Saturday, September 30, 2017

Eclipsed

This essay about my experience of the eclipse is posted on the Seven Candles Facebook page, but I wanted folks here to have easy access to it, too. Read it here: http://sevencandles.org/eclipsed/.

(Includes some great photos)

Enjoy!

[Just 'cause there's an awful lot of space left on this page, here's my favorite public-domain photo of the eclipse. Notice the photo-bombing ISS, trying to hide among the sunspots. Zoom in.]




OK, that was fun, but really, please go read my thoughts about the eclipse, here.

Monday, May 29, 2017

Little Things

This post is part of Blog March 2017, begun by the great Robin RenĂ©e, and is a movement for Freedom of Expression, Knowledge, and Information. Each day throughout the month of May, a new voice towards a better tomorrow. Yesterday's blog marcher was Bob Bruhin at LOVE in the Afternoon on May 28. Tomorrow's will be Anthony Lioi at Planetary on May 30. I can't vouch for what other marchers post; I'm endorsing free expression, not other bloggers' perspectives. 

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I remember the moment. I don’t remember the date, or the time, but I remember the moment itself quite clearly. I came out of my Plant Biology class into the hallway of the Ag Education building, thinking to myself “What am I doing here?...” I walked slowly down the hallway, feeling to my bones the cold gray light coming through the windows from a typical fall afternoon in Ithaca. I stopped at a drinking fountain, and when I looked up from my drink, there it was.

Just a simple sheet of white paper, with large plain black text: The Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament. In smaller letters it told how 5,000 people were going to walk from Los Angeles to Washington DC. I stared. Then I turned and continued to amble down the hall, but the idea grew. I could do this.

That was over thirty years ago. In the years since, I walked across this continent and joined a political folk-music band along the way, which led me to a combination peace walk and concert tour in the Soviet Union, which some Russian historians cite as playing a minor role in the collapse of the Soviet Union. I met Ann and my stepson Christopher, who is himself now thirty. The band took us to California, where I learned how to build houses, Ann became a nurse, and we conceived Robin. Our time in LA made us crave green stuff, which led us to rural Ohio, and so on, one thing leading to another, then another, and another, but never in a predictable straight line. Each event reverberated forward in a spreading fashion, like a massive avalanche started by a single snowball. The astounding truth is that a single 8½ x 11 sheet of paper stuck to a bulletin board in 1985 is responsible for just about everything that is true in my life today, including the very existence of my daughter and her good work as a nurse and minister.

Can we even begin to measure the long-term impact of that flyer on the children I work with at The Circle School, or on the students I taught in Ohio, or all the people my children will ever meet or touch? How about the people their children will meet, users of my son's elegant code, listeners of his music, or my daughter's parishioners, or the people whose lives she saved in the ER, and so on?

Many years after that Fall afternoon, I went back to school to study Physics, and become excited by a  field of study called Chaos. Chaos Theory describes how later states of any complex system depend entirely on the exact arrangement at earlier times, and how even the tiniest, imperceptibly small change in those earlier conditions can ultimately make the whole system completely different. A butterfly flaps its wings in New York, and a typhoon hits Japan two months later. That’s why we still can’t predict the weather—every time you breathe, you change the state of the atmosphere just enough to totally rearrange the weather a month or two from now, because each air molecule bumps into the ones around it, causing them to move, which causes others to move, and so on. The atmosphere is thermodynamically connected to everything on earth. A butterfly, a cough, or the words “Good morning!” affect entire weather systems down the road. Little things change everything.

Air molecules affect each other by colliding, but there are other ways to be chaotically connected, like the force of gravity. Recent analysis of orbits suggests that moving a pencil from one side of your desk to another is enough change in the gravitational field to shift Jupiter halfway around its orbit a billion years from now. Your body is about ten thousand times the mass of a pencil, so everything you do affects everything else, and over long time scales, those effects really matter. [Get it? “matter”?! I am such a nerd]

I recently read John Michael Greer’s book “Dark Age America: Climate Change, Cultural Collapse, and the Hard Future Ahead” and it’s bouncing around in my head. I recommend it. Greer makes a compelling and provocative case that we are a civilization in slow but now-unavoidable decline. Recent politics since the book came out bear witness to his urgings. And yet. I’ve heard it said that “prediction is difficult, especially if it involves the future” [haha; little joke there–not mine]. Our global civilization is an extremely (obscenely?) complex system, subject to the butterfly effect even as it is subject to the hard limits of the planet’s finite resources.

