Sunday, December 2, 2018

"You Can't Change Things"

“You can’t change things, you know,” he said. Who it was isn’t important, he is many people, he is a she as well. I’ve encountered him/her everywhere I go, online and on television too.

He saw me using a reusable bag at the grocery store, in which the cashier was putting my veggie burgers and soy milk. I always go to a cashier rather than using the self-checkout because I’d rather give a person a job than interact with a piece of machinery.

“It doesn’t do any good,” he said in the silence that existed while I weighed the words he first spoke to me. “You all by yourself are not going solve the world’s problems.”

“Look at all the other people shoving their groceries into plastic bags that they will then throw away. Not only do they not care, your example will be ignored, and you can’t do it on your own.”

Like I said, I have heard the argument many, many times before, from people who felt they knew better than me, were wiser in the ways of the world. In the past, their words would weigh heavily upon me. I would believe them because they were so certain, while all my conviction rested on that ever fragile notion called hope. Their argument, however seemed to rest solidly on past examples.
Who was I to argue with all the evidence the past provided? Who was I to say that something new might be achieved? A dreamer, surely.

But perhaps it was the utter repetitiveness of the argument that finally made me tire of it. In all of my life it never wavered, and in all my life, it never did anything to make me happier or the world a better place. So I gave him my reply in a way I never had before. I said it confidently, whereas in the past I weighed my hope with his defeatism.

“Yes, I can,” I said, and it really made me feel good inside to say it.

“What?” he said, as if I had just pronounced myself to be Napoleon Bonaparte or Jesus Christ.

“I said,” and I paused for a moment, confidently, “I am going to change the world.”

“You’re crazy,” he said, with the certainty such types are known for. But freed from my own doubt, my own despair, I could see his certainty and his narrative begin to waver. Never in his life had he had it confronted so directly.

“I am going to change the world,” I said. Not cruelly. Not confrontationally. Just confidently, filled with a brightness I had always longed for but never believed myself capable of. “I am going to change the world and you and everyone else in this store are going to help me.”

I couldn’t help noticing the cashier looking at me as I spoke. I wasn’t sure what she thought of me, but I realized I wasn’t embarrassed by the words I spoke, the position I took, or the attitude I had assumed. My groceries bagged, I thanked the cashier quite genuinely for the service she provided for me, grabbed my bag and walked out the door, making sure I gave something to the bell ringer and thanking him as well. I wish I could explain to you the joy I felt inside. My uncertainty I left behind for the man who had tried to talk me out of my foolishness. “That’s okay,” I thought, “uncertainty is where I started and it led me to where I am now, which is quite a nice state of mind to be in.” 

I truly believe he had been waiting his whole life for someone to show him he was wrong.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Are You Technology's Bitch?

I have one of those rare jobs where the extent of my interaction with technology is when I use a computer to clock-in in the morning and clock-out when I leave. The only tool I use which requires electricity is a SawZall, which I have need of only on rare occasions. Yes, this is being written in the 21st Century, 2018 to be precise.

It is a joy to be free from technology for eight hours. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy technology, it’s just that I want to pick and choose when and where I interact with it. I enjoy social media, binge-watch shows on Netflix with my wife, download podcasts I listen to with Bluetooth. But I’ve become aware that technology is not always a choice. Every appliance I own nowadays beeps at me. Usually it is trying to tell me something I already know, but sometimes things beep and I don’t even know why. It makes me feel stupid. It is not a refrigerator’s job to make me feel stupid. Keep my lettuce crisp and  keep quiet, damn it.

My Kindle beeps. Devices used for reading books should never beep. Beeping is anathema to reading. Beeping is the ultimate distraction. It is the Pavlovian signal that I must emerge from deep concentration and deal with some trivial task. And like a dog, I unthinkingly respond every time. I am technology's bitch.

Speaking of dogs, my dog hates beeping. When she hears it on the television, she gets up from her spot on the couch and goes into the basement. Same for when the microwave finishes, the stove gets up to temperature, the refrigerator is not closed properly, the batteries in the smoke alarm starts dying, or my wife gets a text. Even my dehumidifier beeps. There is no need for that. My dog prefers being alone in the dark to the sound our infernal technology makes, and I don’t blame her.

