What are you training for?

I work on the 7th floor of an 11 story building. On any day there is downtime Youre likely to find my laboriously wheezing my way up and down the stairs. I’m not particularly fit and the strain often makes me wonder if I’m having a heart attack. One of my coworkers asked, “What are you training for?” I replied, “Life.” I wasn’t trying to be oblique or difficult. That was the most honest answer I could provide. Despite having a job that requires a high degree of competence in communication I still manage to fail at basic conversation. 

What I was feeling too lazy to say was that I don’t exercise with a specific goal in mind. I exercise because when I see the opportunity to have an amazing adventure it has always required me to push myself mentally and physically. The physical part is easy, more or less. I have little regard for my own comfort or safety so can walk up stairs all day despite the sense of impending coronary failure. It’s when my body is still capable but my mind says “No!” that it is difficult. 

Realizing that my personal goals could be sabotaged by my mind was quite the startling discovery for me. It has really been a series of interconnected realizations that I don’t think I’ve really finished unpacking yet. 

It started for me on my first mountain. A friend led a group of us up Mt. St. Helens. We had ample notice that it would be a long and difficult hike e.g. “You need to train” but I did not follow that advice. I assumed that like my entire college career I could put it off and catch up at the last minute. 

As the day drew nearer I found myself focusing on the singularly most unimportant aspects of the trip. Should I bring a glass bowl for base camp? Is the expense of camping dishes warranted. Deciding it wasn’t I opted for the local Goodwill where I found that for a mere two dollars I could purchase a set of four faux Chinese dessert bowls. With only my companions in mind I purchased all of them, promptly washing them and placing them with my equipment. I similarly happened upon a mostly functional straw hat, a handkerchief, and a lovely set of earthen coffee mugs. Having so thoroughly prepared I added a few water bottles and my hiking clothes and considered it done. 

After a nice night at the foot of the trail we woke early the next morning. After breakfast I set out with my more well prepared friends, eager and overconfident. 
It first dawned on my that I wasn’t in great shape late in the morning as we were scrambling up the boulder field. Although I have always loved climbing things I was a bit out of practice and feeling a little run down already. To avoid falling or otherwise hurting myself I had to slow down. My mind began recycling self-criticisms about not being good enough or well enough prepared, despite the obvious fact that with a little attention I was managing just fine. As the day wore on the internal chatter continued.  

The final stretch to the top is covered in the sandy ash remains of the mountain’s top. Every step results in a slight sliding back and down. For every step you took on a rock trail you need to take two or three on Helens. It was pretty demoralizing. 

Being too prideful to call it quits in front of my friends I pushed myself. I would take a few steps and then stop. It wasn’t working. There was no way I was going to make it. Eventually to calm my mind and measure my progress I made a deal with myself. I could rest as long as I need to but if I started I had to take ten steps. It removed all questions. If I was resting I was resting.  If I was walking it was for at least ten steps. It could always be more but at least ten steps. 

As I approached the top friends and strangers began shouting down encouragement. I got there. It seemed unreal. Sweat pouring down my face I looked around at the amazing view before collapsing and proceeding to eat my lunch like a an undernourished stinger attacking a bag of Doritos. High fives all the way around, simultaneously exhilarating and underwhelming. I was so worn out that I had a hard time taking in the beauty. Predictably the top was gorgeous. The sense of accomplishment was great but had I really been able to accomplish the hardest physical task in my life up to that point simply by counting and ignoring my internal dialogue? Yes. 

It was the first time I realized that a lifetime of taking the easy route had severely limited my world. I knew that I had many more mountains to climb to finish unpacking the lessons they hold. 

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Separating the worker from the work

I woke up groggy and unable to get back to sleep. I took the dog out to go to the bathroom and put her back in bed. She looked at me curiously, as if to say “You’re clearly insane for not getting back in bed.” As I made my way downstairs to fix breakfast I was recalling listening to an interview with Ted Leo and Aimee Mann in which it was revealed that he likes to sing Natalie Imbruglia’s “Torn” when he does karaoke. Not having a clear memory of the song I gave it a listen. It is still terrible. However, YouTube has a long history of what I like and quite appropriately recommended I listen to this:

I love that song! Everything I know about Axl Rose from that time in his life leads me to believe that we would probably not have gotten along. That may still be true. The disgusting levels of opulence, the gross objectification of women, and the general hedonism all make me think that I really wouldn’t like him.

