Saturday, November 28, 2020

A Weekend Without Internet

I left the house recently for a weekend cabin-in-the-woods getaway with the express purpose of leaving all connected devices behind.

 It almost didn’t happen. I found as many excuses to bring something with as Bilbo found for not leaving his ring behind. But in the end my inner Gandalf convinced me that it had gotten too great a hold of me. And so my wife and I headed north in my car that lacks even a CD player, relying on the spotty reception from small town radio for any kind of news from the outside world.

 Not that I had planned on leaving it ALL behind me, of course. It was my little experiment, not my wife’s, so she had her cell phone. And the cabin had advertised it had Netflix and Amazon Prime. What with a pandemic going on and deer season just starting, I knew our options for amusement would be limited. We’re not the kind of people to spend a day binge-watching, but with the woods and crowded areas both potentially lethal we had a good excuse for such an indulgence.

 When we arrived at our cabin, I went almost immediately to the television in order to acquaint myself with someone else’s setup. It’s never a simple task: I was faced with four remote controls, one containing 57 buttons, the second 35, the third 29, with the Roku remote mercifully having less than a dozen. Included with them was a list of instructions written by someone who was never going to be hired for a tech writing position. 

I spent an hour of my time—in a cabin, on a lake, in the woods—engaged in the very same stressful, tedious and yet oddly addictive behavior from which I had attempted to flee. And in the end, for whatever reason, I was unable to get an internet connection. Not that I didn’t try. I engaged hopefully—earnestly—in what can only be described as technological ritual. Even when I came to realize that the communion with the great other was not going to take place, I religiously performed the instructions, engaged in the holy rites which summon the spirits from their mysterious dwellings to appear before us and work their miracles. After all, belief is vital if we are to please the gods of technology enough to have them do our bidding.

 Fortunately, my wife was there to urge me to let go, my faithful Sam who was with me at the moment of my final temptation. And in the end, I was able to let it go. No longer desiring to harness the awesome might of a power beyond my reckoning, I had passed the test and remained Galad—I mean, James. 

But ridding oneself from a crutch means relearning to walk naturally again. I found myself in moments where I would ordinarily turn to some device for distraction, only to find there was no ring to gently caress. I had to relearn the art of talking with another human being. I had to relearn the art of listening to that inner voice inside of me. It was a little unnerving because even though I had spent the better part of my life without the internet, it all seemed so far away from me now. But over the course of a weekend, I was able to rediscover a bit of who I was before the internet changed me. Changed everybody.

 Having seen pictures of the cabin when we chose it, I knew it had a record player, and so had unearthed some albums from the deep recesses of our basement. What’s more, I was pleasantly surprised to find a rather eclectic collection of LPs at the cabin, as well. From the cabin’s library, I sampled Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, Nat King Cole’s Rambling Rose, early RollingStones, and even Marlo Thomas and Friends (you’d have to be of a certain age to know this one). I listened to a whole side of Paul McCartney’s Ram in order to get to Admiral Halsey. I never would have listened to those other songs otherwise, not in an age where the opportunity to fast-forward is always there. 

It was a pleasant, relaxing experience. I think that’s what listening to music is supposed to be like, but in the age of instant access to everything, even listening to music has the potential to cause anxiety and impatience. I often start a song only to get the urge to click another song after a minute into it. I can’t speak for everyone, but I have a tendency online to move endlessly from one item to another without ever fully appreciating anything I hear, see, or read. This has led to a dull sense of never being satisfied, with always wanting more, always hoping the next thing will be the one that gives me what I want. It never does. Hence my desire to reconnect to the world I knew before the instant non-gratification the internet provides.

 We humans have a tendency to want to escape, to run away. But too often we carry with us that which we wish to be free from. So long as we have our cell phones with us, we can never distance ourselves from the habit of mindless scrolling and searching. If I had had access to the internet, I know I would not have found what I had been looking for. My inner state of being would be no different whether I was being eternally prompted by external electronic stimuli at home or in a cabin. But cut off from the great distracter that is always looking for our attention, I was paradoxically able to find a bit of myself and my past in a place that I had never been.

 The fight is not over, but I have been given a brief respite and a reminder of what life was like in the before time. The internet can change our lives for the better if we are careful, but it can change our lives for the worse if we are not.

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Sunday, July 12, 2020

All Aboard The Monkey Train

Once upon a time there was a train that travelled from one end of our country to the other. It was a typical journey, one made many times before, so none of the passengers thought anything about it.

