A Picture is Worth a Thousand Rounds

Some of my favorite memories are October memories.  I remember Charlie Brown and the Great Pumpkin (which we still watch every year), dressing up like Batman to beg the neighbors for candy and jumping into big piles of leaves. Caramel apples, kettle corn and hot chocolate on frosty mornings take me back to the kind of childhood that seems to have disappeared from large parts of America.

October also marked the beginning of hunting season. I remember the first “real” hunting trip with my dad. The stiff canvas backing of my brand new hunting jacket was a little uncomfortable to wear in the truck as we crossed the mountain, but there was no way I was going to take it off. The single shot Harrington and Richardson 20 gauge shotgun from the last Christmas was a powerful and mysterious object to be treated with the utmost caution bordering on reverence.

We always laughed at Barney Fife’s antics with his one-bullet pistol, but there was no joking around when it came to firearms in our house. I still remember the very first lessons, which began with the first BB gun when I was about 8 and continued with the first shotgun when I was 13. Always treat a gun like it’s loaded. When you are carrying a gun around people, pretend like the barrel is 20 feet long, and that will make sure that the end of that barrel never crosses anyone’s path.

Like many boys who grew up in the country, by the time I enlisted in the Marines, carrying a rifle was second nature. Rifle training came easy, and I scored high enough on the rifle range to be series high shooter. I will be forever grateful that I never had to use those skills in battle.

Times have changed. The reverence for firearms we had as kids is hard to find now, and after 16 years of continuous warfare, there are too many young men who have seen battle.

I haven’t hunted in years, but not because I think it’s wrong. I’m more interested now in how the animals live than in how they taste, but it amuses me when people condemn hunting but have no qualms about buying a steak at the market. I believe that everyone who eats meat should have to, at least once, obtain it from scratch. If that were so, I think there would be a lot more vegetarians, and the world wouldn’t be so busy exchanging rainforest for fast food hamburgers.

We have argued about gun control in this country for years, and that argument escalates every time there is a tragedy involving firearms. Like so many of our arguments, we only seem to hear from the loudest voices with the most extreme opinions:  Those who want to eliminate guns completely versus those who want to arm passengers on airplanes.

Here on the middle path between those extremes, there are many of us who believe in the importance of the Second Amendment, but we’re not averse to some mechanism for preventing crazy people, people who are over-medicated, and stupid people, from owning firearms. We want to protect our homes and families from criminal elements. We also want to protect them from the coercive tyranny of too much government, but we realize that an assault rifle is a ridiculous means of doing that. Protection from government comes from education and active participation in our civil society.

Gun violence in America is a problem, but it is a failure, not of our laws, but of our culture. In some of our inner cities it is an economic indicator and a sign of desperation. Gun violence is difficult to discuss in a culture that is overly dependent on images, when so many of the images of our daily lives are violent.

There is not enough room in this newspaper column to show you those images, but you’e seen them all your life, and if you’ve read this far, you’re probably one of the shrinking minority who can still form clear images from words. So here is our verbal slide show for the week. The theme is a culture saturated by violent images that are sold as entertainment.

We’ll start with Rambo. You’ve seen the image a thousand times:  Bare chested, teeth clenched in righteous indignation and firing a 50 caliber machine gun, one armed. We glorify the wounded warrior taking down the evil bad guys. Click next. A scantily clad heroine holds a machine pistol in each hand. Hollywood has made gun violence sexy.

Next image. A hip hop star holds a Mac-9. He is decorated with gold and diamonds. Gun violence is hip. Next image. The steely eyed detective points a pistol at the perps. Oh, you just saw that? Where? On Netflix? A pop-up ad on the computer?

Movie trailers, teasers and commercials are full of images of people shooting or about to shoot each other. Search “action-adventure” and count the weapons. Turn on the television morning, noon and night for the latest shooting.