Human history is chaotic, too, but YOU are one of the initial conditions: leaving home two seconds earlier in the morning puts you in the 12-car pileup, or not; lets you meet your future spouse, or not; lands you your dream job, or not.  And each of those has consequences, and so on. Chaos theory can’t tell us the long-term results of our choices, but it does tell us that every choice is hugely significant. The future of everything is completely different because you are here doing this instead of there doing that.

A friend of mine heard me speak about this, and said, sarcastically: “Thanks JD. Now I can't even get out of bed in the morning!" Well, the first thing to get clear is that the butterfly is not responsible for the typhoon! The person who put up the peace march poster is not responsible for me marrying Ann! You are not responsible for what happens down the line when you could not possibly have foreseen the long-term chaotic results of your actions.

Secondly, I mentioned that orbit stuff not so you’ll worry about causing planetary collisions a billion years from now, but to emphasize our connection with everything, mediated by gravity, history, and the cumulative effect of small changes. We are part of a web of existence that extends to the edge of the known universe and to all time past and future.

So what are we to make of this incredible power we have, if everything we do could just as easily cause WWIII as end poverty? Well, if we go through our lives with our heads down, acting by habit or instinct, then the future will be what it will be, que sera sera. 

But in every moment there is an opportunity to bias the future to the good. The simple, little moments when we could make eye contact and smile at the cashier, make a silly face at a child on the street, or breathe deeply in bumper-to-bumper traffic rather than honking the horn. Miss the opportunity, and you're still incredibly powerful, but you're just one of millions of chips that will fall as they may. Seizing those opportunities starts with awareness: Who am I being right now? What positive, connective action do I have the courage to take right now?

The long-term effects of noticing and taking advantage of these moments is unknown, but cannot possibly be more bad than good, on the whole! It’s not an obligation, it’s a game, completely optional to play or not. But I’ve noticed that when I remember to watch for them, taking these little opportunities enriches my life, and that enrichment snowballs forward, too.

Chaos theory, when combined with mindful attention to snowball-sized opportunities to care and connect, gives us the godlike power to start an avalanche of goodness. Every moment in a lifetime is such an opportunity.


I like to think about the person who stuck that paper above the drinking fountain. Was she in a hurry, after a long day? Did he agonize about whether the drinking fountain was a high-enough-traffic area to be worth it? Had a friend mailed her the thing, and she stuck it to the nearest place just to keep her word? Maybe he was paid to put it there! One thing I’m sure of; that person could not possibly have known how much their simple act would change my world, and, through time, the entire world.  It’s the little things we do that change history. The little things. We have no idea.


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Fertilizer Warehouse


This is a story about an afternoon in 1986, and how a hailstorm and a microphone changed my views on conflict and peacemaking. I was walking from Los Angeles to Washington DC on the Great Peace March for Global Nuclear Disarmament. 500 earnest peace-niks left California, crossed the desert and the rocky mountains, and onto the Great Plains. By the time we strolled down into the eastern Colorado summer we were deeply divided. Yeah, I know: the peace march was deeply divided. Go figure. 

The problem was that some of us wanted to leave camp when we darn well pleased each morning, walking in the cool early hours, or waiting until the coffee shops were open, or the sun was up, or just wanting to avoid spending another six hours in earshot of the non-stop drumming from the Buddhist contingent. We were peace pilgrims on a 4000-mile meditation; why should we subject ourselves to regimentation? What’s the problem with letting people walk how they wanna walk? 

Others thought that our impact as a political movement was diluted when we were all strung out, only ten or twelve of us per mile, enough to raise a question in passing drivers, but not enough to answer it. Why bother walking all that way if we’re not going to make a major statement? We should walk in a coordinated group!

