My Life in the Country:  90 Minutes of Eternity

For 90 minutes every morning I’m in the best shape of anybody within a 60-mile radius.

That’s only true for 90 minutes. Before and after… not so much. All the life-hardened old ranchers, the young buck tradesmen, the hunters, hikers, climbers, and snowshoers who tackle these mountains, even the high school kids in gym class—all of them individually and collectively kick my butt all the rest of the time.

But for 90 minutes every morning, I rule.

How do I know? Hey, I know what goes down in gyms and fitness clubs. I know what people do there. I know they’ve got jobs and families and all kinds of life realities sucking the juice out of them all day. I know how much socializing goes on—not a bad thing, but it’s not the same as squeezing out a few more beats per minute.

Why 60 miles? Because that’s how far away everything is. 4-60 is the local jargon. That means it’s 60 miles in any of the four directions until you get anywhere.  Go further, and there might be somebody else working out like I do. I actually doubt it, but let’s not get too carried away.

I’m in the third month of a plan to get stronger, faster, more enduring conditioning out of myself. I’m winning. Last week and this I’m hitting personal bests almost daily. I love exercise metrics. They tell me how I’m doing—really, actually, statistically—not just do I feel better or worse, am I having a good day or bad, but what’s actually happening. And lately the metrics have been telling me I’m kicking ass.

So I’m an exercise god for 90 minutes and 60 miles. Then what?

I go back to being the irrelevant old man that I am.

All the rest of the day, everybody else wins. I know that too, because I know what goes down in normal life. While they’re out there chasing the American dream I’m at home doing irrelevant old man stuff. I write, read, research, learn, create art, cook the meals, clean the house, order stuff on Amazon, unpack it when it arrives. Call me Cinderella—without the evil stepmother and the fair godmother and coach and footmen.

And I feed the beast—I watch what I eat, especially how much protein I’m taking in, carbs and veggies and fruit, too. You have to watch all that to build muscle when your body is done bothering to do it any more, not like it used to. Don’t believe the supplement ads—old men don’t pack it on, don’t get buff.

Me, I do an okay job of not looking feeble.

Big deal.

It took moving to the country for me to finally learn that the three dimensions of my life are small by silly by insignificant. Living where nothing ever happens, where the same issues have dominated the local existence for 150 years and will keep dominating it for as far as anyone can imagine there might be a future.

Yeah, go live where a vast silent emptiness dwells in the air. It takes away your illusions.

We have two kinds of people here who make a lot of noise that breaks the silence.

One is a cabal of right-wingers whose goal in life is to be right—not just right-wing but right as in correct—and to make sure they prove it by taking over all the boards and dominating the elections so that nothing ever happens. They win. They never do anything other than win. They don’t contribute. They don’t make anything better for anyone. They just sit around being right and being angry about being right. They need the anger to keep their edge so they can be right at a moment’s notice. They have lots of guns that they open carry, they love talking about the Constitution like they have the slightest clue what it is, and they make sure American flags always line the three blocks of Main Street so they can remember that they’re free—lest they forget, which I wish they would.

The other kind of people who make all the noise are the Christian fundamentalists who fill the churches every Sunday. They’re right, too. The also never do anything for anybody, never make anything better, they’re just right, and they have lots of meetings where they remind themselves how right they are. Like the right-wing cabal, these people also hold tight to all the ridiculous fantasies of stupid, small thinkers. The cabal knows about guns and the Constitution. The church-goers know the most important thing there is to know in life, which is where you “go” when you die. (Like you “go” anywhere.) It’s impolite and rude and totally wrong for me to talk about how small and silly and stupid the stuff they believe is, but I get to do that because I was one of them, too, for years of my own life in which I traded thinking for delusion.

Those two groups mostly overlap in membership. Both tell you to have a “blessed day.” And both feed the beast, too—although their beast wants more than protein and carbs and veggies and fruit.

Then there are a bunch of other less noisy people who might be okay to know and maybe you could have a conversation with them and don’t have to avoid eye contact when they wish you a blessed day, but never mind because they’re either young and busy trying to make a life here or they’re old and busy with the grandkids and taking trips to avoid the weather.

Which leaves the rest of us—the empty ones, living empty lives in an empty land. And the lesson for us to learn is that’s the way it is for everything biological, which includes us. We go from empty to empty in the span of one lifetime—each of us so minutely insignificant it can’t be registered. There’s no metric small enough to measure the empty span of any biological life, human or otherwise.

The wind blows, then moves on.

We’re gone, and we don’t “go” anywhere when we leave.

The Earth endures, goes from fireball to teeming to flameout. The span takes billions of years, which seems impressive, but the Earth’s span is lost in the span of a universe of immeasurable eons and incomprehensible distances, so anything you can say about us and our Earth is just flat out embarrassing, it’s so small.

Mostly empty.

Entirely empty.

Let’s just say “empty” and leave it there.

That’s what I’ve learned from this empty land and its vain people. Vanity is another kind of emptiness—humans and this land are a perfect match.

Nobody knows about my 90 minutes of kicking it. Nobody’s studying it, recording it, featuring it. Nobody’s impressed by it, learning anything from it. It’s just me, doing the reps. My workout routine doesn’t seek anything, know anything. It won’t “go” anywhere when I’m gone. Neither will I. I don’t tell people about it. Why would they care? I care, that’s why I do it, but does it matter on any scale?

No it doesn’t matter, not on any scale. There’s no scale small enough to measure it. It’s just my life, condensed into 90 minutes that doesn’t matter to anyone but me and even then has no meaning or purpose, doesn’t contribute anything. It just is, and then it won’t be anymore.

90 minutes of eternity.

Immeasurable.

Empty.

That’s what I’ve learned from moving to the country.

The Great Urban-Rural Divide and the Feudal Pyramid

“The Monday morning after the 2016 election, in a gas station in a logging town in north-west Wisconsin, I asked a group of retired and working men what they thought Trump would do to help them. Ron, a logger, replied: ‘Nothing. Nothing. We’re used to living in poverty, we’re used to it. It ain’t never going to change. How many times we got to tell you that? But you don’t listen.’”[1]

The problem is the Feudal Pyramid.

Seriously.

Rural has been on the bottom of the pyramid for a long, long time. The only way it will ever get out of the bottom is if urban sprawl overtakes and gentrifies it. And then where will it go?

The Feudal Pyramid had God at the top. Then came the king, the nobles, the knights, and finally the peasants. The peasants were farmers, sheep herders, shopkeepers, tradesmen, crafters, crofters—like they still are today. Rural. Country. People “used to living in poverty.”

Where did this system come from?

It came down from the top. From the people at the top of the pyramid. Of course that’s where it came from. Where else would it come from?

God at the top meant challenging the system was challenging God—not a good idea when the church stood ready to torture and burn people who did that. God is what philosophers call a “first cause”—the missing link when you’re trying to explain something by tracing it back through a cause and effect chain and get to the point where you can’t trace it back anymore. That’s when you put a “first cause” in place that gets the whole thing started. You know you’ve reached a first cause when you sound like a parent, “Because I said so, that’s why.”

Nothing caused God, God caused himself. God existed because… because he said so, that’s why. There’s no God exam he had to pass, no professional credentials he had to acquire or memberships he has to maintain, no ethical standard of conduct, no required professional education to stay current, no review board to call him to account. God isn’t accountable to anyone, for anything. He just sits up there on top—way on top—of the pyramid, doing whatever he wants, and everybody else just has to deal.

How would we ever know anything about this totally autonomous and authoritarian God who sits on top of the pyramid dictating everything and everybody all the time without being accountable to anybody or anything?

Because somebody higher on the pyramid told us.

Are we seeing a pattern here?

Rural people like God more than urban people. God in charge? Check. Right below God on the pyramid is God’s “Anointed,” whose job is… well, I’ve never been quite sure what his job is or when or how he gets appointed, which allows for all sorts of improvisation, but as far as I can tell the position can be filled by various people at various times. In Medieval times, they kept it simple:  God’s Anointed was the king.

The USA imported its law from England, where “crown immunity” declared that “the king can do no wrong.” Since God put the king in place, there was no higher human authority than the king. If he screwed up, God could always take him out, which theoretically would keep him under control, but to avoid any debate about whether the king was screwing up or not, crown immunity also declared that the king was endowed with God’s absolute perfection, so it was impossible for him to do wrong—in fact, he couldn’t even think about doing wrong.

Seriously. That was the law. The king wasn’t accountable to anybody—other than theoretically to God—because he could do no wrong. There was nothing to complain about. It was all good.

The New World colonists thought all that sounded like a plan, so they brought the legal concept with them. And when they got tired of the King of England doing no wrong they kept the legal concept of “crown immunity” but gave it the new name “sovereign immunity,” which meant that their newly anointed President (and people in certain other governmental positions) can do no wrong while they’re governing the people who are lower than them in the pyramid. And if their buddies get in trouble, there are also Presidential pardons to pass around.

Seriously. That’s what our law says. Nice to know our legal system is doing its part to keep the feudal pyramid intact.

I still remember learning about all that in law school. “Government has to be free to govern,” our law professor explained, “If you start holding government liable, nobody’s going to want the job.”

Oh well yes of course. Why didn’t I think of that?

God in place? Check. President and his buddies in place? Check. Next came the nobles and then the knights. The nobles were the capitalists and demagogues and one percenters of their day—the wealthy and powerful, elitist and entitled captains of land and industry who hung around the halls of power and fretted over whether they were extracting enough blood from turnips. The peasants grew the turnips. They were also treated like turnips when it came to blood-letting. The nobles funded the knights—the military-industrial complex of the day.

The nobles bitched about the king and his taxes, but not too loudly, and the knights could go rogue but their Code of Chivalry mostly kept them in line, so the whole thing went along mostly as planned—every level of the pyramid accountable to the one above and free to mess with the people below all they liked, and every lower level careful to give due respect and pay their duty to the level above.