Corporate media (we sometimes say “Hollywood” as a short-cut for the entertainment industry), either in giving us what we want, or enticing us by manipulating our baser instincts, has saturated our culture with violence. How ironic that many of the same actors and actresses holding the weapons on screen are so quick to condemn. How ironic that many of the same politicians seeking to disarm Americans have no problem selling arms to other countries.




It was my intention this week to write about gun violence in America and how it is a failure of our culture, not our legal system. I wanted to write about how we are inundated by violent images from an early age, yet our understanding of the issue is no more sophisticated than the teenager (or the thirty-something male) playing  “Call of Duty – Black Ops” on Xbox. I was going to highlight the link between acts of violence and the use of psychiatric drugs, and contrast the knee jerk reaction of politicians calling for more laws with the long standing traditions of individuals and families exercising their Second Amendment rights responsibly. I was going to close by pointing out that, though the media is howling over the tragic deaths in Las Vegas, there was hardly a whimper when about the same number were killed in Chicago last month. (Most of the victims were young, poor, and black.)

If I elected to turn on the television this morning or scan the headlines online, I would find talkers with plenty to say about this topic and others. The work of herding our attention to the topics that have been selected for dissemination across the land will have reached a crescendo for the morning. Instead, I would prefer to leave this gathering early, and I invite you to come with me. If you are like me, you have grown weary of worry, and you have started to wonder whether the constant barrage of bad news is a result of some kind of group insanity particular to our times, or whether there is some design or intent behind the effort to keep us fearful and angry, all the time.

Personally, I believe it is the former, though there is little doubt that there are those willing to exploit that insanity. The worldwide information network we have created is a powerful golem that leverages and magnifies everything we say, or see, or think. Unfortunately for the human race, our most basic programming is a survival instinct designed to identify and react to danger. We are wired to accentuate the negative, and our electronic golem consistently magnifies that natural tendency.

To compensate for this impediment to modern life, we educate ourselves and, if we are lucky, we learn self-determination. We learn to be the masters of our own minds. However, this is difficult when both parents are away from home working, when teachers are overburdened by babysitting and we are left to roam unguided among the sensations and enticements of mass media and popular culture.

Cognitive shifting is a method of consciously redirecting our attention from one fixation to another. When we are preoccupied with thoughts that detract from our well being, thoughts that cause worry, anger or anxiety, we exercise our will and we shift.

For most of us who do not suffer from mental illness, it is just as easy as it sounds, yet we forget, and we are distracted from the realization that it is well within our ability to do so. Determining the thoughts that occupy our minds is one of our most basic rights as human beings, and yet those thoughts are the aspect of our lives most targeted by those who seek profit and control.

Many of us shift without even realizing it. We shift when we worship, when we pray, when we focus on our families and communities, when we meditate, walk in the woods, work in the garden, exercise, read a book, bait a hook. We shift when we pause to spend a moment in gratitude.

Cognitive shifting does not mean that we stick our heads in the sand and ignore the problems of the world. It means that we choose not to fixate on them. It means that we make a conscious effort to have a more balanced perspective on life.

We can do it right now, together. Turn off the television. Shut down the computer.  Take the smartphone out of your pocket and leave it on the desk. Shift.

There is a mist on the mountain this morning, and the valley is quiet and peaceful. The air is cool and heavy with moisture from the much needed rain we just received. The broccoli in the garden has grown an inch since yesterday, and the greens are sprouting. A single hummingbird is drinking at the feeder, one of the last of the busy little group to remain. Any day now she will come to the window and hover for a moment to say goodbye before beginning her long journey south.

These are the thoughts I choose to carry with me today. What will you choose?


The Worrier Code

Our intention this week is that we should expand our comfort zones and step outside the boxes we draw around our thinking. Laugh, if you can, whenever you can. Not the derisive laughter of the playground, but with humility. Laughter is good for the circulation, and it diminishes self-importance.

If you can’t laugh, then we hope that you get mad. Anger is caused by self-importance, but it is also good for the circulation. Circulation delivers oxygen to the brain, which enhances thinking – and diminishes self-importance.

