The Book of Good Living: Tools

BGL copyAdvice to moms, dads, grandparents, aunts, uncles, older cousins, anybody with young people in your lives:

There are few material things you can give kids that will make such a difference in their lives as good tools. Carpentry tools, woodworking tools, mechanic’s tools, plumbing tools, metalworking tools, electrician’s tools, — kitchen tools! blacksmith’s tools! — tools for servicing appliances, computers, mechanical devices.

The card should say “Dear One: Build things. Make things. Fix things. Take apart the world and see how it works. Then make it work again.”

We go through our lives depending on auto mechanics, electricians, plumbers, service and repair people. We stand back and feel disempowered as someone else makes our everyday lives work, and then charges us handsomely for it. (We also get rooked more often than we want to know.)

If you learn from an early age to live hands-on, to understand how things work and how things are made, to engage the world with your own powerful hands and mind, you become somehow realer than those who have to depend on somebody else for everything. You’re also able to help friends and family in ways that few others in your family will be able to (the hardest lesson will be learning to say no!).

If you have a feminist bone in your body, give your little girl tools. If you understand what it means to be a complete, independent man, give your little boy tools. If you want to be the uncle, the aunt, the cousin, the friend who gets remembered for giving a lifetime of real power over into the hands of your young loved one, give them tools.

(And yes, tools are dangerous. Everything powerful is. Make sure the power of the gift comes with the precautionary knowledge and respect that makes it safer.)

Post-Teen Guilty, Middle-Aged Goddy

COE SquareI have friends in Texas who did some pretty questionable stuff in their wild teen years — we’re talking lying, stealing, animal cruelty, just plain meanness to each other, and yes, a certain amount of socially-unapproved sex — who have become extremely religious as they’ve gotten older. I often suspect there’s a direct mechanism that makes this happen. Here’s how I imagine it working:

Inevitably when you’re younger and you have a childish sense of right and wrong, a childish sense of other people’s or other creatures’ feelings and rights, you do stuff that seems fun or exciting in the moment, but which can spark remorse in later years.

The thing is, if you’re a decent person at all, your level of understanding and compassion rises throughout your life, and things that seemed cool when done in your teens can later disturb you very much. An adult-level conscience looking back on teenage acts can generate immense amounts of guilt. But most of us have no idea how to process that guilt.

My view of how to deal with it is this: You just have to feel the guilt, live with it, to keep it as a reminder that you have to do better. But also, you have to understand that kids do crazy shit. If you’d forgive — or at least understand — some other kid that age doing the same thing, you can somewhat forgive yourself for those early-life acts that now bother you. And after all, the guilt is an indicator that you already are a better person. Otherwise, you wouldn’t feel bad about things you did 30-40-50 years ago.

But not everybody is this self-aware, or thoughtful. And certainly we have no formal social organ to propagate that message.

Fortunately or unfortunately, we have religion, which replaces wisdom with faith. The religious paradigm that God will forgive those bothersome acts — IF you devotedly believe and pray and all that — provides a tool that allows believers to imagine forgiveness (*). But it also locks them into the goddy framework. If they give up the belief, it brings the guilt surging back into consciousness.


(*) That there may be a drawback to the practice — it could make repeated acts more palatable — is a mere side-effect.

A Dark Tide in Human Affairs

Dark Tide copyI was thinking today about large-scale social motion in a negative direction. Not as some sort of accident, but as the result of some deeper human sociological/psychological tides.

I think of bikers and biker culture. The skull motif so penetrates biker culture that it makes its way onto everything — bikes, t-shirts, leather jackets, bandanas, helmets, face masks, even tattoos. It’s interesting to me that this nihilistic image is of such unquestionable importance, and has no positive-direction counterpoint. (For instance, you don’t see Hello Kitty biker art, with the possible exception of the very rare joke.) And I think of bikers as early-adopters of the sort of darkness the skull represents.

But following in the footsteps of those early adopters, that darkness — the studied opposite of health, respect, sanity, goodness, love — has now entered the mainstream. Politics has it. The news media has it. Style has it. Music has it. We have it as tattoos, saggy-ass pants, piercings, trashy dress, repellent physical condition, the easy bile and bullying of online commenters, the vapidity of entertainment, all sorts of other data points, all a part of a powerful counter-culture that insists whatever majority culture we have had is a hate-filled, freedom-restricting malignancy — hell, even the admonition to maintain a good healthy weight is seen as a violent attack on a helpless victim class — and that everything which is NOT majority culture is good.

Currently, there is almost no human practice, however scary, low or disgusting, that someone will not instantly leap to defend, as if some vital issue of freedom is at stake — “People should be allowed to shit in public! It’s perfectly natural! Only a bunch of hateful prudes would say otherwise!” And one of the defensive weapons is the ever-ready “You shouldn’t judge people!” — an admonition that resonates with the opposition to having social or personal standards.

I actually saw the election of George W. Bush as a signifier of something dark going on below the surface of things, and it appears to me that that whatever-it-is is spreading, solidifying its grip and influence. It was almost irrelevant that it was George W. Bush specifically who got elected; anyone of his sort — intellectually dull, pompous, grandiose, incurious, shallow, self-absorbed — could have fit the bill. Because that was what we unconsciously wanted and needed in that moment.

