers to help keep me mobile, I opted for something more akin to physical therapy. Appropriate shoes were purchased, a gym membership was obtained, and away I went, this time with a different goal not so much to put on muscles but simply to stay fit enough to keep down the pain. This time, it worked.

Then, three years ago, when I was given the diabetes diagnosis, exercise was again emphasized, this time with a caveat: don’t overdo it. Having a different doctor made a huge difference. He was much more concerned about my total health and wanted to balance staying active, a very necessary component to fighting diabetes, with not having a heart attack or stroke because my blood pressure is a freaking nightmare. 

Most mornings, you’ll find me in the gym right after the kids get on the bus, while it’s still reasonably quiet. I’m joined by several other people my age or older, not because it’s a gym for seniors, but because the staff is accepting and supportive. While, like anyone, there are days it doesn’t fit the schedule, I’m able to stay consistent enough to tell a difference. Regular exercise is good and necessary.

My store is anecdotal at best, though. What I found interesting about the JAMA report released this week is that for every major area of concern, fitness and exercise is listed as one of the major components of an overall plan to combat the things that are killing us, including opioid addiction and suicide. Staying active and having a regular, focused exercise routine, even a simple one of riding a stationary bike for several minutes, brings a truckload of health benefits that not only have positive effects for our body, but for those portions of the brain related to both addiction and suicide. 

Note: exercise alone doesn’t cure any of the critical problems we’ve discussed, but as part of an overall wellness plan, it can make a huge impact.

Understanding Fitness From People Who Do Fitness

I am convinced that when it comes to fitness and exercise, the best people to talk to are the people who do it every day, the folks for whom it is a way of life. Not all of them are fitness coaches, necessarily, but anyone has what it takes to achieve significant results to the degree of competing at high levels probably knows what they’re doing, and most do it well with their overall health in mind. Yes, there are those who use illegal steroids or push powders that produce dubious results I won’t deny that those people exist. However, most of the fitness people I’ve met over the years take a more common-sense approach that doesn’t risk ruining their lives later.

A common-sense approach to exercise has always been the best approach. I remember my mother watching the late Jack Lalanne on television in the morning, way back in the early 60s before there was a fitness craze. His whole purpose was to specifically help women who stayed home find ways to stay fit while maintaining the socially-expected routine of the day. He had them doing jumping jacks, squats, thrusts, pushups, and using cans of food in place of dumbells for curls. His goal wasn’t to turn women into fitness competitors but help them stay healthy.

Obviously, the world has changed a bit since Jack was on television every morning, so I reached out to some local people and convinced a couple of them to sit down, somewhat stationary, and talk with me for a moment. Their advice in relation to overall wellness is insightful and workable for almost anyone. Let me introduce them to you.

Jordan Rachelle is a fitness competitor, coach, and business person on top of being a busy mom. She’s one of those people who bubbles with enthusiasm even after having car trouble on the Interstate on her way to meet with me. She’s walking proof that you’re not too busy to be fit.

Bob Berbeco is not only a fitness competitor, but he’s one of those guys who ride motorcycles competitively, putting his body millimeters from the ground while taking curves as speeds that scare the living crap out of me. Dude, you’ve got to have some major respect for someone who can pull that off and not spend most of their time in a hospital bed.

I talked to both for several minutes and have narrowed down their advice to a few easily consumable points.

Stop Making Excuses

Excuses come easy. Everyone has a busy life. Not everyone can make time for exercise, can they? Well… 

Bob: 

“It doesn’t have to be like this big, huge, ‘I’ve got to go to the gym.’ It can be little things. It can be walking upstairs instead of taking the elevator. It can be parking out further instead of looking for the closest parking spot. It’s all those little incremental things that can actually keep you a little more physically fit than going to the gym. You kind of have to be principled about it.”

Jordan:

“Life comes at you in all these different ways, but you find time to take a shower, you find time to brush your teeth … but when your heart is in something, you make it happen. There are a lot of people who are talkers and they all have an excuse: ‘Well, I work a 14-hour shift,’ or ‘I work night shift,’ or ‘I’m going through a divorce,’ ‘I have four kids,’ ‘I have this, I have this, …’ And it is not that I’m a pro at it but I can say from my lifestyle I don’t believe many people can tell me, I don’t have time. I have four children, I own two companies, I am co-hosting a TV show, and I also do consulting for fitness. So you find time.

Do What Makes Sense For You

I am anti-fad on almost everything and especially when it comes to both diet and nutrition. Just because a certain fitness regimen or a specific diet worked for your best bud doesn’t mean that your body is going to respond in the same way. So much of what is consumed through popular media means well but can actually have a detrimental effect on many people. I asked Jordan and Bob to tell me a little bit about what works for them and they have some good advice.

Jordan:

I love putting meal plans together. Nobody’s meal plan is going to be the same by any means. And then I’ll create workout programs for different individuals based on their body. So many people get a blank slate for a workout and it’s not right. At 6’ 7” you have to work out completely different, the way that you pull muscle, the way that you stretch it. …

With every single [client] I do gym work. So with every single one, I give a workout program. Some of them like to work out with me and then we’ll go that route, we’ll go one-on-one working out so I can watch their form, so I can watch, you know, are they tiring out, are they taking a longer rest break than they should be taking, monitor their heart rate along the way. So, you know I do both where some people I send them workouts and some people come workout with me.”

Bob:

Listen to your body. That’s kind of difficult, it’s kind of a slippery slope. You can say, ‘Well, my body’s sweating and this hurts so I’m gonna stop doing it.’ If you’re listening to your body, is this injury soft tissue, ligaments that I’m injuring? Is it muscle soreness? That’s a good thing. 

When I go there [the gym], I don’t look at my phone. I don’t talk to people either. I go in, I’m there for a reason, I just want to do my thing, I’m sorry, I don’t have social time. I’m not going to take pictures of myself. I’m going to work out and I’m going to leave. And it’s very intense, focus on intensity don’t worry so much about the weights. Make sure as you’re doing it you have good form. By the time you’re done, you’ll feel like you’ve had a good work out.

You Really Don’t Have To Be A Gym Rat

One of the aspects my doctor emphasizes is not going overboard. For me, there is always the danger of re-injuring my leg or hip which would be immensely counter-productive. Yet, I was always under the impression that the people who are the fittest spend the most time in the gym. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I asked Bob and Jordan about the routines they use. Here’s what they had to say.

Bob:

My workout regimen, I change it every four weeks. I actually have three workouts that every for weeks I go to the next one. The exercises change fairly dramatically challenged. That was actually Jacqueline’s (Sobotka) suggestion. She’s helped me. I’ve always been pretty active. I went to Jacqueline, a diet and workouts, it changed things. It actually made it more exciting, too. You do the same thing for a year and it gets boring. That’s what I like about that four-week switch. I start feeling like I’m getting bored and now I’m going to the next thing. 

Jordan:

I have people who come to me and say, ‘I’m in the gym for four hours,’ and I’m like, ‘Why? What are you doing for four hours?’ There’s a point in your workout where you start breaking down your own muscle. Most of the time I don’t recommend someone be in the gym more than an hour. There’s some people may take an hour and a half just because of mobility; getting from one station to another. But there’s so many people who go out there and they push, push, push, push, push. And someone will say, ‘Oh my gosh, my first rep I was up 80 pounds and I did thirty more minutes.’ No! You just tore down everything you just built. Yes, I know you’re wanting that pain, you’re wanting that burn, but there’s nothing in that that’s benefiting you. You’re creating acids. Your cortisol levels are increasing. Your body is going into ‘save’ mode, it’s not going into ‘let’s build.’ 

Attitude Makes A Difference

As with almost everything else we do in life, attitude can make or break one’s experience. From the moment we wake up in the morning we determine the course of our day, and through that our health level, with our attitude. Personally, I’m horrible at this aspect. It doesn’t take much to send me grumbling and growling through the day. That not only affects the efficiency of my workout, but my attitude also plays a huge role in where my blood pressure is going to rest for the day. 

Jordan and Bob came at the topic from two different directions with instructions that are both practical and workable.

Jordan:

What I do for the first 21 days with any client that I work with is they check in with me daily. So when they check in with me that means within the next 30 minutes they’re going to the gym. The general emotion in people is they don’t want to not do their job. I mean, most people won’t choose not to do it. Situations come up and excuses and all but it’s not like they start their day saying, ‘I’m not going to do my job.’ So, I encourage everyone who’s going through fitness that they look at this as another job. Because the payout is your health. That’s the best investment you can make.

Bob:

I tend to be an optimistic person anyway by nature, but I feel happier, I feel more focused, I don’t feel fearful. I feel like I’m able to accomplish what I need to. Whatever comes my way I’ll have the energy and the focus to accomplish what needs to be done. …So, I worked on my diet and since I’ve been working out, I’m 50, going on 51, I can honestly say I feel healthier, more energy than I did when I was in my 20s. I did the Daytona 200 (GP race) and I finished that race, my legs were sore, but I was ready to go out and party. Recovery, energy, strength, that’s where working out and being healthy really benefits.

Your Health Is Everyone’s Problem

One of the challenges in looking for solutions to our nation’s health problem is that we keep running into the healthcare debate about who’s paying for what. Let’s skip that whole part about which plan is or isn’t the best. Let’s look at the fact, and yes I said FACT, that when you are sick, when your children are sick, when your neighbor gets sick, everyone is already paying and the cost is not insignificant.

When you are sick, even if you are depressed or just have a headache, you stop doing things you would otherwise do. You don’t do your job as efficiently, if at all. You don’t do things with your friends and family. You don’t go to movies, buy new clothes, or go out to eat. You are creating a deficit in the overall economy.

Then, if you do go see a doctor, the cost to the economy rises even more. Not only does healthcare have the potential to drain your life savings, someone has to pay for the portion you don’t or can’t. Sure, that’s supposed to be the job of insurance, but as costs skyrocket insurance companies create profit by raising everyone’s rates, so everyone pays. Healthcare costs are absolutely swallowing the US economy [source].

Need that in a dollar amount? The overall cost is difficult to calculate because of reporting issues, but what we do know is that productivity loss due to health-related issues tops $530 billion dollars annually, most of which are initially shouldered by employers and passed on to the consumer through higher prices. [source]

What isn’t a drain on our entire social system? You staying healthy. When you’re healthy, you don’t take as much unscheduled time off work. When you’re healthy, you’re not getting your co-workers and friends sick, causing them to miss work. When we are healthy, we have healthier babies, lowering the infant and mother mortality rates. When we are healthy, we are happier, resulting in fewer suicides. And are you ready for this? When we are healthy and happy, we feel less chronic pain, reducing our dependency on pain killers that may be addictive, such as opioids [source].

Depending on which study one wants to believe, the individual out-of-pocket cost for illness is somewhere between $4,200 and $6,800 annually. That’s assuming one only has basic issues like allergies, generic flues, and other issues that can be treated and released. Once one has to be admitted to the hospital, even with insurance, the costs explode. The money taken from your wallet is only a fraction of what is taken from the economy at large. 

What I’m about to say isn’t going to be especially popular but it needs to be said. If we’re going to talk about any form of national healthcare policy, then we need to also talk about national wellness responsibility. If we’re going to look toward the government to protect the global right to human healthcare, the government has to look toward us to be decent stewards of that right. 

This isn’t a strange concept, really. If we want the freedom of speech, we have a responsibility to not be hateful or induce harm through that speech. If we want the freedom to carry firearms, then everyone has the responsibility to not let them fall into the hands of stupid people who find joy in killing. If we want the right to vote, we have the responsibility to actually vote. If we want the right to drink alcohol, we have the responsibility to not kill someone on our way home from the bar.

We’re accustomed to all those limitations (for the most part). No one questions those. Maybe we need to be equally as diligent in protecting our right to health care. 

How might that look? Probably something like this:

  • Mandatory annual health screenings for everyone.
  • Preventative healthcare, especially for people over 40.
  • Vaccinations for everyone, without exception.
  • Elimination of fresh food deserts.
  • Financial support for neighborhood gardens.
  • Tighter controls on air quality in both public and some private spaces.
  • Mandatory wellness education that goes beyond PE.

Here’s the rub: If we as Americans are dying faster than other developed countries, there’s really only one source to blame: ourselves. We make the choices that put ourselves and other people in risky situations. You and I decide if we’re going to get the flu shot this year or spread our germs to everyone. You and I decide if we’re going to drive recklessly. You and I decide if we’re going to vote for people who support laws allowing people with mental health issues to own guns. Well over 80 percent of the health issues that lead to death have a connection somewhere along the line to our own behavior. 

One way or another, we all pay the bill for healthcare. Doesn’t it make sense that we would take the steps to reduce those costs before they occur?

Birthdays Remind Us To Live

For all the grumbling and griping I might do about how old I am, I’m nowhere close to being done living. I’ve warned my boys since they were little that they are going to have to put up with my cranky old ass until I’m at least 150, which means I’m barely a third of the way through this journey. If I’m going to make it to my goal, I’m going to have to take better care of myself.

And as irritating as some people are, I don’t want to spend the better part of the next 80 or so years alone, either. I need someone around who rolls their eyes when I say or type something stupid. I need someone to walk with at the beach when it finally makes its way to Indiana in about 30 years. I need someone to fill my scotch glass when my own hands get too shaky.

So, I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll pay more attention to my exercise regimen and diet if you’ll pay more attention to yours. I’ll drive a little more sanely if you’ll stay the fuck out of my way and stop blocking the damn roads for sports events. I’ll try to get more sleep if you’ll stop waking me up with interesting stories in the middle of the night. 

And we can both celebrate all the birthdays still to come. Blow out the candles. I’m taking a nap.

Reading time: 41 min
Exploring Creativity

Reminder for those just joining us: We don’t underline links. Anything in bold italics is probably something you can click for more information. Usually.

My version of Adobe® Creative Cloud updated last week. Creative Cloud is the bundle of applications photographers and designers and directors and videographers and artists and everyone else use for everything from video editing to product design to the photographs you see here. Central to my interests, this means Photoshop updated. To say that Photoshop is a behemoth of an application is an understatement. One could take classes for years and still not be proficient in everything Photoshop does. Very few pieces of software dominate an industry to the extent Photoshop does the whole of creative arts.

Of course, when Photoshop updates the emphasis is typically on all the new features that have been added because for all the program can do, we want it to do more and we want it to do everything faster. The problem is that in order to achieve that goal, developers are at a point now where they have to leave some older functionality out. This aspect doesn’t get as much attention and unless one wants to go through all the fine print of the production notes one isn’t likely to discover what has been omitted until they need to use something that is no longer there. 

This time around, Photoshop seems to have dropped support for the older (free) version of a set of plugins I have used extensively [late note: a colleague says it’s still supported, but with extra work. I haven’t had time to explore that possibility yet.] From a development perspective, the omission is reasonable. The plugins are several years old and a newer standalone version is available that doesn’t leach off Photoshop’s resources. The problem from a practical perspective is that the new version is no longer free. The new version is $150, which is more than I had planned to spend on software upgrades this month. Or any month. 

Ah, the beauty is that the plugins didn’t do anything that wasn’t already available in the main application. The attraction is that they do it much more efficiently than one would do on their own. You’ll find the images that fueled this entire line of thought by clicking here.

All this turmoil has me thinking about what it means to be creative, how the reality is far more complicated than the end result would make it out to be, how being creative requires flirting with insanity, and the degree to which no one cares about the process, just the end result. Come take a walk with me through my world for a bit. This can get scary. Bring your own alcohol.

What Does It Mean To Be Creative?

What does it mean to be creative

We are constantly asking ourselves whether something is or is not art. That argument has gone to its furthest extreme of “if someone says its art, it is,” and puts any conversation about quality or talent on the defensive. I’m not sure we’re doing society nor artists any favors by being too accepting.

What we’re less likely to discuss is what it means to be creative. Being creative doesn’t just apply to what we might traditionally consider art. Creativity is involved in all manner of science and engineering as well. Where a new discovery comes as the result of a person trying something different or approaching a question from a unique direction, creativity was involved. That means that being creative does not make one artistic. Perhaps, just maybe, the inverse is true as well. Is being artistic always creative? Does writing an essay or taking a picture or finding a new algorithm for calculating the density of peanut butter mean that one is gifted or have we simply learned how to manipulate the elements from which new things are composed or composited?

In his article Being Special Isn’t So Special, Mark Manson attempts to make the argument that if you’re not setting the world on fire with awe-inspiring art or world-changing inventions, that one shouldn’t be too hard on themselves. After examining the progression and complications of contemporary Western society, Manson comes to the following conclusion:

As they say, wherever you go, there you are. Being special isn’t so special. You will still feel frustrated. You will still feel lonely. You will still feel like you could have done more.

Don’t sell yourself out for the sake of attention and false glory. Not that attention and glory are wrong, but they should not be prime motivators that drive your life.


Instead, focus on simplicity. On nuance. Slow down. Breathe. Smile. You don’t need to prove anything to anybody. Including yourself. Think about that for a minute and let it sink in:

You don’t have to prove anything to anybody, including yourself.

I’ll admit, there are days, weeks, months, even years where that “it’s okay, you don’t have to be Da Vinci” attitude has gotten me through some low points. However, as I get older, that attitude, especially over prolonged periods, risks being too defeatist to entertain. Okay, so not every picture I take has to be wonderful. Shouldn’t I at least try to make every photograph eye-popping? Trying and not succeeding is one thing. Not trying at all, however, is quite another. I’m hard-pressed to consider as creative the person for whom hum-drum and ordinary is the goal. 

There is an ad campaign that uses the tag, “for when being ‘okay’ isn’t okay.”  “Okay” meets only the most basic goals; it ticks the fewest boxes possible to be considered complete. “Okay” is life’s C-; sure it’s passing, but it’s a meaningless high school diploma that hangs alone on a wall where nothing else of note was ever accomplished.

I think part of what has to be separated is the act of creativity from the act of performance or presentation. For example, as I’m writing this paragraph (painfully struggling over everything except participles) I’m listening to a portion of Alfred Schnittke’s Faust Cantata (It Came To Pass if you’re really that interested). Where is the greater creativity: in the act of composing by Schnittke or the interpretation by Maestro James DePriest performed by the Malmö Symphony Chorus? There’s no question that there’s immense talent on the part of everyone involved, but where, exactly is the greater creativity demonstrated? Are the soloists as creative as the conductor? Is the maestro any less creative than the composer? Can degrees of creativity even be adequately measured?

Into this stream of steaming consciousness is a new study that suggests there are two types of creativity. Experimental creatives build off their experience, bringing years of trial and error to bear before delivering a seminal, perhaps final work that defines the whole of their career. Conceptual thinkers work from abstract principals, chasing raw thought and following it through to its creative outcome. What’s interesting about this study is that is generally age definitive. Conceptual creatives tend to be younger, primarily people in their 20s who don’t have the life experience that might hold them back from chasing new ideas. Experimental thinkers are more likely to be over 50, have experienced some disappointments in their careers, maybe even changed careers multiple times, before reaching an intricately formed and detailed result. 