I don’t have a smart phone. I’m not sure how much money that saves me a month but I know it saves my employer a ton. I see my coworkers take the occasional glimpse at their phone the way any drug addict takes the occasional hit off a pipe. They get edgy when they start thinking about it and it’s been a while. Maybe they’ve missed something important, as if anything they’ve ever seen on Facebook has been important. At any rate, all productivity is lost until they've received a sufficient fix.

The thing I dread more than anything is when a coworker comes up to me with their phone to show me something they’ve seen on the internet. Never, in my entire life, has this turned out to be pleasantly amusing. It is at such times I cannot deny the banality of existence. I start to wonder if this is the same species that created space-flight and War And Peace. It is one thing to find a crude cartoon worth your time, it is another to frame it and hang it on your wall so that your guests must view it as well. At such moments I wish I was alone in a dark basement.

A coworker of mine is fond of pointing out to me how backwards our company is for not finding ways to employ technology to do our job better. When I inform him that it would only make my job less enjoyable, he tells me it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we find ways to improve efficiency and do things cheaper. I tell him I’d rather be happy, and that’s when he looks at me paternally, even though he’s always reminding me I’m older than he is. He then delivers the argument that has been drilled into his and every other American’s head, though he certainly believes he was intelligent to come up with it on his own.

He tells me that my sense of enjoyment comes not from the work I do but in the success we are able to achieve by using technology to beat out the competition. In other words, my success is the result of being more miserable at my work than some poor shmoe in some other factory. By upgrading my position to an even more alienated cog in a super-advanced machine, I can be the lucky one who keeps his job. I tell him that’s not exactly a win/win proposition.

But the real payoff of technological progress, he says, is not at work but the things we can buy with the money we receive from working at a job we hate. I as of yet do not have an ultra hi-def television, so there’s that to work for. But to spend 40 hours of week at work not enjoying myself, I would feel compelled to spend an equal amount of time watching my television in order to feel the tradeoff equal. That's a hell of a commitment.

In truth, if I were to get a new top of the line television with all the necessary accoutrements, it would probably sit half-assembled in my living room. The payoff just wouldn’t be sufficient motivation for me to finish the job. I’ve seen South Park in Hi-Def, and to be honest, it wasn’t all that. Besides, if I were able to follow all the necessary instructions and turn on my new 65” Class 4K (2160P) Ultra HD Smart QLED HDR TV, the first thing it would probably do would be to start beeping, in which case I held towards the safety of the basement. I'm glad I have a dog to keep me company.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

A Conversation With An Onion

My wife keeps a bowl on the kitchen counter in which she places onions to be used for cooking. While packing my lunch yesterday, I noticed an onion that had apparently been sitting there for a long time and had begun growing, a shoot of six inches or so reaching skyward.

“What a futile action,” I thought. “There is no life for you. And now that you are no longer fit even to eat, you will wind up in the trash to be buried forever in a plastic bag in a landfill.”

Then, a very unusual things happened: the onion spoke to me. How it knew what I was thinking I cannot guess, nor did I stop to ask such a question, as startled as I was by this talking onion.

“I grow,” said the onion, by way of explanation, “because it is in my nature to grow. Lacking a developed cerebral cortex such as you possess, I would never think to do otherwise. And for that lack of an ability to overthink life, I must say I am immensely grateful.”

I wasn’t sure what annoyed me more, the fact that I could not deny that the onion was speaking to me or the imperious tone in his voice.

“That may be,” I said, unwilling to let an onion get the best of me in an argument, “but it is a pointless effort that will do you know good.”

“Nothing is pointless if you enjoy it,” said the onion. “Living is growing, and life is its own justification. It feels good to grow. Living and growing, those are the only two true joys possible, except perhaps in giving of oneself to nourish life in another. And while I was quite willing to share of myself as food for you in order that I might become part of your life, you left me sit too long and I grew impatient.”

“Nevertheless,” I said, “not to be cruel, but you are just an onion, and your desire to grow at this late stage is really quite absurd. Nothing will come of it. Sometimes you just have to give up the fight and admit you are beaten. It’s over. Just quit.”

