No Complaints

The next time we meet here another election will have bookmarked the perpetual drama which now dominates the opinion planet of the pixel universe. Millions of Americans will have voted in the most recent, most important election of our lifetimes, and we’ll be well on our way to the next one, even if the votes from this one have not all been counted.

No matter who wins, somewhere between a fourth to one half of us (or more) will be unhappy with the results, and several million folks will begin to complain all at once. Some won’t stop complaining for another four years.

It’s difficult to be more precise than “a fourth to one half.” That’s because half of us don’t vote, and there are many complainers in this group. It’s even more difficult to gauge the true level of satisfaction or dissatisfaction because media bias is so prevalent that pixels and sound bytes are a poor gauge of opinion. Or reality.

Don’t forget, corporate media assured us that Clinton would win big in 2016. All the polls agreed, or at least all the polls the big talking heads told us about. Polls are supposed to be unbiased, scientifically determined measures of public sentiment. A case can also be made that sometimes polls are a tool of propaganda, a means to an end that resembles a kind of acquired helplessness syndrome. Why should I vote when the polls say the election is already decided?

For whatever reason, the half dozen companies which control 90 percent of media would prefer to see democrats in power. The reasons why are unclear. Some might say that this is the natural preference of smart and successful people. Others would opine that this is the mark of those who drink too much of their own bathwater. I don’t know.

I do know that, from a logical viewpoint, just because media is biased or corrupt doesn’t mean that they’re wrong. It does mean that they are going to be wrong an uncomfortable percentage of the time, and extreme bias to the exclusion of information which threatens their favorite candidates does make it very difficult for us to decide for ourselves who is right and who is wrong. Which gives us even more to complain about.

Meanwhile, there are some numbers which might be of interest to both the party of the socialists and the party of the deplorables. The share of the national wealth that belongs to people who work for a living is at a 70 year low. We have other problems too, but this one seems closest to a culture which keeps its wallet close to its metaphorical heart. It is also a clear reminder that something about this left-right paradigm just isn’t working for us.

I came across an old video of a routine by the great comedian and social commentator, George Carlin. It puts the current chapter of our drama into perspective. Carlin observes that people who vote like to tell people who don’t vote that they have no right to complain. Carlin disagrees. He says, look at the rogues and thieves (his choice of words we can’t print here) we have elected, and the problems they have caused. People who voted, therefore, are responsible for those problems, so we have no right to complain.

I don’t know about you, but I find Carlin’s opinion refreshing. I think we could all use a break from the grating, rasping, whining dissonance that unceasingly and violently attacks our consciousness. There is so much more to life than politics.

Attention Shoppers

Last week on some ubiquitous social media platform I did a quick straw poll. The responses were interesting. This was the proposition – see what you think:

How many thought better of celebrities before you knew their political opinions? How many have been disappointed in (angry with, sad for) a friend after learning their political opinion? (How many have lost a friend because of how you or they voted?) How many changed their vote because of a tweet or facebook post? There was wisdom in establishing the vote as a secret ballot. Should we revisit that tradition ?

Several people agreed with the proposition. Some correctly pointed out that free speech is a right that should not be suppressed. After all, the First Amendment includes the right to express opinions that other people find objectionable, and the Constitution does not safeguard our feelings.

Nevertheless, as we witness the general erosion of civil society empowered by corporate/social media, it behooves us to ask ourselves how we can improve the situation. I think a good place to start would be to depose the almighty opinion from the throne it now occupies in our culture and to learn the difference between a right and an entitlement.

Think of it this way. Entitlement implies a special privilege. You have a right to pass gas in an elevator. You don’t have a special privilege to do so, and if you abuse the right, you contribute to the erosion of civil society.

Thus you have a right to your opinion, but you are not entitled to it. You can seek entitlement by gathering information, weighing evidence, applying reason and giving due consideration to how you will express your thoughts. Do they need to be expressed at all? Are they true, as much as personal truth can be? Are they kind? Do they improve the silence? Chances are that the meme you shared that was created by a bot or a political operative does not qualify.

The world of talking heads and pixels that dominates the national discourse is an arena for competition for attention. Whether it’s clicks for dollars or little doses of adrenaline and serotonin, we have all become shoppers for attention. Look here! This breaking news is unprecedented. Look at me! I’m one of us, not one of them, so please like my opinion and reinforce my sense of belonging.

But how can we discuss the issues and work out our differences if we don’t share our opinions? It’s all in how we share. Most of us would prefer a polite description of what you had for lunch to a burp in the face. Come to think of it, we don’t really need to know what you had for lunch unless you’re recommending a restaurant.

We could also spend more time paying attention than shopping for it. “To pay attention” is a beautiful concept. It implies cost and effort in exchange for knowledge. We could be a bit more like the iconic character, Foggy Dewhurst, standing at attention, and less the verbal old west gunslinger shooting from the hip at every offense, real or implied.