Bushido is a Japanese term which describes the warrior code of the samurai. It allowed the violence inherent in the samurai lifestyle to be mitigated by wisdom. Bushido was characterized by values that were also once embraced by the west, such as integrity, honor, respect, courage, compassion – and self control.

Comedians have often used a caricature of the samurai and his Bushido code. Picture the John Belushi version of the samurai:  self righteous, easily offended and given to dramatic demonstrations.

Which brings us to the present day, where we seem to have forgotten that Belushi’s character was meant to be a farce. Move aside Bushido, the warrior code of the samurai. Enter Bullshido, the worrier code of the snowflake.

Did I hear a few snickers (mainly from the right side of the aisle)? Not so fast! The right is growing it’s own snowflakes these days. Not only are we offended by the improper use of pronouns (he, she…they?), we are now offended by improper body posture (as in standing or kneeling). Social justice worriers who can’t change a tire (but who have memorized the entire menu at Starbucks) are ready to wear masks and attack people at rallies. Armchair quarterbacks who have never served anything but another helping at the buffet table now sit in judgment on ritualized patriotism.

In Bushido, worshipful attention was given to duty and loyalty. In Bullshido, we worship celebrities. From the left, we obsess on the lives and opinions of famous people who pretend to be other people.  If they do this well, we call these pretenders “great.”

From the right, we obsess on the lives and opinions of people who play games: millionaires who run and throw balls and catch them (or kick them or hit them with sticks). If they are good at playing games, we consider these people to be “great” also, and like the celebrities who act, we believe them to be experts on life itself.

You might think that a culture which values benevolence and compassion would be fully engaged by concern for the thousands made homeless and destitute by the recent hurricanes. Not so. The high priests and priestesses of Bullshido have instead ordained that we focus our offense-ready attention on what happens at our gaming spectacles and whether someone stands or kneels during a song.

Symbols are important; somewhat arbitrary, but important nonetheless. The flag and the national anthem are, for many of us, symbols of sacrifices made in good faith. This is why that, as a former Marine, I choose to stand during the anthem. It is a personal choice.

But for most of us who have served or who do so now, “choice” is at the heart of the reasons for that service. Among the freedoms we value is freedom of speech and the right to dissent, and a civil society which prides itself on these things has no business dictating what we respect, or disrespect, or how we demonstrate those sentiments. We don’t like bowing to royalty in America, yet we insist on compliance to forms and practices in a public ritual? If you don’t bow to the Queen you’re being disrespectful. If you don’t stand for a song, you’re also being disrespectful?

On the other hand, the millionaire celebrities who play professional football are heavily subsidized, as is the entire “non profit” NFL, by billions of our tax dollars. (We get to pay for their new stadiums whether we watch football or not.) A football game is not a free speech rally or a demonstration. When the players take the field, they are at work, on the job. When you take a job, some of your rights are naturally constrained by your contractual agreement with your employer. These players are employed by the team owners, by the people who buy tickets, and by the tax payers who subsidize the whole enterprise.

Kneeling is generally considered to be a posture, not of defiance, but of prayerful attention. Kneeling at football games was first done to call attention to a perception by some African Americans that blacks are intentionally victimized by police brutality. The numbers don’t support that opinion, but the perception is important and worthy of discussion

Sadly, that important discussion has now been lost in the babble of Bullshido, the opinions of celebrities and the WWE style tweets of the social media president. The derisive howls of “racist” and “unpatriotic” are tossed from left and right, and we are distracted from historic human suffering and an economy poorly managed for the majority of our people.

Monday morning we woke up to tragic headlines from Las Vegas. Was the world due to end in September or has that now been pushed forward to October? The worrier code does not say. But as the tragic shooting is analyzed and recycled by media, new worries will merge with our ongoing concerns over terrorism, climate change and social injustice;  white supremacy, Black Lives Matter, antifa and all the issues guaranteed to generate ad revenue.