“Oh, I suppose I should be like a human, with your big advanced brain. You are capable of seeing so much, and yet are able to rationalize away all that is important. You would have me give up while there is life yet in me. Now I am not as smart as a human, so maybe it is easier for me to understand the limitations of my intellect. But I see no reason not to live while the urge to burst forth resides within my oniony soul. I cannot see where it will lead, but neither can you, with all your capacity for thought.”

I thought for a moment, realizing this pungent little fellow may just be right. We do have no idea what meaning exists in our actions, try as we may. I thought of trees taking root on the rockiest of mountain sides, of flora finding places to grow from the thinnest cracks in sidewalks. Who could explain the meaning of it all, and yet it was quite amazing, even inspiring, to see life burst forth against all odds. It is best to live with all one’s might rather than to not live at all because your quite-possibly-faulty sense of reasoning cautions otherwise. And while it hurt my ego to admit it, this bulbous vegetable got the best of me in argument.

“Perhaps you are right, onion,” I said, enthusiasm in my voice. “Perhaps there is meaning in your drive to grow even in the most hopeless of situations. Who knows what may come of it. Why, perhaps it is your destiny to inspire me, one who has witnessed your tenacity and will to grow. And perhaps I can share with others a message of hope and appreciation for all the life that is. Perhaps I can let my fellow humans in on your secret and help make the world a better place.”

“Right,” said the onion, and I couldn’t help notice a hint of sarcasm in his voice, “like anybody’s going to listen to somebody who talks to onions.”

Thursday, October 18, 2018

Words (Because Too Much Is Too Much)

At some point in history, words were spoken that were so profound, so rich in meaning, that the printed word was invented in order to record them for posterity. Books were written to capture words of beauty and import. Thoughts themselves, those nebulous creations of consciousness, were given form, brought into the physical world from the secret depths of the human mind and soul. Not every idea, not every string of words was given such distinction. Only those which gave most meaning and joy to those who heard them. The words and ideas were painstakingly imprinted by hand onto paper, which was then stored in the sacred halls of learning, there to be studied, recited, memorized, passed along to future generations. Thus was culture established, thus was our knowledge of ourselves increased, our memory less subject to failing.

The invention of the printing press made it possible to pass such words and ideas to more people. Now each home could have within it the knowledge passed down, now a common laborer could sit and have a conversation across centuries with the likes of Plato or Lao Tzu. Until printing made books so available, even words of less beauty and import were placed into books and disseminated to all.

Finally came the digital age, where the books of millions are available to the billions. Stored electronically rather than on paper, there is now little that is out of reach of the average human. But in the process, words once again became ephemeral, lost their physicality and prominence. No idea, no reflection, observation, or essay was given the dignity and accord that books are capable of bestowing. Each thought became but a drip in a vast ocean of thoughts and words, recorded forever within a library so vast that it conceals that which it wishes to preserve. It is a complete egalitarian system where every expressed thought is equal to every other, the only exception being when money elevates one above another. And money does not seek to raise up the wisdom of the ages but the newest product on the market. The wisdom of ages is mere flotsam and jetsam on a river of the new and marketable. So that Sophocles is buried under E.L. James. Martin Luther King Jr. has equal time on Facebook with your Uncle Leo.

Is this what happened to the Library of Alexandria? Did it become so large and cluttered that the books it was founded to hold got lost in the shuffle? And if so, were they not right to burn it down?

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Quiet Hours

The Quiet Hours

There is magic to be found in the quiet hours.
New perspective to be found in the light of an early morning sun or a midnight street light.
To wander the streets of a summer tourist town in autumn,
when crowds have passed and streets and stores are stripped to their essentials.
To speak with the store owners and waitresses who now have time to reveal themselves.
Like actors with their makeup removed.
To enter a theater and be allowed to walk upon the stage,
to walk upon the field of play
to get a sense of what the actor and athletes feels.

When the spectacle has receded, the sublime emerges.
When the excess has been sloughed off, the essence is revealed.
The fleeting fireworks display extinguished, the enduring stars regain their rightful prominence.
We no longer view the world, we feel it.
We are no longer walk through life, we become part of it.
We become aware of the firmament upon which all else rests.
Become attuned to deeper senses than sight and sound.
It is the ebb-tide, the slow exhalation.
It is when the moonlight and the introvert at last announce themselves.