Except for the peasants. Being a peasant was a one-way proposition. They owed a duty of servitude to everybody above them, but had no one to lord it over. All they could do was bully each other and complain about the people above—pointlessly, fruitlessly, vainly. Mostly, their duty was to suffer their solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short lives. Every now and then some idealist would lead an eventually brutally-crushed rebellion on their behalf, but mostly they carried on silently, sullenly, hopelessly… if they knew what was good for them.

That’s what it meant to be Rural. It still does.

“It ain’t never going to change.
How many times we got to tell you that? But you don’t listen.”

It seems that civilization isn’t ready for the people on top governing for the general welfare that poly-sci idealists occasionally dream of. Doing that would make the people on top accountable to the people below.

Not going to happen.

We’re apparently okay with the feudal pyramid and crown and sovereign immunity because we need government and laws and institutions to keep life from being even more solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short than it already is. Which is why the guys (the Founding Fathers’ pronouns are definitely male) who talked about “live, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and wrote in the Preamble to the Constitution that one of its purposes of their new government was to promote the “general welfare” also declared that a slave counted as 60% of a person.

The Bible helpfully explains that God never meant for the pyramid to be necessary—what he wanted was a direct relationship with his people, but the ancient Israelites looked around at the kingdoms they were destroying and thought it would be good to have a king like them. The request made God mad and the people were clearly acting like the sinners they were, but God complied with the request, and since then we’ve had the pyramid.

So the pyramid is all our own fault. We asked for it. We wanted it this way.

And where do you suppose that explanation came from?

From somebody at the top of the pyramid. We’re definitely seeing a pattern here.

But like everything else, the pyramid has changed with the times. Now we have another reason to keep it around:  so we can climb it. Or more accurately, to keep the myth around that we can climb it.

Climbing the pyramid is one of the greatest frauds ever foisted on the human race—right in there with “peace on earth, goodwill toward men.” As usual, the fraud lands hardest on the people that could most benefit it if were actually true.

The member of the month at the gym where I used to work out was a guy in his early 20’s. One of the “get to know me” questions asked “Who motivates you the most?” His answer: “My dad, who taught me that hard work can give you anything, as long as you can dedicate time and effort.”

The answer is predictably, utterly American. “Hard work can give you anything”—yes of course, everybody knows that. Parents tell it to their kids and the kids believe it. America is the Land of Opportunity; it gives you every chance for success, and now it’s up to you. “Anything you want” is yours for the taking – and if you don’t take it that’s your problem not America’s.

But don’t blame the Republicans, because they’re doing their best to banish government and its character-destroying handouts from our lives so the free market can make everything all better, which is why they voted in unison against the infrastructure bill and since then have been lining up for its evil socialist handouts.

A lot of those Republicans lining up are Rural. They just get smaller shares out in the hinterlands.

Back in the day they’d have a greased pole at the county fair. Guys (always guys) would try to climb it. Everybody would watch and laugh. That’s the myth of upward mobility in action. The pyramid doesn’t want to be climbed. Climb it, and you bring it down, expose it for the system of servitude it is. The pyramid says hey don’t blame the rich if you’re not rich. I mean, give ‘em a break—they’re up there making you work your butt off so they can get rich enough for their riches to trickle (trickle, not flow) down to you. If the people on top help the people below they’ll get lazy, the nobles won’t get rich anymore and then where would we all be?

And Rural is okay with it. Rural loves the Republicans, loves capitalism, “free” enterprise, the “free” market, everything “free.” Rural don’t need no stinking handouts. Rural is content to wait around for the trickle that never comes down.

Go away. Just go away. Leave us alone. We can take care of ourselves out here. That’s what we’ve always done while you townies namby-pamby around. Nothing’s going to change anyway. Thus our hyper-inequitable hyper-privatized hyper-monetized hyper-capitalism keeps Rural in its place. That’s how the pyramid works. All that onward and upward isn’t true, and we know it. Rural people work really, really hard and still don’t get what they want. It’s part of the deal, down at the bottom. Like the man said:

“It ain’t never going to change.
How many times we got to tell you that? But you don’t listen.”

Of course, plenty of Urban people are also game to tackle the greased pole. Why? Why do we keep saying and believing something that isn’t true? Because to do otherwise would be un-American. This is where Rural steps up again. Rural is where the Real Patriots are. Patriotism elevates the boast:  America doesn’t just offer opportunity, it gives everybody equal opportunity—just like Teddy Roosevelt said:

“I know perfectly well that men in a race run at unequal rates of speed. I don’t want the prize given to the man who is not fast enough to win it on his merits, but I want them to start fair.”

Equal opportunity means everybody starts together. No, not everybody wins, but still… no matter who you are or where you’re from, everybody has the same odds. None of that feudal pyramid class system here.

Fair. Free. Every man for himself. That’s Rural.

Except equal opportunity is not true either, and we know that, too. And it’s especially not true in Rural.But that’s another self-evident truth that’s been grooved into our American neural circuits since the beginning:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the .pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”[2]

We’re all equals here in America, divinely ordained to pursue the good life. That’s our creed, and we – “the governed” — declare that we believe it.

Even if it’s not true.

And one place it’s especially not true is—you guessed it—Rural America. But Rural doesn’t care, because equal opportunity is a foundational American cultural belief. Cultural myths are sacred – they’re afforded a special status that makes them off limits to examination. And national Founding Myths get the highest hands-off status there is—especially in Rural, where they’re especially not true. History and hindsight have a way of eventually outing cultural myths, but in the meantime the fraud is perpetrated, and attempts to expose it are shunned and punished as disloyal, unpatriotic, treasonous.

Welcome to Rural, where American myths are sacred. You don’t mess with American myths out here, even if they’re killing you.

If we can’t out the myth, what do we do instead? We blame ourselves. We confess that we weren’t smart enough, didn’t work hard enough, didn’t “dedicate the time and effort.” Or maybe we did all that but in the wrong way or at the wrong time. Guilt, shame, embarrassment, frustration, depression… we take them all on as personal failings, in the name of preserving the myth. God helps a lot with all of that—reminding Rural people every week that they are, after all, a bunch of sinners.

Ironically the ones who see through it are—you guessed it—the people at the top who got in before they closed the gates behind themselves.  Meanwhile, the people below—the decimated middle class, the new poor, the working poor… keep blaming themselves.

“I can’t pay my bills, afford a house, a car, a family. I can’t afford healthcare, I have no savings. Retirement is a joke. I don’t know how I’ll ever pay off my student loans. I live paycheck to paycheck. I’m poor. But it’s not my fault.”

Try saying that to Dad at the dinner table.

Horatio Alger is dead, but the equal opportunity myth stays alive on life support as American parents teach it to our children and elect politicians who perpetuate it, while all of us ignore the data that no, it really doesn’t work. Maybe 150 years ago when Horatio Alger was around. But now? No, not now.

“It ain’t never going to change.
How many times we got to tell you that? But you don’t listen.”

There’s no more enduring version of the American upward mobility myth than the rags-to-riches story codified into the American Dream by Horatio Alger, Jr. during the Gilded Age of Andrew Mellon, John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, and the rest of the 19th Century Robber Barons. If they can do it, so can the rest of us, given enough vision, determination, hard work, and moral virtue — that was Alger’s message.

Except it never worked that way, especially for the Robber Barons. There’s a reason they were called “Robber Barons.” They were ruthless opportunists aided by collusion and cronyism carried out in the absence of the antitrust and securities laws that would be enacted under the New Deal after history revealed the fraud.[3] But never mind that — according to Roughrider Teddy and politicians like him, government’s job is to guarantee equal opportunity for all, then get out of the way and let the race to riches begin.

There’s just one problem:  Horatio Alger told an urban story—you didn’t go from rags to riches by staying down on the farm.

Oops.

Still, every Rural high school is haunted by the local boy makes good story (usually male pronoun, although these days it’s usually a local girl who makes good). The local boy/girl is an underdog, and everybody loves an underdog—loves the upset, the incredible comeback, loves it when there’s no way but then all of a sudden the bigger, stronger, tougher, richer, better equipped opponent gets a comeuppance. The Rebel Alliance, La Résistance, the Miracle on Ice, David vs. Goliath—too many examples to list—we love them all.

The underdog story is about the reversal of power. The underdog tips over the pyramid. The peasants rise up, storm the gates. It’s not just that the weak win, it’s that the weak win over the strong. The pecking order is reversed. There’s always somebody with more brass, more money, more creds, more of whatever it takes to put us down and keep us there. In school it’s the principal. At work it’s the boss. In life, it’s death. But not this time. This time we win.

Underdogs and Horatio Alger and local kid makes good are the best kind of heroes. Their kind of heroism gives our lives meaning and purpose, sends us on quests and missions, makes us something other than the small, confused, barely getting by people living in a big confusing scary world that we really are. Heroism makes us suddenly bigger, better, grander, nobler, transcendent, immortal—the stuff of legends. Heroism makes us live forever.

Except heroism is Urban, too, and in its heart Rural knows it. Urban is where heroism gets funding. The only heroism funding out in Rural comes from government handouts, which we God-fearing Republicans know are evil.

So don’t get uppity. Who do you think you are? The people on top don’t owe you anything.

And don’t you have some work to do?


[1] The great American fallout: how small towns came to resent cities | Cities | The Guardian

[2] The Declaration of Independence.

[3] A great source for all the American history we never learned is Americana: A 400-Year History of American Capitalism, Bhu Srinivasan (2017).

Goin’ Up the Country—The Great Urban-Rural Divide

I’m gonna leave this city, got to get away
All this fussing and fighting, man, you know I sure can’t stay

Goin’ Up the Country, Canned Heat (1968)

Better beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear.[1]

Poverty with security is better than plenty in the midst of fear and uncertainty.[2]

The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse. Aesop’s Fables (2600 B.C.)

Thinking of moving to the country?

Think again.

And again.