But the company in charge of the rail line and the trains was seeking ways to increase profits, so they cut a few corners and let a few safety issues slide. For one thing, they got rid of the unionized work force and replaced it with monkeys. Yes, real monkeys. It’s hard to figure out what they were thinking, but the monkeys did work for next to nothing, so costs were reduced to a few bunches of bananas.

At first the passengers dared not allow themselves to believe what they saw. Nobody could be so stupid and greedy as to staff their trains with an all-monkey crew. Surely there must be some actual human beings in the engine room and in other critical areas. After all, this train had taken the journey many times and there had never been any major incidents before. At least, none of the passengers recalled seeing anything about it in the news. And so they all remained silent, pushing their concerns and fears down, distracting themselves with the video screens that were provided by the train company. These, at least, were in fine working order.

But as the train began to pull away from the station and pick up steam, the sound of the train was not at all healthy. It sounded like wheels and gears might fall off the train at any moment. But as loud as the clattering was, the sound of the chattering of monkeys could still be heard.

Until eventually the sound got to be too much for one of the passengers. He stood up from his seat and told the other passengers of his concerns if they didn’t do anything. But all it took was one passenger to call him crazy before everyone on his side of the train took up the chant “crazy man, crazy man.” Those sitting beside him had no desire to get in between the man who warned against their danger and the crowd on the other side of the aisle who called him crazy. After all, they were just on the train to get from point A to Point B. This wasn’t their fight, and besides, they were deeply engrossed in the movies they were watching on their screens. And so when the crowd from the other side of the train grabbed the man and threw him from the train, it was rather easy for them to get back to watch their Avengers movie or Two And A Half Men episode, or whatever it was that helped them wile away the time until they eventually reached their destination. They put their listening devices back into their ears and turned up the volume.

But truth be told, they could never fully block out the screeching of the wheels or the monkeys. It wasn’t as relaxing a trip as they all let on.

But before too long, the video one passenger was watching malfunctioned, and he was left alone with nothing but the squealing machinery and moronic mouthings of monkeys to occupy his attention. Until he could stand it no more and he rose to his feet, saying what everyone was thinking but nobody was willing to admit.

And this time, the man’s wife arose with him.

When one had spoken up, they considered him a madman. But when two spoke up, they called it a nuisance. It was a couple from the side that had dumped the last person off the train. And belonging to the same crowd, this group had no desire to toss one of their own off the train. But they still weren’t real happy about the disturbance. So when a group from the other side of the train grabbed the couple and bound and gagged them, nobody did anything.

But that was not the end of it. A little further into the journey, a dozen had gotten up the courage to speak out. Perhaps it was not courage so much as they were unable to live with the noise anymore. Now if one person was considered mad and two people were considered a nuisance, a dozen was considered a threat. This could perhaps lead to a shutting down of the train entirely, and that would be an inconvenience to everyone involved. The train had made this journey many times before, surely this time would be no different. All they had to do was silence the mob before it got out of hand.

But this time it was not so simple. There were people from both sides of the train clamoring for people’s attention. And even as they did so, more people turned down the volume on the shows they had been watching in order to see what the fuss was about. And doing so, they heard the shrieking of the wheels and the mad chatter of the monkeys that pretended to be running things when they had no understanding but only attitude.

Looking out the window, they saw they were approaching a bridge that had collapsed and not been repaired. And looking around the people on the right side of the aisle and the left side of the aisle, the people seated in front and the people in the back, all realized they were on the same train together and would share the same fate.

Were they able to stop the train before it plunged to ruin into a gorge? Were they able to wrest the control of the train away from the monkeys? I cannot say, but at the very least it could be said that they finally got off their dead asses, took control, and gave it a try.

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Sunday, June 14, 2020

This Is What The Resistance Looks Like

Their first strike was when they donned hats and missed brunch to attend a rally:

Then they let people know they were offended by Trump's vulgar ways:

Using art as a weapon of the rebellion, they showed they would not tolerate men reducing women to mere sex objects and body shaming anyone who had a less than idealized physique:

They created art to show that love is love and that homosexuality was not something that should be used to mock people:

In order to win the hearts and minds of the people they showed that, unlike Trump,  they weren't xenophobes with an irrational fear of people from other countries:

Obama's and HRC's communication director
Unlike Trump and his supporters who pushed ridiculous conspiracy theories, the Resistance stuck to the facts. Because facts matter: 