There’s something to be said for both approaches and it is entirely possible for a person to fall into both categories at different points in their lives. I look at musicians, especially. LadyGaga raised a bit of a ruckus with her “little monsters” when she tweeted that she doesn’t remember her album ARTPOP. Looking at the quality of the music on that album, comparing it to what came before and what was created after, it’s reasonable that the album falls between the conceptual success of “Born This Way” and the more introspective and perhaps experimental sounds of “Joanne,” but the artist is still quite young and may yet develop a different sound as her voice matures.

Comparatively, not everyone who is successful at an early age tops that first big explosion. Consider T. S. Elliot and Pablo Picasso whose best works (arguably, of course) came when they were young. By contrast, Virginia Wolf and Charles Darwin had a whole lifetime of experience behind the works for which they are best known. One of my favorite examples is Matisse, whose early works are exceptional on their own but have absolutely no relation to the work from his later life that demands to be a topic in every art history course ever taught. 

That doesn’t define, though, what it means to be creative, so let’s toss something even more convoluted into the mix. Adobe, the massive software company whose products directly target creatives, teamed up with the creative agency Anyways and writer/researcher Carolyn Gregoire to create the eight distinctive creative personalities: ‘The Artist’; ‘The Thinker’; ‘The Adventurer’; ‘The Maker’; ‘The Producer’; ‘The Dreamer’; ‘The Innovator’; ‘The Visionary’. The test is based on the Miers-Briggs personality exam which almost everyone on the planet has taken. Using their relatively short testing process, I’m apparently the Dreamer, which lists its strengths as being connected to emotions and imagination, empathy and sensitivity. If you want to take the test for yourself, you can do so here. However, at the end of the exercise, I don’t see the test as definitive of creativity any more than I find the Miers-Briggs anything more than a personality snapshot, a definitive point on an extended timeline. One can fit any of the artistic personality types and still be perfectly satisfied with their life sitting on a couch doing nothing. Personality is a filter that colors our actions, not necessarily a motivator that leads one to act.

Perhaps the end result is that what it means to be creative is as undefinable as attempting to determine what is or is not art. If that is the case, how do we begin quantifying our creative lives? If there is no “this is, that isn’t” determination, then on what basis do we justify people investing in, paying attention to, or distantly regarding our work? Volume? Quality? External perception by peers or “critics?” If some people like the work of Sibelius or Gustav Klimt, why are they enthused by those works while others consider both trash? 

As hard as I look at the topic, I keep finding more questions than I do answers.

What Is The Source Of Creativity, Anyway?

Creative Sources

Ask a thousand people a question, get a thousand answers to fuel a thousand frustrations. I’m half-tempted to ask why we need to ask this question in the first place? Does it really matter what the source of creativity is as long as there is creativity? Creativity isn’t a shared resource where one has to worry about their idea being polluted by someone or something further upstream. Or is it? And there’s the answer to the question of why we need to ask the question. Understanding the source of creativity does not make the ideas come any faster or make them any better, but helps us understand the shared space that creatives occupy, that portion of the universe that plants seeds in our brains and waits for them to grow.

Right from the start, however, one runs into a problem determining the source of creativity in that there is no consensus. There are those who look at creativity as an abstract that “lies deep within the soul of man,” (really, someone wrote that). Then, there are those who look at creativity as a role of brain function or, at least, keep making that attempt. Each of those approaches carries with them a lot of evidence based on the observation of what happens when someone is in the act of being creative. What was someone doing/thinking/eating/experiencing when engaged in a creative activity? Based on one’s perspective, the answers can be rather diverse and, at times, even contradictory, leading one to the conclusion that, no, we really don’t understand the source of creativity.

First, let’s get out of the way the concept that creativity is linked to intelligence. Yeah, sure, you may have read that somewhere, and it may be that most the creatives you know are also intelligent people. However, one does not necessarily infer the other. Dr. Rex Jung, assistant professor of neurosurgery at the University of New Mexico, said in an APA interview,

“ … some people have found correlations between creativity and intelligence. They’re usually pretty low, this association. And some people make a lot of that, this low association. But usually, because this association between creativity and intelligence is low, it means that you don’t necessarily have to be intelligent to be creative (source).”

Okay, that’s not the hard break some might have liked. Anecdotally, it often appears that intelligence and creativity are linked, especially if we are looking at scientific forms of creativity, where knowledge of a specific area of study precludes being creative in that field at all. Someone like me, who despite all my efforts still does not understand Algebra, is not likely to have a seminal moment where I solve some math problem that five minutes ago I didn’t realize existed. However, there remain plenty of areas where pre-existing expertise is not requisite to the creative process and, at times, an overabundance of knowledge in certain areas, or even the access to excessive information in an area, can stand in the way of creativity.

Point of fact: following the rabbit trails of research on a topic can cause me to spend a lot of time reading rather than actually writing the article. However, in that case, the intelligence getting in the way is not mine, is it? One can hardly blame the author of an article if they’ve done well enough that I find the words compelling. 

One of those rabbit trails, however, led me to a 1965 article in a now-defunct scholarly magazine called Social Science. In the article, (source registration required) Alfred W. Monk, who was at the time Professor of Philosophy and Chairman of the Department at Albion College, postures that there are three primary sources of creativity. He alleges that,

“Nature, by virtue of its vastness, its order, its beauty, and its challenges to man, constitutes a source of creativity. Man himself, however, in terms of his higher capacities, represents a higher source of creativity. Yet, if man is to develop and to become creative, he needs the kind of society which is most conducive to the development of his potentialities.”

American poet Walt Whitman would have underscored the influence of Nature. A decade after the Civil War had ended, Whitman mused in his diaries, later published as the collection Specimen Days, of the importance of communicating with trees.

One lesson from affiliating a tree — perhaps the greatest moral lesson anyhow from earth, rocks, animals, is that same lesson of inherency, of what is, without the least regard to what the looker on (the critic) supposes or says, or whether he likes or dislikes. What worse — what more general malady pervades each and all of us, our literature, education, attitude toward each other, (even toward ourselves,) than a morbid trouble about seems, (generally temporarily seems too,) and no trouble at all, or hardly any, about the sane, slow-growing, perennial, real parts of character, books, friendship, marriage — humanity’s invisible foundations and hold-together? (As the all-basis, the nerve, the great-sympathetic, the plenum within humanity, giving stamp to everything, is necessarily invisible.)

No, it’s not an easy read more than a century and a half out from its creation, but Whitman was channeling a communion with nature that was itself introduced by English author Ralph Austen all the way back in 1653 (source). In fact, the period between the late 19th century and early 20th, prior to World War I, saw a global movement in naturism and contemplating gardens and trees and lying about naked among them. This is the atmosphere that raised great photographers such as Horst P. Horst. 

Neither does the concept that humanity itself, one’s own existence and experience, breeds creativity within oneself. The entire rationale of Mindfulness and its related practices such as many forms of yoga underscores and supports the concept that the answers and creativity lie within the self and flow forth most freely as one becomes “in tune” with the self. This is part of ancient traditions going back at least as far as the 15th century.

Where Munk may be unique, and tragically unheard, however, is in the premise that society has an obligation and need to foster creativity. He repeats the philosophical question of whether Newton would have been equally as creative in the Stone Age, in a society where he might have been seen as a magician rather than a man of science. After fussing around the history of philosophical ponderings, Munk makes a final charge.

“Although it is impossible to predict clearly and precisely the basic characteristics of the kind of society most conducive to the production of geniuses, at least three things are possible. First, from a negative standpoint, it is clear that not less than four types tend to stifle creativity: primitive societies; modern totalitarian states; stagnant, traditionalistic and archaic cultures; and any society that is unstable to the point of chaos. The second is simply the fact that any society that aims at maximum creativity must find its way between totalitarianism and authoritarianism, on the one hand, and instability and chaos on the other. The third is the fact that the creative society must be engaged in creative interaction with other societies. There is no instance of any great nation or civilization in isolation.

Remember, Munk is speaking from the perspective of a society that is still attempting but not yet succeeded in landing a human on the moon when he writes, “… it is well to point to the hope that, while we are on the brink of chaos and disaster, we may also be on the verge of the greatest period of creativity that mankind has ever known.” Given all that has happened over the past 50-plus years, Munk seems to have nailed that prediction on the head. 

As I read and ponder all these things I’m still not satisfied that we, collectively, especially from a societal perspective, understand creativity in its purest form or even recognize it when it occurs either within ourselves or, most especially, within others. I worry that far too much of the creative element is only recognized in hindsight, which leads me to the next section of the discussion.

How Are We Defining Creativity?

Go ahead, define creativity

Over the course of this week, when not chasing down the infinite distractions of this topic, or preparing meals for children who are perpetually hungry, or trying to make a dent in the ever-growing mountain of laundry [seriously, how do we have so many clothes?], or troubleshooting an uncooperative computer program, I’ve been processing a set of erotic images with the intention of submitting at least one of them for inclusion in next year’s art shows. The work has been at times tedious and enjoyable and on some emotional level, both exhausting and exhilarating as the production of these ten images has dominated my focus for the week. 

What bothers me about investing so much creative capital into a set of pictures is the constant concern that, short of me standing right next to the observer explaining to them what they are seeing, they will neither understand nor appreciate what they are viewing. I know that I’m not alone in harboring that fear, either. We have all been pelted with stories of artists and scientists and creatives of various kinds whose work was completely ignored until after their deaths. At times during the educational process, there seemed to be a subliminal messaging that to be creative is to doom oneself to obscurity in this lifetime and fame after our name has been forgotten.

One prime example that has received a fair amount of attention only in the past few years is the fact that it was women, specifically black women such as Katherine Jackson, Dorothy Vaughn, Miriam Mann, Christine Darden, and Annie Easly whose work, largely unheralded before the release of a movie about their contributions, who are responsible for many of the creative advances in both science and art through the latter part of the 20th century and into the beginning of this one (source). What if the movie Hidden Figures had never been made? Would anyone outside their most immediate family have recognized their creativity before their deaths? 

I am thoroughly convinced that a lot of people sit on creative thoughts and ideas, never sharing them or pursuing them to any degree, for fear of being ridiculed, told their ideas are silly, or being told they’re wasting their time. The problem starts when we’re young. Parents and preschool teachers who have a lot on their minds find it too easy to push aside a child whose creative bantering is disruptive. As children enter school, they’re told to sit down, be quiet, let someone else do the talking. By the time they’re teenagers, even those with immense talent in specific public areas of art and entertainment are they shouldn’t hum while reading, or drum their fingers on the desk, or doodle on their test papers. It is the rare individual who survives this system into adulthood with their creativity fully intact. 

Yet, I am fully aware that there is a perfectly legitimate and authoritative argument that knowledge within a particular standardized framework is necessary to develop creativity in more rigid areas of study, such as math, economics, and physics. Economist Tim Leunig argues that creativity is born of skills that are developed in the classroom and sites the manner in which Thomas Newcomen invented the steam engine as evidence. As mentioned previously, there are certain forms of creativity that can only come with a specific amount of knowledge already in place. Leunig and others refer to it as a creative form of literacy that, when absent, creativity has difficulty establishing a foothold (source).

Part of the challenge is that creativity in a field such as mathematics is not the same as creativity in the arts. A painter might come up with an elegant manner of expressing a math problem, be completely and utterly wrong about the math problem, and it still is art. If a mathematician were to express the same incorrect problem within the language common to that field, they would be ridiculed, scorned, and possibly driven out of business. 

Julian Astle, the former director of Creative and Learning Development for the RSA, has written that “Creativity is not a single thing, but in fact a whole collection of similar, but different, processes.” Hence, we have difficulty recognizing creativity at different levels and in different fields because we’re looking in too narrow a zone. 

For example, if we’re looking at an Ansel Adams photograph of the American desert, the tendency is likely to appreciate it for its framing, for the way in which Adams captures light at just the right angle to make the image aesthetically astonishing. What we often miss, however, is Adams’ genius in calculating when that light was going to appear, the precise time at which it would appear, and the conditions that had to exist for the light to appear at all. What is often praised for its aesthetic creativity is perhaps more astonishing for its scientific creativity and use of knowledge to create something visually pleasing. While there is no question that the photographer had a creative vision, he also had a creative application of knowledge that facilitated that vision. To fully appreciate the photograph, then, we have to consider not only what was captured but how it was captured and even the manner in which the photograph was processed. 

Inversely, the presence of artistic skill does not predicate creative ability. The Suzuki Method of teaching music, for example, is often criticized for producing musical automatons. Yes, the four-year-old knows how to play Mozart with technical precision, but the aesthetic value is lacking. Music requires more than just an iteration of notes and sounds in a specific order. A digital machine can just as easily reproduce the pure sound as can the four-year-old. However, there is still a noticeable difference between the child’s performance and that of a master such as Yoyo Ma The child is reciting notes on an instrument much as they might recite “Mary had a little lamb.” Ma is creating something new, something different, every time he picks up his cello, even if the notes on the page are exactly the same.

At this point, I have to insert the existence of composer John Cage (1912-1992). Cage was to contemporary Western music what Marcel Duchamp (1887-1968) was to contemporary art. The fact that the two avant-garde artists were friends set up one of the greatest events of public art in the 20th century [you’ll have to read more about that here.]. As a composer, however, Cage’s perspective on creativity and music and sound was unique, influenced not only by Dadaism and his fascination with music theory but by Zen Buddhism and the concept of silence. 

When in the 1940s the Muzak Corporation began piping music into offices everywhere as well as subway platforms and department store elevators, Cage led the revolt by composing the piece 4’33”. Asserting that silence was as important to music as sound, the premiere performance of that piece in 1952 went something like this:

  • Pianist David Tudor walked on to the stage at a chamber music hall in Woodstock, New York (yes, that Woodstock).
  • Tudor sat at the piano and propped up six black pieces of paper.
  • He shut the lid to the piano.
  • He clicked a stopwatch.
  • At the 30 second mark, Tudor opens the piano lid, pauses, then shuts it again.
  • Rain begins to fall (Cage had nothing to do with that … I think).
  • Tudor repeated his actions after two minutes and 23 seconds.
  • Audience members began to leave.
  • One minute and 40 seconds later, Tudor opened the piano lid, stood up, and bowed. The performance was over.

The audience was livid to the point that some wanted to run Tudor and Cage out of town. The response from every “respectable” music critic in the country ferociously declared that 4’33” was insulting to audiences and to the music community. Even Cage’s own mother told him the work was trash. 

Not everyone saw it as a waste, however. Musicians such as John Lennon and Frank Zappa would later hail it as one of the greatest pieces of music ever written (source). 

Abstract painter Willem de Keunig was once (perhaps apocryphally) debating art with Cage when he made a rectangle with his fingers and placed them around a scattering of bread crumbs on the table. “If I put a frame around these bread crumbs, that isn’t art,” De Kooning said. 

Cage disagreed. “The frame is everything,” he said. 

Out of context, everything is just noise. The sound of wind rustling through the leaves. The whir of a finely tuned car engine. A violin playing a lone melody. All nothing more than irritants until they are provided a frame, a context that reveals the genius of creativity. Suddenly, we see and hear and understand things in a different light, we appreciate their beauty, we place value on their existence.

With that understanding, or at least from that perspective, perhaps it makes sense to say that creativity on its own is just noise. If I write a song, something I did once upon a time, but no one ever hears it, or the people for whom it is played are unable to understand it, what was created holds little value. Sure, I might like it (I rarely do) but is it enough to create for our own understanding or our own pleasure? If we do not create to the benefit of someone or something outside ourselves, is there value to creativity at all? The answer seems to depend on whom one asks.

Who Owns Creative Property?

Who owns this mess

If there is value to creativity, and let’s assume for the moment that there is if for no other reason than the deepened depression that comes with the alternative is debilitating, then there is an inevitability to the question of who owns that value. Normally, I would reference some piece of law at this point, but when it comes to the overall survey of creativity, the law only serves to confuse and discourage us even more. This topic is a real-world nightmare that does nothing more than make millionaires of lawyers who spend years arguing without end. We have constructed a nightmare by attempting to hold the value of creativity to something that can be bought, sold, traded, franchised, and licensed. None of it makes a damn lick of sense and it only serves those whose understanding of creativity is completely self-serving.

A significant portion of the week has had the perils of Taylor Swift filling my Twitter feed. The country-turned-pop diva left the label, Big Machine, because of alleged improprieties on the part of Scooter Braun, one of the company’s big wigs. No, it’s not because it’s impossible to take seriously anyone named Scooter. This runs deep and has its own legal issues taking place somewhere else. This week’s particular challenge is that, in exchange for spending millions of dollars building Ms. Swift’s career, Big Machine owns the rights to all the songs she recorded during that period, even if she wrote them herself, which applies to a large portion of her back catalog. Scooter was not part of Big Machine while Ms. Swift was under contract there. He bought the label after Ms. Swift had left. Because of their previous legal difficulties, everyone knew it was just a matter of time before this became nasty.

This week, Ms. Swift claimed that Big Machine was refusing to allow her to perform any of her old songs at the upcoming American Music Awards. Their alleged justification was that doing so amounted to re-recoding the songs (because the show is taped) and Swift isn’t allowed to do that until next year. 

Scooter says, “Did not, she’s just trying to get me in trouble.” Okay, those weren’t the exact words, but reading the explanation issued on Friday, it reminded me far too much of the arguments between children when a parent was not present to witness the alleged grievance. The whole mess is missing any substantial evidence on the part of either party and, quite honestly, the best response might be to send all parties to their room without any dinner. 

What the on-going argument does, however, is to highlight the perils and, often, the futility creatives face when attempting to monetize their creations. Every form of copyright and patent law upholds the rights of the creator to claim ownership of the created—sort of. If one discovers something or creates something of value while in the employment of another entity who might benefit from that discovery or creation, then the employer may own the rights to what was created. Check the small print of your employment contract. This is just the tip of a very big iceberg where the matter of creative rights depends on the specific circumstances around the how, where, when and why of creation complicated by whether it was sold, how it was sold, and whether the person doing the selling had the rights to sell in the first place. Yes, the whole mess is muddy and discouraging.

There are basically three general areas of protection: patent, copyright, and license. The most simple breakdown goes something like this:

  • Patents apply to physical objects or processes involving physical objects or the plan/concept for physical objects.
  • Copyright applies to any item created through the general artistic process, regardless of medium nor the manner in which the item might be presented. 
  • License is the means through which a patent or copyright holder allows someone else to utilize, perform, display, or otherwise make use of that protected property.

Seems simple enough, doesn’t it? But, of course, nothing ever is as easy as we’d like and there are more crooks and crevices within intellectual property law than one could adequately cover in a dozen books. 

One of the most significant problems comes when one tries to sell something they’ve created. For centuries, especially within the field of the arts, once something was sold, whether a song or a photo or a sculpture, ownership moved from the creator to the buyer. The buyer was then free to do whatever they wish with the object, even to the point of destroying it. Creatives often felt left out when the buyer would then go on to make a fortune re-selling their creation. I cannot help but think of this every time I see a painting selling at auction for millions of dollars. Be sure, the artist isn’t making a freaking dime from that resale. 