Finally, when we do need to discuss issues, the conversation would be a lot more productive if we actually discussed the issues rather than the personalities and the character flaws of the political celebrities associated with those issues. I only knew my grandfather for a fraction of his long life, but in my hearing he rarely discussed politics, and when he did, he didn’t talk about politicians. I never once heard him say how he had voted.

It seems almost a quaint social convention in today’s society, but when we read history we begin to realize that the sense of opinion entitlement is not unique to our time. Civil War era newspapers were full of insults and provocations, and the nation was torn apart at a time when news traveled mainly on foot or by horseback. We should never give up the right to free speech, but at a time when the almighty opinion travels instantaneously, perhaps we should pay closer attention to it.

Enemy Thine

Enemy Mine is a 1985 science fiction classic starring Dennis Quaid and Louis Gossett Jr. The plot revolves about two enemy combatants: a human played by Quaid and an alien played by Gossett, who are forced to work together to survive. They become friends over time, and their friendship ultimately helps to end a brutal war.

When I bother to scan social media and the mainstream headlines these days, and this happens much less frequently than in years past, the prevalent theme seems to be “enemy thine.” Everywhere I turn there is someone willing to tell me who I should hate and why. This is not an unusual condition in the context of the volatile record of human history. It’s certainly not unknown to American history. But it does not bode well for a society which has prided itself on its egalitarian values and melting pot abilities.

We’ve wrestled with this issue here over the last several years. We’ve lamented the stubbornly self-limiting paradigm of that persistent false dichotomy of left versus right, but now there are enemies everywhere: Young versus old, urban versus rural, black versus white and white versus everyone else.

You know what I’m talking about. If you consume media at all, it’s almost impossible to avoid. We’ve always been a contentions species and our nation was born out of confrontation, but in my lifetime I have not seen this level of hatred for a people against its own members.

First, I want to have a word with those of you on the “right.” Shame on you. You claim that Christianity informs your values. Excellent. Lets run with that. The Bible says to love your enemies, pray for them and treat them with kindness. I’m not seeing that in your Facebook posts, your tweets and your opinion pages. Only God can judge the hearts, minds and characters of the people you seem intent on herding together and labeling as “liberals,” “leftists,” and “socialists.”

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.” Does that sound familiar? It’s written in the same Book you’re using to condemn your neighbors, but if you pick and choose the instructions you decide to follow, don’t you think that cheapens your brand? Dilutes your message?

On the left, there seems to be some difficulty with definitions and a blind eye to hypocrisy. Shame on you. Let’s start with “prejudice.” The definition most often bandied about is one from Webster, which defines the word as “an irrational attitude of hostility directed against an individual, a group, a race, or their supposed characteristics.” You pride yourself on your egalitarian values and claim to desire equality, but you have no problem with statements like “All white people are by definition, racist.” How often have you used the word, “redneck” this year? Do you think all republicans carry assault rifles? Are all black people victims who need your help to overcome everyone else’s prejudice?

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Does that sound familiar? It was spoken by Martin Luther King Jr., whose words and vision have informed the advancement of equality for two generations.

Back and forth like a seesaw on a playground, the insults have flown from election to election. The “left” was incensed by the disrespect shown to President Obama by the “right” during his administration. Now the right complains about the venom directed at President Trump. But he started it. No, she did.

We are not children on a playground, despite our willingness to act like them, but words can wound us just as deeply, and our toys and our abilities are much more dangerous to each other than what can be found on a playground. Neither are we engaged in a conflict with alien life forms. Our hatred is directed at human beings who are genetically almost identical to us.

It’s unfortunate that history tells so many stories of people brought together by a common enemy. Perhaps we have not advanced past such a need to resolve our own conflicts. In truth, we do have common enemies. We are suspended together on a tiny blue dot on the outer rim of a galaxy which is also a tiny dot in the vastness of space. We have crowded and consumed and poisoned our little home to the limits of its ability to provide a safe haven for us. We have our faith, our ideas and our hopes. These are powerful, but invisible. Ephemeral. All we have that we can touch and hold, and the only thing standing between us and the vastness of space, the loneliness of eternal time, is this earth, and each other.

The Locals

I was camping in New Mexico one summer and I had driven into a small town for some supplies. In the checkout line ahead of me two guys were having a conversation. One of them told me they were planning to do some hiking around the area cliff dwellings. Their Burrberry shorts and Birkenstock sandals suggested that these guys had limited experience hiking in the desert, and the Gucci Aviator sunglasses screamed “tourist.”

My suspicions were confirmed when one of the guys said something disparaging about “the locals.” The young Hispanic girl at the register looked uncomfortable but she didn’t say anything. When the two guys left the store I said to her, “I hope they take a nap under a Cholla tree.” We both laughed. A Cholla is a cactus which occasionally drops grape-like clusters of spine covered pods on unwitting visitors.

There was no one else in the market at the time so I talked with the girl for a few minutes. She told me her ancestors had lived in that part of the southwest since the 1600’s, but the cliff dwellings had been abandoned for hundreds of years before that. I learned a bit of history and the location of a few outstanding landmarks that only the “locals” knew about. The investment of ten minutes of my time in another human being changed the course of my entire trip that summer.