These were not mere token displays of resistance, these were meaningful, impactful acts of protest: 

And when it came time to take a stance on police violence, the Democrats got real: 

They worked to build alliances with other rebel factions:

Of course, when the nation's leaders needed to come together to deal with the financial crisis resulting from the pandemic, the Resistance showed that they were able to work with the Republicans to help the average American. Because the Senate was the check on the emperor's power: 

Yes, the Democrats had a master strategy for success. That's why, when it came time to take Trump down in the 2020 election, they knew they needed a special kind of firebrand to handle the job, a man with bold new ideas and the kind of fire in the belly that would be required to stand up to Trump:

It's said that a picture is worth a thousand words. Here's hoping these pictures have inspired you to take up the flag of resistance and carry it into victory in November. Because when Trump's gone, everything will once again be as it should:

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Tuesday, May 19, 2020

An Apology To A Cardinal (And To Birds In General)

At six o’clock Saturday morning I heard the song of a cardinal. I thought it rude of him to be so noisy so early in the morning and felt that he owed me an apology for waking me up on my day off. But by 9 o’clock as I was hanging my laundry to dry, hoping to enjoy a peaceful morning, my tranquility was disturbed by a neighbor’s air compressor, and another neighbor’s motorcycle. At that point I understood it was we humans who owed him an apology.

Soon after, I took my bike for a ride, the streets for the better part silent due to the pandemic. I heard a woodpecker at work, as well as the calls of other birds I could not recognize. Like many of my kind, I have spent more time in factories than I have in nature. I can recognize the voices of countless celebrities, but few birds, can tell you who sang thousands of songs I don’t even like, but can put a beak to very few bird songs.

But in the relative silence, I hear many birds’ voices now. They seem to be speaking to me, asking if we cannot maintain the silence we’ve been engaged in of late. I would be glad to oblige, but my voice too gets drowned out by the noises of the factories and the voices on the radio and television. My voice is heard no more than the birds, and is far less appealing.

Sadly, I know what is coming. In a matter of weeks. When the summer they have waited so long for will hit full stride, not only will the countless aural annoyances civilization has produced return in full force, but another horror will be unleashed upon them. The 4th of July is not far away, a time when children and adults alike will be playing with their trauma-inducing fireworks. I feel bad enough for my dog, who slinks down into the cold, dark basement every time one surprises her. But the birds have nowhere to go. Their homes, their places of safety, are the trees, and they are no refuge from the noise and the explosions.

Still and all, I am amazed they are willing to take up residence in my neighborhood. I’m amazed at how much nature still exists in the places where we’ve done our best to pave it over. I look out front to see the birds gathered around the feeder I had bought for my mother and inherited when she passed. There are many times I look back and think of how I could have done more for my mom, but in this instance, I feel that I gave her a special gift. I think of her alone, as I am now, listening to all the sounds of birds, appreciating the beauty and joy nature provides. I hope that someday when I am home-bound, someone thinks to place a bird feeder near my window.

It is an amazing thing to travel far to see the natural wonders of the world, but there is something equally beautiful in appreciating the little miracles that flutter around us.

If they could just sleep in a little later. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Does Genius Exist In The 21st Century?

There are people so brilliant that their genius can be detected in a single one-sentence quotation. Read a random quote from Oscar Wilde, for example. 

There are people so intelligent that their brilliance is apparent in virtually every single thing they say or write. Pick up any novel, short story, or essay by Jack London and be prepared to be impressed. 

The genius of some people bleeds over from their areas of expertise into whatever subject they speak on. Einstein is one such person. I can’t even begin to understand what he’s saying when it comes to physics, but he manages to impress me when he speaks about the human condition or politics, among other things. 

In short, when I see genius, I don’t have to have someone tell me how brilliant that person is: it hits me on a visceral level.

I have never read a quote from Bill Gates that in the least impressed me. Perhaps he is a genius when it comes to developing software, I’ll leave that to people more versed in the field than I. But when it comes to stepping outside his area of expertise, he does not impress me in the slightest. The only thing I’ve witnessed is the mutterings of a mediocre mind. I’ve read his book suggestions and not once have I seen a book among them that suggested Bill Gate’s reading list has anything of value to offer society.

So why is his name mentioned at all when it comes to the current pandemic? Has he gone back to school and finally got a degree in something, in medicine or virology perhaps? Why should I or anyone else care what he has to say? Who made him an authority on anything, and why does the world require his leadership? Who are today's arbiters of genius?