Keep thinking until that dreamy-eyed feeling goes away. Then I’ll order us some cakes and ale and we’ll talk about it. (I’m good with beans and bacon, too.)

And that bit about escaping fear and uncertainty? Yeah right. Fear and uncertainty are so everywhere nowadays, there’s a new Zen proverb for them:

Wherever we go, there they are.

Covid told us we can work anywhere, so why not in Arcadia’s rustic innocence simple quiet idyllic pastoral untroubled bliss? Don’t worry too much about roughing it—Arcadia comes with upgrades—nouveau-chic country home décor, country clothing, tools that feel substantial and life-affirming in your hands, plus microbrew and wild-caught salmon all delivered up the stone steps to your front door. Plus a gig of internet at the local co-working space.

Don’t fall for it. The Covid country craze was mostly a rumor.[3] It’s not that the makers of nouveau-chic country stuff were out to deceive you, the problem is you’re trying to deceive yourself.

I know these things because I’ve spent the last year living in Non-Arcadia. Writing this, I look away from the screen and the view is not just a mountain but a whole mountain range. There’s a life lesson in that view:  getting here isn’t climbing one peak, it’s crossing the whole range. We’ll call it the Great Urban-Rural Divide, and it’s not about geology, it’s about sociology—two sociologies, in fact—urban and rural are so sociologically different, each has its own branch.[4]

The Great Urban-Rural Divide is about worldview. Urban vs. rural worldview has been endlessly polled[5], conferenced over, and written into doctoral theses, but the pollster findings and academic papers don’t capture the essence. To get that, you need to experience it. Worldview isn’t about data and analysis, it’s the whole package of how we think life works—what’s safe and real and true and normal. And what’s not. Worldview runs in stealth mode—it operates in our assumptions, perceptions, prejudices, biases. It does its work while we’re not looking. And that can be a problem.

Worldview on one side of the Divide isn’t the same as on the other. You can’t just cross over and still be who you are now. We’re so used to celebrating our personal power and self-efficacy and freewill that we think if we zap ourselves from our current circumstances to somewhere else we’ll still be us, the same as we are now, living the same kind of life—a few adjustments to make, but otherwise we’ll fit right in.

Nope. Doesn’t work that way.

Worldview creates context. Context matters. We exist in context. We experience life in context. We find meaning in context. We express ourselves in context. We reach conclusions in context. Context is biological, cultural, environmental, temporal. There are huge contextual differences between urban and rural. The differences aren’t just a matter of taste, opinion, political preferences, educational levels, gender identity… the two worlds simply aren’t the same. The people on one side aren’t like the people on the other. Sometimes, the differences are so striking you wonder if they’re the same species.

The Great Urban-Rural Divide got a lot of attention after the 2016 and 2020 elections.[6] It seemed like something new but it’s not. Aesop wrote his fable The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse 2600 years old. It was probably inspired by his experience of visiting Delphi. Aesop was a country boy—his world was poverty with security, beans and bacon in peace. Delphi was bigtime urban—the Greeks thought it was the center (the navel) of the world. Plus there was Apollo’s temple and the famous oracle, and an impressive view of Mt. Parnassos… it must have been quite the scene.[7] Aesop met his end when his stories insulted the Delphians so much they threw him off a cliff. (Or made him jump, some historians clarify. Um… how exactly to you make someone jump off a cliff? Apparently the gods were country people too—legend is they avenged Aesop’s death with famine and pestilence.[8] I’m not buying that the gods were unanimous in their judgment—several of them had some pretty cosmopolitan tastes.)

I have a middle school memory of experiencing the Great Divide at Boy Scout camp in the Minnesota north woods. A troop from the Twin Cities had the campsite next to ours—we often took the same road to the main lodge at the same time. It seemed like I was always walking behind this one guy… He wore sandals and frayed white bellbottoms, had a keep on truckin’ way of walking, and he was always talking, always seemed to have a lot to say, was always holding court, had this cocky self-assurance.

He was like a one man sideshow. Mesmerizing. He didn’t demand attention, he assumed it. I didn’t know anybody like that. He entirely personified everything I’d ever felt when I met kids from the Twin Cities. When we had big dances—like homecoming—whoever arranged that kind of thing always brought in a band from the Cities. Our chaperones kept a wary eye. City kids knew things, did things. They were tough, cool, confident. Their high schools were a jungle. They had gangs. They had cigarettes and sex and beer.

They made headlines. We just read them.

They weren’t like us.

“Not like us”—three words that tell you everything you need to know about the Great Urban-Rural Divide.

On the country side, “not like us” often comes with a judgmental edge. They don’t get us. They don’t appreciate us. They can’t be trusted. We don’t want them telling us what to do. We do fine without them. The urbanites, on the other hand, don’t seem to care. Yeah, rural is out there, they vote differently but we outnumber them so sucks for them. Rural feels neglected and unappreciated and threatened while urban goes about its noise and haste. Rural is out there doing whatever it is that rural does while urban heads to the oyster bar with friends, with plans to catch the game later.

I was one of the smart kids in high school. My destiny was scripted—I would leave for college and never come back. Nobody knew what people did out there, but everybody knew that kids like me would go do it. It was the way of things. So I went to college where pretty much everybody was a city kid. They were smarter, talked about books and writers I’d never read, liked music I’d never heard, planned to major in subjects I didn’t know about, had been to places I wasn’t aware existed. I ran to catch up. By the time I graduated, the differences were gone on the outside, but there was still a lot of country on the inside.

My college sweetheart and I graduated and got married as the 70’s were making their post-60’s swerve into the 80’s. There was a back-to-the-land movement happening—one of many in a long historical line.[9] Where I came from was suddenly trendy. Living on a farm was suddenly cool. We had Mother Earth News and the Whole Earth Catalog. We had Dylan and The Band moving to Woodstock, Neil Young buying a farm in California, Paul Stookey doing his “John Henry Bosworth” routine in Maine, John Denver singing “Thank God I’m a country boy” in Aspen. We learned to cook vegetarian and make our own granola and yogurt, dreamed of building our very own geodesic domes and nightly guitar and harmonica jams passing the joint around the campfire. Dye-tie, bandanas, torn jeans with flower patches, macrame, peace signs, a broad-brimmed hat like George Harrison’s, some daisies in my girlfriend’s hair…

Arcadia.

My wife and I were a couple years into our marriage (yes, she wore a tiara of flowers) when we joined a house-church group (now I’m an atheist) that talked in awed tones about some families that were starting their own Christian commune in the country. They were actually growing their own food, chopping their own wood, plowing their own dirt, living off the land. We went with another couple for a visit.

Christian Country Utopia turned out to be three couples with small children living in the converted hayloft of a barn—family quarters separated by draperies hung on clotheslines, room heat and oven and cooktop provided by a potbelly stove in the center, lots of tie dye and bandanas and big hats and guitars and harmonicas, also a fiddle—don’t forget the fiddle. They said they had room for more but didn’t seem all that enthusiastic about it. Mostly they seemed kind of worn out, like they could use a hot shower and a laundromat. My wife and I and our friends had thought maybe we’d stay the night. We didn’t. Not enough FOMO to make us stay. Or want to go back.

My wife was a city girl—it was the better choice. Instead of heading back to the farm I became a city kid. We built a city life, raised city kids. Even then, I held onto this self-image of being one of those boys you couldn’t take the country out of. Now and then I’d go on a binge—read books like We Took to the Woods, The Egg and I, E.B. White’s essays about leaving NYC for Maine, Walden, everything Wendel Berry wrote. Once I spent a couple days at a Luddite conference at a Quaker church in southeast Ohio. One of the speakers was an Amish guy who described plowing that morning with his team of horses. I was in raptures—not that I’d ever driven a team of horses pulling a plow, it just sounded way cool. All that while building a career as a JD/MBA in management consulting and law. Go figure.

My career hit its stride when I switched from corporate, securities, mergers and acquisitions to estate planning and family business succession planning for agricultural families and their farms, ranches, and Main Street America businesses. I played my country boy card to the max while I cultivated a city boy law practice (I personally rarely met with our country clients—local people handled that).

Fast forward to today.

I said I didn’t want to leave where we were, but that’s a lie. I’m here because of an unresolved case of Goin’ up the Country. I hadn’t gotten my visions of Arcadia out of my system, and now here I am, living at the end of the world in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere not on the way to anywhere. Yes the view of the mountain range is something. Yes the air is clear. Is that enough to live on?

No.

Before we moved here my wife and I took a road trip looking for new affordable places to live. Where we ended up wasn’t on the list. It should have stayed that way. We were having an ice cream in a small town one day, watching the people and all the pickups and ag haulers and equipment rumbling by when my wife had an epiphany. “I get it,” she said, “All the stuff we think is so important, it’s not to these people. It’s not anywhere in their world.”

Not anywhere in their world. They’re not like us. We’re not like them. There’s a mountain range between us.

I’ve been out of law practice for several years (for reasons unrelated to the rural/urban thing, so I won’t go into them), but I thought hey why not, maybe I’ll fire up the estate planning practice again. It lasted exactly one client meeting, where I sat there thinking “if I have to do this for a living….”

That’s when the despondency began in earnest.

I had to find a new word for how I felt about living here that went beyond “depressed.” I settled on “despondent.” Despondence comes from a different place in your psyche. It’s deeper, thicker, heavier. It’s not about losing the struggle to be motivated and hopeful and upbeat, it’s a tangible emptiness that soaks into your whole body. Hope and courage, vibrancy and vision aren’t just gone where you can’t summon them, you don’t even want to—there’s no point in it, they don’t exist.

I looked into a new career in economic development and urban and regional design—you know, stop complaining and figure out how to turn this into the kind of place I’d like to live. I did some informational interviewing—the Dean of one design program listened to me describe where I lived. “Have you thought about moving?” she asked.