Licensing was developed as a way for creatives to continue making money off their creation as the value of that creation grows. For example, if the Associated Press called me up and asked to use one of my photos of the Vice President, I would likely sell them a limited use license that allows for a specific manner of distribution while maintaining the copyright in my own possession. I could then enter into a similar agreement with another media entity if someone else asked to use the same photo. 

The problem with licensing is that it may work too well. When the concept was developed in the 1920s, it centered primarily on intangible assets. However, with the advent of computers, software companies such as Microsoft utilized the concept of selling licenses so that they could re-sell and simultaneously limit the use of their software, creating different rules, and pricing, to apply to differing circumstances. As more and more of the creative world has moved to the use of digital tools, we’re finding that many of those tools require individual licensing.

For example, not only do I have to license Photoshop in order to process my photographs, but I have to also license fonts for various type, brushes and patterns for various effects, and even some specific color palettes. This drives up the cost of every image I process. I have the choice, then, to either absorb the license fees as a cost of doing business, or I can attempt to reclaim those by adding them on to the price of images that are sold. 

I don’t especially like the licensing system, though. Imagine if the same philosophy was applied to building a house. I might license the lumber from Home Depot, my hammer from Stanley, my saws from Stihl, and my nails from someone else. Obviously, I would factor the cost of those licenses into the price of the house, but what happens if, in the middle of the project, Stanley decides that they are discontinuing the license for the hammer I’m using. I’m supposed to return the hammer and obtain a new model which, big surprise, costs twice as much. This impacts the cost of building the house, but the person buying the house is likely to be quite upset and may even cancel the contract if I go back mid-project and try to raise the price.

Another sore spot in the area of digital licensing is that many products are licensed based on a subscription. Maintain the subscription and the license is in force. Drop the subscription and one can no longer use the product. Never mind that the real value of the product is considerably less than the accumulated subscription cost, to continue using them is a copyright violation.

Yet, the people who created those tools deserve to be justly compensated, do they not? And being that digital product is intangible, it is subject to licensing where products such as lumber and hammers and saws are not. The situation exists because so many of the creatives involved are freelance, part of a gig economy that leaves fair payment for one’s creativity up to an ungrateful end user who thinks they should get everything for free, including end product. Instead of being supportive by buying products and services outright, the society that should be supportive of creativity in all forms instead starves it to death with inappropriate payment systems that keep us all on proverbial street corners looking for handouts.

And that leads us to the final thought.

Are Creatives Crazy Or Are Crazy People Creative?

who are you calling crazy

Honestly, I don’t know creative people in any field that haven’t had their bouts with mental illness of one form or another. I sit here almost every Saturday questioning my value, wondering if I’m the only one who thinks my work has value, and questioning my worth as a person. Plenty of others have it worse, fighting with suicidal thoughts on a regular basis and dealing with urges of self-harm. We may make jokes about van Gogh cutting off his ear, but the number of creatives across every field who hide scars with long sleeves or, more recently, heavily inked tattoos, is higher than anyone can accurately measure. Not only do we suffer, but most also suffer in complete silence.

I have found it interesting as I’ve looked at this subject in sometimes painful detail the number of psychopathological challenges that have been found common among creatives.

  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Manic ideations
  • Suicide

Every study seems to have their favorite malady and plenty of famous anecdotal subjects who conveniently fit the diagnosis that particular psychopathology despite not being available to participate in an actual study, usually due to having been dead for a hundred years or so. 

On the surface, it’s easy enough to accept such studies because of our own need to explain the mood swings, the sudden outburst of anger followed by uncontrollable crying, hearing voices when no one else is in the room, and the persistent urge to drive one’s head into a wall, among other symptoms. 

The fly in this seemingly obvious ointment is Alan Rothenberg’s book Flight from Wonder: An Investigation of Scientific Creativity. In preparation for this book, Dr. Rothenberg interviewed 45 Nobel Laureates and failed to find a single instance of a psychiatric disorder. None. Zero. Some of the most creative people in the world and they don’t exhibit any of the plagues that seem to haunt the minds of others. That kind of puts a pin in all the other studies who looked at more “average” creatives.

Maybe part of the problem is that we’re not reaching our creative potential and that is making us crazy? There’s certainly an argument for that, but there is no hard scientific evidence in support of the theory. 

What does seem almost certain is that Cognitive Disinhibition plays a roll in what is at the very least considered artistic eccentricity. Cognitive Disinhibition is the inability to ignore the things we would be better off ignoring. You know, like constantly chasing rabbit trails instead of sticking to the research one needs to do. For anyone who has Cognitive Disinhibition, the Internet and especially social media are like death traps. The overabundance of information constantly changing and being updated feeds that inability to filter out information we don’t really need to know (source).

Where does that leave us? A 2013 study says this:

Reduced cognitive filtering could explain the tendency of highly creative people to focus intensely on the content of their inner world at the expense of social or even self-care needs. (Beethoven, for example, had difficulty tending to his own cleanliness.) When conscious awareness is overpopulated with unusual and unfiltered stimuli, it is difficult not to focus attention on that inner universe.”

That might explain how many creative people end up seeming antisocial or having difficulty participating in social events. The same researcher says in a similar study:

In all of our studies and analyses, high IQ, when combined with low LI, was associated with increased creative achievement. These results are particularly stunning in the analysis of eminent achievers and high-functioning controls. High IQ clearly appeared to augment the tendency toward high creative achievement characteristic of low-LI individuals.

These results lend support to the theory that there may be qualitative (e.g., failure to filter out irrelevant stimuli) as well as quantitative (e.g., high IQ) differences in the processes underlying creative versus normal cognition.”

Just for clarity, LI in this instance stands for latent inhibition, “the varying capacity of the brain to screen from current attentional focus stimuli previously experienced as irrelevant.” So, to summarize, intelligent people who are easily distracted are also more likely to be more creative. That’s nice to know, I suppose, but it doesn’t explain why so many creatives are happy taking a handful of sleeping pills and never waking up.

Hold on, Dr. Carson isn’t done. In yet another article she and her colleagues write:

“…These results also support the theory that highly creative individuals and psychotic-prone individuals may possess neurobiological similarities, perhaps genetically determined, that present either as psychotic predisposition on the one hand or as unusual creative potential on the other on the basis of the presence of moderating cognitive factors such as high IQ (e.g., Berenbaum & Fujita, 1994; Dykes & McGhie, 1976; Eysenck, 1995). These moderating factors may allow an individual to override a “deficit” in early selective attentional processing with a high-functioning mechanism at a later, more controlled level of selective processing. The highly creative individual may be privileged to access a greater inventory of unfiltered stimuli during early processing, thereby increasing the odds of original recombinant ideation. Thus, a deficit that is generally associated with pathology may well impart a creative advantage in the presence of other cognitive strengths such as high IQ.”

Translation: The whole matter may be one of genetics. The same genes that result in mental incapacities in some people may create “unusual creative potential” in others, with the possibility that a person and shift back and forth between the two. In short: we’re born this way, baby.

Oh, but this gets way crazier. If we recognize that there’s a problem we have to try and solve it, right? Famously, Timothy Leary and others tried using LSD and other drugs and while it might have made them more creative for a period it also made any mental issues worse. So, we’ve all been told to stay away from psychedelic drugs.

Until a couple of years ago. Microdosing. Are you familiar with the term? It’s when a drug is administered at levels significantly lower than the norm. One of its most common uses is in hormone therapy where it’s shown significant promise. Now, apply that to psychedelic drugs, specifically LSD.

A 2018 study showed that people who microdose LSD and mushrooms score higher on wisdom, creativity, and open-mindedness while scoring lower on dysfunctional attitudes and negative emotionality. While this is far from being any kind of a cure, it is some sign that there are at least options that might momentarily mute some of the more negative symptoms that creatives regularly endure.

Pardon Me While I Soak My Head

I'm done

Seriously, my head is throbbing. It’s now late Saturday night, stress has created a pain at the base of my skull, and I’m trying to find a way to wrap up this bitch of an article so I can take a hit of scotch and go to bed. I’m not convinced that all this research this week has actually solved anything except that I have a lot more information in my head now to contribute to all the Cognitive Disinhibition. 

Here’s where my brain is at for the moment.

  1. Those of us who are genuinely creative are damn lucky. There are a lot of people who work in creative-related areas that can’t actually produce a damn thing but have been led to believe that they are creatives. Their frustration is significantly higher than the rest of us and many end up in mental institutions … doing art therapy.
  2. Creativity has a mind of its own and shows up whenever, wherever, and for whatever reason it wants. There are a thousand ways to stimulate the creative mind and no, not all of them are healthy, but when every molecule in your brain is telling you that you have to create something then consequences be damned, we’re going to create. Something.
  3. Creativity can be the answer to a math problem no one else can figure out or a smattering of bread crumbs on a table or the cacophony of a dozen ring tones smashed together and punctuated with rhythmic silence. What matters is the frame, the context, how one allows others to experience their work. If you think you’ve made a freaking masterpiece then show it off like a freaking masterpiece, not in your mother’s garage.
  4. What you create is always a part of you even if it is no longer with you. Possession is an illusion. If you create something, it is yours. If someone else can rif off what you created, let them because in doing so you celebrate the creativity you both share. Nothing worthwhile deserves to be locked away by any means physical, contractual, or digital. Sing your songs. Make your art. Discover new worlds. Let no one tell you no.
  5. It’s not being creative that presents mental illness, it’s the pressure, whether internal or external, to create that drives us right smack over the edge. Creatives are under constant pressure to produce more and as we do it is supposed to be different and better and more astonishing than what we did last time. Feel free to call bullshit on that whole scenario. 
  6. Someone needs to be taking care of creatives because, for the most part, we do a lousy job taking care of ourselves. We’re a mess, ya’ll. And while we should embrace the mess that we are, let’s get real and appreciate that there are probably days/weeks/months that we shouldn’t be left alone in a room where there are sharp objects. We need people to check on us and not believe us when we say that we’re fine. We’re creatives. We’re not “fine.”
  7. We all need more sleep.

There is a long-haired orange tabby kitten peering over the edge of my laptop most likely wondering if I’m going to get anything to eat and if I do whether he can mooch some if it. He gets his balls lopped off on Monday. We are removing an element of creativity from him. 

Too many days I feel as though I’ve had my creative balls lopped off.  I go back over the questions I’ve asked here and despite all the research, I can’t answer any of them. Then, a poem comes to mind from the pen of Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose depression and exhaustion drove him into a manner of solitude. He wrote, in part,

“Forward, the Light Brigade!”
Was there a man dismayed?
Not though the soldier knew
   Someone had blundered.
   Theirs not to make reply,   
Theirs not to reason why,
   Theirs but to do and die.
   Into the valley of Death
   Rode the six hundred.


Cannon to right of them,
Cannon to left of them,
Cannon behind them
   Volleyed and thundered;
Stormed at with shot and shell,
While horse and hero fell.
They that had fought so well
Came through the jaws of Death,
Back from the mouth of hell,
All that was left of them,
   Left of six hundred.


When can their glory fade?
O the wild charge they made!
All the world wondered
Honour the charge they made!
Honour the Light Brigade,
Noble six hundred!

My creative friends, we are the six hundred. Charge on.

Reading time: 40 min
Not sleeping is killing you

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Our personal health depends on learning how to rest

We need more sleep

I am up early almost every morning. There are a couple of reasons for that. One is that we have two dogs who can’t hold their bladders much past four in the morning. If I don’t want to clean dog pee off the carpet, I have to let them out. The second reason, though, is that the quiet of the morning is the best time of day for me to get writing done. My mind is reasonably fresh, creativity and thought both seem to flow well, and there aren’t too many distractions.

The downside of getting up so early is that it throws off my body’s relationship to the traditional workday. If I’m up at four, then I’m ready for lunch by eight, nine at the latest. That lull in energy you get right after lunch? Mine hits about 10 and if I’m not doing something that requires physical effort I’m going to have difficulty keeping my eyes open. While everyone else seems to be running around until 11 at night or so, my bedtime is 9:30 PM and anything past that stretches the limits of my already fragile sanity. I would have a severe case of FOMO (fear of missing out) if I wasn’t too tired to care.

As a society, we have a lot of problems with sleep. That’s not necessarily our fault, though. Approximately 22 million people suffer from sleep apnea, a condition that makes contiguous sleep difficult-to-impossible and can be deadly in extreme situations (source). A whole host of other health-related issues such as heart issues, weight, diabetes, emotional issues, attention-deficit, and autistic-spectrum disorders can all factor in our difficulty with sleeping (source). This time of year can be especially difficult when the adjustment away from Daylight Savings Time messes with the body’s natural circadian rhythms. Most people adjust within a day or so but some people take a lot longer (source).

There are also those people who claim they don’t need much sleep. The current US president is one of those people, claiming he only sleeps three to four hours a night (no comment on how frequently he naps during the day). Others who say they get by on little sleep include Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, fashion designer Tom Ford, Martha Stewart, Barak Obama, and former Disney CEO Bob Iger (source). Some, like Ford, claim they have too much energy to sleep. Others say there’s simply too much work to leave any time for sleep. 

But are we doing ourselves a disservice if we try to follow their example? Can we really get by on 3-4 hours of sleep? I’ve tried. That happens every February and September while covering international fashion weeks. It doesn’t go well. By the end of the month, I’m grouchier than usual (and that’s saying something), dependent on frequent caffeine jolts, and generally not in the best of health. So, what is the best approach to sleep? For that matter, how should we think of rest in general, not just the moments we are unconscious but awake moments that provide us with some level of physical regeneration. 

Not Sleeping Takes A Toll On Your Body

taking a toll

We all have those moments when we have to put in an extra-long day. The car breaks down and shifts everything late. A child gets sick forcing a late-night visit to the clinic. Deadlines looking mean staying late at work. We encounter these interruptions to our sleep on a somewhat random basis and while we feel tired we don’t think too much about them doing any harm to our body. For the most part, that perspective is correct.

What scientists are learning, though, is that when we maintain that habit, such as working multiple eight-hour jobs, the lack of sleep really begins taking a toll on our body; not just in the obvious ways of always feeling tired and losing focus, either. A lack of sleep affects the mind, heart, endocrine system, and immune system in ways we don’t always perceive until it’s too late. The older we get, the more critical the need for sleep becomes and that part seems to make sense but even when we’re still young and allegedly unstoppable we’re still doing damage to our bodies.

For example, let’s say you’ve put in a long day at work. There was an important deadline and you stayed late, putting in an 18-hour day. You got the work done. You’re proud of yourself. Now you have to drive home. There’s just one problem, at roughly the 18-hour mark, your reaction time is about the same as a drunk person. The last place you need to be is behind the wheel of a car. (source) No matter how much coffee or protein you’ve ingested in an effort to keep yourself going, it’s not enough. Even worse, when we work those long hours we tend to not eat or drink much at all, so we’re likely to further handicap ourselves by being dehydrated and under-nourished. 

The longer you stay awake, the worse it gets. Say you’re on an intercontinental flight, for example, one of those 20+ hour flights from one end of the world to the other. While most people sleep a bit, some don’t. Then, when they get to their destination, there’s still the ride to the hotel, checking in, and maybe even a meeting or two before having a chance to get some rest. Once we cross that 24-hour mark, our brains quite literally go into panic mode. They essentially start shutting down services randomly. Memory and mathematical processing go first. Your brain starts taking mini-breaks, around 20 seconds at a time where it appears that you’re conscious but you’re not. Your brain shuts down and isn’t paying attention. People say things to you, and maybe you even respond, but later you’ll have no memory of the event at all. (source

Eventually, especially past the 35-hour mark, your brain is keeping you alive and that’s about it. The brain responds more to negative stimuli than positive and irrational behavior is the result. Beyond 48 hours, hallucinations can take place and one’s actions are no longer reliable (source).

Oh, but that’s not all. Your heart hates losing sleep. Not only does one’s blood pressure soar from lack of sleep, but just the loss of a single hour can also be lethal. The Monday after the Spring return to Daylight Savings Time, when we lose an hour, heart attacks jump 25% (source). Heart attacks actually drop by 21% when we return to standard time in the fall. We need our sleep and there’s no denying it.

All those guys running around on less than six hours of sleep a day? You’re really hurting yourself. Studies show that prolonged lack of sleep kills your testosterone production by 10-15% and that’s a huge amount. Add alcohol intake on top of that and you’re really doing yourself harm. Just one week of bad sleep is essentially aging you by one year. Do the math, lunkhead. You’re slowly killing yourself (source).

We’re not done. When you pull those 18-hour days, your body starts to build up pro-inflammatory proteins like IL-6, a blood marker associated with chronic health conditions and heart disease. Your immune system goes right into the toilet. In fact, research shows that just one night of bad sleep reduces the number of cells that fight off cancer and chronic disease by a whopping 70% and when prolonged becomes a certified carcinogen (source)(source). People who work overnight or third shift jobs are at especially high risk. Cancer rates among those working two full-time jobs are significantly higher even when they don’t smoke and eat well simply because they’re not getting enough sleep

In short, everything we do is reduced in effectiveness and efficiency when we don’t get enough sleep. We might think we’re being productive, but the quality of the work we’re doing is inferior. Our bodies need the rest and the toll it takes on us isn’t always recoverable. The longer we go without sufficient sleep, but more difficult it becomes to “recuperate” and restore our body. The dangers are real.

Light Complicates Our Sleeping Patterns

A little less light

While doing my research for this essay (some of you thought I pull this stuff out of my ass, didn’t you?), I came across an article Linda Geddes wrote about a month ago on Why Office Workers Can’t Sleep.  Geddes is one of those science journalists who doesn’t mind putting herself right smack in the middle of a testing environment in order to get a better perspective on the story. She did exactly that with the study on how light affects sleep and the results are interesting. 

Her initial premise is something we already knew, at least in part. Blue light is bad for your sleep patterns, especially in the evening. Who is exposed to more blue light late in the day than anyone? Office workers. The bigger the office, the more blue light one is likely to encounter and, by extension, the more difficult it may be to get to sleep at a reasonable time. It makes complete sense. We see the effects and have little trouble accepting the studies we didn’t want to read in the first place.

We also have no argument with the fact that small screens, such as our phones and tablets, damage our ability to sleep at night. We still don’t put them down any sooner, but more devices now how an amber filter option that turns on automatically as it begins to get dark around us. The question is how many people actually use the amber filters? There doesn’t seem to be a decent study that’s been made public at this point. My guess is, given a large number of articles reminding people that filters are an option, that the number isn’t as high as it needs to be.

Where Geddes’ article gets interesting, though, is in the “back to natural light” experiment she cites. She looks at a 2013 University of Boulder in Colorado study that sent eight people camping in the Rocky Mountains to study how being removed from artificial light changed their sleeping habits. The results for the initial study were that participants fell asleep 1.2 hours earlier by the end of the trip, but also woke up earlier. Okay, that’s interesting but no one’s actually getting more sleep.

What might be more important from that particular study was that participants’ bodies stopped producing melatonin before they woke up. Melatonin is the natural chemical in our bodies that helps us get to sleep. When melatonin production stops before we wake up, we’re more likely to be sharp and ready to go. However, when we’re constantly exposed to artificial light, melatonin production continues even after we wake up, giving us that groggy feeling enticing us to hit the snooze button 15 more times. 