In fact, I would go as far to say that there is not a single person in the public eye at present who demonstrates anything I would say is clear, unmistakable genius. Thomas Friedman is always being held up before me as a great thinker. He can be clever, I’ll give him that. But his cleverness is more often used to rationalize than to elucidate. And history, I'm convinced will not be kind to his central theses.

Who else do we see on television or in print that could even be considered for the designation of “genius”? Neil deGrasse Tyson? Again, he’s assuredly intelligent in his field, but does that intelligence translate outside of it? A huge step up from Bill Gates, but hardly comparable to an Einstein, who was in turn also a much greater figure in science. Who, then?

I am almost tempted to turn to comedians to fill the void. They alone seem to be able to look beyond the rather narrow parameters of vision current society is stuck in. Among them, among those the mainstream admits exists, I would point to John Stewart as the closest there is. And he, sadly, has bowed out of the public eye, perhaps realizing that the public eye was winking shut on anyone willing to stare boldly at the truth of things. Not too long ago, I would have included Stephen Colbert, but the last couple years have shown that there is something lacking in him that anyone who might be considered to have genius must possess. A person of genius must be uncompromising in looking at the heart of the matter, of getting to the truth no matter how uncomfortable or unpopular the truth might be. That is not Stephen Colbert.

Where then, can we find the thoughts of genius we need in order to elevate our own thinking, and in turn elevate the way we interact with and improve the world in which we live? Fortunately, we can reach back in time, for the past is replete with the collected thoughts of those in touch with genius. To list a few would show my biases, but you can’t go wrong with the classics. You really have not need to go past the age of Christ to find genius from many sources around the world.

But is genius to be forever relegated to that past? Is there no room for it here in the 21st Century? The answer is no, there is not. At least it is not to be found in corporate media. Think about it: how many times have you heard the voices of Martin Luther King or Mahatma Gandhi on television? If the media cannot even acknowledge accepted genius, what chance is there they will ever permit the voices of present genius?

Genius does exist, however. It exists where it has always existed in eras where the truth is avoided because it contradicts authority: on the periphery. Not only does it exist, I’d go so far to say it is thriving. Again, I could list a lot of names of people who impress me with not only their intelligence but also with their determination to pursue truth beyond the stagnant accepted parameters. I could go with a well-seasoned mind like Chris Hedges, or youngish but vibrant minds like Niko House or Jamarl Thomas. If you want your intelligence and integrity to be served up with a healthy dose of humor, I’d say Jimmy Dore.

But if you want my pick for someone whose writing belongs beside any acknowledged voice of genius throughout history, I’d go with Caitlin Johnstone. She is everything I mentioned in the first paragraph. You can detect genius in a single sentence. You can see it sparkle in just about anything she writes. And while she is prolifically writing daily political articles, you see her genius spill over into her poetry, her drawings, her philosophical, psychological, and spiritual musings.

Check her out. See what genius looks like in the 21st Century. Because you’re not going to find it in the Washington Post or CNN.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

What Will Our Future Be?

What will our future look like? Don’t scurry around looking for the opinions of experts. Our experts have failed us. You’re the expert now, what do you think?

More than that, what do you feel? What do you want? What do you want our future to be?

When someone asks you what the future will look like, you might get images of Mad Max or The Matrix, but those images have been implanted into the fear receptors in your brain. Even if you have thought those ideas on your own, you have never desired them to come to be.

What do you want the future to look like? For all of us, for humanity and for all the animals that are trapped on this planet with us? What do you want for your children and their children? What do you want people in the future to think of us?

You know how this works on a personal level. Everyone knows that if you eat right, if you brush and floss regularly, exercise, save money and work hard, your future will be much more pleasant than if you do not take care of yourself or plan.

But you are part of an ecosystem. Just as a healthy plant cannot thrive in an unhealthy environment, neither can you thrive in a poisoned ecosystem no matter how you tend to your own health. You will never truly be happy or healthy so long as you neglect the environment in which you live. How healthy will our future environment be?

You’re writing the script even as you read this. Your smallest decisions are determining the future that is coming. It is impossible to know whether your largest efforts will bear fruit, it is true. But it is also impossible to know that your smallest choices will not bear fruit you never would have believed possible. As with the choices you make for your personal wellbeing, it is the day-in, day-out routines you establish which will block by block build the future you desire.

It's easy to feel helpless. We’ve been trained to feel helpless, trained by those who feel helpless inside and try to feel powerful by making others feel miserable.