Meanwhile, people will be hungry and homeless in Puerto Rico, and thousands across the nation will attempt to rebuild their lives, but those headlines will be pushed aside as we risk becoming caricatures of ourselves. There is nothing funny about that.





Quality Costs More – If You Can Find It


Yesterday I threw away an unrepairable pressure washer which stopped working after only half a dozen uses. The electric motor burned out. (A replacement motor, had I been willing to wait 4-6 weeks for delivery, would have cost almost as much as the original washer.) Of course, the warranty had expired.

It was a moderately priced unit purchased at Sears. After each use it was drained and stored inside. A similar unit purchased at Sears by my dad almost 15 years ago is still functioning after scores of uses.

We have discussed before the decline of “quality” in our civilization. This is not the conclusion of a scientific study, but it is a growing opinion among those of us who have purchased junk in the last few years. A friend who is a contractor recently observed that what was once considered “contractor grade” material is now priced as premium, and premium quality material is almost impossible to find. (He searches salvage stores and estate sales to find quality in items made decades ago.) This may be another consequence of the steep decline in the purchasing power of the dollar, but that’s a discussion of “quality” for another time.

Since beginning this discussion, the new Briggs and Stratton pressure washer we ordered was delivered. It was American made, supposedly in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It looks like a tool, with metal parts and heavy duty connectors, while the one it replaced looked more like a toy. It took a lot more devalued dollars to purchase this unit than the discarded toy.

Appearances are deceiving. We found two loose screws in the box which did not fit anything we could find on the pressure washer. Too bad they didn’t fit the pump, which was missing two screws and hanging loose on top of the unit.

At the top of the warranty it says, “Do not return this unit to the store.” So we called Briggs and Stratton’s toll free number. We were on hold about 45 minutes.  The customer service representative was very nice and seemed to have a sincere desire to help us, but she had a limited command of the English language and a heavy accent which made communication very difficult. Eventually I was given to understand that Briggs and Stratton was kindly offering, not to replace the unit, but to give me the opportunity to drive the washer 30 miles to the nearest authorized repair shop.

The lighting fixtures we bought at Home Depot two years ago are already rusting. The Lenovo computer a friend purchased less than a month ago turned into a brick. The new door we purchased, which cost more than my first car, came with pre-installed scratches.

Just a small window into the state of modern business practice, where much study and expense has gone into being able to get and keep our money, with less emphasis on quality and pride of workmanship.



Well Played

I once had a boss who was wise, and I sought his counsel on how to deal with an employee who was the antithesis of wise. “Don,” he said, “Over the years I’ve learned that most people don’t wake up in the morning intending to do ill.”

That stuck with me, and it has been very helpful in learning to better accommodate the broad range of human behavior. Sometimes I forget this wisdom, especially when human behavior seems to indicate a clear intent to do wrong, as in the choice by some people to steal from Hurricane victims.

For the most part what we’ve seen during our recent back-to-back natural disasters  is people choosing to set aside ego, mistrust, prejudice, or some combination of the many things we invent to separate ourselves from each other.

I think the kernel of truth in the wisdom shared by my former boss is also at the core of the selfless behavior we have seen from here to Texas and beyond to the forgotten fires raging out west, where over a million acres have burned while the networks gave us minute by minute coverage of the hurricanes. That truth is mindfulness.

Mindfulness brings us into the current moment, where the past does not haunt nor the future frighten. It reminds us of the bond we share with all of humanity, the legacy of a single small planet circling the outer fringe of one galaxy among countless others suspended in space. Isn’t it remarkable that the shape of a galaxy and the shape of a hurricane is so similar?