Sadly, I’ve heard the term “the locals” used in just about every part of the country where I’ve stayed long enough to hear it. The phrase is an unfortunate byproduct of our mobile American culture. It suggests things about us that we don’t like to admit, about class and the attitudes of the affluent and the economically mobile. It even shines light on the electoral map during elections.

Yes, and it cuts both ways. When I’m waiting behind a line of out-of-state license plates on my way to the post office and grumbling about the “tourons” (that’s a cross between a tourist and a moron, if you didn’t know), I’m allowing the legacy reptile software in my brain to guide my thoughts, and disregarding the human stories of all the passengers in those vehicles who come here to spend money and keep my property taxes low. Some escaped here from our own urban cliff dwellings. Some have made no less of a journey than the pioneers. Every one of them has been a “local” somewhere.

Our brains operating on automatic pilot can take us on some very unpleasant journeys. The brain is designed to process a tremendous amount of data provided by our senses, filter that through our memories and quickly identify friend or foe, safety or threat. If we don’t consciously manage that process, we are subject to being led by our fears and making wrong conclusions.

Today I’m reminded of that great line, I think Maggie Smith said it: “I know she’s judgmental. I can tell by looking at her.” It would be nice if that only applied to the two rude guys in that checkout line, but I have to include myself in the joke. We’re all included.

Chaos Theory

If you consume news fodder you’ve probably seen the word “chaos” in the headlines quite frequently this year. If you believe the headlines, it would seem that the entire world is suffering from chronic emotional acid reflux. They say it’s unprecedented. It isn’t, but that kind of news doesn’t keep shareholders happy.

Nevertheless, news fodder presents a problem for those of us who want to stay informed without sacrificing happiness or peace of mind. Fortunately, we can do just that.

Since we’re dealing with chaos, perhaps “chaos theory” might offer some clue as to how we can navigate the snark-infested waters of the information age. Chaos Theory is a branch of mathematics that examines “complex systems whose behavior is highly sensitive to slight changes in conditions, so that small alterations can give rise to strikingly great consequences.”

If you’ve heard of Chaos Theory you may also have heard the metaphor about how a butterfly flapping its wings in the Caribbean can initiate a chain of events which leads to a hurricane. Humanity intuited this truth long before mathematicians attempted to codify it. “A stitch in time saves nine.” “For the want of a nail, a shoe was lost. For the want of a shoe, a horse was lost. For the want of a horse, a rider; for the want of a rider, a message. For the want of a message, a kingdom was lost, for the want of a nail.”

So it follows that the very first opportunity we have to influence the complex systems that are our daily lives is that moment early in the morning when we become aware that our eyes are still closed. You might be amazed how a prayer at that precise moment can set the tone for the day, and not just any prayer, but one of gratitude. Gratitude begins the process of curating the elements of our day, emphasizing what is useful, and disregarding what is not.

As thinking beings and responsible citizens, we like to stay informed, so many of us set the tone for our day by consuming news products. We already know what the headlines are going to say, but they are habit forming. They stimulate the rubber-necking, roller coaster riding, horror movie watching, adrenaline producing centers of our brain, plus we get the self-satisfying feeling that we are well informed.

We never quite make the connection that the worried, unsettled, unhappy and angry feelings that we carry for the rest of the day, that influence our decisions and empty the bottle of antacids in our desk, all begin first thing in the morning. Oh, and just in case the nasty begins to wear off or we develop a tolerance for it, we can always up the dosage with a booster shot at lunch and dinner, or any time in between that we open any of the most popular websites.

As for being well informed, let’s pause for a moment and list the ten most memorable headlines that made us happier or richer or a better person. Top five? Just one headline? Well now! Perhaps we’re looking at the wrong headlines. Maybe what Maddow said about what Trump said about what Pelosi said about Trump is not very useful after all. OK, what if we eliminate political opinions and just stick to the facts? That’s a start, but maybe knowing the precise details of the 5 people out of 327 million who got shot last night, or will get shot tomorrow night, is not something we need to know every hour of every day.

Yes, these events are “news” in the sense that they did happen, but they are not truths. They are not the whole story, because 326, 999, 995 people did NOT get shot last night, and of the 800,000 police officers currently serving in the United States, 799,750 did not shoot anyone last year. You see where we’re going with this.

Death happens. Bad things happen. But that’s only a fraction of the whole story, and we’re not going to see the rest of the story unless we look for it. How many of us knew, for example, that billionaire, Charles Feeney just fulfilled a lifelong dream of giving away his $8 billion fortune? Or that a Connecticut teenager saved a mother and her three children by pulling them out of a burning car? Did you hear about the 13 year old who invented a kit to prevent drowning? How about the group of teenagers who transformed a liquor store into a food market to serve a needy community?