Now, here’s where it gets interesting. The study was “recently” repeated in the winter. I know, who is crazy enough to volunteer to spend a week camping in the Rockies in the winter? My personal response is to question the sanity of the participants. The researcher involved went with them so perhaps someone wants to look into the sadomasochistic tendencies there. [Sort of kidding, sort of not.]

Participants in the winter study slept 2.3 hours longer than they normally would. However, the method of the study raises the question as to whether they went to be early because of the lack of light or in an effort to get warm? There’s also no answer to the question of whether they were allowed to “buddy-up” which would utilize the benefits of combined body heat, making sleep more comfortable, but depending on the “buddy” might also encourage other activities that would delay sleep. 

Not satisfied with the less-than imperial results she was seeing, Geddes tossed her entire family (husband and primary-school-aged children) into the experiment by having them all go without exposure to artificial light. There was understandably a period of adjustment and the necessity of working under some amount of ambient artificial light was inescapable. However, what she found was that by pushing herself outside during the day to be exposed to natural light (she did this experiment during the winter holidays) caused her melatonin production to kick in earlier when it naturally started getting dark. As with the Colorado study, she and her family found themselves going to bed and sleeping earlier. The effect was especially noticeable with the children.

Also worth noting, though, is the importance of bright light early in the morning. In all these studies as well as several others, exposure to bright light first thing in the morning helps reduce the “melatonin hangover” effect that keeps us reaching for the coffee pot all morning. There’s a balance to be achieved. Popping on a bright light as soon as we wake up in the morning might help us activate our day a bit more effectively and kicking all the lights off and using candlelight in the evening might make our sleep longer and more efficient at night.

There’s a ton of science behind these findings and there’s more coming. The effects of light on our sleep pattern as well as specific brain functions is a “hot topic” among scientists at the moment. As we’re heading into the natural darkness of the winter months, reaching over and flipping on a light (or a dozen) around 4:30 in the afternoon seems normal enough. But what if we lit candles instead? Could that reduction in electric consumption not only lower a bill or two but also make us healthier?

I have mixed feelings. We have cats and cats and candles don’t always work well with each other. I’m also not convinced that turning off the lights and the television so far before bedtime won’t cause our children to revolt. Yours might do better. Ours might threaten our lives.

What Deep Sleep Does For Us

What Sleep Does For Us

No one in their right mind is likely to argue against sleep. Well, okay, there are always those, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead folks,” but they’ll likely be dead soon anyway so we’re going to discount their insanity for the moment. Instead, I think it is perhaps a better use of our reading time to consider exactly what it is that deep sleep does for us and it can be summed up in one word: Clean.

No, it won’t clean the dishes (if only). What it does is scrub your brain. No, it won’t get rid of your porn or pony obsessions. The cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) essentially flushes toxins from your brain during REM sleep. Things like oxygenated blood, which can be fatal, are either eliminated or broken down so that they’re removed from our brain system before we wake up.

This has huge implications for anyone concerned about degenerative brain disease, Alzheimer’s, or dementia. There’s a nasty little toxin called amyloid-Beta. Amyloid-Beta contributes significantly to Alzheimer’s. However, good deep sleep for prolonged periods clears amyloid-Beta from the brain. While it does not necessarily prevent dementia-related diseases, it does significantly reduce the occurrence of those illnesses, which is a good thing. [source]

We also know that deep sleep coordinates memory consolidation. This is extremely important if you, say, want to pass that test you were cramming for last night, or are trying to learn a new language, or are trying to remember the names of all the menu items at your third job because wages haven’t increased significantly in twenty years. This is one of the many reasons babies sleep as much as they do: they intake so much new information in such a short period of time that their brains need sleep in order to consolidate and package everything.

Granted, there is limited research that suggests genetics may be the reason some people seem to need less sleep than others (source) but that research has yet to take on the task of quantifying whether those with that DNA anomaly are processing everything in less time than the rest of us, or if their brains are only doing part of the work and leaving the rest, such as the CSF cleaning, undone. 

Oh, and here’s another thing: that sleeping late on the weekend thing? That’s not helping any at all. In fact, it’s knocking your sugar levels and a few other things completely out of whack (source). People with Diabetes, pre-Diabetes, or even a history of Diabetes in their family need to stick to a consistent sleep pattern as much as possible seven days a week.

Sleep is when our brains take over and do all the maintenance work that our bodies need to function. The release of hormones while we’re asleep promotes cell growth that allows muscles to grown and gives our body a chance to heal itself (source). Sleep also helps give our immune system a boost (source) so that we’re a little better protected against those idiots who fail to vaccinate their children.

What this all comes down to is that the harder one is on their body, and especially on the brain, the more serious a matter it becomes for us to get a sufficient amount of continuous sleep. This is a bit of a blow for people like me who keep telling themselves that while I may not be getting the full 8-10 hours at night, I’m making up for it with little naps during the day. Nope. While the naps certainly don’t hurt, they don’t make up for the time it takes for slow-wave sleep to do its thing. We might feel rested and have an energy boost after a nap, but we’re not giving our body time to heal, time to process memories, or flush toxins from our bodies. If we’re consistently not getting sufficient amounts of sleep then perhaps it’s time we consider consulting a professional. There may be physical issues interrupting your sleep that a threatening your health without you knowing it.

Wasting Time and Doing Nothing Doesn’t Hurt, Either

A little "me" time

Within all this talk about sleep, it doesn’t hurt to mention that our brains can use non-sleep breaks during the day as well. I could easily fill a couple of pages with sources that advocate taking walks during the day, going for a bike ride, or even looking out the window and daydreaming. There’s a precedent for all those activities and more. Not working yourself to death every waking hour of the day.

For example, as hyper-focused as he was, Charles Darwin only worked three 90-minute sessions each day. He engaged in other activities that stimulated his brain in creative ways but didn’t tax them to the degree that his work did (source). Additional research suggests that for people engaged in the most mentally intense professions, such as mathematics, four hours of work, broken up by periods of less intense, relaxing activities, is optimal. Anything more results in diminished results. 

There are also long-term benefits to things like taking extended vacations and meditation. It’s probably important to note here that the type of meditation practiced by those involved in the “Mindfulness” field is not the same as that employed by Buddhist and does not yield the same result. However, it still has proven to be helping in doing things like lowering blood pressure, lowered stress response, and improved immunity from disease. The longer and more practiced one is in meditating, the greater the benefits, but even a one week vacation has health benefits on a genetic level if one does not spend the entire time running from one activity to the other. For a vacation to work the way it should, one needs time to relax, rest, and not be under any severe time constraints (source).

Not many people have the luxury of a schedule that lets them take time for a nap after three hours of work. Perhaps they should. The number of studies supporting rest breaks and even the use of sleep pods or other accommodations at work is significant. A study by the National Research Council strongly supports midday or mid-shift napping as a way to address increasing demands for productivity. Where napping is not appropriate to the environment, however, significant breaks, much longer than the 15 minutes required by federal law, not only enhances productivity at work but keeps employees healthier, dramatically reducing the number of days lost to illness. Sidenote: paying a living wage and taking an invested interest in an employee’s living conditions also provides a huge jump in work productivity, but that’s another topic for another day.

The bottom line to all this research is that working oneself to death ultimately hurts whatever it is you’re trying to do. There is, as far as I can tell, no profession that is immune. Even fast-food workers, whose intelligence and effort are much maligned, need more satisfactory breaks than what they are given. We all do better when we’re well-rested and our brains are less distracted. Exactly how we get there is less important than getting there, but we all definitely need to find that sleep/work balance that is optimal for our bodies.

A Bedtime Story

A Bedtime Story

Before I close this off, I want to relate an early lesson that my father taught my brother and me when we were young.

My father was a Southern Baptist pastor for over 40 years before losing his eyesight. This was back in the days when being Southern Baptist did not necessarily mean being combative and narrow-minded on every topic. Poppa was quite the opposite; rather quiet, frequently contemplative, gentle and comforting in his tone, all things that made for a tremendous pastor though perhaps not always the most forceful when it came to delivering a homily on Sunday mornings. He pastored small, rural churches in Kansas in Oklahoma and over the years garnered a reputation for growing their Sunday morning attendance from less than 50 to well over 100. Perhaps not the most dramatic real numbers, but for a rural community whose entire county-wide population was less than 700, he did well.

In one congregation in Northeastern Oklahoma, there was a deacon in the church who I’ll refer to as Dean. I was a young child of only 11 when we moved to the community so I don’t remember all the details save the fact that Dean would fall asleep exactly three minutes into Poppa’s sermon. This happened every Sunday. If the morning’s service had run according to schedule, Poppa would start around 11:30 and do his best to finish promptly at 11:50 so that the service would be completed by noon. So, Dean’s wife, May, would poke him gently in the ribs around 11:48 so Dean would have time to recover before having to stand. 

Dean’s habit worked well except during either the Christmas or Easter season when he would be compelled to sing in the small choir for the Sundays leading up to the holiday. The choir generally consisted of four men who couldn’t read music at all, six altos who said they could read but rarely hit the same notes, and five sopranoes, one of whom was so boisterous as drown out the other three. They would sing just before Poppa’s sermon, which, I guess for biological reasons, delayed Dean’s usual nap. Again, most Sunday’s this wasn’t a big deal. The entire church knew that Dean napped during the sermon so the deacon sitting next to him would dutifully give him a poke at the designated time and Dean would wake in time, except when he didn’t. More than once, the choir would stand to sing the final hymn and Dean would still be sitting there, resting peacefully. It was difficult at times to not laugh aloud.

Then, one cold Sunday in December, two weeks before Christmas, the choir sang through their Christmas program (a week early because the children took over the following week) and there were still about 15 minutes of open time. The sanctuary was packed as it tended to be that time of year, so Poppa stood to deliver a few short words to the captive audience. Three minutes in, Dean fell asleep, but this time, instead of is head dipping forward, his chin on his chest as was normal, his head fell back. The soft thunk as his head hit the paneling was enough to cause Poppa to pause for a second but he quickly continued not wanting to draw any more attention than it already had. Then, two minutes later, the inevitable happened: Dean began to snore. Loudly.

I looked down the pew at my younger brother who was watching me as we both attempted to suppress our giggles. May was sitting next to our mother on the front row of the choir and their heads turned in unison as they realized what was happening. The deacon sitting next to him tried poking Dean but it didn’t work. He tried yet again to no avail.

The timing of what happened next is responsible for searing this memory in my mind. Poppa was still doing his best to continue, attempting to narrate the details around Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. He said something to the effect of, “And as they made that journey, I’m sure at some point Joseph turned to Mary and said …”

“Damnit, May, I’ll get to the chickens in a bit. This calf isn’t going to birth itself!” Dean interrupted at full volume. Apparently, the deacon had just delivered another sharp jab and coming out of a farm-related dream, Dean had responded to what his subconscious thought was his wife.

I don’t recall Poppa’s recovery line. I’m sure he said something but it’s questionable whether anyone heard him. There was no way to not laugh at Dean’s outburst. His face turned a deep crimson. May’s went ghost-white. The service was effectively over. A final song was sung, a prayer said, and everyone went their way completely forgetting the choir’s performance but for years remembering Dean.

When we got home, my brother and I were still laughing at Dean, as insensitive children sometimes do. My father waited until dinner was on the table, the blessing had been said, before he delivered an important lesson. He said, “Boys, I don’t want to hear you laughing at Dean anymore. I know what happened this morning was funny in your eyes, but I want you to think about Dean. He has a lot going on. He has five kids to take care of, he farms 500 acres, has 30 head of cattle, plus sheep, a couple of goats, and all those silly chickens running around the yard. He has to take care of all his tractors and combines and harvesters, plus his old pickup and May’s car, and he does all that when he’s not teaching science at school. Did you know he has to get up at 4:00 every morning so he can get all the animals fed before he goes to school? Did you know that after school he’s usually out in the barn or in the field until nine or ten at night? He and May haven’t had a vacation since their honeymoon, and that was only three days because their bull got sick. So, when Dean sits down at church on Sunday morning and falls asleep, it’s okay. Those few minutes in church is the only time all week when he can relax. God understands. I understand. I hope one day you’ll understand as well. We all need rest and if we can’t rest in the presence of God there’s no safe place left to rest at all. Remember that, and remember to call him Mr. Smith, not Dean. Be respectful.”

Getting enough rest is a struggle for almost everyone. One of the reasons we publish stories and articles on Sunday rather than during the week is the hope that one has the ability to approach them feeling relaxed, not stressed, so as to be open to the ideas and concepts we introduce or enjoy the stories we create. I’ve given up on even trying to write something short, so if you happen to fall asleep during an article, I’m not going to fault you for that, either. You need the rest.

We all need the rest. And now, it’s about time for my nap. Enjoy your day.

Reading time: 24 min
5 Things We Don't Need To Fear

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No Fear

Not everything in this world should scare us. There are at least five things we know to be safe.

The whole month of October was one long Halloween celebration and there were plenty of things happening, both in and external to that celebration, that was frightening. Some things, such as investigations involving members of the federal government, or the climate crisis should be frightening. Many times, though, we are provoked into being afraid of things that present no harm at all. 

Okay, I typed that line and am thinking I may need to clarify a bit. They present no harm outside the fact some of them represent a change to a stodgy, narrow-minded, misogynistic status quo that has outstayed its welcome. As a society, we are often hard-pressed to change opinions that fall under the category of “that’s the way it’s always been” or “that’s the way we’ve always done it.” “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” falls into that hard-headed category as well. 

My late father used to tell a well-worn story of a young bride who was cooking her first holiday ham. She bought the ham, set it in a roasting pan, and then pulled out her mother’s instructions for cooking the ham. The first thing on the list was “cut two inches off the butt portion of the ham.” That requirement struck the young woman as odd so she called her mother. 

“Why am I supposed to cut off the butt portion of the ham?” she asked. 

“I don’t know,” replied her mother. “That’s the way my mom taught me to cook them. You’d have to ask Grandma.”

The young woman hadn’t talked with her grandmother in a few days so she thought it was a good excuse to call her and see how she was doing. In the course of the conversation, she asked, “Grandma, why do you cut the butt portion off the ham before you cook it?”

Her grandmother thought for a moment and then answered, “I’m not really sure, dear. That’s just the way my mom taught me to cook and I never thought to question it. You’d have to ask her.”

Now, great-grandmother was well-past 90 years old and her memory wasn’t always on point, especially when talking over the phone. So, the young woman decided she had time to pay her great-grandmother a quick visit. She drove over to the assisted living facility and in the course of conversation asked, “Great-grandma, why did you always cut the butt portion off a ham before you cooked it.”

The older woman took her great-granddaughter’s hand and said, “When I was your age, I only had one roasting pan and it was too small for the ham your great-grandfather would bring home. So, I had to cut two inches off the butt portion for the rest of the ham to fit. That’s all.”

As a society, we get stuck in those same habits and when that well-worn status quo begins to change we get unreasonably frightened not because the change is threatening but simply because it’s different than we’ve experienced before. We aren’t sure what to expect or what the outcome might be. If someone else is afraid of something, maybe we should be afraid also.

Making matters worse, the Internet is a wonderful place for spreading stories and there’s little to fact-check whether those stories are true, especially when they’re told as personal experiences. Who can challenge the authenticity of a personal experience? “You weren’t there, you don’t know!” 

We know that change is going to happen but we fear change that may not work out in our favor. We want change to be good for us, bring us more money, flying cars, self-tying shoes, and instant commutes. What we don’t want are changes that cause us to question ourselves and our motives, we don’t want change that upsets the way we’ve always done things. As a result, we’ve harbored a lot of fear. Why? It’s easier to keep cutting off the butt end of the ham rather than buying a new pan. 

What we’ve done this week is found five things that seem to invoke a lot of fear for reasons I personally find unreasonable. Those things are 1. Autistic children, 2. Women in power, 3. Using gender-neutral language, 4. Democratic socialism, and 5. Poor people. I’ve observed absolute hysteria around all five and find the fear completely irrational yet, for some reason, self-perpetuating. They are all things that, collectively, we need to move past and embrace. If you’re already cool with all five, good for you! Chances are, though, you know someone who isn’t, so perhaps you’ll share this article with them. Let’s get started.

Fear of Autistic Children

Autistic Children

I am increasingly angered by all the ignorant and uninformed vitriol aimed at autistic children, as though autism is a life-threatening and disabling disease that threatens to kill all our offspring and bring about an end to the human race. It isn’t. Neither is autism contagious. One doesn’t become autistic after being inoculated against another disease nor hanging around autistic children on the playground. None of those things are true and people who continue to spread those lies need to be corrected and their ignorance publicly addressed.

First, let’s define what Autism actually is. Autism Spectrum Disorder is “a broad range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. (autismspeaks.org)” By being a spectrum disorder, children can exhibit challenges in different areas while not having a problem in others. We often refer to children as “high functioning” or “low functioning” but those are really misnomers related to how well a child adapts to social situations. Some autistic children are non-verbal but there are others who can’t stop talking, often repeating words or phrases several times. The experience and challenges are different for everyone.

The Center for Disease Control estimated in 2018 that 1 in 59 children are autistic but then came back in April of this year and stated that new study factors show autism is “more prevalent than indicated by the latest 1 in 59 CDC estimate.” Part of the reason for that change is that children are often not being diagnosed with ASD until they are 8 years old or older. Remember, autism isn’t something you “catch.” One of the challenges is that the more obvious challenges aren’t noticed until a child is older and more frequently in socially-challenging environments. 

What causes autism? A number of things can contribute to a child having autism, and often the condition is genetic, especially related to gene changes. Having older parents (either or both) increases the risk of autism. Pregnancies spaced less than one year apart also increases the risk. The risks are mitigated to some extent by taking prenatal vitamins with folic acid before and all the way through pregnancy, but that is not always enough to counter genetic predisposition.

What doesn’t cause autism? Anything that happens after a child is born. While autistic symptoms can often be slow in presenting themselves, it is something with which one is born. One cannot get it through vaccinations nor any other external or environmental situation that may occur after a child is born. Because autism isn’t something that presents itself immediately, it may appear anecdotally to be “caused” by an external event. This is why one sees so many stories claiming that their child was “just fine” until they were vaccinated or were in a daycare with autistic children. There’s no specific set of triggers for autistic behavior because the experience is largely individual. So, to the unsuspecting parent, it can appear that a certain event might have caused the disease, but the fact is that the disease is always present from birth.

So why do we fear autism so much? Why is it that some people would rather place their children in real danger of contracting a disease such as measles and chickenpox, which can kill their child, than have a child with autism? Why do some parents think that having an autistic child is a horrible thing?

I’ve checked all the literature I can find and there is no justifiable reason other than ignorance of the disease and perhaps, for some, a bit of laziness. As the parent of three children with ASD, I understand that they can at times be exhausting and sometimes requires us to be on our toes in social situations. But then, the children who are not ASD are just as exhausting and just as worrisome. If anything, knowing the social triggers of a child with ASD helps us be better parents. We know what to expect, what to avoid, and how to respond when things happen. 