The hate flowing like a firehose at President Obama — a genuinely intelligent, genuinely good man who has served as a target for spitting spite from the first moment he entered the public spotlight — is another data point. This dark whatever-it-is HAS TO attack a decent person, because it can no more tolerate his existence than disease can tolerate antibiotics.

The thing is, I don’t know where this thing is coming from. Like I say, it feels like something weirdly inevitable in this moment — a necessary product of certain factors arising out a confluence of human psychology and the progression of civilization itself. I feel like we made a wrong turn at some point, or started from poisoned initial conditions, but I can’t see what that turn is or those conditions are.

I worry that this whatever-it-is would be see-able by humans slightly brighter, slightly better, and that we’re missing it because we’re just us.

It also disturbs me to think that just-us is tragically unequipped to stop it, and that it will sweep over the human world, damaging everything, as we stand by and observe in busy impotence, always convinced some less-relevant, flavor-of-the-month factor — racism, sexism, ‘the patriarchy’, teabaggers, underpaid teachers, Republicans, Fox News, liberals, video games, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton — is to blame.

The bright spot, to me — the hope — is a Venn Diagram that overlaps the several circles of atheism, reason and education, and an intelligent activism that spotlights these as the necessary foundation of any kind of real-world solution.

Dog Years

Ranger3I aspired to be a scientist, once: I was a genetics major at a western university, way back when. (To show you what a cerebral nerd I was, the most exciting class I ever took in college was Calculus.)

If you had asked me in those days what I thought went on in an animal’s head, I would have related the majority view of the day: the most you could say about an animal was that they “exhibited certain behaviors.” There was no evidence for the presence of feelings, or anything resembling thought. Animals were little more than clockwork mechanisms, without love, or grief, or any other of our familiar human passions.

And then I got my German shepherd, Ranger. I picked him up from a kennel in Riverside, California back in March of 1986, at the age of ten weeks. Twelve years later, on a winter’s day, he died.

I wish I could relate to you all the good times we had together in those years in between. Some of the highlights:

I drove draft horses on hay rides and sleigh rides for eight of Ranger’s years, and he came with me on every one. He ran alongside in obvious joy, sometimes leaping up to make mock bites at the horses’ annoyed noses, frequently dashing off to check out interesting smells or wildlife, always coming back to check on me, making sure I was there, and pleased with him.

We went for hikes twice a day, almost every day of his life. We hiked along clear mountain streams, where my four-legged friend could cool off on those hot summer days. We passed through clean, green mountain meadows, and Ranger would flop down and wallow luxuriously in the grass.

As a special treat for him, some nights I drove to a nearby gravel pit, shining my car lights across the flat expanse to spotlight lanky rabbits. Ranger would spy them and charge out with an unbelievably graceful  long lope, happy carnivorous thoughts driving him to his limit – which was never fast enough. But he dearly loved the chase, and it made me happy to see him happy.

For about the first three years of his life, he was with me every second, and he got to run free all that time; he was well over two before I even bought him a collar. He lived most of his life as a mountain dog, able to roam loose over vast expanses, but he almost never took advantage of his freedom. He was a compass and I was his North Pole, and the whole of his life was being with me. Some late winter nights after I put away my big draft horses Duke and Dan, and went into the ranch house for dinner, Ranger would circle the house and somehow locate me indoors, sitting outside on a snowbank and peering in through the window nearest me. The guests would sometimes startle at the sight of a huge wolfy face looming out of the darkness.

I surprised myself by developing a fierce protectiveness for him. Somebody asked me once if he was a guard dog, and I said, “No, he’s a guarded dog. If somebody tries to hurt him, they have to answer to me.”

One afternoon as we walked along a street in our little mountain town, another German Shepherd, larger and heavier-bodied, bolted out of a yard in our direction, in full attack mode. I pushed Ranger behind me and stepped towards the dog, perfectly furious, ready to wreck him. I can remember his eyes, aimed ferociously at Ranger for the first half of that charge, all intent on mayhem, then suddenly switching to me as I moved into his way. He skidded to a halt with a shocked look, then backed off into his own yard.

Ranger was always, always either there with me, or there waiting for me when I came home. How do you deserve devotion like that? I don’t know. But in twelve years of unceasing effort at canine affection, my friend worked a gradual and permanent change in me. This animal which I would formerly have said was without feelings of his own was the catalyst for working a transformation in my own human heart. By being there all the time, he forced me to notice him and his feelings – and, by extension, the presence and feelings of others – in a way that I doubt I would have on my own.

I still appreciate the objectivity of science, the necessity of standing back and waiting until you get a lot of evidence for a hypothesis before you allow yourself to embrace it.

At the same time, I know for myself that each of us is trapped in the cage of our own heads, and the only key to that cage is the learning that we’re not alone. We share in this world the experience of others, human and animal both. And those feelings – of loneliness and pain and fear, but also of playfulness and joy and warmth – are as real as anything we’re capable of experiencing.

Oh, how I miss my dog. My teacher, my example. My best and forever friend.