Is it True? Is it Kind? Does it Improve the Silence?

There is truth in the title. Those of you of a first class intelligence ( the majority of people who read the TC Herald), will hear the truth and act on it. Some of us hear the truth and need to verify it with our own experience before we will act on it. The rest of us, sadly a rapidly growing group, may hear truth but, failing to act on it, will repeat the experience many times.

Think before you speak. Discretion is the better part of valor. A word to the wise is sufficient. Don’t let your mouth write a check that your buttocks cannot cash.

From the time we first learn to talk, the momentum of civil society itself attempts to imbue us with the simple but essential knowledge necessary to maintain that society.

The human psyche is a complex summation of chemical reactions and electrical currents, tentatively balanced on the boundary between instinct and cognition; prone to impulses that are often chaotic and unreliable.

We don’t act on every impulse. We don’t say everything that pops into our heads.

The above statement delineates half the challenge of raising a child. Put that down. Be nice to your sister. That’s not a toy. Don’t yell. Be still. Learning impulse control is the primary lesson of childhood, and for many, that lesson continues for a lifetime. Prisons, asylums and grave yards are populated by those who did not or could not learn it, or who forgot it at a critical moment.

Somewhere between the temper tantrums of a two year old and a Youtube video of a knock down drag out fight between adults in a fast food restaurant, outraged because somebody’s fries were cold, is a failure of civil society to produce civilized members.

Blame what or who we may, for there is a sufficient quantity for some of it to always find the mark. But we, ourselves, participate every day in a modern ritual of obsession which eats away at civil society like an acid. Technology unguided leverages our lack of impulse control into a divisive and debilitating force. It makes us angry, It makes us anxious and fearful. It makes us sick.

The effect is cumulative. Think of a traffic jam, where the combined impulses of a self absorbed herd can immobilize a highway for miles. Each little selfish act combines with others in a cascading sequence of events. Social media can have a very similar effect on a civil society.

The asphalt highway suggests a relative anonymity which can defer the social consequences of an ill considered action. (A person’s true character is often revealed in the way they drive.) The rude and aggressive driver is, and should be, reluctant to act in person the way she does on the road. On the information highway, the rude and aggressive participant in social media assumes he is immune to any consequences of ill considered or hateful speech.

But there are consequences, and we see them in the divisiveness and ill will which now characterize our political process. We see them in the Balkanization of life in America, less “a people” as time goes by as a collection of identities who believe that an opinion is an entitlement.

It isn’t. We have a right to form an opinion, but it is our due diligence and the work involved in forming an opinion that entitles us to have it. Every day we experience the consequences of opinions formed (and shared) with no diligence or discretion at all.

It isn’t entirely our fault. We are enticed to participate in the drama, rewarded with little injections of serotonin when we are liked or followed, or dosed with adrenaline when we have an angry exchange or reaction. It’s easy, and it’s addictive.

Take a step back and consider the sum total of all that we can see and hear at any hour of the day or night, the continuous noise of opinions and arguments, daily disasters, never ending scandals and controversies and investigations, and it’s all repeated over and over in a never ending showing and sharing of everything that happens and everything that is said, and everything that is said about what happens and everything that is said about what is said.

It’s the ultimate inclusion when we join in the fray with our comments and replies to comments. Forget the thing. The comment is the thing, and the story is the tweet and all the reactions to the tweet are the story. And we’re all included. We’re all entitled and we’re all here together on the information superhighway. So why are we so angry with each other?

Because we have created a big angry traffic jam in our national discourse, and the sound of everyone blowing their horn at once does not improve our attitudes or our impulse control, and yet we are shocked and offended when someone succumbs to road rage.

The solution is ridiculously simple. Just turn it off. Close the laptop. Turn the phone face down. But if the addiction is too strong and we find ourselves back in the fray, all is not lost. Those three simple questions can serve to improve the traffic wherever we are:

Is it true?

Is it kind?

Does it improve the silence?

Pay Attention

To my mother, seasoning a cast iron skillet was an art. She took special care with her cast iron, and she wouldn’t let anyone else clean it. Her pans were almost as “non stick” as Teflon (and they were a lot healthier).

I can almost see a few heads nodding in recognition, and if one of those heads is yours, you might appreciate the image of an obsidian black pan, smooth as glass, bright beads of water dancing on its surface to let you know it’s time to cook.

The art of pan seasoning is not often included in a list of the manly arts unless you’re a celebrity chef, or were fortunate enough to have listened to your mama when you were growing up. You may believe that such things are more properly the domain of a mama’s boy. If so, I think you are mistaken in a sad and impoverishing way.