You probably didn’t hear about these stories because good news is not good for the current business model of the companies that control information. They remain relevant by keeping us worried, angry, divided, and addicted to the little doses of adrenaline and serotonin they provide throughout the day. They take no responsibility for their influence over our mental health, which directly affects our physical health, but our pharmaceutical companies stand ready to help us out there.

The solution isn’t easy, but it’s simple. Begin the day with gratitude. This is the nail that saves the kingdom. It’s not as habit forming as chaos, but if you keep at, it it will transform your life like exercise and eating right. Be well informed, but shop for information like you would shop for the best deal on a used car. Curate your life experience.

On A Personal Note

Some of the best advice any writer can take is to write what you know. I try to keep that in mind during those weeks when there’s not much to say.

The problem with writing what I know is that with every passing year, I seem to know less. There was a time, for example, when I thought I knew a little about markets. A lot of us think we do when the rising tide raises all vessels, but today, markets are irrational. Some boats seem to levitate ever higher while the economic tide recedes like a beach just before a tsunami. This I know – but it doesn’t take long to say that, so best to write about something else.

There was a time when I knew quite a lot about information technology and computer hardware. Funny how when you start doing what interests you for a paycheck, that interest can quickly sour, but now that I don’t make my living herding electrons, my interest is once again on the rise. Unfortunately I don’t want to spoil it by having to write about it.

For a number of years I made my living as a wilderness guide and counselor in a career that combined both interests. I stayed with it about three times the average 4 year burnout period, and while I didn’t get completely burned out, I did get scorched around the edges. OK maybe I did get burned out. It’s hard not to when you’re dealing with one group after another of angry and dysfunctional human beings while sleeping on the ground in a damp sleeping bag. So I stepped away from that career. But after resting on the plate like a filet of blackened trout I discovered that there was some flavor left under the crust.

That’s why I still write about the wilderness from time to time and occasionally delve into human behavior, though I barely know enough about those subjects to blacken a sardine. I still love the wilderness. Human behavior, not so much. In fact, it’s a good thing that God loves the world because if it were up to me, the world would be out of luck, and while we’re being frank, loving my neighbor as myself is the best I can manage on a good day – and I don’t have a lot of neighbors.

My friends have often heard me say that I don’t like people very much, but I care a great deal for persons. People can be very lovable in person or in small groups. When you start stacking them together, however, you’re going to run into problems. Group dynamics. The behavior of most people tends to change in a group setting. Like chickens.

As it turns out, I do know something about chickens. And bees. Chickens are somewhat predictable. Bees…do what bees do. Like cats. So let’s talk about birds and bees, and chickens.

It has been a beautiful week on the farm. The bees are busy with partridge pea and the hummingbirds have discovered the jewel weed by the frog pond. They are both working tirelessly during this time of abundance and the meadow is filled with a contented buzz.

We’ve had a rainy year – a rainforesty rainy year. The algae on the deck has algae growing on it. This is the greenest blooming September I remember in a long time, and while those who can, make hay while the sun shines, weather delays have put us behind schedule in the construction of our new chicken house. As a result, the chicken herd has started to outgrow their temporary accommodations and they are beginning to experience social unrest in their relatively urban setting.

When they were small and innocent with plenty of elbow room (assuming that chickens have elbows) they were peaceful and content and awfully cute. Now that they are bigger, hungrier and more opinionated, The “Pecking Order Syndrome” has disrupted their mostly peaceful pursuits, and they are acting out in mostly peaceful protest. Mostly. Occasionally feathers do fly.

Lately they have evolved their language to include some unkind and inflammatory pejoratives. Yesterday I heard, “Baraaaahhck buck buck buck buck buck…SKANK!!!” (“Skank” is shrieked about an octave above high C, and it means about the same in Chickenese as it does in English.)The argument was between two hens who wanted the same piece of greenery.

Understand that we enhance their diet with bundles of stilt weed and grass – they love it, and it is plentiful. They have more than they can possibly eat, but every day now we hear squabbles and complaints and the stillness of these halcyon days is interrupted by cries of “Skank!” and “Peeeeewwwww!” (We haven’t translated that one yet.) The chickens have divided into groups of associates who only hang out with each other. I’m afraid they have formed political parties. Skank.

Which brings us back full circle to human behavior. Can we better understand politics and humanity by observing chickens? Group dynamics for chickens is fairly simple. It’s a matter of breed and greed. When they breed past a certain population density, their natural greed is aggravated to the point where it begins to affect their behavior. Like humans. We never hear about riots and looting in small towns.

Enough people understand that now that there is a push on to escape the crowded coops of the city for places with more elbow room. This could be a good thing, to a point, especially for the people doing the escaping. The trick is, for small towns and rural areas, places like ours where life is peaceful and good, to find that point, that formula that lets you know when the coop is crowded enough, because past that point, greed begins to bump up against greed and feathers start to fly.

I hope that doesn’t happen to all the little places we love in this beautiful area. Nothing against Gatlinburg, but if we wanted to live there, we would be there, and I would have a lot less wilderness to write about, and a lot more fowl behavior.