Frustration became anger, which bred factions. On one side, the “let people walk when the want to” faction, and on the other, the “we have to walk as a group” faction. People left the march over it. Couples broke up over it; aging civil rights veterans were pitted against young gay rights activists. It was bad. You can guess which side the Anarchists were on. 

On that fateful June afternoon, a storm rolled in as we were trying to set up our tents in a muddy field. Strong winds gave way to hard rain, then large hail. We sprinted for the only building nearby: a fertilizer warehouse. If you’ve never been in a fertilizer warehouse, picture a corrugated metal building with a concrete floor, big rolling doors at the end like an airplane hangar, and stalls around the walls filled with, you guessed it, two dozen different kinds of manure, in big piles suitable for a front-loader. 

Photo credit: FOLKWAYS NOTEBOOK
We were stuck in there until the storm let up, so someone set up a microphone and a speaker, and, over the roar of hail on the metal roof, invited us to just talk, two minutes each, about the issue of how we should walk each day. With nothing else to do, not even a safe place to sit down, we listened. We talked and we listened. Some got in line several times; some didn’t speak at all, but everyone had a chance to share their thoughts. At first, the tone was angry, then exasperated, then thoughtful, then a bit sheepish, and finally conciliatory, ending with peals of laughter and jokes about our surroundings that aren’t appropriate to repeat here. 
    
                                                                                                                                 
It wasn’t a debate, or an argument, or a courtroom scene; there was no motion on the floor, nothing to decide, just a bunch of people in an uncomfortable situation, sharing their thoughts one at a time. And listening. (Smelling, tasting, and touching weren’t really options.)

After a couple hours of listening and talking, one at a time, both the storm and our divisions had completely passed. We knew exactly what we would do: we would walk in a tight group through cities and towns, and strung out in the rural countryside: City Mode and Country Mode. It was an obvious resolution, but one that we couldn’t see from our self-righteous factions. There was no big vote, no straw poll, no formal consensus sought or gained, no talk of enforcement, we just knew. It was obvious. It was peacemaking. It was magic. 

In today’s fractured world, with its hot wars and religious strife and dysfunctional politics, “listening” as a way forward just seems too simple, too quaint, too naive to even mention. Maybe we need the global equivalent of a hailstorm and a manure warehouse, but I don’t think so. I think the magic of making peace really is as simple as taking the time to listen. Listen, speak, listen some more. 


Who do you need to listen to? 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Taker Guilt and the Exorcism of Anthropocene Angst


A sermon given at the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, Feb 13, 2017  ©JD Stillwater

Many years ago I walked from Los Angeles to Washington DC with 400 of my closest friends. Well, they became some of my closest friends. Funny how hardship builds strong communities. There we are last summer, some of us anyway. We were walking for global nuclear disarmament, but as you know, that issue is tied to many others, like environmental stewardship, poverty, lots of things. 

A friend of mine was hanging out with some people the following year, admiring a beautiful sunset over Los Angeles. My friend pointed out that the sunset is only beautiful because of smog; if not for pollution, those bright reds and oranges wouldn’t be there. One of the regular folks turned to her and said “Wow. I’m glad I’m not an activist; you can never just appreciate something beautiful, because you have to focus on all the bad stuff that’s happening so you can stop it.” This is a sermon about that. 

Speaking of smog, Joni Mitchell famously wrote: 

Then can I walk beside you
I have come here to lose the smog
And I feel to be a cog in something turning

Hold that thought.

The Bad Stuff
When I say the words “jurassic, cretaceous, or pleistocene,” you know I’m talking about geologic time - eras, periods or epochs of the earth’s distant past. Here’s the boring geologic chart from ninth grade. Here’s a more colorful one I stole from the internet, and my favorite. (I got personal written permission from the artist on this one!) 