I learned something about mama’s boys on Parris Island. One evening our platoon was sitting on foot lockers polishing brass when we were instructed to put the brass away and get out our writing gear. We were informed that our next task was to write a letter home to our mamas.

One particularly unwise recruit piped up and said, “I ain’t no mama’s boy.” In the blink of an eye, said recruit was vigorously encouraged to do push ups without delay. The push ups as well as the encouragement continued unceasingly for the next hour while we all wrote our letters home. Then, without a moment’s rest, our weary but wiser recruit got to write his own letter after all. In the opinion of Senior Drill Instructor, Staff Sergeant Frasier, the recruit, the sergeant himself and every other male who ever had a mama, was and will always be a mama’s boy.

The world would be a wiser place if we paid better attention to our elders in general and our mamas in particular. I’ve always liked the expression, “pay attention.” The word “pay” implies that there is a debt owed, and that debt is the price we pay for gaining knowledge. Paying attention is the bill due in gratitude and respect for our elders. Knowledge and wisdom are not free. They must be purchased with our own experience or, if we’re lucky, with attention paid to buy the experience of someone else.

There are two cast iron pans seasoning in the oven as I write this. I found them just recently while cleaning out the old family home. Their seasoning had been almost ruined by an over zealous cook who worked for my dad after mom passed away. Fortunately I paid attention when Mama was teaching me how to care for my own cast iron.

Pay attention to your mama while you can. One day you won’t be able to. I wish I had paid better attention to my own mother’s knowledge and wisdom. Not only would I have had an easier life, but I would have eaten better. For years we have tried to recreate some of her recipes. She gave me her old cook book about two years before she died. On several occasions we talked about her recipes and I took some notes. She even typed up some of the favorites. But my efforts have just not been up to par.

Last week on the last minute of the last day before turning over the old house to the estate sale company, I found an overlooked drawer in a little used corner. It was packed with Mama’s recipes, clippings, hand written recipe cards, and a couple of those remarkably good church cook books filled with the personal recipes of the membership. Everything was organized, packaged up, labeled and waiting. I have no idea when she did all that. Her collection had been hidden away in that drawer for 10 years, waiting for someone to pay attention.

While we’re still talking about skillets, picture the one Granny Clampett used to whack Jethro with to encourage him to pay better attention. Life is just like Granny. Think of the accidents alone that we could have avoided simply by paying attention. However, cuts and bruises and even broken bones can heal, but what we missed with those whom we loved and lost, because we were too busy or too distracted to pay attention, well, that hurts forever.

One more thing about skillets before we go. If you have a vintage cast iron pan, hang on to it. Modern pans, in the modern tradition of cutting corners, are manufactured without the final polishing process. That new pan will never be as smooth as your mama’s old one.

I Knew You’d Be Surprised

Ask a happy person to tell you about the place where they live and chances are you’ll hear good things about that area. The way we feel directly affects, and for some people determines, how we perceive reality.

Most of us who live in our neck of the woods, even on our bad days, know that we are fortunate to be here, and that knowledge increases in direct proportion to how many other places we have lived or visited.

Nevertheless, we do live in interesting times, in a strange age of confusion in which the way many people perceive reality is affected as much or more by the virtual world as it is by direct experience.

It’s human nature to be vulnerable to stereotypes and prejudice of all kinds. Our brains are differencing engines with a limited capacity for compiling data on more than just a handful of individuals, and anyone outside that small group, or anyone we perceive as different than our group, is considered “the other.”

Our fears and prejudices were bad enough long before the age of information came along to leverage those shortcomings and facilitate even further divisions. For its effect on our national identity and civil society, “anti-social” media is perhaps a more accurate description for what we commonly refer to as “social.”

Long before “social” media and the ascendancy of virtual reality, our part of the world often got a bad rap. Even today, southern states are assumed to be homologous organs of a monolithic south, and now stereotypes about southerners, hillbillies and rednecks, encouraged by mainstream media, have merged with stereotypes about “red states” versus “blue states.”

Here at home, we always knew differently. Now we have the data to back us up.

The Atlantic magazine recently sponsored a study on partisan prejudice. The analytics firm, PredictWise conducted the study. Towns County, Georgia, ranks in the 13th percentile, which means that 87% of all US counties are more politically intolerant than we are.

In fact, all of North Georgia and most of the Southern Appalachians rank as being significantly more tolerant than the rest of the country. Fannin County is in the 9th percentile, Union County is in the 20th; Clay and Cherokee counties in North Carolina are in the 2nd percentile.