The reality? Autistic kids are awesome! They tend to be extremely intelligent and often highly focused. They think differently which leads them to solutions no one else would have found. Many are determined when they start a task and are detailed-oriented enough to do something well once they get started. Many grow to be successful adults who are fully aware of their challenges and how to address them. They are wonderful people who can do amazing things.

Applied Behavior Analysis has an appropriately helpful article, “5 Things We Could All Stand to Learn from People With ASD.” I encourage reading the entire article, but in summary, those five things are:

  1. Honesty
  2. Fearlessness
  3. Quietude
  4. Solitude
  5. Routine

We’re slowly figuring out that what at first appeared to be the idiosyncrasies of autism are characteristics that may improve the quality of life for some people, especially when it comes to noise.

I find it interesting that just last week Oxford University’s student council voted to ban clapping at on-campus events. While the move has received considerable backlash from ignorant people who mistakenly assume that the student council is appeasing “snowflakes,” it is a fantastic gesture toward a number of both autistic and hearing-impaired students, neither of which are “snowflakes” by any stretch of the imagination. Oxford’s student council recognizes what many others don’t: people with autism are wonderful. There’s no reason to fear being around them, and there’s no reason to fear being the lucky parent of one.

Fearing Women In Power

Women In Power

Let’s be honest upfront: I don’t have nearly enough space here to fully discuss the why, how, or when related to fearing women in power. This is a huge topic whose history, arguably, goes all the way back to the mythical garden of Eden when Eve is unjustly blamed for the fall of humanity. We’ve been embedded with patriarchy through over 6,000 years of social development and the fear of overturning that system of power runs incredibly deep.

Our fear of women in power is strong; it is a large part of the reason the United States has yet to have a female president, why so few Fortune 500 companies have women as CEOs, and a significant part of the reason for the gender pay gap. And while it’s tempting to say that only men have this problem, we see plenty of women who harbor the fears as well. “Feminism” is such a negative word in many portions of society that many prominent women refuse to identify themselves as such for fear of the backlash.

When singer Katy Perry accepted the Billboard Woman of the Year award in 2012, she said, “I am not a feminist, but I do believe in the strength of women.” 

The former first lady of France Carla Bruni-Sarkozy famously said, “I’m not at all an active feminist. On the contrary, I’m a bourgeois. I love family life, I love doing the same thing every day … We don’t need to be feminist in my generation.”

As a male person who was 1) raised by a strong mother, and 2) works 90 percent of the time with women, I fail to understand why so many in our society are afraid of women except for the most obvious reason: many men don’t want to lose the power and privilege they’ve given themselves and many women don’t want to upset the status quo (wow, that was a long sentence). I find those two excuses old, worn, useless, and boring. I’ve been hearing them all my life and find no merit, weight, or substance to those arguments. 

Let’s take a moment, please, to knock down some of the most frequent and idiotic contentions for women being in places of power.

“Women are the weaker sex.” Really? Have you ever tried pushing out a living being the size and weight of a bowling ball? Women themselves have proven this old trope false over and over. Furthermore, researchers at Duke University published a report proving scientifically that women are stronger and more resilient and better able to survive a catastrophe. Claiming that women are weaker is essentially declaring yourself to be an ignorant asshat.

“God says … “ Stop. There are multiple problems with anything claiming any kind of religious authority. First, religions, all of them, are belief systems and should never be taken as absolute law anywhere in any country for any reason. Doing so excludes and misrepresents anyone outside the dominant belief system, making the system inherently unjust. Second, God doesn’t say. Patriarchal inferences that have been preached from pulpits since 200 ADE are a mixture of mistranslation and misogyny. God doesn’t put women on the sideline. Third, religion is personal, not corporate. Just as religion doesn’t belong in government, it doesn’t belong in business, either, unless the business is in direct support of the religion (which is a bit suspect). Keep your religious beliefs in your pocket.

“Women want too much, they’re just being greedy,” says the people who have manipulated the system consistently in their favor across multiple millennia. Women aren’t being greedy, they’re simply wanting what they deserve: a fair share and a level playing field. Patriarchal practices that give preferences to men in hiring and advancement opportunities have to go completely away. Biased rules that keep women from competing directly with men need to be struck down. I am quite certain that the majority of men have no idea how much the system is totally skewed in their favor, even to the point that men’s clothes, toiletries, and haircuts are priced preferentially. Women getting the exact same advantages isn’t being greedy, it’s being fair, and goes double for people of color and triple for indigenous peoples.

“Historically, it’s always been the men … “ Shut the fuck up. The perception that the Western World has moved forward solely on the wit and intellect of men comes from books written by those same men who intentionally excluded women so they wouldn’t have to admit they’re not as bright as they want us to think. In fact, let’s pause this list to make a sublist. Here are a few women who outdid the men:

  • Sappho, who is overshadowed by Homer in founding Western literature. Homer was epic but Sappho understood the power of emotion and her verse flows much better.
  • Sacajawea, who carried a baby on her back traveling by foot over a thousand miles so that two self-aggrandizing explorers (Lewis & Clark) wouldn’t get lost and never heard from again. They owe her everything.
  • Marie Curie, who not only won the Nobel Prize (which is slanted to favor men) but did more for science than any combined dozen of her contemporaries.
  • Billie Holiday, who was to music what Marie Curie was to science, only she didn’t get the award. Her influence is unparalleled.
  • Ada Lovelace, generally considered the first computer programmer. She had to slow down to allow the boys to keep up.
  • Florence Nightingale changed all of medicine, not just what happens on the battlefield. The men in medicine “couldn’t be bothered” so she showed them how it should be done. Doctors still haven’t forgiven her for showing them up.
  • Boudica (c 63 ADE) led a Celtic army of over 100,000 and kicked the Romans out of Britain. She scared the fuck out of Nero and he wouldn’t even try going back.
  • Grace Hopper, the first woman to earn a Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard, she developed the COBOL computer language utilized in countless mainframe applications, such as the one that allows your check to be directly deposited into your account.
  • Lisa Meitner was the Austrian physicist you can thank for everything nuclear. Splitting the atom wouldn’t have been possible without her work.
  • Marie Van Brittan Brown was a woman of color who invented closed-circuit television as a way of fighting police negligence in her neighborhood.
  • Belah Louise Henry invented over 100 objects including the bobbin-free sewing machine and a vacuum ice cream freezer.

If you haven’t figured out by now, this list could reasonably go on for thousands and thousands of pages. The oldest poetry recorded was a song by the prophetess, Deborah, dating back to 1200 BCE. Women have always been there, taking the lead, picking up the slack, and not getting the credit for the amazing things they did. 

Women in places of power are only a threat to men who are afraid to lose theirs because they know their positions come not from earning them but from favor and preference and privilege. Get out of the way and let this progress happen. The world will be a better place for it.

For those who want more detailed information on this topic, let me suggest the following books:

Women in Power: A Manifesto, Beard, Mary; 12 December 17; Liveright, 128 pages

The Power, Alderman, Naomi; 10 October 2017; Little, Brown and Company, 400 pages

Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger, Traister, Rebecca; 2 October 2018; Simon & Schuster, 320 pages

No Excuses: Nine Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, Feldt, Gloria, 28 September 2010; Seal Press, 384 pages

Fear of Gender-Neutral Language

Using Gender-Neutral Language

I’ll admit that this one is a relatively new fear based upon the comparative speed with which public awareness of gender non-binary and trans people has appeared in popular culture. This is also one of the most frequent issues we deal with in our own household now that Kat has come out as being non-binary. They frequently wear a pin at the salon that says “they/them” so clients who pay attention have a clue, but even one of their bosses, who is supportive, admits they don’t always “get it.”

So that we’re all on the same page, let’s start with a definition. Merriam-Webster defines the term simply as “not referring to either sex but only to people in general.” The definition isn’t the most helpful given that it doesn’t provide any direct examples, but it does get straight to the point. Gender-specific terms are no longer acceptable in a variety of places because their use limits the perspective, scope, and opportunity not only for non-binary and trans people but everyone who doesn’t want to be judged or limited by their gender.

If you’re not already encountering gender-neutral language (and you probably are but may not recognize it), it’s going to become increasingly common. The APA, MLA, and Chicago manuals of style all recognize gender-neutral language as standard, not the exception, as does the United Nations and the European Parliament. Some gender-neutral language has started popping up in newscasts, especially from socially-sensitive sources such as NPR, but they’re still not using gender-neutral pronouns as the default.

A large part of the fear and confusion around using gender-neutral language comes from the fact that not everyone wants to identify in a gender-neutral way. There are times, especially in conversations related to the children, that Kat still uses she/her. That is an exception they have invoked but creates confusion for some people.

Others are afraid of trying and “getting it wrong.” They don’t want to embarrass someone who is a friend but at the same time, they don’t want to embarrass themselves, either. Relax, most of the people directly affected by gendered language understand that the adoption of a different way of speaking takes time and effort. I still make mistakes when talking to Kat and she typically smiles and corrects me and we move on with the conversation. No big deal. Now, if someone is writing an article that’s going to be read by millions of people, by all means, have someone who is more sensitive to the language proofread that thing before you publish, but in general conversation stressing over every word is more likely to make the situation worse, or at least more awkward.

For those who are still unsure, there are a handful of resources worth bookmarking so you can review prior to walking into what may be a language-sensitive situation. The Harvard Extension School for Professional Development has this guide to Inclusive Language In Four Easy Steps. “Easy” may be a bit presumptive but the article is a convenient reminder. Fairygodboss also has a Go-To Pocket-Dictionary for gender-neutral terms and pronouns but be aware that one has to sign up for an account before accessing the material, a practice that I find a bit sketchy.

Alternatively, Suzannah Weiss wrote an article for Bustle a couple of years ago that I find helpful. 7 Gender-Neutral Terms We Should All Be Using gets to the heart of the language we use most often. Without copy/pasting the entire article, here are the essentials:

  1. They. No, it’s not plural. It’s been used to refer to a single entity since the 14th century. You can do this.
  2. Mx. Use instead of Ms. Miss, Mrs. or Mr. It’s easier written than spoken, but you get the point.
  3. Humankind instead of mankind. Humanity or people also work depending on the situation.
  4. Partner or Significant Other. Personally, I refer to Kat as my partner. Significant Other feels dismissive but that may just be me.
  5. First-Year Student instead of Freshman. Personally, I’d like to see that classification carried through graduate school. Tenth-year student, anyone? Besides, it makes one feel as though they study at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and that’s cool on its own merit.
  6. Artificial, synthetic or machine-made as an alternative to man-made. This one can get a bit sticky as hand-made or person-made may be the more correct term in some instances. Context is your key here.
  7. Parent, sibling, and child in situations where referring to family members. Some sources refer to the terms Grandy (for grandparent) and Kiddo (for offspring) but Grandy reminds me of a Nashville-based restaurant chain and Kiddo strikes me as flippant so be careful with those.

The fear of gender-neutral language is simply a matter of custom. Children in today’s schools have much less difficulty with making the switch because more teachers are using gender-neutral language in school. Media outlets are making the switch so we’ll be hearing and reading those terms more frequently which helps alleviate the fears. Listen, watch, and it will all be okay. No need to be afraid.

Fear of Democratic Socialism

Democratic Socialism

In these politically-sensitive times, almost every label carries some negative and partisan angst to it but nothing seems to stir the fear more than the term Democratic Socialism. Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez both self-identify under this banner and that scares the living daylights out of a lot of people. So much so, that the president routinely stokes those fears by intentionally misdefining it in his campaign speeches. 

Let’s get this straight once and for all, DEMOCRATIC SOCIALISM IS NOT PURE SOCIALISM. And even then, socialism probably isn’t what you think it is. Let’s start with a textbook definition of the term. Merriam-Webster drops back to the term Social Democracy which it defines as “a democratic welfare state that incorporates both capitalist and socialist practices.” That definition stems from the terms initial usage in 1848, however, and as such I’m not convinced that the “welfare state” portion of that term applies. I prefer the definition offered by  Mark A. Peterson, a professor of public policy, political science, and law at UCLA, who defines Democratic socialism is “a call for the democratically-elected to use the public sector to promote greater equality and opportunity.” [source]

Still, the definition is loaded with fear because it espouses something other than pure capitalism, which every child since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution has been taught as the only way to provide equality and fair play for everyone. What they should have been taught is that capitalism provides an artificial sense of equality and fair play for white, privileged people who are predominantly male. The fact of an ever-widening wage gap is sufficient evidence that pure capitalism fosters greed and wealth hoarding. 

Yet, we’ve seen situations proving that pure socialism doesn’t work well either. China is our most visible example of how government control over business leads to inherent corruption and unchecked authoritarianism. Corruption leads to favoritism and authoritarianism prevents people from being able to appropriately respond to injustices caused by corruption. While the system as applied in many countries does a good job of making sure everyone has a base wage, moving beyond that base is difficult and the inability to respond to corruption guarantees that the elite maintains the wealth, as it does with capitalism. 

Both systems are far from ideal, both have their vocal champions, and both leave millions of people in poverty, which is a problem. Social Democracy aims to address those shortcomings by blending the better aspects of both systems.

What’s the difference? To some degree, the answer depends on who has been asked the question. There is no definitive single source that I’ve found, so let me see if I can lay it out in the following chart.

SocialismDemocratic Socialism
The government maintains control over most everything with very little private ownership.Private ownership is still the rule but government regulation makes sure corporations don’t put profit ahead of more important issues.
Government-controlled corporations retain the majority of power. Power resides primarily in the working class 
People serve the corporations/government.Corporations/government serve the people.
Wealth remains the domain of the elite.Wealth is distributed fairly across the working class.
Money corruptly influences government decisions.Money is removed from governmental influence.
Social programs funded through exceptionally high taxes on everyone.Social programs primarily funded through taxes on corporations and the wealthy with average workers contributing at a modest level.

What Democratic Socialism fundamentally aims to address is the lack of control working-class citizens have over their economy, their government, their healthcare, their education, and their environment. It is progressively oriented toward what benefits the average consumer rather than a handful of shareholders.

What is important to remember, however, is that any political movement, no matter how well-intentioned, is only as good as the people involved. Corruption can and will take over any system where it can get a foothold. Our country’s founders recognized that potential and allowed for those most corrupt to be rooted out of government without significant defense through impeachment and recall elections. Those methods are not witchhunts nor are they undemocratic. They are necessary and should probably be used with greater fervor in order to weed out the persistent corruption that seems to have taken over the electoral system. 

Democratic Socialism is nothing to fear unless one is part of the 0.01 percent who owns the 88% of all wealth in the United States. For everyone else, the movement holds the potential for an improved economy and a more responsive government.

What we should fear are those who don’t vote or participate at all. That is where the real evil lies.

Poor People

Poor People

The topic of poverty is making its way onto the political charts as one of the issues likely to become a major talking point during next year’s presidential election. Economics is always one of the top factors in a presidential election but this time around, the president’s inevitable boasts about having “the best economy ever” are going to be met with some hard facts he’s not going to like.

Just last year, the U.N. Human Rights Council published a report on extreme poverty and human rights in the United States that made some painful points:

  • There are 40 million people here who live in poverty, while 18.5 million live in extreme poverty and 5.3 million are in Third World conditions.
  • Out of the OECD, the States have the highest youth poverty rates.
  • Citizens are sicker and live shorter lives than in other well-off democracies.
  • The U.S. has the highest rate of income inequality in the West.
  • People frequently talk of poverty in “caricatured narratives” and racial stereotypes.

The administration says talk like that overlooks the good they’re doing, pointing to low unemployment number and a continued rise in GDP. However, Foreign Policy was quick to point out that the administration had faked its numbers. Not a big surprise for this presidency, but one that results in millions of people not being eligible for the economic assistance they need to survive.

What’s more, millions of Americans actually support the administration’s actions on poverty, especially the recalculation of who they consider “poor.” 

As a society, we don’t like talking about poverty. We don’t want to see poor people on the street, we avoid driving through poverty-stricken parts of town, we don’t eat in places where poor people are likely to be present, and while some enjoy touting how much they help the poor through their charitable giving, we don’t want them getting persistent aid such as food stamps or cash assistance from the government. 

We don’t even want to go to church with poor people. One long-term study from the Quarterly Journal of Economics shows that as churches become more competitive, something that started with the Reformation in 1517, their economic priorities changed. Church buildings needed to be bigger and more ornate. Sermons needed to be more eloquent and pastors needed to use more popular jargon. Worship services relied more on entertainment content than theological accuracy. Helping the poor became something a church does “for the community” because the people they are helping aren’t welcome or comfortable inside the sanctuary.

We, as a society, are afraid of poor people. There’s even a word for it: Aporophobia. Spanish philosopher Adela Cortina is credited with coining the word. She explains that a large part of what fuels our xenophobia and racism toward others is actually a fear of their poverty. This especially occurs in our attitudes toward migrants and refugees. We don’t mind that people come from other countries, we mind that they’re poor, an attitude reflected in the government’s recent changes for visa qualifications.

This isn’t a new condition. Looking through dozens of historical references, I can find quotes about people fearing poverty well back into the 11th and 12th centuries. One of the most poignant, though, comes from Robert Walser’s 1907 book, The Tanners. In it, he writes:

“How reprehensible it is when those blessed with commodities insist on ignoring the poor. Better to torment them, force them into indentured servitude, inflict compulsion and blows—this at least produces a connection, fury and a pounding heart, and these too constitute a form of relationship. But to cower in elegant homes behind golden garden gates, fearful lest the breath of warm humankind touch you, unable to indulge in extravagances for fear they might be glimpsed by the embittered oppressed, to oppress and yet lack the courage to show yourself as an oppressor, even to fear the ones you are oppressing, feeling ill at ease in your own wealth and begrudging others their ease, to resort to disagreeable weapons that require neither true audacity nor manly courage, to have money, but only money, without splendor: That’s what things look like in our cities at present”

Our fear of poor people is long-standing and ridiculous and without any merit whatsoever. We know this, and yet we continue to perpetuate the attitude. By relegating poverty assistance to something we expect charitable organizations to handle, we shove the topic out the back door, having satisfied our conscience that by giving to a charity we have absolved ourselves of needing to do anything further when, in fact, we are abdicating our responsibility to actually help people.

We’ve even demonized being poor. Writer and activist Shane Claiborne says of poverty,

When people begin moving beyond charity and toward justice and solidarity with the poor and oppressed, as Jesus did, they get in trouble. Once we are actually friends with the folks in struggle, we start to ask why people are poor, which is never as popular as giving to charity. One of my friends has a shirt marked with the words of late Catholic bishop Dom Helder Camara: “When I fed the hungry, they called me a saint. When I asked why people are hungry, they called me a communist.” Charity wins awards and applause but joining the poor gets you killed. People do not get crucified for living out of love that disrupts the social order that calls forth a new world. People are not crucified for helping poor people. People are crucified for joining them.”

Feeling guilty yet? You probably should be. We all are. I have found it repeatedly true that even poor people don’t like associating with other poor people. Other poor people aren’t likely to help one escape their own poverty. Instead, there’s an odd “I’m worse off than you” contest that often develops as competition for limited charitable resources often determines whether the power stays on or the quality of food on the table.