Some geologists and environmentalists propose adding a new epoch, the Anthropocene, which literally means “time of man.” They say that human impacts on the earth are so pervasive, so gargantuan, that millions of years from now it will be evident in the rock layers being laid down now. This idea is a bit controversial. You can’t see the changes in the rock layers yet, because new layers mostly form where sediments drop out of slow water, like in shallow waters offshore. It’s just hard to be sure. Changes we make to the climate may be detectable in the future, but probably won’t last more than a few thousand years. A long time for us; nothing at all when it comes to layers of rock. A smear. 

However. There will still be chemical traces of the nuclear weapons tests done in the 1950s. There will be plastic. Lots of plastic. We make 300 million metric tons of new plastic every year. There is a slowly rotating current in the pacific ocean which is collecting small bits of plastic. It’s called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch or sometimes the Pacific Trash Vortex. There will be asphalt. Just think about all the asphalt! Ocean acidification due to higher CO2 levels may leave lasting impacts on limestone layers forming, since limestone dissolves in acid. There will also be a sudden drop in the diversity of fossils, a record of this sixth great extinction event we are causing. There will be strange local unconformities that record mines and mining operations. There will be massive landfills full of odd, non-geologic mixtures of stuff not found anywhere in nearby rock formations. 

Thinking about all these impacts, some of them lasting millions of years, or in the case of extinctions permanently, makes me feel terrible. I know all this stuff is happening, and that it’s happening because I’m driving a car, and using plastic, and buying stuff, so it’s my fault, right? You feel that, too?

Sometimes I think it’d be better if we went back to the stone age. We could be the Noble Savages we like to tell stories about. But we can’t. We are captives, as Daniel Quinn points out in the book Ishmael. We are captives of civilization. Human are social creatures; few of us can thrive as stone-age hermits out in the woods somewhere, and even those who can no longer have any such woods to hide in. Civilization penetrates every dark glen on the planet sooner or later. Quinn calls us “Takers” in the book, as in “Civilization, take it or leave it.” Except “leaving” is no longer an option. Civilization: our ancestors took it, so we are Takers, and that civilization is both our cage and the earth’s destroyer. 

So all this horrible stuff is being done on our behalf and there’s not a whole lot we can do about it except feel guilty. It’s a bit like being White in America. I feel guilty about the privileged position I hold in society, and I do the racial equivalents of recycling and conserving energy, but I can’t change my race, and I can’t opt out of civilization. I can’t NOT be part of the problem, even as I strive to be part of the solution. When we’re talking about race, there’s a term for this: White Guilt. I suggest a new term: Taker Guilt, the guilt we feel about the environmental harm caused by our being “civilized” at this time in history. 

But White guilt is hardly helpful, and neither is Taker guilt. White guilt incentivizes White people to put energy into proving their innocence and penitence when it could go towards working for true equality. Taker guilt lets us say “I’m still driving when I could bike, but it’s OK because I feel bad about it. It pushes us to throw up our hands, to say “why should I dry my clothes on the line when energy companies release tons of methane into the sky every second?” Feeling awful is indulgent. It’s as wasteful as that flared methane. 

So what’s the antidote? Well, just like White guilt, there’s a flip side to Taker guilt. The way out of white guilt is the concept of White privilege, the invitation to face facts, to acknowledge without guilt or shame that there is inherent unfairness built into the context of my life, unfairness that benefits me as a White man. To be authentic in acknowledging that and moving forward humbly, focusing on what’s working, putting our energy into what’s promising and good. 

Similarly, if we are authentic about civilization and our role in it, if we face facts, maybe we’ll be more effective in creating a sustainable future. Facts like: I am part of the universe, the planet, and the unfolding evolutionary process. So is everything else, no exceptions. I’m not a hostile visitor. I’m not a cancer on this planet, I am this planet, doing what this planet does. The cancer stems from seeing myself as separate, not from being present in the unfolding. 

Look. When you see Hoover dam, you can see drowned canyons and blocked salmon, or you can see an amazing way water came to the Mohave Desert, an incredible feat of ingenuity by some clever and exceedingly cooperative primates. Both are true: there are harmful impacts from that dam, AND it’s a very cool thing we made. 

The Seattle skyline: do you think about crowding & rats and paradise paved, or a center of innovation, diversity, and human progress?