I know, I know… I’m acting urban. I need to get over myself, embrace my inner rural. Got it. Guilty as charged. But sometimes I think if I never see another pickup or hear another long-haul truck roaring down Main Street my life might be good again. That, and not having the guy with an open-carry pistol strapped on one hip and a Bowie knife on the other wishing me a “blessed day.” Then maybe I’d feel some of Aesop’s peace and security (not that it ended all that well for him).

Numbed. Shocked. Stunned. PTSD. Despondency will do that to you.

Lately I’ve been reading psychiatry books about things like death and stress and trauma. Turns out there was a lot packed into my unresolved country boy identity. I’m grateful for a chance to deepen. I’m working on a plan to come back to my senses, re-create myself.

I’m workin’ it.

And you?

I’d say think, think, and think some more, and then take some time for cakes and ale in fear, and enjoy some plenty in the midst of fear and uncertainty.

There’s a lot to be afraid of here, too.


[1] The Town Mouse and The Country Mouse – Fables of Aesop  Eliot/Jacobs Version,

[2] Library of Congress Aesop Fables (read.gov)

[3] Despite the pandemic narrative, Americans are moving at historically low rates (brookings.edu)

[4] Difference Between Rural and Urban Sociology | Compare the Difference Between Similar Terms

[5] For a long list of poll results and analysis, see Similarities and differences between urban, suburban and rural communities in America | Pew Research Center  May 22, 2018.

[6] Donald Trump and changing rural/urban voting patterns – ScienceDirect

[7] Delphi – Wikipedia. Delphi – HISTORY.

[8] Aesop – Wikipedia

[9] Back-to-the-land movement – Wikipedia

Dobbs Isn’t About Abortion

Protestors act like the overthrow of Roe v. Wade is about the law—about Constitutional rights, privacy rights, women’s rights, reproductive rights, etc. It’s not.

The Democrats and progressives have taken up the cause on that basis. They’re wrong.

The demise of Roe v. Wade isn’t about anybody’s legal rights. It’s about the Bible. And since the people thumping Bibles in the USA’s public arena these days are Christians, it’s a Christian issue.

Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization is about the Christian Right’s takeover of American law and culture.

That’s it. That’s the whole story.

We need to get that.

Argue all you want about laws and rights. Go ahead, occupy the outrage high ground. But do that and you miss the point entirely. The point is that the Christians have overrun the gates, gotten inside the walls, and now they’re running the government.

Just like they planned to do on Jan. 6.

Only this time they pulled it off.

That’s not just anti-Christian rhetoric, it’s what the Christians themselves think. Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization supporters are celebrating because the case puts God back in charge of the U.S.—the way God always intended it to be.

If you’re going to protest and debate and argue and make your case, talk about that.

Talk about that openly and in public. Talk about it like people who have retained the ability to think might actually hear what you’re saying.

Everything else misses the central point.

To the Christian mind, Roe vs. Wade stood for the scandalous idea that pregnancy is biological. That’s not Christian. Pregnancy is not a biological issue, there’s a living soul in there—it’s a human life. So now we’ve got one human lifeoccupying space inside another human life, and pitting one against the other is wrong. They both have The Right To Life. To think otherwise is to plot murder. Murder has been against the law ever since God wrote “Thou shalt not kill” with his finger on a stone tablet and handed it to Moses. Roe put the mother’s rights over the baby’s, but God meant it when he said “Thou shalt not kill,” so Roe made God really, really mad, and he’s been punishing the U.S. ever since. And for just as long, Christians have been doing their duty to restore God’s law, which they finally achieved when their delegates on the Supreme Court adopted Dobbs. God’s law is back in charge, which is why women who get abortions are now criminals.

I swear I’m not making that up. Go back and listen and read what the Christians are saying and doing about Dobbs, and you’ll be convinced.

All of that is so disgusting that I can hardly stand to write it, and you can hardly stand to read it. But it’s what Christians think. The Christians who don’t think that way are heretics, and they know it.

I know that’s what Christians think because I was a Christian myself.

For the past five decades the Christian Right has been meticulously advancing, imposing, and enforcing their Biblical worldview on USA law, economics, and social life. The Christian Right movement began in response to Roe v. Wade. That’s a fact. Really. You can go back and trace it. Prominent evangelical luminaries such as Jerry Falwell and Francis Shaefer led a counter-revolution against what they perceived to be a decline in Bible-based social morality. Their initiative encouraged evangelical Christians to become politically active and offered popular support and funding. The initial goal was to make Biblical worldview normative. The end game was Christian Nationalism – a return to the USA’s beginnings as a “Christian nation.”

Now they’ve won their end game. And, drunk on their victory, they’re looking for more messes to clean up in the name of God. Just take a look at Clarence Thomas’s concurring opinion.

Trump holding the Bible in front of St. John’s Church was the perfect iconic moment for the Christian Nationalist agenda. Pundits miss the point when they snicker about whether Trump knows what’s in the Bible. He doesn’t need to know—all he has to do is brandish the Bible, and the gesture says everything that needs to be said.

“Bible – that’s who we are. We are here to divide and conquer. We are here to create winners and losers, us and them, sheep and goats, wheat and weeds. We do as the Bible does – we separate and polarize, we advance our worldview and agenda at the expense of yours, and we are not afraid to act like the Bible’s people of God and use force if we need to. We have God on our side, but just in case we also have guns.”

Back in the day. I and my fellow Christians cheered for the Christian Right (not called that yet), prayed for them, believed in them. God forgive us, we didn’t know what we were doing. We had no clue that what we were cheering for would morph into fake truth and Christian Nationalism and believe-whatever-conspiracy-theories-you-want-and-the-more-bizarre-the-better. We didn’t see that a greedy, selfish, delusional mindset would take over the American mind, turn us to self-absorption and stupidity and the loss of community and the common good and pit us irreconcilably against each other.

Anti-Dobbs protestors think they’ve got such an airtight case that the Christian Nationalist social agenda is in open defiance of Constitutional rights such as voting, gender equality, and the separation of church and state that they don’t even need to talk about it. I mean, everybody knows that.

They need to talk about it. Everybody doesn’t know that.

That these things are an issue at all is because of a fatal flaw in the system. Our very Constitution was flawed in its creation by the Biblical Western Civilization European White Male Dominance that saturates its worldview. Racism, misogyny… its all in there. We were taught differently when we went to school, and we learned our lessons well. And now, the Christian Right, drunk on its newfound power, wants to make sure we can’t teach our children what really happened back then.

Democrats and progressives don’t talk about these things. They’re afraid to. I have never understood why. I mean, what’s the point if you can’t get to the real issues in your speeches? What’s the point of always cowering, being afraid of the hack job the media and the bigots are going to make of what you say?

You’d think we’d be sick of it and ready for something new. But no—Christianity’s new power to control the public ideological framework keeps our brains small and stupid, makes sure we never grow up, never talk about things that matter, never get past the psychological maturity and emotional intelligence of middle school.

We need to talk about things that matter.

And the Christian overthrow of our government matters.

Subjective Objective Reality – It’s Complicated… and Complex

Objective knows.

Subjective believes.

Reality needs both.

Objective does complicated. Think organizational chart nodes, arrows, lines… linear, hierarchical, systematic, intellectual, orderly, predictable, solvable, scalable, recursive… control, rules, authority, supervision, duties, reports, obligations, pecking order… STEM, formulas, metrics, mechanics….

Subjective does complex.  Think Venn Diagram overlapping and interacting circles, shifting magnitude and color… nonlinear, intuitive, relational, emotional, unpredictable, unsolvable, idiosyncratic… dynamic emphasis, trends, fading in and out…. liberal arts, creativity, improv….

Objective + subjective = complicated, complex reality.

The way reality really is.

We don’t get much reality these days. We don’t get objective to deal with complicated, and we don’t get subjective to deal with complex. Instead, we get the worst of neither – a toxic corrosive chemical intravenous cocktail of unreality we can’t unhook, injected in ever-escalating doses to satisfy our ever-escalating addiction to it.

Take away objective input and subjective balance and what do we get?

We get septic ideologies and the excesses of the rich and famous, the celebs and sycophants, the glitz and glam, the bad boy barons behaving badly, the ratings-rule-so-we’ll-say-and-do-anything-to-make-a-bigger-buck crowd, the economic and educational elites who don’t realize that’s what they are, the whole crowd of fat cats and bikini bodies that we in our moral superiority all agree are morally despicable but we want to be just like them.

We get adrenaline and cortisol as the drug of choice, keeping us in a state of outrage powered by the outrageous — individual and collective amygdalas running full-out, stoking the rage, stabbing us with the drive to survive, revving the fight or flight mechanism, keeping the trigger finger twitchy.

We get “truthiness” and “we create our own reality” and “all news is fake news” and “do your own research” and “freedom” cutting the tether of substantiality, sending us spinning off to the Lost in Space Land of the more bizarre the better, sowing the wind of nutcase-ness and reaping the whirlwind of reality unhinged.

We get confused and threatened and hang-wringing opposition that still believes there’s good in everybody so we can’t just give up on the bastards, we need to reach out and collaborate, compromise, negotiate, and bipartisanize our way to the family photo shoot — preferably without the arsenal but I’m sure we can all agree to keep the progressive cousins out of it otherwise we won’t be America anymore, and then what would we do if we can’t tell our children upward mobility bedtime stories anymore?

That’s what you get when you lose touch.

That’s what you get when objective and subjective don’t come to dinner together anymore.

Meanwhile those of us who, like me, just have to write stuff like this are dutifully playing out the role of the nerd in middle school chemistry class who can’t keep his mouth shut and just has to make a crack about the dumb jock in back who’s going to pound him for it.

We just can’t help ourselves.

We should learn to help ourselves.

I mean, Covid is over, right? I mean, it is isn’t it? So that means it’s time for capitalism to lead the way again – I mean, it will, won’t it? So how about the nerds just agree to shut up? If we’re unlucky enough to ever get noticed, all we get for a reward is another pounding.