The most intolerant county in the nation? Suffolk County, Massachusetts, in the heart of the most “liberal” part of New England. No county in the state of Massachusetts ranked below the 85th percentile. None of Georgia’s hillbilly counties ranked higher than the 20th. The most politically tolerant city in America, according to the study, is Watertown, New York, which is in a county that voted for Donald Trump by a 20 point margin. I knew you’d be surprised.

The most intolerant demographic group? Older white educated urban dwellers who tend to associate much more with “their own kind.” Ironic, isn’t it? That some of the loudest voices calling for it have the least experience of diversity.

One thing is clear. Prejudice knows no geographical boundaries, and the same is true for tolerance. We are fortunate that tolerance has taken root in the place we call home. .

(To read more about the study, go to the Atlantic article here.)

Just Sayin’

As we’ve discussed here often, one of the secrets to having a good life is the ability to curate. We choose, as much as possible, the elements we allow in our physical and mental space. Our success varies.

With this in mind I recently decided to curate my experience of information with extreme prejudice. This is something I do periodically, and more frequently as time goes by. The thing I seek to manage we sometimes refer to as”mass media,” but we struggle to find a fitting term for something that is ubiquitous and difficult to escape. Nevertheless, I was determined to severely limit my exposure to news of all kinds, commercials, websites, opinions and social media.

The power of the human psyche to adapt is remarkable. Our youngest media consumers have no idea that the information inundating their daily lives is a howling wilderness compared to the early days of the information age and the time before that.

We long ago accepted that the price we pay for entertainment includes the time we spend enduring ads and commercials, and that includes all those websites dressed up like news providers. We don’t begrudge these efforts to pay the bills. But what we often forget is the sophisticated science that informs the manipulative power of the ads.

To some degree we all carry within us an empty space of want and need, unfulfilled desires and unrealized dreams. Religion, spirituality and Faith have been trying to teach us for centuries how to fill that void, but in a culture where the secular and the carnal is paramount, we are losing the knowledge and the ability.

Ads are designed to tap into that void, to create need where none existed before, and the longer and more frequent our exposure, the more habitual our behavior becomes as we “eat” to satisfy the “hunger.” Our needful economy depends on constant and ever growing consumption, and we are conditioned to follow the fashionable and the viral.

Our job as curators would be difficult enough if manipulative marketing was the only contaminant in our flow of information, but there are elements even more toxic to our peace of mind. Politics and propaganda have polluted the river in concentrations that threaten the very survival of our civil society.

Elections never end now, and the two dominant tribes of red and blue are more than willing to tear the country apart in order to gain and regain power. Unfortunately, we are helping them do it. Someone red speaks; someone blue tweets and someone is offended. Someone else slams, attacks, destroys, calls out, and stuns and we comment and repost, and it all happens in a phantom world of pixels. The sun is shining, the green shoots of spring are emerging from the cold ground and the birds are singing, but we are angry because someone whom we’ve never met, and never will meet, said or typed something.

You might be surprised at how quickly anger fades and hunger diminishes when they are not being artificially stimulated by mass media. You might also be quite surprised at how addicted you have become if you decide to abruptly cut off your exposure to Facebook and Twitter, to close the laptop or turn off the television. I challenge you to resolve to try it for a day and take note of your reactions. Notice how quickly you can rationalize a retreat from your resolution. You may not be able to cut off the flow cold turkey the first time you try it. Don’t despair if you can’t. A lot of study has gone into getting you hooked on pixels.

I should be more proactive in my own efforts to curate. They tend to occur at moments of frustration or disgust which could be altogether avoided if I was more vigilant, but like many of you, my business interests require a constant gathering of information, and there are many road hazards on the information highway.

It was a productive vacation, this brief departure from media. Work was easier and sleep was sounder. A few more books got read that had been collecting dust. Several projects which had been put on the backburner got some much needed attention.

Returning once again to the flow, I found the nation right where I left it, a land once known as a melting pot now defined and divided by our insufferable identities. I hear “diversity and inclusion” but I see instead a kind of Balkanization.

It’s more than a little embarrassing to watch our elected leaders performing playground rituals of he said, she said and indulging in name calling. Oh, and the victims, the racists, the bigots, the anti Semites and the Islamophobes. “I know you are, but what am I?” The posturing, the recriminations, the spin, all packaged up in tweets and sound bytes ready to be propagated into the echo chambers.