The Space Program: do you think “Yeah, now we’re leaving our discarded trash on other planets, and launching our lethal weapons into a whole new frontier? Well, we are, it’s true. And the space program brought us this [view of earth] world-changing spiritually-significant image of ourselves. And this one taken from near Jupiter [Pale Blue Dot]. And this one [XDF], which reaches 13 billion years into the past, and reveals the 400 billion galaxies in our family. 

The antidote to Taker guilt is saying Yes to all of this. Acknowledge the downsides and the upsides, focusing on the big picture, the promise, the growing pains that tell us we’re growing. Acknowledge but not obsess. Instead of “Yeah, but…” say “Yes, and…”  We are good at this with babies. Babies are arguably just efficient machines for turning perfectly good food 
into so much poop.

Our daughter, for example, was born while we were moving from California to Ohio, so she was not yet a week old when we pulled into the post office in Effingham Illinois to buy some stamps. It was closing time, and while the worker sold us the last pack of stamps that day, Robin overflowed her diaper massively, spilling stinky liquid baby poop all over the floor of the post office lobby. It was a mess, I was a mess, and they were very gracious about it, especially considering it was closing time. In our embarrassment, we left without the stamps we had bought, and they mailed them to us using the address on our check! 

So do you think when I looked at Robin during her infancy, I focused my attention on her ability to squirt poop? No. I was focused on the promise of maturation, on her growing abilities to interact with the world around her, to make good choices for herself. But this global civilization, this global human society is not in infancy. Surveys conducted all over the world reveal that  2/3 of us perceive humanity as being in its adolescence. Civilization is a teenager

Think about it: 
  • Teenagers are reckless and tend to live without regard for the consequences of their behavior. 
  • Teenagers are concerned with appearance and with fitting in, with material things.
  • Teenagers prefer instant gratification.
  • Teenagers tend to gather in groups or cliques, and often express “us versus them” and “in versus out” thinking and behavior.
  • Teenagers’ brains are completely rewiring themselves, establishing new connections and new patterns of connections.
  • Teenagers are rebellious and pretend at their independence from family
Humanity’s family of origin is the family of life. Nature. By adulthood, most kids understand that they are NOT independent, and come to value interdependence and connection. 

Twice a year, on the solstices, British authorities allow the public to walk among the ancient standing stones of Stonehenge. The purpose is to allow modern druids and pagans to practice their ancient worship rites among the stones erected by the ancestors. Ann and I were fortunate enough to be there for a summer solstice a few years ago. We were awed by the stones, and disgusted by the behavior of many other people there. We left as the all-night party was just starting up, but the ground was already dismayingly littered with discarded beer cans, paper trash, and careless refuse left by those who were there to worship intoxication and consumerism rather than ancestors rather than ancestors. In that place, that night, solemn spirituality and disgusting disregard had quite a fling together. 

Teenagers, like our adolescent civilization, can exhibit a variety of maturity levels, sometimes on the same afternoon! But we mustn’t forget that our civilization is part of nature. We. Are. Nature. Humans are one expression of nature. Nature is Hermit crabs and Hyenas. Pigeons and Poison Ivy. Manatees and Mantids. Butterflies and Black holes. Cacti and Cancer. Planets and People. Like it or not, Nature includes Minerals and Mines, Oceans and Oil spills. We are an expression of nature. What we do and make is part of nature. 

It is a futile adolescent fantasy to think we are separate, whether you’re arguing that we are noble achievers or cancerous destroyers. We are both and neither. We are nature, evolving. Just like an adolescent boy who is socially awkward and painfully codependent, yet plans to be a rock star.  How do you raise a teenager? With active love - firm authentic unrelenting love. 

Raise your hand if you’ve been in a relationship that lasted more than 7 yrs. 
It’s hard, right? Relationships have upsides and downsides. What we pay attention to grows. So go ahead and obsess about the toilet seat, or the 50 pairs of shoes, or their driving, table manners, whatever. But if you want it to last, that is not sustainable. 