You’d think we’d learn.

We need to learn.

We need help.

We need reality.

Reality is complicated – we need to figure it out and put institutions and organizations and models and checks and balances in place to control it and then be accountable for what we do and think and say and for God’s sake check the damned lies at the door. We need people like that, and we need to listen to them.

Reality is complex – we need people who aren’t stuck to agendas or caught in nostalgic backwaters or revelations of the illuminati but who can instead improvise and innovate and manage for the sake of the rest of us until we’re assembled into a safe grouping of common welfare… and check the damned idealism at the door. We need to listen to them, too.

Is there anybody like that out there anymore? And if we met one, how would we know?

Simple rule:  My guess is that if we ever met one, they would be somebody you’d like. You’d be sitting there maskless sipping your espresso and thinking this is someone I could hang with – just be around soaking in the confident vision and self-respect that comes from accessing both sides of the brain. This is someone who can think and feel. Someone who can dissect and integrate. Someone who’s safe to be with, so I don’t have to be so guarded, always watching what I say. Probably someone who is over the need to rant every now and then… but maybe not entirely. Probably they would admit to the label “progressive” even though it gets them kicked out of the family photo and the bedtime stories, and even though they realize that Bernie’s too old and AOC and the Squad… I mean, no offense, but after all they are… I mean, young and… um, I mean, you know… not white.

[Sigh]

It’s tough to find friends these days.

We need friends – reality friends. We need reality. We need objectivity and subjectivity to help us create and understand, channel and guide, articulate and empathize our way through life, through tricky times and troubled waters.

Like that’s going to happen.

Like it will – in time.

Like we hope it’s before the Dystopian Reality Show we’re living in actually stops being reality TV — which everyone knows isn’t reality – and actually becomes reality.

Or something like that.

Never mind. I guess I lost the thought.

Something about reality.

For more:

Complex versus complicated problems (fastcompany.com)

Smart Leaders Know the Difference Between Complex and Complicated. Do You? | Inc.com

JohnKamensky.pdf (businessofgovernment.org)

Amazon.com: It’s Not Complicated: The Art and Science of Complexity in Business (Rotman-Utp Publishing): 9781442644878: Nason, Rick: Books

Subjective Vision, Objective Evaluation

Go ahead – believe, dream, envision, get inspired, think big.

But then evaluate. Stop believing and take an objective look at what it’s actually going to take for your Big Idea to happen. Or if you already quit your day job, take the time for a good, hard, long, skeptical look at what’s actually happening. It might not be too late to grovel your way back.

I wish I’d done that. I never got out of the subjective phase – never achieved enough escape velocity to get free of belief. I was an elite believer – a professional’s professional. I know belief like a worthy foe — all its wily, fraudulent snares.

Beware the evaluation that never gets out of belief. Belief validates itself, admits no outside counsel. Belief doesn’t want data, doesn’t need to make a budget or do market research. Belief believes – that’s its only job, and it’s the best at it. If you want evaluation you’ll have to look elsewhere. Objective assessment –- rational thought, science — thrives on doubt. It begins with the assumption that whatever it has concluded is wrong and begs you to prove it. Not so with belief. Belief has a zero tolerance policy on doubt. To doubt is to not believe, by definition. Belief doesn’t want you to know, it wants you to… well, um, believe.

Belief has no ethics, subscribes to no code of conduct. It isn’t accountable, doesn’t answer to independent, unbiased assessment. It’s free to do what it likes.

Belief don’t need no stinking facts.

In the world of belief, there’s no such thing as “independent and unbiased.” Belief rewards its own, destroys its dissenters. The polarities of belief and knowledge repel each other — an attempted interaction between a rationalist and a believer never ends well. Belief has too much at stake – it must prevail or there’s no belief anymore – doubt will wipe it out. With belief there’s no recognizing the delegate from the opposite faction. Nobody but us, no case but ours. Fact-checkers? We’re not listening la la la la. Religious doctrine? Stay out of it, we know what’s true and you don’t. Clergy or politician misbehavior, moral lapses, illegalities? Boys will be boys — we’ll give ‘em a mulligan. Batshit conspiracy theories? Have at it – the more bizarre the better. Fake news? “Do your own research”? “Freedom”? Go for it – it’s your right.

I know these things because I’ve lived on both sides. I spent over two decades as an evangelical fundamentalist cultist Christian believer. When I first started drifting out, I became a self-helper, which turned out to be the exact same religion. Both were about belief. There was no reality other than what you believed. You took flight and never touched down. Nobody called you to account, they just cheered you on, chanted more, more, more, higher, higher, higher.

Nobody ever heard of Icarus.

Christianity claimed to be accountable to its source code the Bible, but that was a sham. I was a Protestant – the religion Martin Luther founded with his sola scriptura doctrine – everybody can and should and must read the Bible for what it says to them, and the religious authorities can keep their mitts off your personal revelation. That makes Protestantism unaccountable by definition. It’s up to you. Make it say what you want. No wonder there are so many fundie whack jobs out there.

I was one of them. I ought to know.

Fortunately, I haven’t ridden the pendulum to the other side, haven’t transferred the focus of my belief to rationalism or objectivity or any other legacy of the “Age of Enlightenment.” (Spare me! Aren’t we being a little pretentious with our title?) Rationalism’s most ardent advocates are just another kind of believer. Same with a lot of atheists, who are more obnoxiously evangelistic than we were back in the day. I’m an atheist myself, but I figured out early that I wasn’t going to make it a substitute religion.

Belief of any kind is a shut-down when it comes to evaluation. It’s incapable of objectivity. Evaluation is not its job. What’s it good for? Shooting our brains full of dopamine, which they love. Dopamine inspires us, gets us moving. Gives us dreams and visions. Makes us feel hopeful. Empowers us with a sense of meaning and purpose. Stuff like that. It’s hard to argue against a dopamine high. People love that shit. Okay, do it if you need to. Just don’t do what I did all those years – all those wasteful, addicted, self-sabotaging dopamine high years, all those years of following my believing dreams from one flameout to another.

When you ask, “How’s this going to work?” or “How’s this going?” don’t listen to belief’s opinion. If your friends share your beliefs, welcome and love them, but all of you need a shot of perspective. You won’t get it from somebody who’s super-critical and cynical either, because those are signals that you’re probably dealing with somebody who’s operating with the weakest and most deceptive form of thinking, which is belief masquerading as rationality.

No, instead, find people who don’t care — people who don’t need things to go one way or the other in order to convince themselves they are valid or alive. It’s okay if they think your ideas are cool, big, inspiring, whatever… but ultimately you don’t want them invested in whether your dreams and visions play out. Find people that if you crash and burn they might just turn and look away from the wreckage and leave you there to deal. If you’re going to listen to people, listen to people like that. They’re your friends – your real friends.

Same with facts and data and trends – they might be leaning in your direction, but they’re only numbers. Sit alone in a dark theater and repeat to yourself, “they’re only numbers, they’re only statistics” until you’re convinced, and then take another look at them. Beware your own perverse ability to make them speak your language, make them love you. If they fawn all over your idea, push them away. They’ll break your heart one day. It’s not worth the thrill in the meantime.

Detachment. That’s what you want. People who respect you (they have to respect you, or get out of there fast) but don’t need to like you or need you to like them. Inspect yourself, the people, and the data like you’re checking for tics, and if you find more than one, run screaming from the room. Scour speeches and articles and analyses for biases and assumptions and calculate how much they’re warping the results and conclusions. Calculate the naysayer’s score, then round it up – way up.

Go ahead and tell your friends and family. Be grateful for their support. They’re here for you. That counts. They’ll probably think you’re nuts – not a bad thing. They might be swayed by your belief. That’s nice. But unless they’re in it whatever it is — with you, not just for you, don’t ask for more. You’d be better off if you find out what your detractors think, and then shut them up. They won’t be convinced by your belief. They’ll want RealThink. They’ll give you a reality check. That’s what you want.

Especially don’t give any weight to idea people. Idea people go through life deflecting – a likeability habit which makes it seem like they’re engaging, but they’re not. Ideas are everywhere and always and inexhaustible – so plentiful and abundant that they’re worthless. What matters are ideas of substance and commitment — the ones where somebody backs them with action and money and whatever else they can, and only then do they say “I like your idea.”

Lastly, be cautious about the pivot. If you’re pivoting from one unsubstantiated belief to another, stop it.

Just stop it.

Now.

If you’re pivoting because you originally relied on data and research and information that maybe was good once but now things have changed and it’s a whole new world out there… then, yeah, go ahead and pivot. Just pivot into something with substance, not another inspirational belief dream wouldn’t-this-be-cool vision.

So follow your heart. Be a subjective visionary. Go for it. Make your dreams come true.

But then figure out how to deliver. Be an objective evaluator. What’s it going to take, what’s it going to cost? What’s it going to look like when you get there, and how will you know? What do you need to know that you don’t? How are you going to find out what you need to know that don’t know already – especially the stuff you don’t even know that you need to know it?

And when in doubt, sit down and wait until the dopamine high passes off. Better have the inspirational hangover first, before you embarrass and impoverish yourself again.

I ought to know. I made a life of it. Now I’m a recovered beliefaholic. I’m like a nonsmoker who used to do three packs a day – the most obnoxious kind of no-tolerance don’t-tempt-me skeptic. I’m for you, but I would spare you if I could.

But I probably can’t. You like the dope too much.

See you at our next meeting. Tuesday night. Methodist church basement.

We Didn’t See it Coming

And now that it has, we don’t know what to do.

Of course we don’t know what to do. We’ve never been here before, we’ve never done this, we don’t know anybody who has, so how should we know what to do?

We didn’t see it coming. We weren’t prepared. Nobody told us. Nobody told us things really could melt down, that you can really get to a place where the center doesn’t hold. We didn’t know these things could really happen.

But then they did, and here we are. Oh yeah, we heard, we read about them. We entertained ourselves with them. But the real thing? No. Not here, not now, not us. Never us. But now it’s us, and we’re clueless.