In the meantime, we’ll keep an eye on the weather, and on the birds and bees and chickens around us – especially the bees. They might have something to tell us about what comes next in these interesting times.

Contractor Grade

A year ago I bought a “contractor grade” hose at one of those despotic home stores with the big boxes and bigger parking lots, and paid almost $100 for it. Today it leaks at both ends from its cheap mystery-metal fittings. That’s fine if you like to shower while you’re washing the truck, but I prefer to do that on my own schedule.

“Contractor grade” once meant “not retail.” It meant something you were willing to pay more to have because you needed it to work right every day, day after day. Today, contractor grade simply means “costs more.” It’s a label that marketers know will convince the weekend warrior to pay more because he thinks he’s getting a better quality tool.

Meaning changes because language is dynamic. It responds to new discoveries, political and social changes. Just after the Civil War, democrat meant “opposed to political and civil rights for African Americans,” while republicans were still the party of Abraham Lincoln, who preserved the union and freed the slaves.

Today the words, “democrat” and “republican” have several meanings and, depending on your intention and affiliation, can be either badges of honor or pejoratives. Those of us who value actions over words might suggest that for elected officials, republican and democrat might as well mean “contractor grade.”

Sometimes meaning changes in response to a social or political agenda, and when incompatible agendas become conflict, to the victor go the spoils. For this writer, the spoilage of the language, abused by marketing and cheapened by pixel pushers and politicians, has been a source of perennial discontent. (How many times have you seen or heard the word “crisis” in the last week?)

For much of our history, education did an admirable job of preparing citizens for public discourse. We learned a common language that served as a forge for our melting pot of cultures and races of people. There were regional and cultural differences, but we aspired to a public discourse that was more formal and precise than what we have today. We can read letters from the most humble of private soldiers during the Civil War, and they are far superior in style and substance to the vast majority of what we see in print today.

It has been a long journey from the epic poems of Homer to the tweet, and from the language of Shakespeare to gangster rap. Along that journey, words lost their precision as our values and our concept of good and evil became relative as well. While the quality and influence of education diminished, the impact of information technology increased to the detriment of understanding and public discourse, and this has become a direct threat to our free society.

An additional hazard is inherent in the increasing control of information by a decreasing number of entities. We flip through countless channels and click on myriad websites under the illusion of infinite variety, but most of us are unaware that 90% of what we see and hear is controlled by half a dozen giant corporations that not only inform our vision of reality, but have an almost seamless interface with government.

Thus we are subject, not only to the efforts of a small group of people to monetize as many aspects of human behavior as possible, but to their political preferences as well. Today, the majority of corporate media leans decidedly to the left, and while you might celebrate this bias today if it’s consistent with your own views, you might not be so agreeable should these dominant entities decide to support a dictator or a demagogue tomorrow.

Meanwhile, whether by the diminishing quality of education or the increasingly populist posturing of the political-media class to maintain power, the vernacular has ascended and public discourse has devolved to a lower grade-school level of comprehension.

From the ubiquitous smart phone to the White House to the headlines served up by the behemoths of mass media, we talk at, not to each other with language that has become puerile, inflammatory and replicated endlessly like so many dollars that have lost their value. The appeal to populism, not only in language but in most realms of human endeavor, has lowered our standards more than it has lifted people to a higher state of being.

“That’s elitist!” shouts the angry voice of protest from his mother’s basement, certain that he has been victimized by someone. “Absolutely,” we answer quite calmly. In a republic, democracy is an engine, not a rudder. We own the ship but we want elite, not popular helmsmen. We vote them into position, and when they fail, it is our responsibility to replace them.

But we never really replace them. The ship’s crew has mutinied. We choose from a pre-selected menu of career politicians and celebrities. The ones who win are the ones who best appeal to our fears and prejudices, and we are becoming powerless to avoid that because everything we know about the world is served up by various outlets all belonging to the same small group of interests.

We know something is wrong, but we keep making the same choices over and over again because we don’t know how to do anything else. Millions of people now get most of their information from social media or allow themselves to be guided by “influencers,” celebrities that are judged worthy of allegiance not by ability, education, training or accomplishment, but merely by popularity: actors, ball players, Youtube stars – reality show hosts.

Every candidate is now required to weigh in on the struggle between victims and their persecutors, because we are all, we are told, one or the other. Somewhere between the extremes, the vast middle ground of reasonable people don’t have a lot of time to think about what’s ailing the country. They’re too busy earning a living or trying to get enough sleep to continue that pursuit. When they do have time, even their entertainments are corrupted with the constant noise of breaking news and unending and “unprecedented” dramas.

Weary of the pursuit of the ever shrinking dollar and distracted by the drama, we remain blind to the unobserved movements of the humorless, cashless, cancel-cultured social credit serpents attempting to establish themselves at the root of our consciousness, punishing thought crime and shaming into submission any who would dissent.

