Curators

The amount of information available today can be confusing. It is intimidating to some, and overwhelming to others. The newspaper we hold in our hands is almost archaic in a world that clicks, pokes and swipes, heads down, shoulders slumped, eyes glazed – constantly connected in an endless search for stimulation and distraction.

Everything that we are inclined to believe is supported somewhere on the Internet. Every fear, every fallacy, every prejudice is presented somewhere as fact, and we are losing the tools of discernment necessary to discover the truth. Many colleges no longer offer classes in logic, and in the rarefied air of some “academic” circles,  even mathematics, the purest of the sciences, is considered “racist.”

History does not move in straight lines. The only thing new in the paragraphs above is the technology which ushered in this age of information. Past generations also struggled to discover the truth, because propaganda and institutionalized deception have always been with us.

Past generations read newspapers, books and magazines. They listened to the radio. They watched the nightly news on one of the three major networks. They relied on classical education, which emphasized grammar, logic and rhetoric, and the common sense available to an untroubled mind, to discern the truth of what they saw and heard.

Were they any closer to the truth back then, before the Internet, before we all became part of the “Matrix?” Perhaps not. Governments and corporations lied then as they do now. Woodrow Wilson sanctioned propaganda depicting Germans as bestial savages to manipulate U.S. citizens into supporting war against Germany in WWI. Prior to our entry into WWII, Roosevelt goaded the Japanese to war while preaching peace at home. We allowed empire builders to lead us into war with North Korea and North Vietnam. More doctors smoked Camels than any other cigarette. We were encouraged to embrace “better living through chemistry.”

Much was hidden from us in the days before the Internet. The mainstream media looked the other way on many of the indiscretions and peccadillos of past presidents, politicians and celebrities. Every aspect of every life was not surveilled and recorded. Though we had better personal tools for discovering truth, we had much less information with which to work.

Technology has revealed much about the past that was overlooked or intentionally obscured. Thanks, in part, to technology, there is no place to hide today in Hollywood – or anywhere else.  Everyone who carries a smart phone, and that includes the majority of U.S. citizens now, is a reporter, with a hand-held microphone and film crew and an instant connection to the world wide web. Every bit of information that is stored digitally is vulnerable to discovery, as hackers have easily kept pace with new forms of encryption.

So how does one endeavor to  deceive when it is impossible to hide information for very long? Truth is sometimes hidden in plain sight. Often it is obscured by the noise, as it is hard to discern a single note in a cacophony.  Politicians obscure truth by manipulating the cognitive bias of their supporters, who sometimes find it just as hard to change their minds as it would be to fight an addiction.

There is a simple but profound reason for that:  Belief can function in the brain in much the same way as addiction. Challenge a person’s beliefs, threaten their world view, and it causes them pain. They often react with anger or desperation, like a junkie denied a fix.

Where does that leave us, dear readers? Ignorance, they say, is bliss, but ignorance can be dangerous. By the same token, seeking too hard after truth can threaten our peace of mind and ultimately our good health. How can we be well informed without getting lost in the electronic Babel, without sacrificing peace of mind to the constant emergency of broken news?

The “ancients,” (our parents and grandparents) had part of the answer: Grammar. Logic. Rhetoric. The ability to understand, reason and communicate. It is never too late to learn, or to refresh these tools, and though modern education emphasizes short term memory with the goal of passing tests, nothing prevents us from teaching our children and grandchildren about these essentials.

Beyond these basic tools for continuing education, we must become curators of our own minds and our own experiences. We must decide for ourselves what is true and what is not, what has value and what does not. We must remain forever skeptical of any person or institution which purports to tell us that the world is this way or that way.

It is certainly easier to be entertained. But if we become so easily and habitually entertained, then we will also be easily frightened, easily angered and easily manipulated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

All Hands on Deck

The screen door slams at the back door of our old family home. It has a distinctive sound. No other screen door sounds quite like it, and when I hear it I travel through time. It is summer and my mother is carrying a load of wash to hang out on the clothesline. My dad is feeding his birds. My brother and I are heading out to roam the neighborhood. “Be careful, and be home before dark,” we are told. How times have changed.

The old farmhouse where my dad lived with his family of 7 has been unoccupied for many years. It was built by hand, of oak and chestnut and heart pine. Friends and neighbors pitched in to raise it up, and it grew organically over the years as the needs of the family grew. It has its own distinctive house smell, which still takes me back to the time when it was warm and rich with the aromas of sweet bread in the oven and a fire crackling in the fireplace. The old house is showing its age, and I think living memory keeps it standing as much as its hand sawed beams. Many younger houses have fallen while this one still stands. We don’t build things to last anymore. Times have changed.

Times always change. My childhood memories will look very different from those of someone born in the same place a generation later. There are things I value that were unknown to my forbears, and those who come after me will value things I can’t imagine.  There is always a generation gap, but a healthy culture has continuity. We pass on our core values, our history,  and our sense of place.

We have never done an outstanding job of that in our great nation. We are still a relatively young country, and we are the personification of change. We don’t have thousand year old cathedrals to anchor us in time. Chances are we would have knocked them down to build freeways if we did have them. But we do have a history. We’ve been through some hard times, and we’ve had our share of triumph and tragedy. We are young, but we are old enough to be “of age,” to have a sense of history and national character.

Those of us fortunate enough to have a sense of personal history and place and continuity are blessed. We have a resource which provides us comfort and stability; something that helps us map our course through life. Even the fastest ship needs an anchor, and a great nation, even a progressive one, needs these things also.

Our ship seems to be adrift these days. Our sails are furled and the winds of change are blowing. There is little agreement on what bearing we should take, even among those of us who still know how to read a map.

What does it means to be an American? Our opinions are divided between the extremes of those who embrace a form of patriotism that is martial in character and leaning toward jingoism, and those who seem content to drift with the currents of identity politics and relativism, or who feel that it is politically incorrect to even ask such a question.

At the right hand edge of those extremes are those who cling to a past that never really existed, a paradigm constructed by propaganda and reinforced by fear: terrorists, radical religions and Russians. At the left edge there is no absolute truth, and a vision which does not extend beyond the social matrix which sucks at our souls through the little windows we bow to and poke at throughout our waking hours. And Russians.

If we are to survive as a great nation, we will need to come to some agreement as to who we are. Still alive among us are traditions and core values which have seen us through many hard times. Peel away the obscuring layers of politics and we may be able to see again the humanity we have in common, and the shared  goals of a civil society.

The world around us is changing at an ever accelerating pace, and we need to be able to chart a course through these unknown waters. We need to find a middle path between sailing angrily into the unknown, guns bristling, and drifting wherever the wind blows to  run aground or be dashed against the rocks.

Soon enough, as happens to all great nations, it will be time again for all hands on deck.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Shift

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.