What’s that mean for his work though? I am certain that there are a number of people involved in the production of the oats I eat for breakfast that I wouldn’t get along with; yet I still eat my oats. Should an artist’s beliefs and attitudes dictate whose work we celebrate? Should I not listen to Guns n’ Roses? To rephrase it: by listening to, and in effect implicitly supporting, a gross artist am I supporting their beliefs? Clearly, in a monetary way I am.

But if I only limit myself to people who more or less strictly agree with me I’m likely to lose perspective on the variety of beliefs and ways of living that exist in the world and find myself even more out of touch. For more on how the search engines (Google, Yahoo, etc)  encourage this echo chamber effect this I’d recommend checking out the work of Eli Pariser. It seems pretty clear that living in echo chamber is in large part why we (the United States) are in the shape we are in.

More on this later. I’ve got to take the dog for a walk now that she is up.

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The state that I am in

Good morning! Or not. I haven’t been awake for more than an hour and I’m already wondering why I got out of bed. If you don’t have time to watch the point is made that the Republican party is openly and willingly taking a stand (i.e. shut down the government) based on the writings of an openly racists man.

This made me think of this:

Which in turn made me think of this:

If you’re having trouble following along with my meandering train of thought let me be more explicit. In thinking of how structural racism is enforced it starts at the top (Republican policymakers basing decisions on the writing of a racist) and then ends up in our neighborhoods when police start dispersing protestors who take to the streets and are audacious enough to ask for equal representation.

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Thoughts from a picture

The picture is small, grainy, faded, and far away
its subject matter not immediately clear
it seems to be a wide angle shot of mountaineers ascending a mountain, taken from a distance
the sound of the neighbor’s door shutting draws my attention away
returning to the image I realize that it is a close up of a woman in a white coat, the black spots that I mistook for climbers either a stain or the result of poor development
the landscape beyond the mountain a park
wondering, hoping to have a new revelation, hoping to have my vision thrown for a loop once more.
I look away,
I return
She is still there
white coat, park
I notice this time there is a road in the background
How did I not see these obvious details before.
What sort of mountain did I see?
I look away
I return
She is still there
white coat, park, street
I squint, hoping to wash away the years of neglect and light damage
My straining yielding no new details but some questions
Are those trees? Is the road paved? Is that really a road? Maybe it’s just a path.
I look away
I return
She is still there
white coat, park
My eyes tired of straining, drive me to the picture,
The park is now suspect. If that IS a trail is that a park or forrest? Is she just in a glen? Is that even a she? The features are indistinct.
I look away
I return
White coat, park

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Love, valentines, etc.

I want you to know that people love you. you might not belive it but it is true. People who’ve you never met you. People who don’t know who you are or what you’ve done, truly and deeply care about you. Some of us become monks or nuns. Some of us become social workers. Some of us got to shitty jobs and just do the best that we can. But what unites us is love.

I want you to know this because the world is both amazing and terrifying. If you look for too long at its uglier aspects it’s easy to wonder, “Why bother?” Bother to keep the humans species going. Bother to work for peace. Bother to get out of bed. It’s different for everyone of course, but for me the anser lies in the possible. We have the ability to become better as a species. I know because I’ve become a better person, and when I was at my worst someone I didn’t know helped me out.

I want you to know this because there are dark days in everyone’s life. Often it’s hard to know what to think. I want you to know this because I’ve felt alone and down and out. I believed the lie that I was alone in my struggles.

I want you to know because I love you.

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Not so lost in the Land of Enchantment

For Christmas my sweetie promised to teach me how to cross-country ski. Last weekend she took me up to Taos and I learned to ski! It was quite fun. Now I’m hoping to take on down-hill.