Societies have struggled with their fear of the poor for centuries so I’m not foolish enough to believe that just saying “we need to change,” is going to result in any significant difference. However, let me leave you with five ways you can make a difference.

  1. Remember that poor people don’t always look poor. Many people who dress nicely in public struggle to have anything to eat when they go home at night. Many poor people work multiple jobs. Being poor isn’t necessarily the absence of money, it’s the absence of enough to cover life’s basic needs.
  2. If you decide to help someone in need, do it in a subtle manner that does not create undue attention. That selfie you take congratulating yourself on your generosity is embarrassing for them.
  3. Don’t judge someone when they finally get a chance to do something nice, like go to a decent restaurant or a concert. You have no idea how long they had to save, or who might have helped make that moment possible. 
  4. Avoid using phrases like, “It’s doesn’t cost that much,” or “Who doesn’t have $10 for …” What seems inexpensive to you may represent the cost of a week’s groceries for someone else.
  5. Be the friend who’s willing to stay home rather than insisting on going out. Even going for coffee is too much for a lot of people. Don’t be afraid to have a conversation for once.
All We Have To Fear

All We Have To Fear

When Franklin Delano Roosevelt gave his first inaugural speech in 1932, the situation across the United States was dire. The stock market had gone bust, many people lost everything they had, the economic gap between the very rich and the very poor was almost as immense as it is now. Fascism was raising its ugly head across Europe. Prohibition had resulted in a new wave of organized crime. Unemployment was high across the Midwestern states, causing many people to move West in search of farm jobs. The picture was about as bleak as bleak can get.

Against that backdrop is when Roosevelt made his famous statement (which may have been an unattributed quote), “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” People took that to heart, fought through their fears, took on the Fascists, paid higher taxes for the good of everyone, and by the time FDR died, we were the most prosperous country in the world. 

We can get there again, but to do so we have to shelve not only these five fears but others such as fearing LGBTQ+ people, fearing immigrants, fearing people who don’t speak English, fearing science and education, fearing radically new ideas, fearing youth, fearing aging, fearing risk, and fearing letting go.

How do we overcome those fears? There are a lot of articles and blogs with a lot of advice, but I think Phil and Barry at The Tools put it most concisely.

  1. Accept it
  2. Identify it
  3. Feel it
  4. Face it
  5. Practice it

I might add one more thing: Stop listening to those who peddle fear, especially those in positions of power or authority. A political campaign based on fear-mongering is only going to generate more fear in office.  A pulpit whose message preaches fear is incapable of spreading love. A teacher who peddles in fear gives the wrong lesson. Media that force-feeds fear makes us weak and uninformed.

We have no reason to be afraid of these things. Instead, our determination should be based on the late Gene Roddenberry’s mission for Star Trek’s Enterprise: To boldly go where no version of yourself has gone before. We CAN overcome these fears. We CAN find new courage to do things differently. 

We CAN cook the entire ham in one pan.

There’s no need to fear. Go out and be better.

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Climate Change Requires A Radical Response

Rhetoric is irrelevant; climate change now threatens everything, eliminating the opportunity for a measured response.

Note: I realize that since we’ve spent 20 weeks with the novel there haven’t been a large number of links in what we’ve written. Our links are not underlined or colored, they’re bold italic. When you see anything in that format, click it for more information.

Not that anyone will. Our click rate is something like 0.001 percent. Either you trust me too much or you don’t care. This is part of the problem. We all need to click those links.

Eagle Creek State Park Ooze

Didn’t We Already Talk About This?

Driving across town recently, I found myself increasingly frustrated by how quickly the needle was descending on my gas gauge. Traffic was horrid, people were weaving in and out of lanes with little regard for safety, and I was late. In conditions such as these, I find myself thinking that there has to be a better way. We’re on the cusp of 2020, after all. All the 20th-century science fiction promised us something better by now. Why aren’t we there?

Then, a sports car passes doing nothing short of 90 miles per hour, black smoke belching from the exhaust, swerving dangerously through traffic, at times crossing four lanes and then back, cutting off a semi whose driver then had to brake hard to prevent a significant accident. Words similar to “fucking idiot” came out of my mouth. This happens far too often and it always surprises me at how many people I see driving like this. I’m both angry and disappointed.

Seven minutes later (yes, I checked), I’m sitting at a stoplight, look over at the car on my left and guess what: it’s the same speeding dude who had passed earlier. All that noise, pollution, and danger at high speed and it had gotten him to the same place at the same time as I had gotten driving slower. I looked at him and glared, hoping maybe he’d look my direction. He didn’t. The light changed and he left a trail of rubber as he sped off.

As I watch his trail of pollution disappear in front of me (for the distance of two more stoplights where I’m in front of him this time), it occurs to me that drivers like him are the reason we don’t have flying cars. People drive badly enough on the ground. Can you imagine the chaos and disaster that would occur if we allowed them to take flight? Getting people into autonomous cars is likely to be one of the greatest life-saving events in vehicular history.

What bothers me more, though, is that it’s almost the end of another decade and as I’m driving across this midsized midwestern city I can see a blue/pink haze hovering around the city’s skyline. This is mid-October. We don’t have the extreme heat to blame for creating an “ozone action day.” There are no longer big factories downtown belching black smoke into the sky. The horizon should be clear, but it’s not. Once again, I’m prompted to ask why this is happening.

There’s little question that people are what’s happening. This haze is caused by too many vehicles with bad exhaust, people still mowing their lawns, burning leaves in the backyard, greasy exhaust from commercial kitchens filtering into the air catching dust and other particles, and other seemingly casual elements of life that all add up to creating an environment that not only is bad for our own lungs but is destroying the planet as well.

We hear a lot about climate change and global warming today as a political issue more than a scientific matter because the world is at a tipping point. If we don’t initiate significant change quickly, the effects could become irreversible within the next 30 years. After that point, if we’ve not significantly reduced CO2 emissions, the planet starts fast-tracking its way toward being uninhabitable and there is nothing we can do to stop it.

What bothers me most is not the ridiculous denial on the part of short-sighted people with a lot of money and power, but the fact that we’ve been aware of the problem for almost two hundred years and have done next to nothing to stop it. Seriously. This is so not a new issue that had we responded appropriately at the first alarm, a half dozen generations could have been raised never knowing there was a problem. Science writer Simon Weart compiled this short history of how our knowledge of climate change has developed.

  • 1824 – Joseph Fourier discovered the greenhouse effect.
  • 1859 – John Tyndall discovered that H2O and CO2 absorb infrared confirming the Fourier greenhouse effect.
  • 1896 – Svante Arrhenius proposed human CO2 emissions would prevent earth from entering next ice age (challenged 1906).
  • 1950’s Guy Callendar found H2O and CO2 did not overlap all spectra bands, therefore warming from CO2 expected (countered the 1906 objections against Arrhenius).
  • 1955 – Hans Suess identified the isotopic signature of industrial based CO2 emissions.
  • 1956 – Gilbert Plass calculated adding CO2 would significantly change radiation balance.
  • 1957 – Revelle/Suess suggested oceans would absorb less CO2 causing more global warming than predicted.
  • 1958/60’s – Charles David Keeling proved CO2 was increasing in the atmosphere.
  • 70’s/80’s Suke Manabe and James Hansen began modeling climate projections.
  • Current: NCAR, GISS, Hadley, CRU, RSS TLT, UAH, MSU, Glacier Melt, Sea Level Rise, Latitudinal Shift all confirm models.

Mind you, that’s the short version. Weart offers a little more depth in his book, The Discovery Of Global Warming. The amount of science supporting and providing evidence of this cataclysmic problem is ponderous. So, why the hell are we so incredibly slow to do anything about such an obvious problem? The answer lies within the foundations of human character in the 21st century: We are lazy and we are cheap.

Numerous solutions have been available between 1824 and now. We’ve had plenty of opportunities to avoid this last-minute panic. Yet, we are a society that celebrates a culture of procrastination, starting in school when we wait until the last minute to finish a project or cram for a test, and not buying anything that isn’t on sale for less than it costs to produce. As a result, we have simultaneously eroded not only the environment but the retail economy as well.

Because of our procrastination, we have reached a level of emergency where the solutions still available to us are going to require billions, perhaps trillions, more dollars and an even greater, more drastic change to our lifestyle and cultures than could ever be considered comfortable. If we are going to survive, however, we have no choice. We have to be willing to make sacrifices and piss off people in power in order to actually get something done, even if it means working outside the permission and purveyance of governments. As a society, we can no longer wait for governments to lead the way. We must go around them, or over them, in order to maintain human viability on this planet. Hold on tight, this is going to get ugly.

The Truth Is More Radical Than We Realized

Eagle Creek Park Oil Slick

When former Vice President Al Gore presented the concept of severe climate change under the banner of An Inconvenient Truth in 2006, he did so with the deft touch of an experienced politician: He played it soft. He knew far too well that Americans wouldn’t be able to handle the enormity and seriousness of the problem had he gone full-tilt with all the alarming facts available to him. Even soft balling it, he was still called a radical and a fear-monger by just about everyone in any position of power. What Americans didn’t see is that Mr. Gore’s actions scared the living shit out of those who control the money and, by extension, the economy of the United States. He presented to them a problem whose only solution required an extensive overhaul of investments, one that would produce less return and therefore less profit. Theoretically, they could have embraced their role and responsibility and, if so, we probably wouldn’t be having the conversation we are now. Instead, they got mad, painted Mr. Gore as a liar and radical leftist (as though there’s anything wrong with being a radical leftist), and invested hard-core into climate change denial.

The other challenge standing in the way of easy acceptance of the severity of climate change is the fact that all the genuinely informative and factual studies are written in academic science language, something the average person doesn’t understand, doesn’t see the importance in understanding, and therefore holds the summaries suspect because they don’t understand a damn thing the paper just said. Let me try and help you out there a bit.

Last year (2018), the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a report on Global Warming of 1.5℃. Right there, in the title, they lost the vast majority of Americans who might, depending on their age, have been taught in school how to convert between Celsius and Fahrenheit (hint: you multiply the Celsius temperature by 1.8, then add 32). If we’re going to get alarmed over what seems to be a relatively low amount, we need to understand what that increase means. 

For example, in 1980, the mean temperature for the planet was around 57℉. By 2015, that had risen to 61℉ and that’s when we saw scientists begin to scream, “Oh shit!” and start throwing major conferences on just how severe the problem has become. If we take the 2015 number and even add one full degree (which is where we were this past summer), the conditions become rather worrisome.

Why get so upset over one degree? Because it only takes as little as five degrees difference to take the planet from nice, reasonably livable conditions to being buried under thousands of feet of snow or, if it goes the other direction, a complete desert with no surface water available anywhere.

Spinning your little head a bit? I know, on the surface it doesn’t appear to make sense because we see more than five degrees fluctuation in a single day, especially this time of year. In the Midwestern United States, it’s not the least bit unusual for some days to see a thirty-degree shift between morning and evening temperatures. If we can endure that with no problem, how is complete devastation possible because of only five degrees?

Our friends at the NASA Global Observatory explain it like this:

The global temperature record represents an average over the entire surface of the planet. The temperatures we experience locally and in short periods can fluctuate significantly due to predictable cyclical events (night and day, summer and winter) and hard-to-predict wind and precipitation patterns. But the global temperature mainly depends on how much energy the planet receives from the Sun and how much it radiates back into space—quantities that change very little. The amount of energy radiated by the Earth depends significantly on the chemical composition of the atmosphere, particularly the amount of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

While land temperatures fluctuate wildly, the rapid warming of the earth is taking us quickly toward a condition where human life is no longer sustainable. And how hot is too hot?

1.5℃ from pre-industrial levels. Spoiler alert, we were already 0.79 degrees warmer in 1980. The earth’s temperature hasn’t gone down any since then.

Now that we understand why the title of this report is alarming, let’s look at some of its findings. 

  • Human activities are estimated to have caused approximately 1.0°C of global warming above pre-industrial levels, with a likely range of 0.8°C to 1.2°C. Global warming is likely to reach 1.5°C between 2030 and 2052 if it continues to increase at the current rate. 
  • Climate models project robust differences in regional climate characteristics present-day and global warming of 1.5°C, and between 1.5°C and 2°C.
  • Estimates of the global emissions outcome of current nationally stated mitigation ambitions as submitted under the Paris Agreement would lead to global greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 of 52–58 GtCO2eq yr−1 (medium confidence). Pathways reflecting these ambitions would not limit global warming to 1.5°C, even if supplemented by very challenging increases in the scale and ambition of emissions reductions after 2030 (high confidence). Avoiding overshoot and reliance on future large-scale deployment of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) can only be achieved if global CO2 emissions start to decline well before 2030 (high confidence).

Now, let’s break this down to a third-grade reading level. The first point is one we’ve heard, and denied, for 30 years. Human activity is causing the earth to warm. 1.5℃ warmer is when bad things start to happen. Those bad things cannot be reversed. Nothing here is new, we’ve just argued over it so long it’s now an emergency.

The second point is that 1.5℃ is the LOW end of the scale. Regionally, some areas of the planet will see warming to 2℃. This is bad. This is very bad. A 2℃ increase means people cannot live there. People will have to move. Global migration increases. Global food supplies are not enough. Some animal species will die out completely. Global resources are too small to handle those changes. 

The third point is, perhaps, scarier. Even if everyone followed the Paris Climate Agreement like they’re supposed to, it’s not going to be enough to prevent the planet from warming to 1.5°C. The “solutions” we have now are not enough even if everyone played along and the US isn’t playing at all. Our government is going in the opposite direction as quickly as possible.

Let’s talk more like grownups again. Our ridiculous arguments over whether the science is real have cost us dearly in terms of time available to find and enact an appropriate solution. The fact that climate change is even a question in anyone’s mind is a depth of ignorance and/or stubbornness that may have to be declared criminal in order to avoid complete extermination of the planet.

Even among those who do accept that climate change is happening there has not been enough alarm over how severe the consequences are going to be within the next ten or so years. Let me say that again: ten years. 2030 sounds distant for many people but that is no longer reality. We’re not looking at only the loss of every major coastal seaport and a redefining of beachfront property by several miles, we’re looking at massive drops in food production. As polar ice caps melt, more water becomes over salinated, making it undrinkable. Production rates for crops such as wheat, rice, potato, soybean, sugar beet, alfalfa, cotton, tree and vine crops, and most vegetable crops decreases because of the increased CO2 (long and scientific explanation of why can be found at The National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine

Not everything is going to wait ten years before becoming problematic, either. Global migration is already an issue and is only going to worsen as more areas of the world become uninhabitable. Europe is already feeling the pain where migration is expected to triple over the next ten years. The World Bank Group estimates that 140 million people from sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia, and Latin America will be displaced by 2050. As that migration takes place, political, cultural, and social strains easily result in outbreaks of violence as bigotry, racism, and discrimination fueled by rampant Nationalism becomes more of a problem than it already is. 

A 2016 presidential memorandum addressed the extent to which climate change presents a threat to national security in the United States. That memorandum said, in part, 

“Extended drought, more frequent and severe weather events, heat waves, warming and acidifying ocean waters, catastrophic wildfires, and rising sea levels all have compounding effects on people’s health and well-being. Flooding and water scarcity can negatively affect food and energy production. Energy infrastructure, essential for supporting other key sectors, is already vulnerable to extreme weather and may be further compromised.” 

However, the current administration revoked that and other climate-change-related memos, choosing to completely ignore the severe danger. The administration’s opinion seems to be that if it’s not making money that it’s not important. Such an incredibly ignorant and short-sighted approach doesn’t merely threaten the economy and the stock market the president seems so worried about, but also the lives and well-being of every person in the United States. 

What we’re looking at is an ecological and economic disaster of a magnitude far greater than that of the Great Depression a century ago. The less we do, the less done not only by the United States but every government across the planet, the greater the risk that we hit that 1.5℃ mark and blow right past it. If we wait for the natural order of politics to provide change, we inevitably find ourselves facing a situation where we can no longer focus on prevention and instead are forced to find more radical ways to respond to the crisis.

A Desperate Situation Requires A Radical Response

Dead Conch

The days for a moderate, careful response to climate change passed thirty years ago. We are now in a situation where mass migration, drought, new deserts, food shortages, severe coastal flooding, agricultural failure, economic inflation, and all the social unrest that goes with those conditions is inevitable unless we make dramatic and uncomfortable changes. Those changes inevitably mean upsetting the status quo and thereby defying the powers that be and making at least half the population angry. We know that before ever starting.

In her new book  “On Fire: The Burning Case for a Green New Deal,” Naomi Klein compares the modern situation and “radical” proposals to the era that prompted Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. She writes:

The skepticism is understandable. The idea that societies could collectively decide to embrace rapid foundational changes to transportation, housing, energy, agriculture, forestry, and more— precisely what is needed to avert climate breakdown—is not something for which most of us have any living reference. We have grown up bombarded with the message that there is no alternative to the crappy system that is destabilizing the planet and hoarding vast wealth at the top. 

From the start, elite critics derided FDR’s plans as everything from creeping fascism to closet communism. In the 1933 equivalent of “They’re coming for your hamburgers!” Republican senator Henry D. Hatfield of West Virginia wrote to a colleague, “This is despotism, this is tyranny, this is the annihilation of liberty. The ordinary American is thus reduced to the status of a robot.” A former DuPont executive complained that with the government offering decent-paying jobs, “five negroes on my place in South Carolina refused work this spring . . . and a cook on my houseboat in Fort Myers quit because the government was paying him a dollar an hour as a painter.”

Far-right militias formed; there was even a sloppy plot by a group of bankers to overthrow FDR.

Self-styled centrists took a more subtle tack: In newspaper editorials and op-eds, they cautioned FDR to slow down and scale back.

The rhetoric of nearly 100 years ago hasn’t changed. As Americans, dramatic change scares us. Being told that we might have to be temporarily inconvenienced in order to make things better make us angry. Consider the typical response to large expanses of road construction. We fuss and fume about the detours and the heavy traffic and the inevitable delays. We deride construction workers for not moving fast enough. We curse at the long lines. Yet, when the work is done and the roads are smooth, there’s no denying that, as uncomfortable as the construction period was, it was necessary to keep the entire road from falling apart.

Our environment is at exactly that same stage. We are on the verge of having the entire planet crumble underneath our feet. If we are to have any hope of preventing total collapse we have to begin work right now and accept the fact that some very basic elements of life and economics in the United States and around the world have to change. 

Painful truth: change is going to happen one way or another. Either we can take steps in an attempt to control at least some of that change, or we can let it happen to us and suffer the consequences. All the bad things possible will happen if we sit on our ever-expanding backsides and do nothing.

An all-too-perfect example is the United Kingdom’s decision three years ago to leave the European Union. When the vote first passed, the UK government had time and opportunity to craft a workable departure that would have minimized the economic impact. Parliament made the decision to not do that. They fussed. They argued. They refused to cooperate with anyone under any circumstances. Those who wanted to stay in the EU dug in their heels and refused to consider any compromise. As a result, they are now at a point where they’re having to consider significantly more dramatic and uncomfortable actions to keep the country from leaving without the benefit of trade or any other treaties and, as a result, not only upending the UK economy but potentially putting the entire global economy into a downward spiral. 