Thoughts On Caitlin Johnstone And Russell Brand

On Caitlin Johnstone And Russell Brand And Addiction And Gaslighting

In 2010, I read The Easy Way To Quit Smoking and finally was able to overcome my addiction to cigarettes. The author, Alan Carr, explained my current (and his former) inability to overcome a habit that was doing me physical harm and also keeping me feeling as though I was not in charge of my own life. In the process of exploring my relationship with cigarettes, I began to understand that it was not necessary or helpful to blame myself or consider my inability to quit as a sign of moral or physical weakness. As he said, I had fallen into a trap, and recognizing it as a trap I could begin the process of liberating myself from it. So that when I finally decided I was never going to smoke again, I did so eagerly and joyfully. And in the process, I discovered that I had the power to make positive change.

Alan Carr pointed out to me the various misunderstandings I had in regard to my addictive behavior, and as he did so, the bars of my cage of addiction dissolved one by one. This, more than anything, led me to not merely the concept but the actual experience of self-liberation. There was not some force outside of me that was greater than me, that I had no control over. I had mastery over my addiction and my own life. I was free. And I very much had a feeling I could now describe as being “woke”, but which I then referred to as being freed from a prison.
 Which is why I immediately identified with Russell Brand when I first heard him discussing politics and society in general. Here was someone who had overcome far greater addictions than my own. But still, the patterns are the same. The traps are the same and the way the mind rationalizes and looks away from unpleasant truths is no different regardless of the addiction or fixed mental compulsion. There is something that occurs on a subconscious level in the addict that leads him to retreat from healthy decision-making into the destructive but comfortable cycle of addiction and self-destruction. Even a cage can provide one with a sense of security when one fears the outside world. 

My escape from a destructive routine is also why I was so enthralled with Caitlin Johnstone when I first read her. Hers was a message of the need to emerge from a destructive mindset into a healthier way of connecting not only to oneself but with the world. From her I was introduced to the concepts (I'll later explain why paradigm is a better word than concept) "woke" and "gaslighting". Though they were new concepts that opened up new ways of seeing for me, they ran parallel to what Russell Brand spoke of and what I had experienced. 
The terms used to describe the process of abandoning a destructive mindset and opening up to healthy one are different but the idea is the same. Caitlin Johnstone uses the term “narrative” to explain what needs to be recognized as the faulty mindset that needs to be overcome. Though the narrative she refers to is a societal narrative, it must be addressed on a personal level as well. Russell Brand’s philosophy is deeply rooted in the 12-step program, a program used to help individuals overcome addiction. Basically stated, the individual has to admit that he is unable to overcome his addiction on his own and recognize there is a higher power which can give strength. While this higher power is often referred to as God, Russell also reinterprets it to show that an individual cannot overcome his addiction until he recognizes his pattern of behavior (i.e. ego) and is able to see a larger reality and connect to it. Russell sees the addictive behavior as an unconscious program, which is little different from a narrative you uncritically (and unconsciously) accept. While Caitlin begins with the societal and works towards the individual, Russell Brand begins with the individual and points out the societal attitudes that are responsible for many of the addictive behaviors we engage in.

Before I encountered either of them, influenced by Alan Carr and an experience of overcoming addiction that proved revelatory to me, I came up with my own term for what Caitlin describes as narrative and Russell describes as program. I called it paradigm. I was stuck in a paradigm that said my addiction was a reflection of my own weakness, and I required an alternative paradigm to free myself from my addiction. In achieving a more constructive paradigm, I transcended the ineffectual one. I was in a very real way “woke”, since the results were verifiably real and life-altering. Of course, being unfamiliar with Caitlin Johnstone at the time, I did not refer to it as “woke” but used the word self-liberation (a term borrowed from Houdini, who described himself as a self-liberator in performing escapes. You see, I had taken to writing fiction and was exploring such concepts in my Amazing Morse series, about a magician who is able to escape the mundane reality he has come to accept as an adult and rediscover the magic he had perceived as a youth.). While Russell calls harmful behavior patterns "programs" and Caitlin points out "gaslighting" as a means of keeping people in such patterns, I referred to them as “ruts”. The more well-worn a rut was, the harder to pop one’s head above to see beyond them. Ruts are naturally occurring not only to individuals but to societies. To escape a rut requires overcoming the fear of the unknown.