But you know, another technique for curating our experience is to shift our perspective just enough to see the humor, and once we learn to do that, humor is abundant. In fact, Nancy Pelosi provided me the biggest laugh of the season so far, and almost as soon as I opened my laptop. I’ll leave you with her quote, taken out of context but able to stand on its own for the purposes of a good laugh. She said,

“I don’t think our colleague is anti-Semitic, I think she has a different experience in the use of words, doesn’t understand that some of them are fraught with meaning that she didn’t realize.”

Or, to put in another way, in the succinct language of youth, “Man, she was just sayin’.”

Presidents’ Day

By the time you read this, my friends, the warm memories of another Presidents’ Day will be receding, but today we pay homage, blissfully and reverently engaged, somewhere between celebration and commemoration.

Our discussion will be brief today, for duty calls. There is a sale, multiple sales, actually, to which we must attend in order to continue the tradition of observing holidays via consumption. It seems fitting, actually, for what finer salesmen have ever hawked their wares than the long line of hucksters, peddlers and costermongers that have occupied the White House?

Of course some of us may also be remembering George Washington and the birthday of the man who could have been king but set aside personal ambition for the good of the nation. He was a complicated man, flawed, but a man of integrity and substance even when viewed through the modern lens of retroactive social justice.

With the signing of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1971, however, we set aside history in favor of three day weekends, and bundled our celebration of all presidents into one extended opportunity for taking advantage of sales and discounts. The banks are closed today, along with federal offices and many businesses across the land. Congress will also be resting from their labors, for about two weeks, taking a much needed break from campaigning and making resolutions.

Meanwhile, soldiers at 800 military bases in 70 countries around the world will still be on duty, safeguarding our ability to shop without interruption. Many, still stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq, continue to be in harm’s way as we celebrate the people who put them there. Law enforcement personnel, firemen, EMT’s and nurses will not be taking the day off.

Come to think of it, perhaps this year we should be more mindful of those people than we are of our long line of pompous potentates. After all, it takes skill, training and a willingness to sacrifice to do those jobs, but anyone can be president.

The Mystery

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea

My mother crossed the bar ten years ago last week, and my father followed her not quite five years later. The old family home passed into our keeping.

There are a great many things contained within that house. My parents were collectors of memories. Great grandmother, Eula’s rocking chair, the length of strong hemp rope Great Grandfather, Will, used to climb down into the wells he dug by hand, hand forged farm implements, quilts, tools, documents and pictures were among the many things that were carefully kept and preserved. Every birthday card we ever gave our parents was there; artwork from grade school, compositions, awards, trophies, and toys. A history of our entire family was kept under that roof.

If you have lost a parent or loved one and if you are as sentimental as your humble scribe, then you will understand. For a time, we do not suffer a single thing to be moved or removed from the possessions of the deceased. Some things preserve memories better than a photograph, almost as if the spirit of the departed lingers for a while among them.

In time, we realize that our spirits are not, nor should they be bound to earthly possessions, and we begin to let them go. If you have done this, you know, there is catharsis in that process, and grieving is never finished, only deferred.

All of this and more have I realized as we prepared for the estate sale that will finally empty the family home and allow new life to occupy it, new memories to be born. But there has been an unexpected reluctance which has slowed this process, and I did not realize until quite recently what was at its root.

As we sorted through the possessions of times past, mysteries were uncovered. Love letters from one parent to another, four leaf clovers pressed in wax paper, birthday and holiday cards from long lost relatives, arrowheads, coins and scrap books were found hidden in nooks and crannies. One by one, the old house gave up its secrets, until finally there were no more to reveal.

We are a curious species. We love mysteries, and we love even more to solve them. Our curiosity has led us from the depths of the ocean to the outer fringes of our solar system to the inner workings of the atom, and our imaginations would lead us even farther.

I think, however, that we should not rush to nor insist on knowing all. Perhaps some stones should be left unturned, some paths untraveled. We need mystery. We need undiscovered country. We need wilderness for the sake of wilderness.

Imagine a world without mystery, where all is known, developed, monetized and surveilled. We are fast approaching that world, and since our bodies are currently earth bound, our civilization turns from pioneering and adventure to gratification and habit. You can see it in the way we walk, no longer looking to the horizon, but slumped over in the constant sharing of the disjecta membra of our daily routines.