Stubbornness and commitment to petty ideals have been the death of many solutions that could have already saved us from being in this frightful situation. We have reached a point where politicians can no longer be trusted to lead on environmental issues. Instead, our best option is to appeal directly to state and local governments, private corporations, and non-profits to take the actions federal governments will not and make changes even in defiance of federal regulations.

Another example: In July of this year, automakers Ford, Volkswagen, Honda, and BMW openly defied the federal government’s rollback of fuel emission standards for new vehicles by signing on to a California deal that decreases greenhouse gas emissions by 3.7 percent each year between 2000 and 2026. Yes, the change will increase the price of new vehicles, but the long-term benefit to the environment is far greater. The president’s objection reflects fear from the oil and gas industry as the new vehicles also improve fuel economy by as much as 50 miles per gallon, potentially putting a severe dent in industry profits. 

At this point, however, any argument against improvement of the environment is irrelevant no matter who is doing the arguing. To defend the status quo on the basis of one industry’s profit or loss is unconscionable. If the planet overheats by 1.5℃, the net effect is going to be severe enough to crash all economies on its own and at that point, there is nothing the federal government can do to stop it.

Change Deliberately Or Consequentially

All the denial and arguing in the world isn’t going to stop the warming from happening. By 2030 either we’ve taken the dramatic steps necessary to slow the warming (completely stopping it at this point probably isn’t an option) or we pretend to act surprised when all the things about which we’ve been warned become severe enough we can no longer deny their consequences. Either we care about the sustainability of life on this planet or we don’t. If we do care, we’re going to have to take some dramatic steps quickly. 

What steps make the most difference? The ones that are the least comfortable. Walk with me here.

Agriculture

We have to change the way we’ve been farming. Sure, it’s been productive—the United States provides food for more people than any other country in the world and employees some 827,000 people. However, agriculture is also the fourth-highest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the country. Oops. We’ve been talking about using more sustainable farming methods since I was a kid and some farmers have made moderate changes. 

Get ready to be upset, though, because all that “organic” nonsense that everyone’s been screaming about the past ten years? It’s got to go. Organic farming increases greenhouse gas emissions. Full stop. Those benefits you think you’re getting are not worth losing the entire planet. 

Better animal breeding practices could reduce methane emissions by 10-20% and better-pasturing techniques could double that. However, feed alternatives are where a lot of reduction can take place, as much as 52% in some studies. Dietary oils are key and there are several other feeding methods that show promise.

Improving crop rotation practices, manure holding procedures, reducing the amount of fallow ground, and switching from fossil-fueled to electric pumps and motors are all things some farms have started but the process is expensive and smaller farms need financial assistance in making those changes. The difference, however, is worth any financial investment necessary.

Transportation

This one’s going to hurt. The problem is not only that we drive too much but that the vehicles we use when we do drive are amazingly inefficient and are made more so because of the inferior condition of roads and highways. Everyone’s been screaming about infrastructure investment for years, but the money still hasn’t shown up and where it has the funding has been focused on propping up bad systems rather than replacing them.

First, we need to ditch vehicles using fossil fuels ASAP. The most recent studies show that newer electric-powered vehicles (not the ones from ten years ago) reduce CO2 emissions by as much as half and the technology is only improving. Here’s the thing: we can’t wait for everyone to buy a new electric car in the natural course of individual car buying. Department of Transportation figures show that it takes 11 on average to get a car off the road. We don’t have that much time. That means we have to eliminate used car sales for non-electric vehicles and provide tax incentives, subsidies, and vehicle buy-back programs to encourage the purchase of new electric vehicles. 

Even that move, as drastic as it is, falls short of what we need to get CO2 emissions back in line. We still need to drive less and we also need to reduce the number of airplanes in the sky. On average, whether hauling people or cargo, the average commercial airplane produces a little over 53 pounds of CO2 per mile. One 2010 study shows that over 10,000 are killed each year just from the pollution that planes emit. The most readily available solution to both is investing in high-speed rail systems that utilize electric power. Localized high-speed rail systems in major cities combined with severe reductions of individual car use (most likely implemented by changes in driving laws) would not only reduce carbon dioxide emissions but could save lives do to reduce road fatalities. 

Yes, it’s expensive. Yes, it’s a move that upsets the current economy and shifts power away from traditional sources, but we have to make these moves if we’re going to continue living on the planet.

Elimination Of Fossil Fuel Use

Talk about upsetting the status quo, we’ve had the means to wrench away from our dependence on fossil fuels for at least 30 years and we’re afraid to make the move because of this prevailing myth pushed by big oil and related industries that the effect on the economy would be devastating. It’s all bullshit. We’re talking about eliminating a source of fuel, not the demand. Therefore, the economic impact only hurts those companies who are unwilling to make the shift. Already, big oil has started investing in renewable energy sources and European producers are doing so at a significantly faster rate than US and Asian producers. If governments eliminate oil subsidies to renewable sources, the same dollars stay in the market, continue employing high numbers of people at higher-than-average wages, and the economy benefits. This is not an economic issue but a power issue. Given the corruption we’ve seen in the fossil fuel industry, a power shift isn’t a bad thing.

We can provide all the power needs for the entire planet with solar panels covering 0.3 percent of the earth’s land surface (source). Yes, that’s a lot of land, but since solar isn’t our only choice we can reduce the land-use significantly and still make sure the entire planet has more than energy to not only fuel current needs but the increasing needs going into the future. 

Conservatives and those financed by the oil, gas, and coal industries want you to believe that moving away from fossil fuels is a bad thing. No, it’s not. At the worst, it might mean more people have solar panels on their roofs. If solar panels on your roof are what saves the planet isn’t that a reasonable trade-off?

Rethinking Plastics

We use a LOT of plastic and much of it is for very necessary things especially in regard to medical supplies. So, to completely eliminate plastics, which are traditionally made from fossil fuels, requires a strong and flexible alternative. We’ve been hearing the call to reduce our dependency on plastic for over 30 years. How did we respond? We started using it to store and sell water, causing every environmentalist on the planet to do a hard face-palm. 

Plastics such as the Polyethelene PE that is used most have a carbon footprint equivalent to burning 2kg of oil for every 1kg of plastic. 1kg of plastic is roughly the weight of five plastic shopping bags. Put it all together and plastics represent the fourth largest contributor to greenhouse gases and that’s before we fail to recycle them and they end up being the trash that pollutes everything

The good news here is that technology is rapidly bringing us to that point where bioplastics, especially those produced from hemp, offer the possibility of at least making plastics carbon neutral, meaning they absorb as much carbon as they emit. As of this writing, there are still some areas of the creation process that uses oil and the biodegradable claim is challenging to fully support, keeping it from being the perfect solution. However, the reduction of CO2 a complete switch to bioplastics would provide is a significant boost toward halting the warming of the planet.

The bad news? Big Oil is only too happy to sponsor arguments against bioplastics claiming they’re not fully biodegradable. Biodegradability is certainly something that would help, but the far greater CO2 emissions from plastic happen during the creation process. Arguing over biodegradability is, at best, a distraction to keep any improvements from actually happening. Bioplastics are proven to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and right now that has to remain the top priority. We can worry about biodegradability when we’re sure we’re not all going to die.

Technology

The fourth Industrial Revolution is here and technology is in the driver’s seat. Already, our reliance on technology has grown 100-fold over the past ten years, but in order to save ourselves from the damage we’ve done, we have to go further than tends to make us comfortable. Right off the bat, technology is the fundamental resource that makes all other solutions possible. Still, there is more that it can do and we need to get comfortable with making the investments that utilize technology to its fullest extent.

For example, as scary as autonomous vehicles sound, they provide more fuel-efficient transportation, even in electric vehicles. Humans are not efficient when they drive. We speed, we brake wrong, we rubber-neck like crazy, and all of those bad habits result in using more energy than is necessary to get us from point A to point B.

Technology also offers the opportunity to compress CO2 into fertilizer, turn CO2 into liquid fuel, use CO2 to create hybrid membranes for medical use, and a plethora of other changes that help eliminate the use of fossil fuels and other materials that leave large amounts of carbon in the atmosphere. One of the most critical may be in developing new fabrics for clothing, eliminating the need to grow cotton, an act that completely ruins the land on which it is grown. 

There are plenty of options but what they all need is a dramatic level of investment to get them out of labs and into everyday use. One obvious source of investment funds would be to completely eliminate oil and gas subsidies and put those same funds toward planet-saving technologies. 

Economic Redistribution

If ever there was a strong argument for economic equality, saving the planet is it. The reasons are rather obvious.

  1. The poor suffer the most from environmental damage.
  2. Economic inequality drives environmental damage.
  3. The richest 10 percent are responsible for 50 percent of global emissions.

Equitable distribution of funds and resources allows poorer countries to invest in technologies and methods that reduce greenhouse emissions. Pollution in countries that have greater economic balance is significantly less than in countries with severe gaps between rich and poor. What’s more, as reliance on fossil fuels and their related industries has to be eliminated, people employed in those fields are more likely to experience a severe reduction in wealth as they are not necessarily skilled to transition into the most high-demand fields of employment. 

In order to combat this problem, we need to come to grips with the need for some very uncomfortable economic changes.

  1. Significantly taxing the richest one percent
  2. Significantly taxing corporations, especially those involved in industries that contribute to greenhouse gas emissions
  3. Greater public investment in global education
  4. Significantly higher wage minimums 
  5. Tighter control of housing and food costs

I can hear the screaming from here. Let’s face the facts, though. Trickle-down economics only benefits the rich. Inflation in the housing market has created a crisis. More public funds are necessary to combat warming and there’s no legitimate reason to put that burden on those who can least afford it. Personal wealth and corporate profits have to take a back seat to the sustainability fo the planet.

Planetary Problems Require Global Solutions

Bird tracks in the mud

Global warming and the resulting climate change are not problems unique to the United States. Granted, we’re the largest country not making a concerted effort to find a solution, but the problem is universal. For us to avoid reaching the 1.5℃ mark or worse in ten years, every country on the planet has to participate in solutions. When the Paris Climate Agreement was signed in 2016, 197 countries, including the United States, signed on. However, not everyone has been able to sell the agreement at home and the current closed-minded administration pulled the US out altogether. We’re not alone, though. In addition to the US, there’s an interesting list of countries that have not ratified the agreement.

  • Turkey
  • Iran
  • Angola, 
  • Eritrea, 
  • Iraq, 
  • Kyrgyzstan, 
  • Lebanon, 
  • Libya, 
  • South Sudan, and 
  • Yemen

What all of those countries share with the United States is an authoritarian leader (though not necessarily authoritarian government) whose focus is on maintaining a tight grip on the rule of their country. Such an inward “me first” focus is detrimental to addressing climate change. Leaders have to actually care about the welfare of the people they govern in order to support solutions that involve international cooperation. 

Such Nationalistic tendencies are more a reflection of the leader’s psychosis rather than the nation’s true attitude. Notice that some of the world’s most infamously dictatorial leaders, including Russia’s Putin, China’s Xi, and North Korea’s Kim, all recognized the need for their country to cooperate. For a leader to not adequately address the emergency of global warming is to demonstrate utter disregard for the people most likely to be directly affected by the crisis: the people they rule.

While most of the countries who have not ratified the agreement are small and some, such as Kyrgyzstan, barely have a carbon footprint at all compared to other countries, the United States is the world’s second-largest contributor to CO2 emissions behind China. For the US to not address the challenge not only dooms Americans but the entire planet. We, as a country, fail to provide the most critical leadership and in doing so effectively sign the death warrants of millions of people.

Yes, I realize that sounds alarmist, but this is the reality.

About Those Consequences

Tree stump in a withering lake

Remember when the IPCC report mentioned overshoot and gave it a “high probability?” That means they don’t expect the world to be able to limit warming to 1.5℃. In fact, they go ahead and admit that some regions will see an increase of 2℃ or higher. So, what happens if we completely fail and blow right past that half-degree increase from where we are now?

It’s not pretty. If greenhouse gas emissions remain at their current level, here are some of the effects.

  • Temperature records will continue to be broken. Considering this past summer already saw the hottest months on record, it’s safe to assume severe drought patterns across places that normally do not have a problem. [source]
  • The amount of land destroyed by wildfires would more than double to approximately 5.3 million acres annually. This would continue to grow in severity putting people at risk who have never needed to worry before. [source]
  • Severe drought across 40% of all land on the planet. Say goodbye to normal crop production. Should we stay at the status quo, rates of hunger and starvation would spike as prices for available food would shoot high. [source]
  • Reduced nutritional value of existing food would result in a food-security crisis for some 821 million people (estimating conservatively). While sources decline to predict morbidity rates, there’s little question the death toll would be considerably higher than it is now. [source]
  • If we reach a 2℃ warmth above the pre-industrial level, the result is a climatological feedback loop that would cause temperatures to jump 4-5℃. There are currently no reliable models for how severe the effect could be. [source]
  • Warming water rising 2-3 feet above current levels expands, displacing approximately 700 million climate refugees. [source 1, source 2, source 3]
  • More frequent and more intense hurricanes. We’re talking multiple F5 and stronger storms with an expanded hurricane season. We’ve already seen how devastating multiple storms in a single season can be. Imagine those storms on steroids. [source]
  • 60 % of all coral reefs will be highly or critically threatened. Millions of people would lose their primary food source. Whole fish groups would go extinct and disease would infect those that remain. This alone could cause global markets to completely crumble. [source]

And those, dear friends, are just the tip of the proverbial rapidly-melting iceberg. There’s no way of estimating what could happen as a result of the severe migration. The social/political unrest could topple entire governments and result in unchecked war and genocide. No country is immune from the potential fallout. Humans have never knowingly faced a greater threat to the whole planet and our very survival.

Radical Solutions Require A Radical Response

birds gather around the little water that remains in a dying resevoir

The current US president is fond of calling those intelligent enough to acknowledge the challenge of climate change as radicals. He calls their proposals radical and thinks that alone is sufficient reason for ignoring them. He’s right in that the only solutions left to us now genuinely are radical. They are upsetting to the status quo and require changing some of the most fundamental aspects of our lives. There’s no harm in admitting that the whole thing is just a little bit scary.

Where the president and his supporters are wrong, though, is in thinking that if they yell loud enough, ignore hard enough, bully scientists long enough, that it will all go away and they’ll get the continued disaster without any consequences. They are wrong and there’s absolutely nothing they or anyone else can do to stop the disaster if we do nothing. 

Here’s the thing: all those little things like switching the kind of straw one uses and recycling their plastic water bottles and all the other little tasks one does individually provide a false sense of accomplishment. Those things only help if the larger players are doing their part. Household recycling only helps if those materials are actually being recycled through means that are environmentally helpful. Straw use only matters if material from landfills stops ending up in waterways. If the big guys aren’t in the game, individual household participating is irrelevant There’s nothing you or I can do to stop the inevitable.

That means you and I have to become radicals as well. We have to vote, starting at the local level, for city council members and mayors that support clean air initiatives in our own towns.  We have to get radical in voting with our pocketbooks by paying attention to how everything we buy is made and not purchasing from companies who are not doing their best to offset their own carbon footprint. We have to get radical in pressuring our elected representatives to take governmental action, even in the face of an ignorant and incendiary president. That pressure has to come hard and continuously and needs to unseat anyone who doesn’t get with the plan.

When it comes to climate change, there is no such thing as being too radical. Yes, it’s going to be uncomfortable. Yes, it’s going to mean changing the way we do things. But the alternative?

We die. 

The whole planet dies.

Not kidding. Not fear-mongering. This is the reality. 

Time to get radical.

Reading time: 34 min
Ethics of Nationalism

We are all humans first and every other distinction minimizes that condition.

Driving across town recently, I was unexpectedly diverted off my path by yet another episode of unending road construction. In order to get where I was going, I was detoured through a neighborhood that has, to be generous, seen better days. The red bricks holding up porches were cracked and sometimes missing. Paint was thin and bare. What grass there was had turned brown and strewn with various pieces of life’s clutter. I was glad that my vehicle’s doors lock automatically so that I didn’t have to obviously reach over and lock them. I instinctively felt less safe.

Yet, in that moment of realization acknowledging I felt something short of secure, I immediately felt the guilt of judging, not just the quality of the houses I was passing but, inherently, the people who live in them. After all, the houses themselves didn’t pose any danger. None of them were likely to leap off their crumbling foundations and start shooting into traffic. No, any sense of imminent threat I might have felt was because I made the unfair conclusion that if the houses were less than ideal, so were their occupants. Without any information beyond superficial observation, I had deemed this a “bad” neighborhood.

Before you judge me in the manner I have judged me, let me remind you that I am not alone in making such unfair and unqualified determinations. Remember when the 45th President degradingly referred to “shithole countries?” Or that other time when he said that Mexico and other Central American countries were not “sending us their best people?” If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ve all made those assertions at some point, usually without even thinking about what we were feeling.

The fact is that the greater majority of people with any discernable level of privilege regularly, often subconsciously, make judgments about who is “good” and who is “bad” based solely on scant, fleeting, visual information without regard or consideration as to how accurate that information may be. We see someone leaving a nice house with a well-manicured lawn and think they must be a nice person. We see someone leaving a house that likely has mold in its walls and we check the locks on our doors. Should either of those be people of color, we almost instinctively downgrade our opinions, even if we’re people of color ourselves. 

We know it’s wrong. We feel guilty when we catch ourselves doing it. Some of us even make efforts to forcefully correct that initial judgment. Were we raised to be biased? Are we incapable of changing our base behavior?

I don’t believe in excuses inappropriate behavior. When we’re wrong, we need to correct ourselves and apologize where necessary. However, understanding why we continue to struggle with behavior and responses we know are wrong might help us to more easily correct ourselves. 

The truth of the matter is that there are no “good people” or “bad people.” There are no “best neighborhoods” or “worst neighborhoods.” People are just people. Humans. Homo sapiens. We group ourselves largely according to our economic means and, on a larger scale, our occupations, not our behavior. As people, we sometimes make bad decisions that lead us to do bad things, but that doesn’t necessarily make us “bad” people any more than helping an elderly person across the street makes us “good.”

Nationalism As A Matter Of Judgment

To begin correcting this behavior, I think it might help if we look at why we tend to think in terms of “good” versus “bad” in the first place. No, it’s not a religious bias, as one might tend to think, though some religions happily jumped on the bandwagon where it suited them. Rather, it’s the influence of Nationalism that has played a larger role in shaping our behavior and it has often done so through influences as subtle as fairy tales.

If we’re going to talk about Nationalism, though, let’s first set a clear definition so that we’re all on the same page. You are free to hold to your own definition, but this is the one I’ll be using for the remainder of this article. I’m quoting from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The term “nationalism” is generally used to describe two phenomena: (1) the attitude that the members of a nation have when they care about their national identity, and (2) the actions that the members of a nation take when seeking to achieve (or sustain) self-determination. (1) raises questions about the concept of a nation (or national identity), which is often defined in terms of common origin, ethnicity, or cultural ties, and specifically about whether an individual’s membership in a nation should be regarded as non-voluntary or voluntary. (2) raises questions about whether self-determination must be understood as involving having full statehood with complete authority over domestic and international affairs, or whether something less is required.