All our institutions, all the systems, the programs, the back up plans, all the Plan B’s and contingency plans and escape routes, all the provisions laid up, all the people we thought we could trust, the people in charge, the people who should know, all the paid grownups who take care of boring stuff like how they keep the lights turned on and why the food keeps coming – they all checked out early and now they’re gone where we can’t find them.

They didn’t know either. They just kept using all the same old jargon, reciting the same old lines, pretending things were still the way they used to be, how things used to work — either that or they just made shit up that everybody with any brains knew was shit but people flocked to it anyway, I mean what else was there? They fed the fire instead of putting it out, fed it with the same old burned-out charcoal chunks of what used to be a fire but now is just ashes, ashes, we all fall down.

The other adults – the ones who don’t do stuff, they just explain it, they were frozen. They knew too much, they tried to tell us how things work and what was going to happen if we didn’t so something about it, but nobody listened, nobody thought they were any good for anything. Well, half of us thought so anyway. Half of us thought they had nothing to offer, while the other half thought they were the only ones who could save us, but the first half was louder and more into believing things than knowing things, which is easier because doing your own research means filling up with more fantasy to believe so you can keep faking your way through life.

Until you can’t anymore.

And now, while that half keeps faking it and making shit up and trying to gut the life and substance out of everything, the half that has known all along, has seen it coming, has actually done the research, that half is also stuck in all the ways things used to be, so they keep trotting out all the old ways like decency and discourse, listening and knowing, compromising and collaborating – nice sounding stuff that apparently used to work, but now when they talk about it they sound like a bunch of old codgers trying to assure us the everything is alright, just give it time, things will work out, no need to fear, no cause for panic. They do that so we will stay calm, but we see through them, we know better, we feel what’s going down and we know that our feelings don’t lie.

It’s like everybody who’s talking is lying – one half because they actually believe their own lies and the other half because they’re so blind and stuck and unoriginal that they don’t realize reaching back to the times when things weren’t like this is effectively telling lies about the way things are now.

So now here we are – chaos, crash, crisis… disintegration, destruction, disorder… ruin, rubble, randomness… the poetic thesaurus for how to say that everything has fallen apart and my god this was never supposed to happen, nobody thought it ever would, we thought we could hold things together but we couldn’t and now we can’t so look at it — look at this mess of our own making and it’s our fault because we never thought we would have to clean it up, look at this smoking husk of everything we thought belonged to us but it turns out somebody else had the right to repossess it.

So how does it feel?

The wheels came off. We ran off the rails. Things came loose, everything fell apart. The bottom fell out. The top blew off. The walls caved in. Things went sideways. We drove off a cliff. We hit bottom. We’re in a tailspin. We’re going down. It’s the perfect storm, the perfect flood, the perfect earthquake, tidal wave, tsunami. We’re lost in space, out at sea, out in left field. We lost our bearings. Our foundations shook. Our sea anchor broke loose. We drifted off. We’re sunk. We’re lost. We’re screwed. We’re dizzy, disoriented. We went from unplanned, unpredicted, and unforeseen to unimaginable, uncontrollable, and unrecognizable. There’s that saying about the inmates in charge of the asylum. Now they are. The nut cases’ nutty ideas have gone mainstream. Reality has inverted, flip-flopped, turned inside out. What is, isn’t anymore. What was, will never be again. The first shall be last and the last shall be first.

That’s how it feels.

Only worse.

Everything is always worse. The news is always bad. It’s always something. Just when we think it can’t get any worse it gets worse. We go from bad to worse to worst to so-off-the-charts-worst there isn’t a category for it. There’s never a break, never any let up.

Yeah, I get it. Things have been bad before – that’s the lesson of history and blah blah blah. We’re supposed to buck up, tough it out, stay the course, keep our chin up, quit being so negative, keep up a positive mental attitude, stop whining, stop feeling sorry for ourselves, cut with the entitlement already.

Yeah right. Like any of that’s actually going to help when you can’t think straight, can’t hold a coherent useful thought. Maybe this has happened before, but it’s never happened to us, never happened now.

We didn’t see it coming.

I didn’t see it coming.

And now that it has, I don’t know what to do. Of course I don’t know what to do. I’ve never been here before, I’ve never done this, I don’t know anybody who has. So how should I know what to do? How should I have known what this would be like?

Wild and Free

I live in a tiny mountain town in the middle of nowhere, not on the way to anywhere. But we do have three coffee shops.  I went to one yesterday. A guy was just leaving the order window. He had a pistol strapped to his side. First time I’ve seen that here. You read about that happening in places like Texas. But here?

My first thought was to get out of there. But I didn’t want a different coffee shop. I wanted this one. I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to shoot me, or anyone else. He was with his wife, they were meeting another couple at a table as far away as possible. Probably safe. So I stayed.

So did the gun.

I kept my eyes on it. And on his hands – whether he reached for it unconsciously, making sure it was still there, still ready.

He didn’t.

I wondered what kind of fear makes someone pack heat in broad daylight in a tiny coffee shop in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere, not on the way to anywhere.

The answer is, high stress fear. Survival-level fear. Fight or flight level fear. The kind of instinctual fear that shoots adrenaline and cortisol through the system, puts everything on high alert and never shuts it off.

Hair trigger fear.

Shoot first ask questions later fear.

The gun was how he makes his declaration to the world:  “I’m free. Free means I’ve taken matters into my own hands.” The gun was his Great Wall of China, his Maginot Line, his moat full of alligators around his castle. His gun isolates him, sets him apart. He’s always one up on the rest of us. Try anything, and we’re dead. His gun makes him safe. He’ll survive. He’ll be the last man standing.

It made me wary. Where I live, you need to learn what to do if you see a wild animal on the trail – bear, mountain lion, wolf, bull elk. Stay calm, still. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t run. Make yourself as big as you can. Carry a bear bell, maybe pepper spray. And all the rest.

It’s not that wild animals don’t like you. That’s not why they attack. They do it to stay alive. You’re a threat by definition. They can’t take chances. They’re not going to play nice, make friends. You invade their space, they’ll let you know it. You don’t get the message, they’ll take you out.

You don’t win an attack like that.

It’s like when I was a kid, and my friend told me about going to the state fair in the big city and the tough guys who hung out, picking fights with the country rubes. Don’t ever look at them, he advised. He grabbed my shirt, pulled me up close. “You lookin’ at me, kid?” he snarled.

No provocation. You’re at risk just by being there.

At one point the gunman left, got something from his car, came back, passed my table in both directions. I watched his eyes, where he looked, listened to how he talked There was a self-consciousness about him – like a kid who knows he’s being watched, who’s thinking “look at me” and “don’t look at me” at the same time.

The barista closed up shop for the day, hung the “closed” sign. The guy with the gun and the rest of the people at his table got up to leave. He looked for a place to toss his cup. He went up to the window, knocked on it.

“I think they’re closed,” I said. Bad move.

The barista opened back up, took the cup.

He passed our table.

“Have a blessed day,” he said. He pronounced “blessed” with two syllables, offering a benediction that completed the equation. Not only was he armed, he was a soldier in the army of an angry God — like I’ve seen on a T-shirt in a local shop:  a cross, an assault weapon, and the words, “Come and take it.”

He was wild, he was free, and he had God on his side.

I was at risk, just by being there.

I kept still, silent.

Inside, I deflected his blessing. “No thanks,” I thought. “No blessing for me from your God.”

I kept my eyes averted, said nothing.

He went off to the rest of his wild and free day.

I went home, grateful that I know what to do when I meet a wild animal on the trail.

“The Person of Jesus” Fallacy

“I don’t like religion but I like the person of Jesus.”

The religion they don’t like is Christianity – Jesus’ religion. They think it would be better if the church wasn’t involved. Separating an institution from its namesake isn’t easy under any circumstance, but it’s harder here because Jesus and the church are both ancient, and ancient doesn’t time-travel.

We hold a myth that it does, but ancient ideas and stories about ancient people preserved in ancient books can’t make the trip to today. We think if we could snatch those guys (ancient pronouns are definitely male) out of yesterday and plunk them into today, they would be just like us, dealing with the same kinds of issues, having the same kinds of thoughts. Not a chance. We are not like them and they weren’t like us. Our consciousness, experience, and reality are different from theirs. Bring them here or send us there and neither of us would have a clue.

Why? Because everything we feel, think, and do is in context – life happens right here, right now. It all happens in our brains and bodies – neurologically, biologically. We can’t escape being organisms. And we can’t escape the moment. That’s not a cool guru thing to say, it’s the way human life works. Contrary to the popular myth, we’re not eternal souls living on a higher plane while our bodies slog through the muck. We’re all here, like it or not.

Seek and Ye Shall Find

We don’t think reality works that way. We think it’s “out there,” waiting for us to find it. And if it’s Christian reality we’re after, Jesus promised that if we seek it we’ll find it. The only hitch is, the way we find it is by believing it. Christianity doesn’t function without belief. It starts with “whoever believes in him [Jesus] shall have eternal life” and goes from there.

Believing it is finding it. We find it by believing it. It’s not hard to spot the loop.

And if it’s the real Jesus we’re trying to find, there’s still the God-human problem. Theologians can talk all day about how Jesus was both “fully human and fully God,” but there’s no way the rest of us have any idea what that’s supposed to mean, so we stick with what we’ve been taught to believe. We major on the God part — we sanctify Jesus, bathe him in holy light, cast everything he said and did in marble, interpret and rationalize it in hindsight. We figure Jesus as God was always in the know so he knew all along what was happening and how it would be viewed by people like us two millennia later. He set everything up so church doctrine would make sense.

Plus our own memory banks are full of our personal history of faith and anything we might have learned about what’s happened with Christianity while it’s been around. There’s a lot of church and religion in those memories – stuff the person of Jesus” devotees want to trade for a fresh look. To do that, they’re going to have to be really good at “beginner’s mind” – using awareness to seek and destroy biases and assumptions.