There, just for a moment we were in the present,  all of us sharing a ride on our lifeboat charting an unknown course through the cosmos. We just experienced mindfulness, a state of being foreign to someone setting a fire or looting, or engaged in numerous other behaviors we find reprehensible. The attention of such people is subsumed by ego, self importance. To a lesser degree, so is the attention of the person who cuts us off in traffic or indulges in some other rude behavior.  When we are also self-important, we are offended. When we are mindful, we consider that the person tailgating or cutting us off may be rushing to check on an elderly parent who has been without power for two days.

There are those who say that our recent series of disasters is God’s judgment on a nation gone astray. I disagree. Was it also God’s judgment that no major hurricane touched our shores for nine years? Or that over 1200 people died from flooding in Bangladesh during the same week that Harvey flooded the Texas coast?

Human history in its entirety is delineated by one disaster after another, but there is not enough paper in the world to print the history of the day to day moments of peaceful existence and ordinary struggles.  Our attention has, once again, been artificially stimulated by the sellers of advertising, or have we forgotten Y2K and the end of the world in 2012 already?

If a series of storms is not God’s judgment, it certainly is an opportunity. We have an opportunity to practice mindfulness, to see beyond our own reflection in the mirror and to reflect on the human condition.

And that’s exactly what we are seeing. Neighbor helping neighbor, public servants, linemen, law enforcement, firefighters, EMT’s and National Guard, all working above and beyond the call of duty. Donations pouring in and volunteers traveling across country at their own expense to help strangers.

So if God is the one sending these disasters, perhaps it’s not for punishment, but for education. Well played, God.


Remember This

We are often skeptical of some of the narratives promoted by mainstream media and bounced around the echo chambers of social media. A recurrent theme in our discussions here has been the negative bias of news reporting as well as the exaggeration, embellishment and spin practiced by many professional talkers.

There are some media-perpetuated myths which continue to be harmful to our civil society. It is not that racism does not exist. It most certainly does. It’s not that society has not, throughout much of history, been dominated by men. It has. It’s not that there  are no underprivileged people living among us. There are many.

There is, however, a persistent myth which appears to be intentionally promoted in order to create hostility between conservative and liberal, white and non-white, and even urban and rural. The myth is that every male,  white person,  conservative,  Christian and any person who has ever voted for a republican, can be painted with the same broad brush of racism, prejudice and misogyny at worst, and privilege at best. Nothing could be further from the truth. Normally, only a simpleton would accept these, or any such stereotypes.

However, when such myths are implied by mainstream media and reinforced on social media, when “everyone” is posting about it and all the “most trusted” news networks focus repetitively on the worst examples of human behavior while discounting or ignoring the vast majority of what is good, then stereotypes are reinforced to the point where anyone can begin to accept them as truth.

There are other stereotypes running counter to the currently dominant memes: the inner city criminal, the liberal snowflake, which are just as inaccurate, but these usually do not benefit from tacit approval by corporate media.

Another damaging and persistent myth is that our nation is falling apart, on the brink of collapse or suffering from a great divide because of the behavior of its people.

Yet thousands of pickup trucks driven by men wearing baseball caps,  pulling fishing boats or loaded with tools, chainsaws and disaster supplies, converged on flood ravaged Houston last week from all over the south. The “Cajun Navy” came out in force to help. The majority of these volunteers, traveling on their own time and at their own expense happened to be white (a simple function of demographics, not of merit). Most of them came from the same red states to which some have referred when suggesting that natural disaster is a just punishment for voting republican.

Thousands of cowboys, rednecks, hillbillies and blue collar workers, the stereotypes so often aspersed by those who consider themselves to be more sophisticated, came to help strangers in an urban area where less than half the population is white. And there they have spent many long hours in dangerous conditions and toxic water, avoiding snakes, alligators and floating colonies of fire ants, to help anyone who needed help. They have helped rescue thousands of people, and they continue to do so.

To its credit, mainstream media has indeed commented on the spirit of cooperation around Houston which has transcended all barriers of race, class or politics. We have never suggested that there are not people of integrity reporting the news who seek to discover the facts and report them, when they are allowed to do so.