Whichever side prevails in the staged drama of the current election cycle, the corporate behemoths will remain, and we’ll get hosed again, enduring another four years of contractor grade government, poorer, dumber and more frustrated than we were the previous four years, and with a diminishing capacity to change that. It’s tragic, and it’s comic, because both sides recognize the same problems, but blame the wrong parties. If only they could listen to each other long enough to recognize that they have similar goals.

Watch for Snakes

I loaded up the truck and headed down the road the other day to do some property maintenance. I was carrying a tool bag and a socket set, a steel tamping rod and half a bag of Sackrete for straightening up some road signs. I had a gas string trimmer with a container of fuel and a few bottles of Gatorade.

About ten minutes into the job I discovered I needed a metal shim. That’s the way we roll in the country. We do a lot of jobs that require adaptability as much as precision, so back down the road I went.

As I pulled up into the driveway I slowed down when I saw something shiny and black stretched across my path. It was Irving, the friendly neighborhood Black Racer who catches mice around the barn. We exchanged greetings as I walked by on my way to the shop to get the shim and wait for him to exit the driveway.

I’m not an expert on snake logic, so I have no idea why Irving decided to reverse course and park himself under my truck. Maybe he liked the shade, but the sun was creeping higher in the sky and I prefer to carry a gas powered trimmer under more acute angles of illumination. I went back to the shop to get the leaf blower to see if that might convince Irving to move along.

I peeked under the truck and before I could pull the trigger on the leaf blower, I saw Irving climbing up to position himself somewhere on top of the axle. The first beads of sweat began to form under my hat.

We’ll pause right here to have a word with a few of you who mumbled something about “running over that snake” when I first saw him. Irving is one of God’s creatures too, and a valuable mouse and copperhead-eating part of our ecosystem. If you’re the kind of person who runs over every snake he sees, stay off of my road. We might be friends, but you’re not getting invited to the barbecue.

It was obvious that the sun was going to insist on moving higher in the sky, so I dragged out the garden hose to see if a little cold water would convince Irving to move along. After about 10 minutes, the undercarriage of the truck was very clean but Irving was still out of sight.

The truck was blocking the driveway, so I popped it into neutral and pushed it into the shade and out of the way. Then I proceeded to transfer all of my tools into the back of the van. With a few select Parseltongue invectives for Irving, I headed back down the road to finish my chores.

A few hours later, sun soaked and thirsty, I backed the van into the driveway and proceeded to unload. As I carried the last tool back to the shop I glanced at the truck in time to see Irving drop onto the ground and head purposefully toward the barn. “Thanks for helping me work on my tan this morning, old buddy!” I said to him.

Personally, I’ve never seen the Serpent of the Bible as a snake. Snakes don’t traffic in apples, or pomegranates, which is a more likely fruit for that part of the world. If the forbidden fruit was knowledge, however, all bets are off.

The Cherokee, according to my old friend known as Black Moon Turtle, had a different view of snakes. According to Turtle, snakes were seen, not as signs of evil, but as harbingers of change. I don’t know if that’s historically true or not. Every medicine man has his own ideas, but it’s a safe bet in a world that changes as much as hours, and any reminder to watch our step is good advice.

Perhaps’s Irving’s message was a reminder to know when to accept change. The oldest and most enduring wisdom is in agreement on that. Eastern traditions hold that, while change often causes pain, it is the resistance to change that causes suffering. Ecclesiastes 3:1 reminds us that “To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.”

I think Irving dropped by to remind us how to navigate this time of extraordinary and unavoidable change. So far, we’re doing well here at home. While we don’t exactly embrace all the changes (we’re not snake huggers, in case you were wondering), we’re learning to accept them.

For example, the number of times we eat out is a fraction of what it used to be, but we have a lot more money because of that, and much to my wife’s delight, I’ve discovered a new interest in cooking. My shepherd’s pie last week was outstanding, and by the way, Jamie Oliver is a great friend to guys who like to eat well but don’t like to spend a lot of time in the kitchen.

In the combination of more time and fewer or slower services, we’re also finding opportunities to do more things ourselves rather than paying to have them done. I replaced the carburetor, fuel pump and idler arms on the DR mower myself, rather than taking it to be repaired. I’m building the chickens a veritable palace to live in this winter. We’re enjoying more fresh produce harvested from the garden, and we’ve both gotten more fit this summer rather than wearing out the upholstery on the couch.

Also, the shortages and criminally high prices at the grocery have inspired us to seek out new sources of food and supplies locally and online, and we’ve found better quality at the same or even lower price.

Some of this is not good news for restaurants and other businesses that depend on doing things for people that they don’t have time or inclination to do for themselves. Much of our economy has been built on monetizing distractions for those of us who are hurried and worried, and gratification for those of us who are lazy. Change, for these enterprises, will continue to be painful.

However, we can already observe the enterprises that have accepted or embraced unavoidable change. New ideas are popping up every day. A healthy economy and a vigorous society must allow for creative destruction, and for this time in our lives, the myths of the Cherokee and the wisdom of Irving seem much more useful that the myths and incantations of politics.

