The Death of My Dad, Five Years On

Dan for FacebookDaniel Franklin Farris, b. March 22, 1934, d. Nov. 6, 2011

I’m writing a piece for American Atheist with the working title “The Idea of Souls,” in which I look into some of the civilization-wide cost of believing in ensoulment. The writing of it coincides with the 5-years-ago-today death of my surrogate Dad. What follows is a feelings-level reaction to dealing with that anniversary.

This is an atheist — me — grappling with the death of a loved one. Nothing in atheism says we don’t feel all the same feelings goddy people feel — the same sorrows, the same yearning for it not to be. The difference is, we don’t fall into permanent fantasies of eternity and immortality, into imagining that every life is cosmically significant and that someday, someday, we’ll all be together again in glorious paradise. We accept the fact of death — real death — and simply live with it.

Someday I’ll write a book about it.

____________________

People die. And I hate that more than anything.

I’ve thought a lot about … not just the deaths of loved ones, but death itself. How it takes from us the bright lights of civilization, and replaces them with darkness. With nothing. So that we have to struggle to create new lights and put them out there.

I was never a great fan of Lucille Ball. There was something about her comedy that bothered me. The heart of what she did was often about personal embarrassment. She would do something silly that turned into a disaster, and the funny part was how mortifying it was. It just wasn’t my type of humor. But other people liked her, eventually enough that she was one of those legendary superstars, known to everybody.

Bob Hope was the same type of star. Timeless, immortal, forever.

And yet …

If you asked young people today about Bob Hope or Lucille Ball, they would say “Who?” Or maybe “Oh wait, wasn’t she on a TV show or something? And he was like this guy who’d go over and put on shows for the troops? I think my parents knew about them.”

One of the funny things about getting older is there’s all this stuff that happened in your life, events and people you consider Memory, but that younger people consider History. To them it’s a lot of dry, dull stuff that happened way in the past. Genghis Khan, John Glenn, it’s all the same. Eventually, it’s all the same.

I like to think there could be people who were so accomplished, or so good, they’d be nailed into the fabric of reality forever. I’m talking about something more than mere History, where names and dates and victories are recorded in books. I mean they’d be embedded in the bedrock of the Universe, so that everyone and everything that came after would be aware of them. You and I could look up at the sky and just KNOW things. “Vorpal Grishnak? Oh, yeah, he’s the guy who lost his life saving billions of Randalians from that plague on Zarefia IV, in the Korbin Sector.”

And “people” out there could look up at their sky and say “Oh, yeah, Dan Farris. Hank’s Dad. He’s the Earth-human who devoted 60 years of his life to mule packing, taking people into the Eastern Sierra mountains to camp and fish. Helluva story teller and all-around good man.”

To my sorrow, there’s nothing like that. Hell, we can’t even manage History, most of the time. I see cemeteries all over Upstate New York that have pre-Revolutionary tombstones in them. Some of them are so old, hundreds of years, that the chiseled inscriptions have been worn away by rain. I asked at an old church one time, “Are there permanent records somewhere that tell who these people were?” The guy chuckled and said “Paper records get burned in fires, eaten by rats, damaged by water. The stones ARE the permanent records.”

Who would ever imagine a carved granite stone would ever wear away to nothing? And yet they do. The names fall away into darkness, following the people who sported them by only a few years.

I saw a picture at a museum in South Lake Tahoe a ways back, a dozen or so loggers standing on and by a huge felled tree. A dog had wandered into the frame, and a team of mules stood in harness nearby. I realized that every one of those men had lived lives as long and as memorable as mine, or anybody’s, and yet today not only are they gone, but everybody who ever knew them, or even heard stories about them, is gone. The entirety of the impression they had left on the world was this one picture, a shadow-play of silver crystals catching one brief moment in their lives, showing their faces but telling nothing of their story.

And here’s Dan, who meant the world to me, falling away into that same darkness.

He had his day in the sun. He took life into his hands and shaped his own course. He had his victories and his disappointments. He was treated both well and shabbily by the people around him. He found love, and gave love, lost love, and gave still more. He packed mules, he wrote, he told stories. Breaking bones, skinning his knuckles, dessicated by the dry air and the high country sun, he unfailingly stood tall, stood strong, stood steadfast, making a rare impression on the people who knew him. By no means did he come away from life with everybody loving him, or even respecting him. But he lived on his own terms, rock solid, and I see that as victory of a sort many of us never manage.

I have thought many times that we humans have this two-part gift, that we get to be Human and Beast both. We have our Humany parts – which are language and humor, intelligence and creativity, in the heart of our cities and civilization. And we have our Beastly parts – which are things like eating and sleeping, fighting and carousing with our packmates, at our best delving into the wilds around us, becoming one with it.

It seems to me that to be the best person, a COMPLETE Homo sapiens, you have to be not just a good Human, but also a good Beast. And Dan was a good human, intelligent and funny and creative. But he was also a very good Beast – not just good at living in the wilds, but feisty and lusty as well, in every part of his life. Glorying in his beastliness, he ended with memorable scars and stories, but he lived up to the best of both roles.