We all have an opportunity for a renewed, more mature understanding of what this country is about. As it was so painfully revealed in last year’s election, Hollywood actors, late night comedians and political pundits do not speak exclusively for the nation. They are merely the loudest voices, and the most well financed. Many who could speak prefer to remain silent.

We have yet to hear a full report from that authoritative voice which has grown ever louder in our lifetimes. President Obama once said that government “can and must be a force for good.” When we look at the ever increasing size and coercive power of the federal government, as well as the bill to the taxpayers for government’s good intentions, we might conclude that if the federal government was a mental patient, the diagnosis would be megalomania or some other manic or paranoid disorder. Government seems to consider itself the essential voice in all matters.

But government is not the force for good which is doing the most to help the people of Houston. That force is ordinary people. One of the greatest organizing forces currently working in the flood damaged areas is churches, which are opening their doors and sharing their human and material resources. Volunteers drawn from the entire spectrum of race, national origin, and political affiliation are working together tirelessly. People are opening their homes to those less fortunate, and often sharing what little they have with people who have less.

This is the reality of America. We see it every time there is a disaster, everywhere there are people in need. We saw it here, during last year’s fires. We see it all across the nation, in small towns and in large cities. It persists, long after the news reporters and the tax dollars spent by government have gone. Remember this. Let the images of sacrifice and cooperation and fellowship sink in. This is truth, and soon enough we will be encouraged to forget it.




Shelter Against the Storm

It’s just after 6 AM on Monday morning. The house is peaceful and quiet. The pups are still sleeping and Georgia Bell, the tuxedo cat with the insatiable appetite, has not yet tapped on the window to place her order for breakfast.

Close at hand is a tall cup of our favorite coffee drink, a generous scoop of fresh ground Tim Horton poured over and steamed with a spoon of coconut oil, a shot of cream and a drop of blueberry honey. The sun is still below the mountain and the dark den is partially lit by the radar image swirling silently on the television screen as we write.

It occurs to us that under the vast maelstrom flooding southeastern Texas and parts of the Gulf coast today, one would be hard pressed to find any democrats or republicans. How quickly identity and ideology scatter in wind, dissolve in water or melt in fire, and where a week ago a cacophony of paradigms and opinions swirled in a perfect storm of dissonance, today there are only human beings, Americans, struggling to stay safe and dry.

A few short months ago our own perspectives became better informed when smoke and fire invaded our beautiful mountain valleys. We have not forgotten. And so we pause on this day, and every day, to be in gratitude, to be thankful for what we have, and grateful for what we can become; to cherish the people we love, and the memories of those whom we have loved and lost.

This is how we set the tone for the day, for the week, and for the rest of our lives. Biologist, Bruce Lipton said, “The picture you hold in your mind creates the behaviour and biology you express in life.” Thus by simple gratitude we improve our state of mind, which improves our health and well being.

When the current storm ends, some will discount the safety of dry ground in the real world and seek once again the elusive “safe space” of the victim, held unaccountable and above reproach in the world of the virtual. So many of us live in that world now, believing it to be real.  As the memory of the real storm recedes, the howling winds of words will begin to blow again, admonishing us to fear, to distrust and to hate. Such is the climate that drives the weather in that virtual world.

Gratitude shelters us against the storms of that world, and keeps us grounded in this one. If you’re out of practice, you can begin very simply. If you’re reading this in the newspaper or online, you can be grateful for the gift of sight. You have money to buy newspapers or pay your electric bill, and you have some amount of discretionary time. Chances are you’re reading this in the shelter of your own home, or you had transportation and fuel to carry you somewhere else. If you’re at work, you can be grateful for your job, and for a boss that isn’t looking over your shoulder.

Gratitude teaches us that every blessing stands on the shoulders of giants. Every advantage is connected to many others which made it possible. Simple gratitude is easy, uncomplicated, and powerful. It denies fear and resists anxiety. It reveals the real world and allows you to transform it.