Call me Ishmael

I didn’t think about the “person of Jesus” when I was a Christian, I mean, Jesus was special because I was a Christian. Sometimes people talked about loving Jesus. I never felt that way, so I worried that my faith was defective. Guilt was pretty much the extent of my “person of Jesus” experience.

Now that I’m not a Christian, I don’t like the guy.

It’s still shocks me when I write things like that. I never would have, back in the day, But I believed then. I don’t anymore.

Still, some people I’m close to buy the “person of Jesus” thing.

So call me Ishmael — I signed on to give it a try.

“Rabbi”

Jesus was a rabbi. He did what rabbis did:  travelled around teaching his take on things, attracted followers who supported him, and argued with other rabbis. (Rabbi arguing is so essential that the nation of Israel pays them to do it.)

Jesus was a rabbi prodigy – he celebrated his Bar Mitzvah by ditching his parents so he could debate other rabbis om Jerusalem’s temple. That’s like skipping law school for a chat at the Supreme Court. When they found him, in true adolescent fashion he made it their problem that they didn’t know he’d be there.

Then the Biblical record skips ahead twenty years – a gap that generates a lot of sappy artwork of him being a carpenter and “My Boss is a Jewish Carpenter” bumper stickers. What was he doing? The same thing he was doing before his temple debut:  studying, learning, perfecting his case, preparing himself to be a rabbi for the ages. When the photo op was over, he closed up shop and hit the road.

He was good at it – had personal charisma and a message to match. Recruiting was a snap, and before long he had a retinue and a schedule like a megachurch pastor:  he drew huge crowds to public events, taught an inner circle more intensely, and confided intimately with only a handful.

Jesus’ rabbi battles were epic. We like the way he put the smackdown on the competition. My overall impression is that he wasn’t the nicest guy in the world. Seems like he was often rebuking and scolding– like snarling at a man for not having enough faith while he healed his child. Maybe he was like one of those professors everybody warns is “really hard but you’ll learn a lot.” Sometimes I took the class, sometimes I didn’t – either way, I usually didn’t like “the person.”

Populism

Jesus was great in a crowd. He delivered sound bytes you could take home, share with the neighbors — consider the lilies of the field, the very hairs on your heads are numbered, no sparrow falls from the sky without God noticing…. He told great stories – always with a moral, but complex enough that his inner circle sometimes needed a private explanation. People wondered, “Where did he get all this?” “He doesn’t teach like the other rabbis,” they said.

There’s a poly-sci term for it:  populism. Populism reverses the pecking order — the elites will be last and the losers first. The new blessed — the poor, meek, abused, despised, outcast, sick, blind, lame, hopeless, powerless – will inherit the earth and see God. God already has their mansions in Heaven under construction.

Not only that, but they get free healthcare.

Healing

Jesus healed people at his rallies, sometimes stayed up all night doing it.

The Christianity I was part of believed healing should be a normal part of what Christians do. Not all Christianity thinks so. Plus, we all know the debates about did he really, about what qualifies as a “miracle,” and what’s this about casting out demons? In our day, the “placebo effect” has been scientifically documented, plus there have been and still are lots of people who heal without surgery or pharma. Debate all you like, but it’s undeniable that Jesus’s ability to make people feel better super-charged his popularity.

Messianic Populism

Healing people was a big deal. Only the A-list prophets had done it, which meant Jesus might be one of them. There hadn’t been one of those in a few hundred years. More than that, healing was more than a prophet marker, it was Messianic – part of what would happen when God made good on Israel’s long-promised restoration and golden era.

Start talking Messiah, and the populist buzz goes off the charts.

Jesus’ message was clearly Messianic, and he clearly believed he was the Messiah. That’s what went down in a very rabbi-like exchange with John the Baptist (though a couple of John’s followers). The rabbi exchange works like this:  one rabbi quotes scripture, the other responds in kind; and in so doing, they clarify a point between themselves. They’re speaking in code, but they get what each other is after.

“Now when John heard in prison about the deeds of the Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.”

Matthew 11: 2-5 ESV

“Are you the one who is to come?” [Are you the Messiah?]

“Go tell John what you see happening around here.” [Yes I am.]

The scripture in question was this:

“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
“    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then shall the lame man leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.”

Isaiah 35: 5-6 ESV

Jesus made the same point on other occasions, like one Sabbath when he did something else rabbis did – went to the synagogue and read the scriptures, as “was his custom.” Only this time he went off script:  “The prophet Isaiah was talking about me.

“And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
    and recovering of sight to the blind,
    to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

“And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4:16-21 ESV

Fast forward to today. We know that Jesus’ Messianic populism didn’t go permanent. Instead – according to the church – it morphed into something transnational and invisible that you get in on not by being born in ancient Israel, but by believing that Jesus was a sort of metaphysical Messiah for everybody. A few hundred years later under Emperor Constantine, the invisible Messianic kingdom morphed again into the official Christian institution and infrastructure “the person of Jesus” devotees want to scuttle.

Jesus’ populism was a fail, but that’s okay. We got something better instead. That’s the party line.

Populism Redux

I was a Jesus Freak in the 60’s and 70’s. We were totally into the populist Jesus– the bearded long-hair barefoot bead-wearing anti-war hippie radical Che Guevara look-alike who called out The Establishment and stuck it to the Man.

Today we’ve got the Revenge of the Establishment — the Christian Right’s Jesus who advances Christian Nationalist racist alt-right anti-democracy militarist fascist authoritarianism end stage capitalism.

I don’t know about you, but after the last few years I’ve had quite enough populism for one lifetime.

“We are the 99%” is why populism fails. Occupy camps out in Manhattan, the mob storms the Bastille (or the Capitol) but once the mess is cleaned up the 1% is back in charge while the newly disappointed and disillusioned 99% are back home wondering, “What was that about?”

So far, Jesus” sharp tongue and populism aren’t wining “person of Jesus” points. But how about this:

Jesus Reinvented God

If the Messiah was on the scene, the God of Israel’s history had to be recast.

Israel’s God was a “man of war. Exodus 15:3 He was both a war criminal and guilty of crimes against humanity – a misogynist, racist, xenophobic, homophobic narcissist who must be worshiped and resented it when he wasn’t, a nationalist, fascist authoritarian who openly ordered genocide and gave his conquering soldiers the right to rape and pillage.

You dealt with that God by being afraid – fearing him was “the beginning of wisdom.” Proverbs 9:10 No wonder the rabbinical sects Jesus verbally sparred with – the Pharisees and Sadducees –were obsessed with getting everything just right, down to the last “jot and tittle.” Do something wrong and everybody suffered.

Of course, ancient Israel didn’t think of their God that way. People still don’t today. When they think of God, they think of a Nice Guy in the Sky – like the God Jesus introduced as our “Father” — a too-kind, too-generous, too-indulgent, too-loving remake of the old Monster God.

The Monster God destroyed men, women (except the sex slaves), and children and burned their cities down to make room for his chosen people, whom he also turned on if they got it wrong. That wouldn’t do if there was going to be a Messianic golden era. So Jesus brought a new God, and a new religion with it.

Jesus Reinvented Religion

Jesus’ new religion was based on belief. Belief was the ultimate populist Messianic kingdom strategy. Anyone could believe, even the losers — no temple, no priest, no animals sacrifice required.

Jesus’ new religion was today’s self-help gospel. When Jesus gets on the topic of belief, he’s the original motivational speaker.

“All things are possible for one who believes.” Mark 9:23 ESV

“Truly, I say to you, whoever says to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ and does not doubt in his heart, but believes that what he says will come to pass, it will be done for him.” Mark 11:23 ESV

That’s the power of positive thinking and law of attraction, from the pages and podiums of the $20 billion self-help industry. (Christians have adopted self-help as their own – Google “Christian self help” and you’ll see what I mean.) Believe what you want, don’t doubt, and it’s yours. You can move mountainsNothing will be impossible for you.

It seems Jesus was an original thinker on this point – if it’s in the ancient Bible, I can’t find it.

If the Monster God was out and the Nice Guy in the Sky was in, then Israel’s historical religion had to change.  No more annual calendar of animal blood sacrifices. And no more temple.

A little research reveals that there was a rabbinical apocalyptic school of thought in Jesus’ time, and some scholars think Jesus was in the club. Maybe, maybe not, but Jesus clearly had an apocalyptic view of his religion’s future, which meant the temple’s days were numbered – a development he talked about with inner circle about when the troupe made their last trip to Jerusalem.

“Jesus left the temple and was going away, when his disciples came to point out to him the buildings of the temple. But he answered them, ‘You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.’

“As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, ‘Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’”

Matthew 24: 1-4 ESV

The temple was the nation. Take it away, and everything else went with it — worldview, cultural identity, historical understanding, vision for the future… all the nation’s institutions and icons trashed. The Messiah had been promised for millennia, but theoretical good news is one thing, the reality of dealing with it is quite another.

The “Lamb of God” heads off a national security risk

Jesus’ country was a theocracy. Messianic populism was a national security risk. Stir things up too much, and the Roman hammer would fall. The other rabbis could see it coming. They had a country to protect. They were human too — the lash of Jesus’ tongue hurt. And clearly he was wrong and they were right. No wonder they led the chant “We have no king but Caesar” while demanding Jesus’s conviction and murder.

And the amazing thing was, Jesus didn’t resist them. And when the Roman authorities wanted to let him go, he refused.

It looks like this came out of nowhere, but it was there all along, ever since John the Baptist made a pronouncement for the ages:

“Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!”

John 1:29 ESV

At the height of his popularity, Jesus volunteered to be the human sacrifice that would appease Israel’s Monster God once and for all. No more imminent kingdom – instead, the settling of an old score. It looks like a sudden change of heart, and I’m not the only one who thinks so.