A Cold Solder Connection

New Zealand just marked the passage of 100 days free from Covid-19, and we congratulate them. We can take heart that the virus can be overcome. We can, perhaps, accept a measure of chagrin for our own handling of the crisis, and by “chagrin,” I mean “disappointment or anger, especially when caused by failure or mistake.”

New Zealand reacted quickly and decisively at the beginning of the pandemic. In late March, when only 100 people had been infected, they imposed a strict lockdown and stopped the virus in its tracks. For the past three months, their only cases have been travelers returning from abroad.

New Zealand’s rallying cry was “go hard and go early.” Their success has been attributed to a combination of science, coherent leadership and a population willing to endure short term discomfort for long term gain. Read that again, slowly.

While New Zealand enjoys a return to normalcy and an economy rebounding from losses less severe than the rest of the west, here at home we’re still indulging in conspiracy theories and arguing about masking or not masking like Lilliput and Blefuscu fought over which end of an egg should be cracked. While we argued and dithered, the Kiwis embraced the suck and took their medicine. It worked. Quickly. And they did it without losing their autonomy to the secret illuminati conspiracy intent on destroying America with six-inch squares of fabric.

“Not a fair comparison! New Zealand only has 5 million residents, and we have 315 million!” That’s a fact. But the truth is, there are rural counties in Georgia with a population density like New Zealand but a death rate that is higher than many metropolitan areas. Try again.

“It’s Trump’s fault. If he had…or if he hadn’t…” There is some truth there, but not the whole truth. The president did minimize the problem at first, and passed the buck to the governors at a time when national leadership was needed. I know, Orange Man Bad,  but he’s not the first president to minimize a crisis in an election year. Every politician knows that we vote from short term memory. That doesn’t make it right, but we’re left with one less “unprecedented” to break the news.

Many of our governors get failing marks too. They had full authority to address the problems, but not enough real bucks were passed with the accountability buck, so they lacked the resources. Some governors passed the buck to their mayors; some turned their nursing homes into death camps, and some decided to waste time and credibility arguing with their mayors. Funny, how that “states’ rights” and “distribution of power” philosophy seems to evaporate on its way down the food chain, but those of us standing at the end of the line have received mixed messages since the beginning. We’ll try again.

“I blame all those republicans who refused to wear masks.” Nope. Try again. Only 73% percent of democrats are wearing masks (unless they are on vacation or protesting) and 60% of republicans, although that second number is likely to tick up, especially among older Americans.

“I don’t care what ‘your’ scientists say. This is all a hoax to see how far they can go to control us. The flu kills a lot more people even though there is a vaccine for that. There’s a doctor in Barbados who says masks aren’t effective. Google it and see for yourself!”

My answer to that is simply:  New Zealand. Did the hard thing. Sky didn’t fall. Life returning to normal. Next!

“Why do you hate America!??”

When you hear that, it often means you’ve struck a nerve. It’s painful when the facts challenge your beliefs, isn’t it!  I love this country, and you do too or you wouldn’t have read this far. Some of the most talented, generous and compassionate people in the world live here, and the system of government we developed is the best model for a free society ever devised. When you genuinely love someone, you love them enough to tell them when they have done wrong. You don’t try to destroy them so you can start over with new friends or a new family. You lift them up and try to help them heal.

All of the alleged culprits mentioned above may have contributed to our ongoing troubles to some degree, and we are dealing with an unknown virus, a chimera that has proven difficult to understand or predict. Feel better now?

Well, New Zealand then. And while they return to normal, we argue passionately about fabric squares and skin pigment and the meaning of words. We’re pressured to erase our history, regardless of the cautionary tales that accompany it, and educated fools attempt to deconstruct our very language to reprogram our thinking from the foundation up, and all of this is delivered to us through our click-for-profit pixel peddlers.

“America is a melting pot,” or so we’ve heard for most of our lives. It certainly looks like that when we browse the pixel images or channel surf the pixel programming. But here in the real world, we have functioned more like a cold solder connection – shiny on the surface but unable to conduct electricity.

You get a cold solder connection when your soldering tip isn’t hot enough. This can happen when you’re too tired or lazy to properly maintain your equipment. For a generation or two we indulged in contentment without properly maintaining the equipment necessary for the next generations to enjoy the same benefits, and our bench is covered with cheap tools peddled by Washington and Wall Street.

As always, we have a choice. We can affect the necessary repairs. We can accept only quality tools. Or not. If we don’t, if we continue to dissipate our energies in fruitless argument, instead of achieving a melting pot we’ll endure another decade of smoldering slag, and our cold solder connection will be insufficient to conduct the business of the next crisis.  Or we’ll kindle a fire so hot it will create some unknown new alloy while destroying much of what we hold dear. There are some who prefer the latter, and we immediately know two things about such people: They have no skin in the game, and they expect their own skins will somehow remain beyond the reach of the flames.

Messenger (Bag) of War

If you let them, some of the good habits you pick up in the military will stay with you for a lifetime. You may also gain perspectives that can function as a workable template for many situations. Not every situation, but many. Viewing every situation in terms of conflict is unwise, but conflict is all around us, and if we want to avoid it, it’s best that we try to understand it.