In solving the mysteries of our old family home, opening my mom’s cedar chest and the steamer trunk my dad kept locked in the hall closet, plumbing the depths of the big steel toolbox in the basement, I confronted unwillingly an uncomfortable truth. There are limits to this human life. We are granted only so many days. We will write a finite number of love letters. We will find only so many arrowheads, and there is a number, however distant, that is the reckoning of our last breath.

One day we will solve the puzzle of our own earthly lives and confront the mystery of the next . We will cross the bar ourselves on a journey into the next unknown, and someone else will sort through the remnants of the earthly possessions we leave behind.

The Sweet Spot

 

With the passing of the recent taxpayer subsidized marketing and sports spectacle (for many of us, football ended in January with the National Championship), the season of traditions which begins around Thanksgiving, that time of year which, with its celebrations and observances inspires us to temporarily set aside our differences, can be said to be truly over. 

Our assumed national obsession with politics and identity will soon continue the long and insufferable crescendo of drama that accompanies our never ending campaign cycles. 

For those of us who lost friends and suffered anxiety during the last cycle, it might behoove us at this point to take a step back and speculate on the nature of the things which separate us.

For some time now we have struggled to better understand  what we perceive to be a false dichotomy that divides almost half of the nation, or at least those of us not too busy making a a living to have time for such concerns. Just what is it that separates us into warring camps of conservative and liberal, democrat and republican?

The loudest and angriest among us follow leaders, and leaders in the vast majority of cases carry a red or a blue banner. Yet government itself, and the business concerns which direct government, seem more apolitical. Once elected, our leaders are political only as far as it is necessary to be reelected, and the vast bureaucracies of federal, state and local governments act as entities unto themselves, with their primary goal being their continued existence. 

To put it bluntly, politics is for little people, but since our numbers are overwhelming, we hold if we do not in fact wield a power which is actively sought by business and government alike. Politics is the method by which our power is divided, diluted and controlled.

Political control is achieved by identifying and leveraging the natural divisions which exist between people. By understanding what those divisions are, it might be possible to reduce the amount of manipulation to which we are subjected. 

Think of a round of firewood we intend to split. To do so, we look for cracks in the wood and we guide our axe to that “sweet spot.” If we hit it just right, far less effort is needed to split the wood. We are not firewood, but we do have vulnerabilities which are used over and over again. In this limited space we can only address a few of those. We will speak in generalities, and we concede the point that there are many exceptions to each of these.  Our intention is not to judge, but to observe.

There are several “sweet spots” where a wedge can easily be driven between democrats and republicans, conservatives and liberals. In our opinion, a sure sign of the path of the wedge can be found in the logical inconsistencies, some might say “hypocrisies” that result from our forced separation. 

Generally speaking, conservatives tend to be more religious while liberals tend to be more humanist.  Conservatives believe in the higher power of God while liberals trust more to the higher power of collectivism. Both yield individual responsibility, the conservative to a belief system and the liberal to a government. 

Observe the many splinters left by the passing of the maul. One of the biggest and sharpest is the issue of abortion, which is kindled every election cycle to the point where it is now a litmus test of political affiliation. The conservative postures as a pro life advocate, but has no problem with capital punishment. The liberal abhors capital punishment, but accepts the termination of life in the womb in a culture which, in its admixture of science and faith cannot agree at which point a human life begins. 

The liberal is predictably a defender of the environment. The conservative, when it comes to the environment, has been more of a consumer than a conservator.  The conservative would consume the environment to create jobs. The liberal would conserve the environment, but consume the wealth of working people to support the jobless.

Both conservative and liberal allow, and even encourage business and government to go adventuring around the world with our blood and treasure, to meddle unceasingly anywhere that it seems possible to extract wealth. Distracted and content or angry and made fearful by the wedge of politics driven between us, we have allowed death and destruction and debt, and the transfer of vast amounts of wealth into ever smaller numbers of hands.

Throughout history, every time wealth inequality has become extreme, volatility has ensued. Inequality leads invariably to the rise of collectivism and of socialistic forms of government that are doomed to fail. Even capitalism, the core of the American way of life, degrades as free markets are gamed into crony capitalism and oligarchy. In the end, the only proven method of reducing inequality, is disaster. 

Every civilization, every philosophy and belief, every form of government and every nation has a shelf life. All human institutions contain the seeds of their own destruction. Human nature dictates that we evolve and devolve in cycles. When we work together, we slow down the turning of the wheel. Conservatives want to preserve what we have accomplished and hold back the tides of change which threaten those gains.  Liberals want to use change to improve the general well being. Each side has valid ideas to contribute to the common good. But as long as we allow it, the only people who will prosper are the ones driving the wedge.