He’s one of those people who should be branded on the hide of Earth, recorded and preserved forever for all who come after. There should be a story, a vivid memory of him, floating in the clear air and the crystal waters of the Eastern Sierra, so that anyone who came after, the moment they took their first deep breath of the backcountry air or drank the cold, delicious waters of a Sierra stream, would instantly know him. They’d look up in surprise, the water still dripping from their lips, and go “Oh! Dan Farris!” as the memories unfolded in their heads.

But … we have nothing like that. Bob Hope and Lucille Ball, Genghis Khan and John Glenn. And Daniel Franklin Farris. They fall away into darkness, and nothing but words on paper, carvings on stones, hold them here.

We live our lives, creating our own memories and impressions, but also loving and cherishing the memory of each other to the best of our ability. What immortality there is, we provide it, for as long as we ourselves live and retain the memories.

Some of us get stones, some of us get stories in history, some of us even get statues. But some get only memories in the minds and hearts of the people around them.

To a writer, one used to putting down thoughts and words on paper, those memories are as vivid as any bronze statue, recorded for me in a timeless Now. I see Dan as he lives his life on the sunlit trails of the Sierra. The creak of his saddle sounds in the crisp air of a mountain pass, the clink and thud of horse and mule shoes ring and thump on the dusty trails. I see his strong hands on rope and tarp and pack box. I hear his friendly voice as he tells stories by firelight, hear his laughter at the punchline of a joke. I see the last dying light of a Coleman lantern strung overhead, and hear its final little pop.

In the darkness, five years past, I feel him give my hand a last squeeze, see him smile briefly from a hospital bed, a smile that lights the infinite night for me, a light that will – no matter who else remembers or cares – carry on with me for all the years of my life.

For me, it will never be “Here Lies Dan Farris — little-known man of this one small place.” It will be “Here STANDS Dan Farris, A Good Man, A Mule Packer and Mountain Guide, A Rare Specimen Of The People Of Planet Earth, Unforgettable And Unmatchable In All The Worlds.”

The world is poorer for his loss, and there will never come another like him.

But maybe … for this life, for this history, for me, the one was all I needed.

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Ha — of course that doesn’t stop me from thinking, pretty much every day, “Dammit, Old Man. I miss you.”

Surprise! —Trump Supporter Dishonesty

I saw this on Facebook.

Hillary FBI meme

I replied to it:

1) Nobody is “rigging” an election. If that were possible, don’t you think the Democrats would CONTROL Congress? (Also, “the fix” is not in for the Clintons. If the fix was in, they never would have impeached Bill Clinton.)

2) The FBI is not “reopening an investigation into Clinton.” The messages were neither sent by nor received by Clinton, did not appear on any computers used by Clinton, did not involve Clinton, and contained no classified info

About every 3 days during this election cycle, a new “story” has appeared, trumpeting >>> THIS IS IT!!! THE SMOKING GUN THAT WILL BRING HILLARY CLINTON DOWN!!!! <<<

… and NOT ONE of those stories has turned out to be anything other than smears and innuendo. Hateful lies.

Listen carefully: The GOP hates Hillary Clinton with a blinding passion. During the 25 or so years they’ve been after her, they have controlled the Senate, the House, the White House or all three for some substantial portion of the time. She’s been accused of everything from murder to selling off American parks to the Russians.

IF IF IF there was anything they could have nailed her on — hell, jaywalking, a simple parking ticket — SHE WOULD HAVE BEEN INDICTED.

The fact that she hasn’t even been charged with anything in all those years, with all those breathless stories about her supposed crimes, is just about rock-solid proof that there have been precisely zero illegal acts.

You’re letting people lie to you — over and over and OVER. Doesn’t that bother you?

Hillary Clinton is going to be our next president. She’s going to beat Donald Trump by a wide margin BECAUSE MORE AMERICANS ARE GOING TO VOTE FOR HER.

Including me. I will be so glad when this election is over and Hillary Clinton is president.

The replies were … typical. Here’s one, by the woman who posted the pic:

LOL was the only response I could muster knowing that when you’re that far gone, there’s no helping you anyway.. But I still find a bit of humor in it.

1. I think he’s a troll.

2. “he” might not even be a he.

3. Only a Hillary supporter has enough time in a working man’s day to write a big long essay like that… On Facebook… On someone’s Facebook who they don’t even know or are friends with. I guess he’s trying to get her in office so his welfare check doesn’t get cut off.

4. I’m not stating my political stance either way, and I’m not here for a debate. I simply found a bit of humor here and decided to share it..So, my most serious question… What kind of person takes a meme so.. seriously!

I wrote a reply:

First, regarding the “big long essay”: I’m a professional writer and editor, and this “big long essay” took very little time.

Second, regarding writing during a “working man’s day”: This was on a Saturday, my day off. I worked on my house, climbing under it and repairing some insulation. I also installed a towel rack in the bathroom and did laundry. Went out to eat. And still had time to write this “big long essay.”

Third, my “welfare check”: I’m 64 years old and have been working — often in blue collar jobs — since I was about 16. Still waiting on that big, sweet welfare check.

Next, that big long essay “on someone’s Facebook who they don’t even know or are friends with.” Besides the fact that it showed up on my own Facebook wall, making it fair game for a reply … lies are lies, and you have to fight them wherever you find them. Otherwise you and everybody you know will have to live in the world they create.