We stayed at a condo she had rented that was close to the main plaza so we could walk around and see the sites, as it were. We eventually found ourselves in a Western wear and memorabilia shop. We were going to skip it but thank god we didn’t! While there I found a few postcards that I liked and then noticed a belt buckle with a giant “N” on it. Meghan and I talked about it but after looking at the price I blanched. The owner happened to be sitting near by and he noticed my hesitation. He chimed in with “I’ll make you deal on that.”
“OK, what you’re offering”
“How’s $20.” He had it originally priced at $149.
“Done! That’s quite the bargain sir, thank you.”
After that we began talking about Taos and what we had been up to. Eventually it came up that I’m heading to nursing school and that Meghan is a teacher. At which point he handed me my card and the buckle and said “I want you to have that. I try to do anything I can to help someone who is committing their lives to helping people.”

I lost my words. I felt so humbled by this man. I told him thank you and how much I appreciated his generosity. The conversation then turned to where we would live. He quite rightly pointed out that not all places are the same, more to the point that not all towns are the same.

Taos is a small town, it’s not particularly easy to get to and it’s not near any urban centers. But it has a thriving arts community. This makes a world of difference. Unlike many small towns that have the feeling of time standing still hanging over them Taos, and similar places, have the urban feeling of liveliness but without all the traffic or drug problems.

This sort of experience is what gives me hope. People acting out their hopes is what is going to bring enable the human race to continue as a species. Particularly when those hopes are tied to the betterment of all beings. In my own life, my sense of ability changed remarkably when I decided on a course of action. A course of action, which focused not only on my own happiness but on the well-being of those around me. I cannot over state the importance of this. We are all interconnected.

In the United States we’ve fallen under the myth that the pursuit of individual happiness is the height of freedom. I believe the freedom of thought, expression, and speech is of the utmost importance. However to let people with no medical training or knowledge make public decisions is tantamount to letting someone without engineering training decide what the safety tolerances for a plane should be.

But where to begin? In a most obvious and hilarious irony it begins with individuals improving themselves. What I mean by that is not simply some self-help, bargain book, type of “improvement” but doing the actual hard work of being a better citizen and person generally. Meaning contributing meaningfully to your community and the lives of those around you. It can take as many forms as there are people on the planet, but a better world begins with actions, not just thoughts.

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…like opinions, everybodys got one

Is the United States becoming more polarized? Hard to say. This is one of those squishy things that there actually aren’t very good measures for. Given that we once had a civil war I’d say we’re not quite there yet. But what is everybody talking about? In the recent online debates (which really is an abuse of the term debate) online about gun control I’ve seen all many of horrible logic employed. Just about every fallacy that could be used has been, on both sides of the argument.

That said the hysteria seems to mostly come from folks who are concerned (paranoid?) that the government is coming to take their guns away. Why? Where is this concern coming from? It’s coming from their own side. No one in any position of authority has even floated the idea that taking guns away was on the table. NO ONE.

But that is the nature of most debates. As a population we are not particularly well informed. This is why politicians who couldn’t write a lesson plan to save their life feel perfectly fine acting as experts on education. This is why people who like guns think that they’re experts on public safety. Having an opinion doesn’t make you, me, or anyone else an expert. You know what does? Training, research, and studying copious amounts of verifiable data. All things that are too boring for the average arm-chair politician.

I haven’t done that research so I have stayed out of the recent gun control debate. I have opinions I just know that they’re based on feelings rather than facts, you know, like most of us.

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Bible quote time!

I’m going to do something I don’t normally do, I’m going to quote the Bible. Specifically, Matthew 26:11, “The poor shall always be with you….” This particular phrase has been an excuse by those lacking in empathy to justify injustice and negligence of our fellow human beings. But I suggest you consider it in a new light 1) it doesn’t have to be true and 2) poverty doesn’t necessarily need to be interpreted as being monetary.

Poverty, like all social problems, is solvable. However there is not the will nor motivation to actually do such a thing. Largely because people who are in control of most of the resources on this planet have not interest in giving up any amount of their comfort for those that they see as being below them.

This leads to the second point, poverty in empathy and spirit are the cause of poverty in creature comforts. So, to state the Bible verse in terms that are more appropriate for these modern times, the assholes shall always be with you.

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Why is anybody surprised?