I know because I’ve been there. Sometime around that seven-year mark, Ann and I needed help, so we found a great counselor who saved our marriage with a simple drawing. Well, “saved” the first time. But the other times are stories for another day. What she drew was this. [simple venn] She said “This is what we think a relationship is. This is the Hollywood romance, and the words we use invoke it. We say “She is my better half. He completes me. I gave her my heart. I’m lost without you.” These two people are not whole people! If this is your relationship, one plus one makes about 1½! How could you NOT get on each others’ nerves? And if they have to separate, one or the other is going to be left broken. Maybe both of them. 


At this point you may be wondering “what does this have to do with Taker Guilt?” Trust me; we’ll get there. 

Our counselor drew more circles, this time like this. She said “Here are two whole, healthy people who enjoy one another’s company. They decide to hang out and build something together. They build a relationship, one comprised of their shared experiences, and the little things they do for one another, and the investments they make in the relationship. The relationship is what connects them, not their neediness. If they separate, they will grieve the loss of the relationship, but they will be whole people moving on, not broken ones nursing wounds. 

Active love requires that we feed that center circle. That’s how mature people sustain a healthy relationship. They don’t invest in the other person, they invest in the relationship, which then pays dividends to both parties. Active love. This doesn’t just apply to romantic relationships. Try this on with your co-workers, your boss, your government. Feeding the center circle of my relationship with government asks me to vote, show up, call my reps, praise & protest, march and invest, but not get so enmeshed emotionally that I’m distressed if I don’t get my way.  

What about teenagers, though? The individual ones and the global ones? Active love asks us to feed that center circle. Call out the bad stuff, but don’t get stuck obsessing about it. Give your kid a curfew, yes, but be willing to forgive and forget the fender-bender. Insist on no violence, but don’t obsess about the haircut she gave herself, and definitely don’t criticize the boyfriend! When it’s your government, confront and protest, yes, but also admire sunsets and stars, pick up litter, enjoy a walk by the river, recycle, all that stuff you know to do, but mostly, love humanity in all it’s flaws, just like your misbehaving teenager. 

This is Active Love. We are part of nature, a teenage part, acting the part. Since Nature is a harsh parent, we’ll do better to parent ourselves, and parenting works better when we approach the kid with love rather than disgust. 

Active Love breeds Active Hope. In romance, a strong active center circle builds trust, and hope for long and healthy future together. In government, active citizens make for wiser decisions, and engender trust that government works in the best interests of those citizens. With teenagers, active love sets fair boundaries but also celebrates successes. A strong relationship, located outside of but shared between the parents and the teen, is a huge pile of goodwill that allows both to trust that teens eventually mature. Of course, parents still worry that their kid might die before that happens, and that’s a real concern, but the hope comes in knowing that if they don’t die, some progress toward maturity is inevitable. You just have to be patient while their brains turn to mush, knowing that this is part of the mysterious metamorphosis, a step in the rewiring necessary to form an adult mind. 

Civilization is undergoing that same metamorphosis, and our collective mind is … well, mush. Everywhere we look there is breakdown and chaos, but also evidence of rewiring, realignment, glimpses of maturity.
I feel myself a cog in something turning
Well maybe it is just the time of year 
Or maybe it's the time of man 

I don't know who I am but life is for learning
Amazing how that song still resonates! Each of us is a cog in something turning, a single neuron in the brain of humanity, being reworked, rewired, reconnected as this unstable, adolescent, guilty civilization we make up matures into adulthood. Yes Joni, it IS just the time of man, we don’t even know who we are as a species, but life is for learning. 

Let us organize against air pollution, and enjoy the beauty of a sunset anyway. Let us chuckle at our adolescence and love people anyway. Let us acknowledge our crimes and be proud of our achievements anyway. Let us feed the center circle and let all our partners be whole and different from us. Let us love actively, so that we can hope for a mature wholeness to come.


BENEDICTION:  As we strive to be active lovers of life, may we remember that halting progress is still progress, in our relationships, our parenting, our nation, and in the whole world. Go in love and hope, and return in joy. Amen.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Inauguration Rumination

This piece was written as a Lay Liturgy reflection for the Unitarian Church of Harrisburg PA Jan 22, 2017
©JD Stillwater

Five minutes into my morning meditation on Friday, I became aware that my mouth was working furiously, mindlessly. All on its own. My tongue was on a self-assigned search-and-destroy mission to find and swallow every tiny scrap of breakfast still lurking between and behind my teeth. 