Finally, I don’t get the bit about me being a troll, or “he might not even be a he.” That’s some serious Way Out Of Left Field shit.

A bit later, I added,

Take note that my reply contained facts and solid political analysis, but that all the responses contained nothing but personal attacks. Not one of you made any attempt to refute my reply. Instead you went straight for the insults. Which sort of implies you’re not able to argue with any of it, right?

I came back later to see if there were any replies. My reply had been deleted. I wrote:

I notice you’ve learned to delete replies that embarrass you.

Came back later and that had been deleted too.

White Whine in the Sunset

I’m not liking the fact that the Trump candidacy has set off this sneering assault on White Men.

Yeah, I get it that there are a certain number of Trump supporters — “white” men — out there who are making some bad decisions this election cycle.

But there are a lot of OTHER white men — I suspect a majority — who are kind, decent, intelligent, diligent, respectful, generous and caring. I know a LOT of them. (This does not mean they will agree with you on every possible thing you believe, or support everything you support.)

There’s a thing that happens with every catastrophe, where one or more people leap instantly on stage and attempt to USE the tragedy to sell their own position.

Horrible deadly tornado? —Gays caused it.
Economic meltdown? —Tax and spend Democrats.
Deadly plague? —Atheists.
Sept. 11? —Squishy liberals who want to destroy this nation.

The Trump presidential campaign? —Oh, that’s because of racist, misogynist WHITE MEN.

This is the kind of thing someone with their own agenda — quite different from the central issue — would say.

I have yet to hear anybody say SOME white men, or CONSERVATIVE white men, or even THOSE PARTICULAR white men, the ones who actually support Donald Trump.

Oh no, this is WHITE MEN — ALL white men.

You know, the way ALL Muslims are terrorists.

So just watch where you fire those rhetorical bullets, okay? Some of us are standing out here in the target area.

The Root of Transcendence

Dan MountainsAs an atheist, you hear it all the time – the in-your-face assertion that Humans are “wired for God.” We believe in gods, we’re told, because it’s natural to us. Because we have something in us that NEEDS a god or gods. Maybe because it carries some evolutionary advantage, so we evolved to have it.

The conclusion, in the mind of any faith-professing Christian, is that we’re this way because there really is a god, or at least some sort of “something bigger out there somewhere” that makes it so. We believe because we need to, because we have to, because to do anything else makes us less viable organisms. Lacking a god-need is an evolutionary dead end.

In how many conversations have I had someone tell me “Well, I don’t necessarily believe in God, but I think there’s something out there. Something beyond anything we know.”? I’ve heard that a LOT. Even people I would otherwise consider full atheists have said such things to me.

I’ve felt that pull myself. I’ve thought many times, “We live our lives on a human stage. Everything we do is for other people. But is that enough? Isn’t there anything … more?”

I actually think there is. But it’s not God or gods or mystical superbeings of any sort. It’s this whole other thing, something real. But it’s something so much a part of us we fail to notice it.

I’ll tell you what I think it might be.

First, here’s me: Atheist. Beyond atheist, in fact. I independently came up with the term “antitheist” to describe myself 20 years or more ago, long before it was in vogue. Rather than the current fashionable pronunciation, “an-tee-THEE-ist,” I pronounced it “an-TITH-ee-ist.” I described it humorously as “Not only do I not believe in gods, but I don’t think you should either.”

But I’m also a realist. You have to face the real world and take what it gives you, even if you don’t like it, even if it flies in the face of things you think you know. So whenever I’m presented with a woo-woo idea, something I know isn’t right as presented, but which nevertheless seems to have some sort of substance to it, rather than dismiss it with “No, despite what it looks like, there’s nothing there,” I have to 1) accept whatever realness it presents, and then 2) see if I can figure out a real-world explanation for it that makes sense.

So do we have a need for gods? Are we wired for that? If not, what is it we DO have? Let’s explore a couple of conceptual trails and see where they lead.

Most of us, when we talk about going hiking in the woods, or camping in the wilderness, talk about it in terms of “going out there.” We live in cities, and we “go out” when we head away from the city into the wilds.

But it’s the other way around, isn’t it? Because cities are NOT our natural environment. Our natural environment is … the natural environment. It’s where we grew up, where we evolved to be. We’re not going OUT when we go to the wilds, we’re going BACK. The only time we go OUT is when we trek from the wilds into a city.

Our home, our real home, is in the woods, on the mountains, in the midst of trees and creeks and blowing wind. It is out in the sun and rain, in the dirt and dust, the pollen and bugs and mud. It’s out where we can stomp around in our bare feet, filling our toes with mud, seeing wild animals and birds and distant valleys, blue sky and fluffy clouds, nights filled with full moons and stars. Where we can taste berries and ripe fruit, where we can smell waterfalls and flowers and our own sweat, but also skunks and even blood and death.

I know you’re thinking all this is some kind of artsy-fartsy poetic allusion, but I’m dead serious. CITIES ARE NOT OUR NATURAL ENVIRONMENT. Cities are alien. Artificial.

They’re not even all that good for us. Yeah, we’re comfortable in our engineered and sanitized ’burbs, but we’ll also eat until we weigh 300 pounds, and then whine that we feel sick all the time. We’ll tolerate noise and pollution and chemically-adulterated foods until it weakens and kills us.