As we travel the pixel universe, we get the impression that there are many “wars” being fought in virtual reality. The war on drugs continues, and we have the war on terror, the war on poverty, the war on oppression, the war on the virus, the war on “anything we don’t like.” Every challenge must be overcome with a “fight.” We bypass dialogue, understanding and compromise and default to “war.” Even things that must be changed are fought before they are studied. People who spend their careers talking are now considered “warriors.” It soon becomes clear that most people who wield the language of war, do not understand war at all.

Let’s not jump directly into the fight. We’ll do some reconnaissance first.

My dad was a navy man, and he always had an away kit packed and ready with an assortment of items, including tightly rolled skivvies like you would find in a sea bag.  I still roll my t-shirts the same way. (If you roll them exactly right it will eliminate most of the wrinkles.)

As a former Marine, my bugout bag contains more metal and polymer-based items than textiles, including items that will guarantee a permanent social distance if necessary. There are also seasonal items that change with the weather, as you never know how long you might have to sit in your car on the side of an icy road, or how far you might have to walk.

As we entered the undiscovered territory of the plague years, my bugout bag spawned a more portable version for the inevitable trips for business or groceries, which, we must admit, are a bit more serious than they once were. Defensive perimeter enabler? Check. Steel bottle of cool spring water? Check. Leatherman, lighter, flashlight? Check.

Recently the kit has included a spray bottle of alcohol, spare masks, a zip lock with latex gloves, and a pair of mechanic’s gloves. There is a small spray bottle of colloidal silver we use to spray eyes and masks.

I digress. After growing weary of the plastic shopping bag overburdened with my road kit, my wife purchased for me a vintage military messenger bag. Heavy canvas, brass fittings…OK it’s a purse. A man bag, if you will. But if I slapped you with even the empty bag, you probably would not get up for a while.

Not that there’s anything wrong with a man who wants to carry a purse, a man-bag or a paper sack, but I still prefer to call my container “The Arsenal of Freedom.” Like it? Doesn’t that take you back? Sounds like “Patriot Act” or George W. Bush’s “Clear Skies Initiative.”

“I’m ready to go when you are. Do you have your sunglasses?” “Got them. Do you have ‘The Arsenal of Freedom?’” That’s inspiring conversation to hear around the house when you’re getting ready to drive to the dump! Even Alexa would be impressed, if her 8 microphones were plugged in. (They are not.)

A bugout bag, an away kit, a man-bag, a purse:  These are all just words to describe similar things, but things that might be motivated by different intentions or burdened by different baggage. I’m not going to slap you with my messenger bag, but isn’t that just the kind of fantasy video game thinking that permeates the national discourse and inspires an underemployed and over caffeinated coffeehouse client to throw a rock at a police car?

I might call such a rock thrower a “man bag,” or worse. Some would call him a “social justice warrior.” We’re talking about the same guy, but my intention is to describe a rudderless movement doomed to collapse under its own weight with a lot of collateral damage, and someone else has the intention of describing a bright shining ideal (surrounded by a lot of clouds and haze).

You see it, don’ you. I know you do. Words begin to lose their meaning when they are wielded as weapons, and the pixel universe has become a battleground of words and the intentions behind them. That battlefield has been mined with political correctness mines, and in the fog of war there have been casualties caused by “friendly fire” when some of the combatants stepped on their own mines or their weapons blew up in their faces.

For example, a particularly destructive but extremely popular weapon is the word,“racist.” Racist is a useful work when it is used as a surgical laser for cutting out diseased tissue, but too often it’s used as a grenade. As a grenade, it never wins battles, but when it is lobbed into a conversation and blows up, it harms indiscriminately. The intended target will probably not be fooled into engaging in dialogue again. Thus the battle is never won, but the conflict continues.

As you can see, a template of military perspective can bring some understanding to the word wars. Words can and do harm, and they have helped to start real wars ever since humans developed language. But allowing that template to become part of a dominant paradigm creates a lot of unnecessary unhappiness while making people vulnerable to the most contemptible manipulations.

Look what happens when you remove the template of the language of war from your view of this-moment-right-now.  Wow, more foolish arguments on the television. Let’s just turn it off. I’m sure glad I don’t live where those videos were taken…didn’t they show the same ones yesterday? It surely is a beautiful day outside.

Eventually, we can learn to recognize straight away those headlines and conversations that promote a skewed version of reality. Any headline or conversation that makes use of the language of war, unless it’s about a real war, is probably not unbiased – or completely factual. We can safely skip over those offerings that add toxins to our precious time.

Then, if there aren’t any protesters coming up the driveway and no actual battles being fought in our front yard (which includes the vast majority of Americans), we can concentrate instead on what our family, our neighborhood and our community needs right now. We can filter words for their functionality, and where meaning is needed, we get to assign that ourselves. And you know what? This canvas bag thing holds a lot more stuff than a grocery sack.