“From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “Far be it from you, Lord! This shall never happen to you.” But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”

Matthew 16:21-23 ESV

So much for the merry populist ride and the loving new Heavenly Father. In order for the old God and the old religion to be over with, there would need to be one last bloody sacrifice – the “Lamb of God.” That would be Jesus’s final act.

Trouble is, you destroy the Messiah, you destroy the Messianic golden age. Two thousand years of church doctrine says don’t worry about that, because this was the surprise happy ending– the impossibly good news no one saw coming. I’m no longer in the thrall of church doctrine, so I see it differently.

At the height of Jesus’ populist ministry, his family staged an intervention – tried to bring him home. They thought he was beside himself, wasn’t thinking straight, needed some time to cool off. He blew them off, and shortly after started predicting his death. It’s like something snapped in him. Right about then was the transfiguration –Moses and Elijah on the mountain — the lawgiver and prophet — and afterward the populism ran off the rails. Instead of breaking with the Monster God, Jesus announced that he would appease him with his own death. Bringing the Messianic kingdom would be his followers’ job, and in the time he had left he focused on preparing them for the job.

This is where I give up on “the person of Jesus” – when his healing, populist gospel turns into an ancient religious death wish.

But then it gets worse.

The Last Judgment

When Jesus broke faith with his Messianic populist movement, he became fully complicit in ancient Israel’s religion and angry God.

Like any sociopath, the Monster God could be kind — the official line was that his “lovingkindness indeed never ceases” Lamentations 3:22-23 Trouble was, his lovingkindness was conditional, on loan. His people could never please him, so they were always building debt they could never repay. Christian theology says that applies to the rest of us too, and that Jesus – “fully God” – knew that, so he picked up the tab for everybody.

But the final reckoning inexplicably stayed on the agenda. Once the world burns in apocalyptic flames, we’re all summoned to the Last Judgment, and if we don’t believe the right stuff, we’re screwed in the worst possible way.

These days, every time I write the stuff the church I was part of used to believe, I’m shocked and stunned all over again. Really — people who seem normal, like I used to think I was — believe all this gory, horrible stuff. No wonder Christians parade Jesus’s death by torture symbol like it’s the best thing ever. It’s a crucifix, for crying out loud! –one of the most horrifyingly cruel, depraved, savage, barbaric, sadistic, blood-lusty instruments of torture the very worst of human depravity has ever devised, and there’s a man on it, beaten and whipped bloody, writhing in pain.

Oh, and a father did that to his child. Because he so loved the world.

And the son submitted to it because he loved us and wanted to please his father.

Behold the Lamb of God.

That’s the religion Jesus couldn’t break from – which two thousand years later was the same religion I joined when I became a Christian – and which is still the same religion I’m no longer part of. Christianity gives lip service to the Father, but it worships the Monster.

Jesus Christ Superstar

By the time I got this far in my search for “the person of Jesus” I realized what I’d found was my own Christian life. Twenty years after my Jesus Freak populism days, the Kingdom finally came. It was full-on Jesus populism. We went after the losers, stayed up all night healing them and finding them under bridges. We built churches in their abandoned store fronts, washed their cars, did their Spring cleaning, hauled away their trash. We fed them and moved them into homes.

Then the worst thing happened. The Evangelicals who’d been on our case extended the olive branch, and our leaders took it. We used to have the Father, now we had half the Father and half the Monster. Occupy was over. The elites were back in charge. The old order was restored.

That’s what I found looking for “the person of Jesus.”

Writing this now, I think of Judas singing in Jesus Christ Superstar — “Every time I look at you I don’t understand/Why you let the things you did get so out of hand.” Yeah, that pretty well sums it up.

When I first heard it, I thought it was clever, but trite. Not anymore. Jesus had it going, he let it get away. Sad. Frustrating. I wish his family’s intervention had worked. It didn’t, and for reasons we’ll never know, Jesus took a course that a couple thousand years later has brought us the Christian Right and the Kingdom of Texas, the Proud Boys with their giant crosses that look like they’re going to use them on somebody, and all the rest. We get modern barbarity to match ancient barbarity, justified by the barbaric God of a barbaric ancient religion, its devotees hawking doctrinal statements of faith barely indistinguishable from their most wildly fantastical conspiracy theories.

The individual and collective brains of the human race have been groomed with this disgusting source of endless misery for six thousand years since the Bible first declared ‘In the beginning, God….”

How about if we start over with, “In the new beginning, no God’?

Not even “the person of Jesus.”

Today billions of people around the world still sanctify the church’s ideology and idolatry no matter how weird and brutal it is. “The person of Jesus” offers no escape, only more of the same.

Can we please move on?

Dopamine No More! (I miss it)

I miss dopamine.

I miss the sweet emotion (queue up the song).

Dopamine makes us want to do things. Dopamine inspires and motivates, conveys purpose and meaning, makes us believe that dreams can come true.

Our hairy ancestors apparently needed it. Otherwise life was just too hard, so why bother to survive? Evolution said that won’t do – here, take a shot of this, that’ll get you going.

I was a dopamine junkie. I overdid it. Dopamine fuels belief, belief gets the internal resolve going, which fuels more dopamine which fuels more belief… The more you use, the more you want. The more you use, the more you need. You’re invincible when you’re on it, an anxious slug when you’re not.

The addictive cycle.

Pretty soon you’re out of touch. Your risk-reward regulator goes out of whack. The further out you get, the closer you get to the edge, the more thrilling it is. You’ve gone beyond surviving, now you’re thriving. No normal drudgery life for you. You’re the exception.

So you think.

It’s a lie. And the crazy thing is, people who have their dopamine under control buy the lie with you. They cheer for you, say you’re inspiring. You’re on a Hero’s Journey. You’re living the Redemption story – the Hollywood standard:  get a crazy idea, sacrifice everything, lose everything, everybody turns against you, you crash and burn, all is lost, everything is hopeless…and then… you did it! Happy ending! Hero worship! Glorious sunset! Stirring overture!

I miss all that.

I read an article about “dopamine fasting.” It’s an anti-self-help self-help technique that’s been making the rounds for a few years. I could see that. I’ve been working on it myself for about that long. Once I saw how dopamine had ruined my life, how fraudulent and full of lies and false promises it is, how it would keep ruining my life if I didn’t get it under control, I swore it off. No more periodic crash and burns for the sake of a survival need that started with getting our butts out of the cave to join a Mastodon-clubbing party.

I meant well, but I lapsed now and then. I couldn’t seem to go cold turkey – dopamine was too sneaky. One little hit – one idea that seemed so cool in the moment – and I was back in the cycle. So I needed safeguards, needed to learn not to trust my ideas, how to squelch my hopes, not follow my dreams. Life was still on the edge, but not the fun kind of edge. The new edge was overlooking The Void — an imminent drop into meaningless, purposelessness, despair.

It helped that I was overtaken by a dopamine-impairing neuro-muscular disease. It advanced slowly at first, didn’t get diagnosed for a few years. By the time I got diagnosed, it was like somebody else said – “I got diagnosed, and 6 months later I had aged 15 years.” It also helped that I became poor. Old, impaired, and poor – three things I thought I’d never be, and now I was. All three hammered my dopamine supply. Crazy ideas need lots of energy and money. If you’re old and impaired, you don’t have the energy. If you’re poor you don’t have the money. It helps.

No, I don’t sit around whining. I’ve learned to do things without feeling like it, learned to live without motivation and inspiration, without hope and joy. Don’t be disgusted at my crappy attitude. I’m not wallowing. I’m living an experiment. How do you live without all that good stuff? How do you rise above slug level when your brain doesn’t have the chemical it needs to keep you squirming along?

I can’t tell you, but I do it every day.

Truth is, there’s still some dopamine flowing up there, or I’d be done. Enough to keep me surviving, although sometimes I wonder. Enough that I still lapse now and then. My routine now is treat it like an annoying child – stop what you’re doing, give it attention, hear it out. And then, once it’s feeling better, go away and wait. That might be enough.

If it comes up again, try to find out why. What’s the hook? Soothe the idea, make it feel better at the source. You can’t do anything about it anyway – you’re too old, infirm, and poor, remember? No, it doesn’t want to hear that. It’s a child – it doesn’t process adult limitations like affordability or mobility challenges. It just wants to play. So go ahead – after awhile you’ll want to sit down and rest. Maybe it will pester you again, maybe not. It might go away right away, maybe overnight, maybe a couple days. Usually no more.

Dopamine episode solved.

You’re safe until your dopamine idea-maker fires off another one.

Rewind, repeat.

I’ve learned to deal, but I miss it. I miss believing, hoping, trusting. I miss having dreams and visions, feeling like I can do cool stuff. Life was more fun when it was full of magical thinking and delusion.

I sometimes think how easy it would be to get on meds — instant chemical relief for crappiness and despair. But then I think I’ve had quite enough magical thinking and delusion for one lifetime. When Nietzsche recognized that God had died, he worried that people wouldn’t be able to live without the sense of meaning and purpose that God had given them. His solution was to invent Superman.

It takes a lot of dopamine to be Superman. Lots of testosterone, too – another survival drug.

Superman was a disaster. Thanks anyway Friedrich, but we’ll sit this one out. No Superman for me.

And for now at least, no meds either. I’m more interested in finding out if you can actually live on the edge of The Void. I know, I know… it’s just another version of my old living of the edge – kind of a pathetic version at that. But despair is what I’ve got right now, so I’m working with it. I work out, do my learning and reflecting and reading, create my artwork. I do it because I do it. I do what I do because that’s what I do. No Hero’s Journey, no Hollywood, no motivational speaker self-help guru fame and fortune. Just getting stuff done whether I feel like it or not.

It’s probably a phase – another fit my inner child is throwing. I’d like to be a child again. I miss that, too. I never wanted to grow up. All the magic, delusion, dopamine highs.

But no. Here’s to survival! To the Void! To despair! To the nothingness Nietzsche was worried about!

And all that other adult shit.