Think about all the animals we’ve invited out of the wilds, bringing them into towns and cities to live with us. Compared to their wild cousins, domestic animals are almost invariably weaker and dumber. More fragile.

Wild animals are generally tougher, stronger, faster and fiercer than our pets and livestock. We’re used to how soft and cuddly kittens and puppies are, but pick up a baby raccoon – which I did, years back – and you’ll be shocked at how hard it is. The little bastards are tough as boiled leather.

Just as our pets are, we humans here in cities are soft. Less robust. And probably a lot dumber than whatever wild cousins we once had.

But there’s a deeper point than that our real home is in the wilds. It’s this: That we’re a part of the world around us – profoundly inseparable from it. We’re no more alive without the world around us than a toe is alive when removed from its foot.

Allow me to argue the point:

Say we wanted to define “human.” We’d probably have a fairly involved description, possibly accompanied by a picture of some individual person, maybe some other animals for comparison. But what we wouldn’t have is a full understanding of what being a human means. Because we never really even think about it.

You’re sitting there right now believing yourself to be a complete individual, a discrete quantity of personness, probably picturing your exterior, your skin, as the boundary between “you” and “everything else.”

But your skin is NOT the boundary. In fact, when you really think about it … well, think about this:

Take a human. Hang a large sign around his neck, “Human.” Have him stand on a stage with no other person around, and take a picture of him. QED, this is a human, right? This is all a human is, all there needs to be. No, because you still haven’t separated him out from a great deal of other stuff.

But take that same human and drop him through a portal that deposited him someplace where he could REALLY be alone – say 50,000 lights years away, out in the space between galaxies. What do you have? A dead person.

We never think about it, but the definition of “human” has this hidden implication – that the human is alive, and that quite a lot goes into that aliveness. We never think about the food and water, the gravity and atmosphere, a solid place to stand, other people around to make life work, other animals and plants, a lot of them, somewhere nearby to eat.

The atmosphere we breathe doesn’t just go in and out of our lungs, it seeps into and out of our skin, penetrating us on a cellular level, maintaining a pressure without which we’d die in seconds. The food and water we consume, and later excrete, forms a flowing river of input and outgo, without which we’d also die in short order. And the thing is, the food and water comes from somewhere, the air comes from somewhere.

So we are linked, bound into, an entire system of processes that extends backward in time and outward in complexity in a way that no end can really be found. The oceans? Part of us. The mountains? Part of us. The rainforest, the arctic, the deserts? Part of us. The clouds, the rain, the snow, the bees, the plants, the rocks, the crustal plates, all part of us.

The sun? Oh, yeah, part of us. BIG part of us.

And WE are part of IT. We don’t just live on Earth, we’re nailed into it, soaking in it, connected to it in a way that allows no separation. Even the International Space Station astronauts can live for only a brief time before they start suffering serious health effects – and they get continuous supplies from Earth.

There is only one way to define “human” without also including all this other stuff – the way that specifies “dead human body.” To have a live human, you have to include everything else … at least as far out as the sun.

We say “we” and we say “I” but those are rhetorical conveniences that have no true reality. The view of ourselves as separate and individual is purely subjective – a view which is fantastically, stunningly, titanically oversimplified from the real situation.

The truth is, our mysterious and powerful “something out there” is the natural world. Yet here we are off in cities, acting in our vast ignorance as if we’re discrete individuals, separate from our larger inclusionary selves.

On some level, I think we know this. We yearn for that larger part of us. We reach for it. We desire to be a part of it, to touch and be touched by it.

But divided from the natural world in cities, ignorant of it, we think the missing “something out there, something larger” is a god, or gods, or some other mystical formulation.

It’s a drastically wrong, tragically misleading answer. But sadly, it’s all most of us can understand or accept.

Donald Trump & The Adaptive Limit

dead endI’ve recently been toying with the idea that each of us has an “adaptive limit.”

The adaptive limit is that point at which growth and change becomes impossible.

Some people are flexible and adaptable for almost their entire lives. They’re the ones who can take on new ideas, new thoughts, new viewpoints, and not get bent out of shape by them. They can hear arguments that don’t agree with their own and calmly consider them. They can be creative, they can change and grow.

Others have a lower adaptive limit. For these people, new or contrary ideas, new conditions, literally cause a stress reaction. The way they avoid that stress — which might be mere discomfort, or might rise into fear that can verge on panic — is to avoid the new idea or situation.

The adaptive limit can change within one’s lifetime. Education — the gaining of new knowledge or skills — can raise it. Conditions that enhance personal empowerment, such as better diet and physical fitness, can raise it. But various other kinds of of stress — illness, injury, aging, emotional trauma, the death of a loved one, fear, even simple poverty — can lower it, temporarily or permanently.

Those who reach or approach their adaptive limit become less able, sometimes unable, to think about new things. They simply reject them. All they can handle is simple, or simplistic, concepts.

That rejection, by the way, can range from simple refusal to think about a thing to violence — an attempt to destroy the new thing, or the person who embodies it.

The thing is, reaching one’s adaptive limit is probably not something you can hold against a person. For instance, I don’t think people voting for Trump are necessarily evil or stupid. It may be (probably is) that they’ve reached their adaptive limits, and simply can’t think about contrary new ideas. They’ve grown comfortable in that Fox News / Teabagger cradle, and can’t even imagine leaving.