You can feel helpless if that is what you want, but feeling helpless feels horrible. It’s better to feel helpful, powerful, meaningful.

That’s a choice. It’s a habit. It’s an attitude. You just decide you’re going to look for ways to make the future like how you want it to be. You just find ways that you’re making the world worse and find alternatives. You find one tiny little thing that you were doing before, and decide you don’t have to do it. Think of one small bit of your own power you were giving to soulless institutions or bullies that insisted you had to do things the way they told you, and take it back.

Do it. Find some tiny scrap of change you can make, and then ask yourself if feeling powerful doesn’t feel better than feeling helpless. Embrace the glorious feeling of being able to do something that is good for the universe, and all of the sudden new ideas will occur to you. And each time you embrace such an idea it will make you feel good in a way you had long stopped believing was possible. Feel your power and you will soon realize that those who took it from you or told you you couldn’t have it weren’t your friends. Feel your power and you realize you will never let them take it from you again. There is nothing they can threaten you with, because they cannot threaten you with anything worse than that feeling of helplessness that had been eating away at your gut.

The future is in your hands. What will it look like?

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Sunday, March 22, 2020

I Speak For The Dead

It's always a dangerous thing to attempt to speak for others, but sometimes the attempt must be made. Those who have a voice must speak out against the injustices perpetrated against those who have none. People need to speak out against problems even when the victims themselves are unaware. Just because someone does not have a voice does not mean they have nothing to say.

As for me, I feel I must speak for the dead.

I feel the need to give voice to those who have passed on, our elders who are no longer around to give us their wisdom.

It is risky, channeling the voices of those who raised us, those who guided us through our early years and shared with us their principles and beliefs. It is even harder to attempt to speak for those we have only heard about, those who passed out of existence before we were ever born. And yet there stories were passed on to us, at least parts of them. I can only approximate what they would say, but I feel they would want me to make the attempt. Their lives had meaning, their experiences can guide us even as we make our way through a world quite different than the one they knew. 

I see many of the things my parents tried to teach me differently now that I am approaching the age I knew them to be. Some of what they told me makes more sense now, some of it has not proven to be wisdom. I do not judge them, they did the best they could to point me in a positive direction. But they did a good enough job that I would dearly love to be able to talk to them now, to hear their opinions on the issues I am facing and the issues our society is facing. Most of us think we'd have a good idea of what our parents would say if they were around today, but I’m guessing for most of us our understanding of what our parents believed was fashioned by our younger selves, that if we were able to speak with them now our understanding of what they were trying to teach us would grow deeper and would better be able to guide us in the present.
And for me, at least, I would love to hear their opinions of the society in which we live now. I’m guessing it would be different than what we’d expect, because we are creatures of our current environment and they were creatures of theirs. I can’t help thinking that if we would show what we consider to be modern marvels to many of our ancestors, they would consider them abominations. If we were to show them our water parks, they would ask “But where are the open fields, where are the woods?”
We are in an era where the present is constantly with us, where we are unable to touch the timeless because the outside world has infiltrated our homes. Newsmen and advertisers, social media and video games are working from within our places of sanctuary, demanding our attention, and while we connect with these electronic devices, we are disconnecting from any link we once had with our past, with our ancestors, and with the perspective that those of another era might be able to give us.
I challenge you to step out of the present for a moment. Find an old magazine where the pictures look different, where the color scheme is not what you’re used to. Grab an old novel and really feel where the author was coming from in an era that once wrote letters and waited days and weeks for a reply. Seek to understand a different culture, which after all is really your culture, your heritage.
Watch an old movie, where most store managers were actually store owners, where people went shopping in a dress shirt and tie instead of pajama bottoms. You don’t have to agree with the way everything was back then but you should at least attempt to understand it. And don’t watch a new movie that takes place in another era, because it will be filled with the biases of our own age.
Visit an antique store or a museum, gaze upon the tools people once used. Gaze upon an old lamp and consider how not only the technology but the perspective on how things were made was so different.

Gaze at an old picture, and see what it can tell you. Who were they, what would they say to us, what did they know that we did not?
Get connected to those who came before you. Because it is only in knowing who they were, the good and the bad, that you will have any real understanding of who YOU are. Pour through your memories, reflect upon what you can remember of them, reappraise what you understood when you were young and permit yourself to see the past in light of the present. Do this until you feel you now understood them better than you ever did before. Then let them speak through you. Their voices deserve to be heard.

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