I am not a veteran meditator. Thoughts pass through like Oregon-trail wagons, some full of manure, some gold. As I got my tongue to settle down, I mused again about my mouth having an autopilot, so much like a cow’s, or a dog’s hind leg when you scratch her belly. I felt myself to be very much an animal. 

The next thought-wagon to pass brought a line from Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese. 

You do not have to be good.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

The soft animal of my body. Young children I’ve asked are pretty insistent that we are not animals. Such is the early influence of myth, and the language that enforces it. Of course, scientists have known for many years that we are animals, not only by biological definition but also by direct kinship. 82% of my genes are traceable to my cousin your pet dog, and there is 80% genetic overlap with those cud-chewing relatives I was mindlessly imitating Friday morning. 

The stories we tell ourselves profoundly affect our outlook. Here I was on the morning of a presidential inauguration, musing about the soft animal of my body derailing my search for higher spiritual attainment. My next thought came like a proverbial revelation from God. 

I imagined billions of walking monkeys trying to manage a global technological civilization. Animals that scratch their armpits, bite their fingernails, pick their noses, lash out at each other; animals that are sometimes completely out of control in the rut of mating season. Animals that can’t even manage to still their own tongues for five minutes. We are “planet of the apes.”

No wonder we take three steps forward and two steps back. No wonder we get scared and lash out. Of course we make stupid, short-sighted choices. I became filled with compassion for us. How can I have anything but patience, tenderness, and amusement for these creatures, these apes, who struggle so mightily to reconcile our instinct-driven nature as evolving mammals with our highest aspirations for a global commonwealth of enlightenment and purpose? 

We get impatient with ourselves and each other because the story, the myth we tell ourselves, is that we are civilized human beings, so we should “know better.” 

We should do a better job thinking ahead seven generations. We should use evidence-based reasoning, should care more about this or that, should, should, should. As my older brother is fond of saying: “JD, you always talk about what should be, and I’m telling you what is.” 

Sitting in my chair Friday morning thinking about chimpanzees driving trains and sitting at desks, all my political anxieties and frustrations melted away. We are the rats that sign weapons-control treaties. We are the millions of monkeys banging away on keyboards, that actually created the complete works of Shakespeare! And Wikipedia. And Mary Oliver’s poem. We are the squid that go into space, the hyenas that care for the helpless, the vulnerable, the homeless. We are the ants that vote. 


Let the compassionate story we tell ourselves be about animals that evolve and struggle and fail, zig-zagging our way towards our own lofty aspirations. We are animals, with soft animal bodies and some really hard animal instincts. Of course we do embarrassing things in public. But we’re doing pretty darn well, considering. 

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Brown Bread, Pink Skin


When I was a kid, my parents were into whole grains - brown rice, brown bread, even really weird grains like bulghur and triticale and millet. Now it’s mainstream, but that “healthy-eating whole foods” mindset  was pretty radical in the 1970s. I got teased at school for my brown bread, to the point where I didn’t want sandwiches in my lunch. I fantasized about fluffernutter sandwiches on Wonder bread. My mom would say “That’s dessert, not lunch; it’s worse than candy.” When we were older, she started calling such things “food porn.” I say that to my kids!

By way of explanation, my parents told a story about how in their parents’ childhoods, the ‘oughts’ to the 20s, whiteness was closely associated with purity, with cleanliness, with goodness. Anything brown was dirty, simple as that. So producers went to great lengths to remove all traces of color (and, unwittingly, all the healthiest parts of the food) from wheat, rice, and sugar. My mom said all the nutrition was in the molasses, the by-product of sugar refining. She would scoff as she said that word “refining.” For my parents, youthful rebellion included making and eating their own bread, brown bread, full of the whole brown nutrition they missed in their childhoods.