One of the things this means is that calling them stupid or evil is actually counterproductive. It stresses them more and causes them to react with even greater stubborn (or even violent) adherence to whatever position they hold.

Another thing is that if you WANT to lower someone’s adaptive limit — in order to make them easier to control or manipulate, for instance — you just need to scare them, to keep them scared and paranoid. You end up with a bunch of people who are neither creative nor thoughtful. People who will take no chances and who, when in doubt, will default to obedience to traditional leaders or beliefs. Willing drones, in other words.

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Side Note 1: Nothing I’ve said above implies that you have to enable whatever sort of destructive effect an adaptive limit victim visits on you. You have to stop them, but it’s because of the destruction rather than because you don’t understand their plight.

Side Note 2: Also by the way, I don’t think Donald Trump’s problem is a low adaptive limit. It’s more that, as a child of vast privilege, he’s grown up with stunted empathy and conscience. In short, he’s a rich asshole.

Yew Cain’t Trust Yore Lyin’ Eyes

Watch this video:

I’ve been seeing optical illusions like this for something like 60 years, and the never-fail tagline is always “You can’t trust your eyes!” The thing is always presented as a profound scientific lesson in human perception.

But it’s SLANTED science, science with a somewhat false editorial built into it, the whole aimed at achieving a little funhouse-type prank on the viewer. When I figured this out 30 or so years back, when I understood the REAL lesson, I stopped being impressed by optical illusions.

The real lesson is: Yes, your eyes can be fooled … on rare occasions. Note how much work has to go into these contrived examples. Someone has to work very hard, probably going through dozens of trials, before hitting on the final form of the “illusion.”

Note also that the illusion works only from a single, sharply limited viewpoint. Move a few inches to the side and the illusion breaks down completely. Rather than the eyes being fooled, they verify our sense of the real — even in the face of a significant effort to deceive.

Finally, we aren’t really talking about eyes, are we? We’re really talking about eyes hooked to a human brain, which is VERY GOOD at seeing the real world around us — better than just about anything alive. Presented with an optical illusion, natural or contrived, we naturally experiment with changing viewpoints, observation over time, other senses, the observational assistance of other people, and a certain amount of careful thought, until we see through the illusion.

The truth is, it’s actually very hard to fool a human’s eyes for very long. This is something we unconsciously know — so well that when we DO meet up with an optical illusion, we enjoy it immensely, playing and laughing at it, walking around it, studying it, until it loses its luster and becomes just another part of our sensory knowledge.

Contrived examples like this are useful, but the sole conclusion should never be “You can’t trust your senses.” It should be “Look out for these rare occasions when you can be briefly fooled but, other than that, you can trust your senses as THE prime tool for observing and understanding the world. Never let anyone tell you not to trust your own perceptions.”

This is one of an array of quasi-mystical declarations that tell us not to trust ourselves, either implying or outright saying we should instead trust some god, or some “authority” who speaks for that god.

Nobody’s saying human vision doesn’t have its limitations. But the real world is the real world, we evolved to live and prosper in it, and every one of us is qualified to witness and appreciate our surroundings.

Beta Culture: Transcendence

I was thinking about the concept of transcendence today as I worked on my roof. To give you some idea what I think about it, I have to tell you a couple of stories.

The Heifer Who Almost Killed Me

Calf TyingI grew up with rodeo cowboys, as I’ve said here more than once. There are cowboys who ride and cowboys who rope (this is drastically oversimplified), and my people were that second type. The riders ride either bulls or broncs or both, and are widely known to be right on the edge of crazy. Ropers are saner and more down to earth.

Nothing prevents riders from roping, but the gear for the basic skill is considerably different — if you ride, you only need to carry your rigging from rodeo to rodeo, but if you rope, you have to bring along your horse — so the crossover is less than you’d expect.

Each skill takes a LOT of practice. Tie-down roping involves casting a loop over a running calf, stopping your horse and leaping off, running down the rope to the calf, throwing it onto its side, scooping up three of its legs and tying them securely together with a little rope called a “pigging string.”

And before you comment, no, it’s not kind and gentle. But this was Texas, it was the early 1970s, and it was (is) a subculture steeped in the lore of meat production, where all cattle are categorized as Things.

On one particular day, I rolled up at the house of my cowboy friend Roger, catching him practicing tie-down skills out in his corral. Roger always kept a half-dozen calves on hand for practice, and he had a new heifer he was working with. The main rope was tied to a post, the heifer was out at the end of it, and Roger and another cowboy, Leslie, were resting between goes.

“You wanna try this calf?” Roger asked. “Sure!” He gave me his pigging string, I grasped the rope while Leslie pulled the heifer’s tail to hold her in place, and Roger said “Go!” I ran down the rope toward the heifer, Leslie let go of her tail just as I got there, and … she exploded. I swear she leaped six feet in the air, twisting and kicking and bawling.

There’s a bit of cowboy Jiu Jitsu you do on tie-down calves. I won’t describe it, but it’s a move that usually gets them on the ground with relative ease, even if they weigh as much as you do. That move, which I knew and had used many times, simply didn’t work on this calf. She hovered several feet off the ground and exploded repeatedly — bang! bang! bang! — and there was only one thing I could do to keep from getting royally kicked and pummeled. Which was: Give up. Step away. Stop trying.