But while Russell Brand and I were familiar with the self-imposed traps into which a person could fall, Caitlin’s terms gaslighting and narrative have a different element to them. Both narrative and gaslighting imply an “other”, a jailer, one who places you or ensnares you in your trap or at least discourages you from leaving it. Without pretending to understand Caitlin’s background more than I do, let me posit that her perspective is derived not from a struggle with addiction but with an unhealthy relationship or mindset towards relationships. If this is true then in her case there was an active agency keeping her from self-liberation, from becoming woke and transcending unconscious programs. Whereas I saw the need for a different paradigm/narrative/program, the thing I had to overcome was merely something of my own creation. A narrative is a paradigm told to you by another, by an individual or a ruling class which seeks to rule through coercion. It is vital to view our understanding of many issues as narratives fed to us by those with their own agendas. Because there are those within society willing to lie and gaslight others into an understanding of the world that benefits them but harms us as individuals and society itself.

I believe both ways of perceiving the situation as being useful tools to be deployed at different times. While the concept of narrative is vital, it is also important to remember that many of those pushing harmful narratives are also victims of them, also stuck in traps they would be more happy freed from. We don't always have to blame people for the false narratives that exist. Indeed, every single narrative that has ever been falls short of accurately describing reality. And yet they are all evolutionary attempts at organizing society and our own minds. Let us learn even from the failed ones and question the ones that are currently functioning. They are all fingers that point at the moon, but they are never the moon. The more narratives/paradigms/fingers pointing at the truth, the easier it is to see it.

Indeed, I believe the more paradigms we are capable of seeing through, the more nuanced we are able to perceive reality. The more paradigms we are able to hold within ourselves, the less likely we will surrender ourselves entirely or uncritically to a single paradigm, which is inevitably simplistic. We need to hold onto the paradigms that have shaped our lives since childhood even as we realize that we have outgrown their ability to define our world for us. That they have shaped us at all is proof that we will never be utterly free of them.

At the same time, we must recognize the truly revolutionary paradigms that are presently emerging, which are redefining our understanding of the world we live in similar to how Origin Of Species reshaped humanity's understanding a century-and-a-half ago. We are getting currently some pretty intriguing glimpses of a paradigm that is still nascent, still indistinct and yet undeniable. We are just now getting the first photos of something we cannot dismiss as false and yet cannot as of yet easily interpret. It is. Let us, each and all of us, work towards explaining WHAT it is. Let us accept the various different explanations not as incontrovertible facts but as fingers that point toward the moon. A new paradigm is being born, let us embrace that. At the same time, let us not be hasty in trying to define it. But having said that, let me draw your attention to the fingers Caitlin and Russell are pointing, because their vision seems unusually acute and their willingness to point straight is quite rare in this age.

Friday, July 20, 2018

From Fear To Joy

Consciousness has a tendency towards constricting, so that if you do not openly push boundaries and question assumptions, it will gradually lead you into a smaller and smaller world. It will shrink around you, limit your circle of friends, limit the light that enters into your world from a vast universe of mystery where joy can be found in infinite varieties. With the constriction of your consciousness will come a feeling of helplessness and persecution. You will feel the world is a hostile place and that you need a place to hide. You will stop exploring and turn even further inward, rejecting new ways of seeing things and clinging tightly to what is comfortable, even if it is an addiction or an unhealthy relationship.

There are those who are willing to prey on this human propensity. Closed off from the universe themselves through fear, they seek a false sense of strength through controlling others. They will seek to shape the way you see the world, will erect barriers of fear within you mind, and their ultimate achievement will be when you begin to do the work of censoring yourself for them. Within you own mind will be their voice, telling you to fear, telling you to run away and hide.

You will know you are in the grip of such thoughts when you are angry and fearful and feel helpless. You will know those who seek to manipulate you because they will always try to steer you back into you cage through fear and hatred of those who they do not approve. They will never allow you your own thoughts, never permit your mind to wander or for you to express curiosity.

You can never be free without being open, can never be truly free without trusting in a universe that holds more hope than fear. Your greatest act of self-liberation will be to dare to look outwards, dare to feel a positive connection to the world so that you feel a power to shape the world around you and a willingness to have it shape you in return. In short, you will never feel free until you are capable of experiencing joyfulness.

It is time we stepped out of our bunkers.