At first glance, for many people, Nationalism sounds like a good idea. I love my country (patriotism). My country is the best (national pride). Superficially, there may not appear to be any problems with either of those concepts. 

However, where we run into problems is with that whole idea of defining a common origin or ethnicity. For some people in Northern Africa and what we now refer to as the Middle East, that factor of ethnicity is a strong one. People inhabiting many of those countries can trace their common ancestry for millennia and their fundamental religions are based on that shared history and texts written about it. For almost every other region in the world that identity is more troubled because for people to exist in those places, from Asia to the Americas and across Europe, mass migration had to take place. While most of those migrations occurred millions of years ago, the continual and necessary process of migration has created many different cultures and sub-ethnicities.

Factoring at a more difficult level are countries such as the United States and Australia whose dominant culture overwhelmed the indigenous peoples of the land and replaced native cultures with their own. This presents a constant, persistent question as to who belongs and who doesn’t. Shameful issues such as slavery and ethnic genocide also color National identities and throughout the history of Nationalism have given rise to severe bouts of bigotry and racism. Nationalism bristles at the concept of inclusiveness because the philosophy requires hard boundaries and definitions. People who are legitimate members of this nation hold x ethnicity, y genetic background, and z belief system or else they don’t belong here. Inclusiveness muddies those waters and makes defining the nation frustratingly challenging.

Romanticism Is Not All About Love

We are not the first generation to deal with the perils of Nationalism in a dramatic fashion. Open social media to any politically-oriented source and chances are high that one soon comes across a reference to Nazi Germany, the rise of Fascism across Europe during the early part of the 20th century, and the resulting World Wars. Modern Nationalism goes even further back, though we tend to reference it under another name: Romanticism.

Yes, I know, Romanticism is considered as more of an art movement. When someone mentions Romanticism we tend to think of artists such as John Constable and William Blake, poets such as Byron, Keats, and Shelley, and composers such as Liszt, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and late-period Beethoven. Any humanities student knows the five principals of Romanticism as imagination, intuition, individuality, idealism, and inspiration. 

While the music of the period was big and emotional and the poetry was deeply profound and personal, and the paintings were dramatic and colorful, what mattered more at the time was that their creators held a nationalistic identity that made their work a matter of national pride. Tchaikovsky was honored in St. Petersburg not merely because he was a great composer but because he was a great Russian composer. Liszt, similarly, was loved or hated not because of the challenges of his compositions but because he was Hungarian and as such to extol the greatness of his music was also, by extension, a proclamation of the greatness of Hungary. 

Nowhere was Romanticism more heavily embraced than 19th century Germany. One of the most influential definers of Romantic philosophy was August Wilhelm von Schlegel (Sept. 5, 1767, Hanover – May 12, 1845, Bonn) who created strong distinctions between Romanticism versus Enlightenment and Nationalism versus Cosmopolitanism. He found it necessary that German artists needed to make their works expressly German so as to not dilute their national identity. He felt quite strongly that it was through art, music, and literature that the cultural definition of a nation was formed. [I’m condensing severely. Schlegel’s essays were more nuanced on the subject but I don’t have the desire to delve deeply into those at this juncture.]

As nationalistic identity grew within the arts, there came an exclusion factor. If German music, for example, contained the qualities of A, B, and C, then it could not contain qualities X, Y, and Z. A, B, and C were what made the music German. Anything else was not acceptable because it was not German. The same happened in almost every other European country. Rossini’s operas were demonstrably Italian. Berlioz was unquestionably French. Poland celebrated the success of Chopin. Bruckner was unquestionably Austrian and in that period one didn’t dare equate that in any way with being German. The differences were quite distinctive. And at this same time, American composer Stephen Foster was defining the sound of the United States. Even the quintessential band composer, John Phillip Sousa (1857), falls into this category (barely), creating a sound so Nationalistic that some people actually get upset to hear his marches played outside the US. 

Getting The Backstory

Where the effects of Nationalism may be most noticeable is in literature, specifically the folklore that has been handed down through hundreds of years in oral traditions. What happens through the influence of Romantic Nationalism is a shift toward a “good guy/bad guy dichotomy” that strips tales of their complexity in order to present characters based on an imposed morality. How this takes effect on literature, especially as it develops into the early 20th century, is that characters respond to situations not based on emotion or personal history but more because they’re either the “good guy” or the “bad guy.” The character defined as “good” can do no wrong. He wears a white hat. They are honorable. She holds a strict moral code. Conversely, the “bad” character can only do good if they have a transitional event that turns them “good.”

In her essay, “The Good Guy/Bad Guy Myth,” Catherine Nichols explains:

Stories from an oral tradition never have anything like a modern good guy or bad guy in them,  despite their reputation for being moralising. In stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk or Sleeping Beauty, just who is the good guy? Jack is the protagonist we’re meant to root for, yet he has no ethical justification for stealing the giant’s things. Does Sleeping Beauty care about goodness? Does anyone fight crime? Even tales that can be made to seem like they are about good versus evil, such as the story of Cinderella, do not hinge on so simple a moral dichotomy. In traditional oral versions, Cinderella merely needs to be beautiful to make the story work. In the Three Little Pigs, neither pigs nor wolf deploy tactics that the other side wouldn’t stoop to. It’s just a question of who gets dinner first, not good versus evil.

Nowhere is the shift more noticeable than in the stories penned by the Grimm brothers. Ms. Nichols relates it well so I’ll defer to her words again: 

When the Grimm brothers wrote down their local folktales in the 19th century, their aim was to use them to define the German Volk, and unite the German people into a modern nation. The Grimms were students of the philosophy of Johann Gottfried von Herder, who emphasised the role of language and folk traditions in defining values. In his Treatise on the Origin of Language (1772), von Herder argued that language was ‘a natural organ of the understanding’, and that the German patriotic spirit resided in the way that the nation’s language and history developed over time. Von Herder and the Grimms were proponents of the then-new idea that the citizens of a nation should be bound by a common set of values, not by kinship or land use. For the Grimms, stories such as Godfather Death, or the Knapsack, the Hat and the Horn, revealed the pure form of thought that arose from their language.

As a result, the Grimm brothers wrote their tales in a way that was significantly more moralizing than the oral versions of the stories had been. Always telling the truth, keeping promises, and fighting against evil simply because it was evil, not because the character had committed any specific crime, became primary plot motivators. 

Other authors took note, given the popularity of the Grimm’s tales, and made similar alterations. Before Josef Ritson’s retelling of the Robin Hood myth, there was no “robbing from the rich to give to the poor.” The earliest versions of the stories simply recount a group of “merry men” frolicking in the forest (make of that what you will). The legends of King Arthur did not define him as British until the 19th century. Much of the ancient poetry concerning the character is French.

What happens then is an inseparable association between being the citizen of a certain country or a given belief system and one’s morality. If one is from country A or is a believer of B then one is good. Everyone else is bad. This attitude spreads all across Europe and the United States so that by the 1930s a problem has developed that no one saw coming. 

Nationalism’s Harsh Consequences

In her book One Long Night: A Global History of Concentration Camps, Andrea Pitzer makes the argument that the concentration camps employed by the Nazis and others wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for “the belief that whole categories of people should be locked up.” What caught hold and decimated Germany has never gone away.

As I’m writing, Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is having that country’s military attack Kurdish villages in Northern Syria because he believes the Kurdish people who live there are inherently bad and deserve to be wiped off the face of the earth. While other world leaders stand off to the side with toothless declarations of disapproval, no one is making any active attempt to stop what is likely to be an extinction event for the Kurdish people. The same has already happened in Sudan, Dafur, Rwanda, and Bosnia. International response has consistently been the same: verbal disapproval but no interference. No one stops the genocide.

When we create a hardline system of good versus bad, people inevitably die, often in large numbers, simply because their identity falls into the category of “bad” as defined by whoever is in charge at a given moment. The United States is not immune. In fact, we’re consistently battling against those who consider eliminating those they think are “bad” people. Let me give you some examples.

This past June, a Tennessee pastor publicly called for LGBT people to be killed.

Last November, the current administration authorized the use of force against immigrants as the President has consistently stopped short of advocating shooting immigrants.

When comedian Ellen DeGeneres sat next to George W. Bush as a Dallas Cowboys game last Sunday, some people objected because, “Tens of thousands of people are dead because his administration lied to the American public about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and then, based on that lie, launched a war that’s now in its 16th year.” In other words, he’s a “bad guy” and should, therefore, be shunned.

The argument here is not that people don’t do bad things. We all know such a statement is ridiculous. What matters, though, is whether we allow those actions to wholly define a person or an entire group. 

Wait, I’m Feeling A Bit Uncomfortable

Let’s return to Ms. Nichols’ essay where she writes:

Stories about good guys and bad guys that are implicitly moral – in the sense that they invest an individual’s entire social identity in him not changing his mind about a moral issue – perversely end up discouraging any moral deliberation. Instead of anguishing over multidimensional characters in conflict – as we find in The Iliad, or the Mahabharata or Hamlet – such stories rigidly categorise people according to the values they symbolise, flattening all the deliberation and imagination of ethical action into a single thumbs up or thumbs down. Either a person is acceptable for Team Good, or he belongs to Team Evil.

Good guy/bad guy narratives might not possess any moral sophistication, but they do promote social stability, and they’re useful for getting people to sign up for armies and fight in wars with other nations. Their values feel like morality, and the association with folklore and mythology lends them a patina of legitimacy, but still, they don’t arise from a moral vision. They are rooted instead in a political vision, which is why they don’t help us deliberate, or think more deeply about the meanings of our actions. Like the original Grimm stories, they’re a political tool designed to bind nations together.

If Ms. Nichol’s assessment feels slightly uncomfortable it may be due to the fact that we’ve seen some of these Nationalistic methods utilized in public rhetoric. When a member of Congress is called a traitor, for example, because they dare to challenge the authoritative misdeeds of the President, that’s Nationalism rearing its ugly head. When the President removes troops from Northern Syria where they might protect Kurds against Turkey’s invasion because, “They didn’t help us in the second World War, they didn’t help us with Normandy for example,” that’s an example of historical ignorance presented through a Nationalist filter. When the President tells four members of Congress to “go back to the countries they came from,” he’s being unvarnished and unapologetic in his Nationalism.

In fact, the US President is proud of being a Nationalist, though one might argue that he doesn’t fully understand or comprehend what that means. He has stated on more than one occasion that people who agree with him should embrace the word and use it often. Such a declaration resonates with those who are deeply patriotic. However, it also resonates with white supremacists, anti-Semitism, and lingering segregationists because the philosophy supports the good guy/bad guy distinction necessary for racism to thrive.

The rub in this conversation is that if we allow ourselves to label Nationalists as the “bad guy,” we’re playing into the exact same methodology and entrenching the problematic philosophy even further. We cannot wholly discount an entire political party because of the actions of their leaders. That in no way means we excuse deplorable and illegal actions by the President, but neither do we deride our neighbors simply for being Republicans. 

Solutions Aren’t Always Easy

To overcome the whole good guy/bad guy ideology one must alter how we assess people both individually and as groups. The late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was on the right track when he talked about judging people not by the color of their skin by rather “the content of their character.” Perhaps we should “drill down” on his concept and include some of these alliterative qualities:

  • The frequency of their forgiveness
  • The measure of their mercy
  • The appropriateness of their attitude
  • The genuineness of their generosity
  • The honesty of their helpfulness
  • The tenderness in their truthfulness
  • The consistency in their caring
  • The abjectness of their apologies
  • The certainty of their sincerity

When we take away the concept of someone being either good or bad, we accept the reality that the people we admire most don’t always make good decisions, or use the best language, or check their facts before speaking, or think about how their actions might affect others. Honorable people can curse when they stub their toe in the dark, throw something in a moment of frustration, vehemently argue the wrong side of an issue, trigger someone’s PTSD, and drive irrationally. What matters is their willingness to admit to an error, apologize to anyone harmed, consider the opinion and feelings of others, make amends where appropriate, and adjust their actions in the future; not that they’re going to be perfect and never make the same mistakes again, but recognizing their own failings and attempting to address them.

Judging people against a strict good/bad ideology removes the humanity that is inherently fallible, unstable, and unpredictable. One action, or a set of actions, does not define the entirety of a person’s soul. The external perspective of what someone does may lie in complete opposition to the truth.

A near-perfect example is a child who is angry with their parents for not giving in to their wishes. I once told a young one that she still had 20 minutes until the appointed snack time. I was instantly the bad guy. She called me names, said I was a horrible father, and expressed a desire to not be a part of the family. We laugh at the absurdity of these moments because we understand that a child’s ability to reason and make appropriate judgments is not yet fully developed. Once the situation is calm, we discuss more appropriate ways to express our frustration.

As adults, though, we rarely offer each other the same generosity of understanding. Someone does something that in our perspective seems cruel, harmful to someone else, thoughtless, or without regard to the consequences. We fly off the handle, call them names, question their integrity, warn all our “friends” on social media that X is a bad person, and all without pausing to even ask that person what their motivation was, considering their emotional state, or the prevalence of external pressures when making that decision. 

Another example comes to mind. A young mother of two, single and without a substantial support system, is barely making ends meet when the variable-rate college loan she has suddenly takes a payment from her checking account that is three times more than she had expected. She no longer has enough funds to pay rent or buy food. She’s confident that if she can just make it through this month everything will be fine but for this one moment, she’s desperate, knowing how little is left in her cabinets and refrigerator. So, when the opportunity presents itself, she “borrows” a few hundred dollars from her employer without their knowledge. She legitimately intends to pay it back as soon as she can, but then one of the children gets sick and her copays are more than she makes in a month so she “borrows” a little more.

When she finally gets caught, she’s fired and charged with fraud and embezzlement. The state takes her children and puts them into the foster system. She goes to prison. She now has a record and society labels her as a “bad” person so no one wants to take a risk on hiring her after she’s done her time. Yet, she still loves her children, her apologies were honest and sincere, her regret genuine, and every other aspect of her character is unimpeachable. Still, we want that label to stay on her as a consequence of her acts of desperation and in doing so dramatically increase her chances of recidivism because all society has done is underwrite her desperation. Being desperate does not make one a bad person, but it can leave them with the perspective that taking inappropriate action is the only option for survival. 

Opinions Of Another Guy Named Martin Luther

What we must realize is there are no “good people” or “bad people.” One’s nationalistic or cultural heritage does not determine their character. Whether one wears a dark hoodie and sneakers or a suit with polished shoes doest not speak to their level of honesty. Being American doesn’t make one a damn bit better than being Sudanese or Iranian. Being Southern Baptist holds no more sway over one’s spiritual standing than being Hindu or Buddhist. In fact, for those who might scream that the religious texts quantify good vs. bad people, consider how Martin Luther explained the 8th commandment in his Small Catechism.

Thou shall not bear false witness against thy neighbor.
What does this mean? We should fear and love God in such a way that we should not tell lies about our neighbor, slander them, or hurt their reputation, but defend them, speak well of them, and explain their actions in the kindest way possible. (translated)

[Thanks to Nadia Bolz-Weber for the timely heads up on that one.]

Response to 8th commandment and to Luther thrusts one back to the millennia-old question of who is our neighbor? Multiple texts from the world’s varied religions are uncompromising on the fact that the term “neighbor” is a universal metaphor for personhood. Every human being is sacred. If one claims any level of spirituality, that fact can never be up for debate.

This is not a concept of lawlessness, either. When someone does something harmful to themselves or to others then there are consequences both natural and social. Some crimes demand a person to be removed from society in order to keep society safe. I wouldn’t think of arguing otherwise. However, we must realize that even those incarcerated for the worst crimes against humanity never lose their personhood. We are all homo sapien first. We all share that common bond.

Kat Armas recently related, “… just as poor doesn’t mean lazy, uneducated doesn’t mean stupid; to be vulnerable in society doesn’t mean to be helpless; and while the marginalized are often silenced, it doesn’t mean they don’t have a voice.” I would add to her statement that just because someone does something anti-social or illegal or even immoral by some universal measurement does not separate them from their humanity.

Uncomfortable Apologies To Christopher Columbus

What concerns me at this juncture is that as citizens of this Western post-industrial society, Nationalism has been so deeply ingrained in our basic understanding of the planet that suggesting we break away from the good guy/bad guy mythos feels too wrong on an emotional level. Intellectually, sure, we can perhaps wrap our heads around the concept a little bit, but to not label some people as “bad” forces us to deeply examine the depths of our hidden bigotries and that never makes us feel comfortable.

We were standing at the counter in Kat’s salon late this week when the question came up as to why the banks are closed this coming Monday. Her father, who tends to have an aggressively anti-liberal bias in his opinions, said, “Oh, Monday’s Columbus Day, or for those intolerant of Columbus, Indigenous People’s Day.” He laughed. He was making a dig he considered playful. The moment was inappropriate for argument so I rolled my eyes and continued with my day. 

However, giving the matter more thought, I have to admit that I am intolerant of Christopher Columbus. His actions and activities in the name of converting the world to Catholicism and furthering Spanish economics were deplorable by my 21st century standards. I refuse to celebrate anything honoring him because of the lasting damage he caused. 

Does that make him a bad guy?

As much as I have previously argued otherwise, I have to swallow my pride and admit that no, he’s not a bad guy. His actions are not worthy of celebration, his perspective was warped by unenlightened religion and what appears, from the distance of a little over six centuries, to be rampant narcissism, and he introduced diseases that led to the annihilation of millions of indigenous peoples. Yet, none of that separates him from his humanity. He was still a person. He was married to Filipa Moniz Perestrelo and perhaps she loved him. He had a son, Diego, who apparently thought enough of his father to follow somewhat in his footsteps. After the death of Filipa, Beatriz Enrique de Arana was his mistress and the mother of his second son. Ferdinand. There were relationships and domestic activities that belie the horrible reputation he has for wrecking the rest of the planet. Columbus was not a bad guy; he was a person who, at times, did what we now consider horribly bad things, but when he did those things his perspective was one we are incapable of fully understanding today. Be sure, he did not consider himself a bad person.

Emotionally, that entire paragraph feels wrongfully apologetic. Yet, it is accurate. It is defensible. 

When we finally separate ourselves from Nationalism and the binary good guy/bad guy philosophy we find ourselves in a better place of acceptance, a place where we can genuinely see the positive qualities of people with whom we disagree, people whose philosophies and lifestyles we are challenged to understand, people whose language seems incomprehensible, people whose cultures may appear threatening, people whose skin color reminds us that our species was not created any shade of white. We see people, not an improperly moralistic judgment of those people. 

And when all we see are people, we can begin to see peace. Rejecting Nationalism isn’t easy, but it is absolutely necessary because none of us are the good guys we think we are. Always remember, there are no bad neighborhoods.

Reading time: 25 min
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