I looked back at Roger in incredulity, and he was grinning broadly. I went back to it, trying over and over to get the thing done. In the half-minute or so in which all this took place, there were three separate instants when I just gave up. But each time I dove back in, not wanting to be beaten in front of my friends.

I have a permanent reminder of the battle — a crooked finger — but I got that b*tch down and tied. Roger and Leslie — who were both big boys compared to little 125-pound me — both nearly died laughing.

The Event Program That Almost Killed Me

While I was working for a resort-town magazine in California, my boss took on production of the program for a Winter Special Olympics event in Lake Tahoe. The programs were being printed in Los Angeles on Friday, and the last step was for someone to pick them up and take them to Lake Tahoe, roughly an 8 hour drive, in time for the opening of the event on Saturday.

That someone was me. I was test-driving 4WD vehicles at the time, and I had a good-sized Chevy pickup that week. The plan was I would drive down early Friday, pick up the 20,000 or so event programs, then drive them to Lake Tahoe that night. Everything went fine until I got there — late because of traffic — and discovered …

Challenge 1:  The place was closed. Oh, crap, oh crap, oh CRAP. I walked around the huge building trying doors and pounding with my fist. Finally I found one that was unlocked and went inside, to find ONE person still there. He agreed to load the programs with a forklift. But then …

Challenge 2: The programs weighed close to a ton. WAY over the carrying capacity of the truck. I’d have to rent a trailer. The problem was …

Challenge 3: My boss had given me no money for this trip, and had GONE ON VACATION. I had no way to reach him. So okay, I’d use my own credit card. Then …

Challenge 4: It was already late, like I said, and the U-Hauls were closed. Fortunately, I found a nearby U-Haul which still had one guy there willing to answer the phone. He agreed to rent me a trailer. Also fortunately, the truck bumper had a hole for a trailer hitch ball. But as the guy was screwing on the big nut while attaching the trailer hitch ball, he cross-threaded the nut and damaged the whole thing. And …

Challenge 5: It was the last trailer hitch ball he had in that size. Argh. He was able to call another U-Haul and locate another hitch ball. I called the printer and begged the guy to stay until I got there, then drove over to get the ball. The guy installed it flawlessly this time, attached the trailer, and I got to the printer for loading the programs. Whew. Already damned tired, I started driving. But six hours into the trip, I was well up into the mountains, and …

Challenge 6: It started snowing. Bloody hell! I’ve driven trailers before, but not trailers carrying a ton of cargo, and damned sure not on windy mountain roads IN THE SNOW. But the event started first thing in the morning. I had a co-driver with me, another guy who worked for the magazine, but …

Challenge 7: It was already after midnight and he wasn’t willing to drive in the snow at night, preferring to be dropped off in our hometown, which was along the way. “Just tell the boss we weren’t able to do it. He can’t expect you to drive through snow all night.” But he could expect it, I knew. Considering these programs carried advertising, which dozens of Tahoe merchants had committed to pay for, and which they would NOT pay for if the programs didn’t arrive in time, and considering this was the Winter Special Olympics, which a LOT of kids and parents had traveled great distances to be in … Well, hell, I had to try.  I started driving. I drove through the snow, sometimes creeping along in near white-out conditions, for EIGHT HOURS.

I got to Lake Tahoe just before 9 a.m. Volunteers unloaded the programs, I returned the trailer to a local U-Haul, and then, practically hallucinating from exhaustion, looked for a motel room. But …

Challenge 8: There were no motel rooms to be had near where I was. I had to drive all the way around the lake to find one. But I did finally find one, and I slept for more than 10 hours.

Fake Transcendence

The word transcendence means something like “surpassing ordinary limits.” But it carries almost inseparable religious and/or spiritual implications of moving beyond reality or physicality.

It has that same old conceptual mistake built into it, the idea that we’re ghostly beings who reside — temporarily — in physical bodies. The thing is, we’re not. We’re not selves that live in bodies, WE ARE THE BODIES.

Every philosophical or religious or spiritual formulation that has someone “going out,” leaving behind their body, is an absolutely empty set. It’s false at its base. If you are your body, you simply can’t leave it. There’s nothing in you that can leave, and there’s no thing that can be left. In my view this “going out” idea CANNOT lead to any useful thought or practice within the human experience.

Real Transcendence

There’s this other possible type of transcendence that has nothing at all to do with minds and bodies diverging. But as usual, the religious/mystical field’s wrong answers mask this much more useful one.

The transcendence I’m talking about here is the kind where you go beyond your own psychological limits. The sort I described above, where I did two things that were well beyond what I normally think I’m capable of. I transcended. Not my body, but my own imagined limit. I was able, in each of those moments, to get closer to my REAL limits and do things that were, for me, amazing.

Military training, as I understand it, is in some part about just that. Teaching young men and women to experience the pain, the exhaustion, the hunger and thirst, and yet continue to stay on mission. To face immensely difficult situations and keep going no matter what. There are situations in non-military life that can teach that same thing — farm and ranch work, for instance, or parenting a 2-year-0ld — but it’s probably something everyone should know.