Monday morning last week, Martin Luther King day, Ann and I stood in the bathroom facing the mirror together, and the difference in our skin colors was truly striking. My skin is nothing like white, at least compared to Ann’s. My skin is blatantly, obviously, dangerously pink, with lots of red moles; anyone can see that. Ann’s isn’t white, either. Her skin leans a bit towards a light green, at least compared to mine. I understand that it is polite to call her skin-tone “olive” rather than green. Why is that? Why ARE we called White, when even the palest among us is far from white, the color? 

Recently, I have oh-so-tentatively begun to include skin tones in my descriptions of people, saying "She is tall, with long braids, and light brown skin" or "He is medium build, with very short tightly-curled hair, and very black skin" or "He is pretty short, has yellow-brown skin, and rich black wavy hair, cut short but not buzzed." If this is acceptable (please use the comments to correct me), I darn well better not limit it to people of color, right? So how would I want my skin described? Pale? That's a start, but in my gut it feels like a euphemism for "white." There is a vast range of skin tones among people of color. I'm well aware that some White people are lighter-skinned than many Black people. I thought I was stuck with "pale" for White people. Until Monday morning. 

I think my parents’ story about food processing has something to do with this. Of course, my parents were right about food refinement, but I don’t recall anyone in my family ever connecting any of that to race or skin color. 

The turn of the last century, my grandparents’ childhoods, brought a wave of Italian immigrants, who were described as “swarthy.” What a word that is, “swarthy”! It means dark-skinned, especially with olive tones, but the usage example that goes with Google’s definition of “swarthy” reveals a connotation of vague threat, of intimidation: “she looked frail standing next to her strong and swarthy brother.” If you digested your share of Nancy Drew or Hardy Boys mysteries in your childhood, you know exactly what I mean: swarthy equals threatening. 

There is a book titled "How the Irish Became White." It and other studies make clear that the boundaries of whiteness have more to do with history, immigration, language, and power than with skin color. 

I think the reason we call pink skin and light green skin and lots of other colors of pale skin “white” is because we are subconsciously choosing Purity over Wholesomeness. Safety and comfort over health and strength. The fences around that false purity move and shift as the decades and the waves of immigration come and go, but there’s always white and non-white, because the myth of white purity demands it. Never mind that no human skin is actually white. 

I bear all the privileges and responsibilities of being “white.” I’m not trying to distance myself from my race. But if you want to describe me to somebody, then yeah “He’s a white guy,” but don’t say JD has white skin. It ain’t. It’s pink. With red polka-dots. And it’s made out of nutritious, whole-wheat, dark, brown, bread.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Vote Your Conscience, No Wasted Vote. Here’s How.


Do you want there to be viable third parties, but don’t want to hand the presidency to someone you despise? It’s easy. It’s called strategic voting, and it worked wonders for Canadian liberals in 2015

Do this: If you are a progressive in a deeply red state, vote Green. If you’re a conservative in a deeply blue state, vote Libertarian. If you’re in a swing state, vote for the major-party candidate closest to your values (you swing-staters are the only ones whose votes will actually determine the next president). If your state matches your major party’s politics, vote party line (Democrats in blue states should vote Clinton; Republicans in red states should vote Trump). 

Here’s a handy state-by-state chart for progressives; conservatives can flip it. 

Here’s why: in a blue state like California, conservative votes will not keep Hillary out of the White House, because she is likely to win California by a large margin, taking all of that state's electoral votes with her. Trump won’t spend much time there because he knows this. But Gary Johnson desperately needs those conservative Californian votes if there is ever to be an alternative to the Republican party. If he gets more than 15% of the vote, the Libertarians will have real influence. That would be very good for conservative politics going forward. 

The reverse is true in Louisiana: a vote for Hillary is a waste of a progressive vote - it won’t affect the outcome. But that same vote has huge value to Jill Stein and her Green party. A strong viable Green party would be very good for liberal politics going forward.

The most broken thing about American politics (OK, one of the most broken things) is that the two major parties collude with one another to keep third parties out of the process. 2016 is a chance to fix this without affecting the outcome of the presidential race. 


Vote strategically.