Like many people, upon hearing about the most recent shooting in Newton, CT I was saddened. I teared up while listening to news reports. My heart went out to the parents of those children. Remarkably I heard several people say the most thoughtless things like “How could this happen?” and “blah blah blah gun control (for or against) blah blah blah.”

Mass killings happen in the United States with a predictable frequency. People who are pro-gun often say things like “Guns don’t kill people, people do” and “blah blah blah liberty blah blah blah.” And they are right guns sitting on a shelf, in a box, or stored somewhere do not kill people. Further it is beyond the ABILITY of the government to take those guns away, even if they wanted to (they don’t).

Other people said things like “If that crazy person hadn’t been allowed to legally purchase that weapon this wouldn’t of happened.” And they are right.

But this isn’t about trying to find some sort of equivalence. This about trying to understand how did this happen. What no one seems to be saying with any earnestness (as in funding research type of earnestness), “Why on earth is this happening?” I’ve not found any research that is compelling as to causal factors. I have my suspicions though. In this country we’ve made it clear through our policy decisions that as a country we don’t care about our fellow citizens. We have children living with their drug addicted parents and then blame teachers for those students failing in school.  We don’t fund pre-natal healthcare and then wonder why we have the highest infant mortality rate in the developed world. We throw away more food than many countries produce in a year but still have children going hungry. This list could go on forever. Every single one of these problems is created by policy. By an unwillingness to fund programs that would help children.

Aside from the obvious point that funding programs for children is morally right, it pays off in HUGE dividends by helping to raise a child who will become a contributing member of society rather than another body in our for-profit prison system.

Lots of evidence clearly shows that fundamental causes and NOT individual initiative are more likely to determine a persons life outcome. That is to say, your neighborhood and income level mean more about where you end up than most of your individual choices. We should be making every neighborhood a place worth living in.

But what does it all really mean? It means that, like most political debates in this country, to focus on a policy point rather than the context it’s happening is to miss the point entirely. When examples of more heavily armed countries with lower rates of violence are brought up all that is being highlighted is that our country is different from the example country. Due to our history, culture, and strange obsession with individualism, what works in many countries (every single person being armed) would not be a good idea here given our many divergent cultures and lack of concern for the common person.

The real tragedy in all of this is that politics will prevent even the most mundane and ineffectual of solutions being tried. If you want to make a difference, if you really want to prevent this sort of thing from happening, YOU, yes YOU, my dear reader should volunteer in schools, become a Big Brother or Sister, or volunteer at the community center in the poor part of your city. Politicians are too bull-headed and heartless to make the sorts of changes needed to make an impact, change starts with everyday citizens like you and me.

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Further thoughts on social psychology

“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, infinite.” – William Blake

In a not so recent post I mentioned confirmation bias and Stanley Milgram’s obedience studies. These two studies deeply inform how I think about the world. I thought I’d spend a little time writing about why. Perhaps more to the point, why should you care?

1) You can’t be objective and no one can.
I used to think that I could be objective, more to the point I thought anybody could be objective. It’s only after a variety of, how shall I say, learning experiences that I realized, I and everyone else views the world through a series of lenses. The lenses of culture, gender, religion/philosophy, heck even our physiology. The result is that even scientist(!) are influenced. Here is an example of how confirmation bias relates to objectivity.

John is reading the news and sees a study that shows Guns in the Home Provide Greater Health Risk Than Benefit. As a hunter, and the son of the hunter he quickly peruses the article and discounts the findings because the author teaches at a “liberal ivory tower.” He then goes on to think of all of the times he’s safely used a gun and the enjoyment he gets from spending time with his father in the woods.

The above example just as easily could have been about someone reading about abortion (for or against) and similarly dismissing the findings. Now add in an element of obedience. In my own brief tour of the U.S. Navy’s boot camp it was readily apparent that the “education” of the recruits adds a lens that the many of them would be looking through the rest of their lives. Add to that the predilection of people to follow orders and it’s no wonder that so many people “just follow orders.” That isn’t to equate what the vast majority brave men and women in uniform are doing to protect the this country with the atrocities to committed in WWII. But it is to say that the horrors of Abu Ghraib didn’t happen in a vacuum, rather those soldiers received orders and they acted on them. Then they were able to rationalize that behavior because it was being normalized by their peers.


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