The type of incidents related above, where I transcended my own imagined limits, have actually been pretty rare in my life. I might be able to dredge up half a dozen, possibly as many as 10. For the rest, I’ve stayed well inside a line of comfort, avoiding fear and difficulty and challenge way too much of the time. I suspect most people are like me in this way.

I doubt transcendence is something that can be taught with words. You have to DO it, experience it for real by actually pressing on in real life past fear and exhaustion and pessimism. But the lesson of “You can do more than you think you can” should be in the forefront of our minds, every one of us, for all of our lives.

Something worth teaching, I’d say.

 

Beta Culture: Culture Itself

Beta-Culture-JPGIn pursuit of my Beta Culture concept, I’ve been thinking a lot about Culture over the past couple of years, and I’ve recently been making some interesting connections. I like to think I’m getting close to understanding the meat of it. Here’s a recent thought:

Your culture offers you Values, Ways, and Place.

VALUES are obvious: Honesty is the best policy. People are suckers and deserve what they get. Hard work is the stuff of life. Honor your mother and father. Family above all. Never stop learning. Being gay is an abomination. A wife must meekly obey her husband.

WAYS are all the things your people do, and the way they do them: Wear boots, a big silver buckle and a cowboy hat. Volunteer to serve your country. Every funeral must include a lengthy sermon about Jesus. Cut the end off your little boy’s dick. Go to school only until you’re 14, then work on the family farm. Hold your fork with your left hand, your knife with your right. Shave your hair into a Mohawk and braid feathers into it.

PLACE is the home your culture provides you. It’s where your People accept and welcome you, protect and defend you, and where you do the same for them.

There are “full cultures” that provide Values, Ways and Place for every aspect of life. You could live on an island with a full culture, totally isolated from the rest of the world, and still live a full life. Think of the Amish, or Hasidic Jews, who actually create isolated social islands for their people.

There are “fractional cultures” like Nascar culture or Star Wars culture, gamer culture or Jimmy Buffett fandom, which offer Place, but not a great deal in the way of Ways and Values. In other words, they offer some specialized Ways and Values, but not the full set for all of life. Most of the people in Nascar culture, for instance, wouldn’t have a Nascar wedding, and few Star Wars fans would consider a Star Wars funeral. But on the plus side, there’s the Place: You feel comfortable — you feel HOME — when you’re with your fellow enthusiasts.

Then there’s something I call “U.S. Overculture,” which provides a huge Chinese menu of Values and Ways, but almost no Place. You can live in it, as most of us do, but it includes no welcoming “tribe” of your own.

U.S. Overculture has two very significant features to it:

1) It contains a blended mess of pieces from all the cultures and fractional cultures within it, but ALSO contains a very high percentage of artificial features, Ways and Values which are created by the marketing departments of big corporations, or faddish movements that sweep through the population somewhat spontaneously. —No proposal is complete without a diamond ring. Collect all the Pokemons! Wear your pants sagging below the curve of your butt. Cigarette smoking is what the really cool people do. Take the grandkids to McDonald’s. Oh my GOD, you have to see the TWILIGHT movies! They’re, like, SEW KEWUL!!

2) As it contains no specific People for you to belong to, no Place to welcome and protect you, you’re pretty much on your own as far as figuring out what’s good and bad for you and yours. Standing full in the blasting fire hose of stuff thrown at you every day, you’re at such a loss to evaluate it all, you end up thinking nothing is all that bad, everything is pretty much okay. Sugary sodas, cigarettes, heroin, tongue piercing, riding a motorcycle without a helmet, throwing garbage on the sidewalk, Donald Trump for President, joining a street gang — it’s all just a matter of personal choice, right? And there’s nobody, no wise elder or more-experienced cultural peer to tell you any different.

It seems to me Culture is a need roughly as important to us as breathing, but without Place, the need for Culture can, in the modern world, be easily diverted and perverted to serve the needs of corporate parasites.

But Culture itself can control you to your detriment. Full cultures buoy you up in times of difficulty, but they also cut off all your wild flights of creativity. For instance, though artistic and musical talent is probably evenly distributed in every race and people, there are no Hasidic Jewish rock bands, or internationally known Amish photographers.

Regarding which, I know of no specific culture that focuses as strongly on empowerment of its members as it does on control of those members.

Even my own East Texas Cowboy Culture was pretty strict on what you could and couldn’t do, and in a fairly repressive way. For instance: Cowboys don’t read books, or if they do, it darned sure isn’t science fiction. Cowboys drive pickup trucks and not, Lord save us, Volkswagen Beetles. Cowboys don’t fly on planes, and Cowboys would never, ever eat sushi.

Another thing most cultures do not seem to have is goals — other than the obvious one of keeping people in line, or serving as that protective Place. Some of my recent thoughts about where Culture sits in the world, though, have it as something of an equal social force — in the sense of how much effect it has on our lives — with Government and Business. But Government and Business DO have goals. And I want Beta Culture to have goals.

So: In the design of Beta Culture, two more topics to think about — Goals and Empowerment.

Anyway … still thinking.

Pile-On Against ‘Rationalia’

via Wikimedia Commons

Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) fired out a tweet on Wednesday, June 29:

Earth needs a virtual country: Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence

… and the response was weird.

I know absolutely nothing about Tyson’s motivation, but I suspect he put it out there in mild and humorous frustration at how utterly NON-rational current society and government is. Suggesting ONE way it could be better — with a more-rational, rather than more-religious, or more-politically-factional, approach to social problems.

This is also a TWEET — you know, 140 characters? — so if he meant something beyond that, there was no way to explain it IN THIS ONE TWEET. It’s ludicrous to expect otherwise, don’t you think?

Some people took the suggestion not only seriously, but as if it was a dire threat to all mankind. They lost their collective shit, not just saying it was a bad idea, but likening it to the French Revolution, Hitler, and eugenics. Some even took swipes at Charles Darwin for good measure.

A rational nation ruled by science would be a terrible idea

Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s ‘Rationalia’ Would Be A Terrible Country

Is A Rational Nation Ruled By Science A Terrible Idea?

Neil deGrasse Tyson proposes a terrible new political policy called ‘Rationalia’

The Road to Rationalia

Terrible! Terrible! Terrible! Terrible! It’s like they all got the same memo.

Random excerpts:

“Scientism” is the belief that all we need to solve the world’s problems is – you guessed it – science. People sometimes use the phrase “rational thinking”, but it amounts to the same thing. If only people would drop religion and all their other prejudices, we could use logic to fix everything.

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Scientism refuses to see this. The myopia of scientism, its naive utopianism and simplistic faith, bears an uncanny resemblance to the religious dogmatisms that people such as Tyson and Dawkins denounce.

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The republic of reason Tyson thinks will logic away the world’s problems has been tried before. It was called the French Revolution, and it caused a lot of people to lose their heads—literally and figuratively.

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Tyson, too, has a philosophy, whether he realizes it or not. It’s called “scientism,” the belief that science is the only valid source of knowledge. The rule-by-self-identified-experts he envisions for the happy land of Rationalia is scientism’s logical outcome. But when you insist that facts and evidence speak for themselves, it has a funny way of silencing everyone else. As one intrepid Twitter user replied to Tyson’s initial tweet, “Convenient how the ‘evidence’ always seems to line up with Tyson’s personal beliefs.”

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Politicians already misuse science, construe evidence, or outright ignore evidence to get what they want. Do we want scientists doing the same in their studies if they think their findings could influence laws based on their own beliefs?

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Professor Tyson, who may be the dumbest smart person on Twitter, yesterday wrote that what the world really needs is a new kind of virtual state — he wants to call it “Rationalia” — with a one-sentence constitution: “All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence.” This schoolboy nonsense came under withering and much-deserved derision. Conservatives, who always have the French Revolution in their thoughts, reminded him that this already has been tried, and that the results are known in the history books as “the Terror.”

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Man, I’m glad we settled that. Now back to the utterly perfect world we currently live in.

Thoughts on the Fourth of July

PatriotI’m not very big on saluting the flag, or flying one at my house. To a lot of people, that would probably spell a serious lack of patriotism.

But my view of America is probably different from yours. To me, America isn’t about a flag, or soldiers marching in parades, or posts on Facebook about “Support the Troops.” It isn’t even a country. It’s this whole other thing, something you can’t see or point to or wave overhead.

America is a body of ideas. As such, it can be anywhere. It’s the idea of freedom of speech. The idea of a free press. The guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures, and the right to a speedy, public trial. It’s about freedom from slavery, and the right of women to take full, fair part in all aspects of public life. It’s about the right to bear arms. And yes, it’s about freedom of religion, but it’s also about this much greater religious right, the hidden one, the right we have yet to really understand or embrace, freedom FROM religion.

It’s this one more idea, to me — something you won’t find in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.

It’s The Idea of Something Better. A better life. A better chance. A better range of possibilities for yourself and your kids. THAT is what drew — and draws — immigrants from all over the world.

And the thing is, once you adopt that idea, in that moment you become an American. You might be a homeless El Salvadorean, an uneducated African, or a Syrian refugee with literally nothing more than the clothes on your back, but the minute you set foot on the road toward the U.S., the road to Something Better, you’re an American IN THAT MINUTE.

I do expect the people who come here to aim for something more than their home country and home culture provided. Frankly, I expect them to learn English — not because I hate the poor immigrants, but because I know their BEST chance of succeeding here is to speak the language, and speak it well. I don’t begrudge them the right to honor their home culture, if they choose, but I also darned sure expect them to learn all these OTHER values and ideas that make up America.

But frankly, I’m not too worried about immigrants. And though I don’t like or respect Islam, I’m also not all that afraid of it. Hey, if you have to threaten your own people with death in order to keep them, what does that say about you? It’s a crappy second-rater on the world stage, and all the second- and third-generation Muslims in the U.S., whatever their parents were, are probably going to be ordinary American kids.

The heart of America, to me, isn’t soldiers and guns. It’s ideas. As such, my heroes — the REAL heroes of America — are librarians and teachers. My heroes are scientists and thinkers, writers and reporters and yes, even protesters and whistle-blowers — the warriors of conscience who fight in their own ways for The Idea of Something Better.

So don’t expect me to salute when you drive by with a flag on your truck. I’m less impressed with the mere symbols of America, when I can see, and partake in, the real SUBSTANCE of America all around me.

I wish you a happy Fourth of July.