BookBlog: Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging

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This was a book that spoke to me on a lot of personal levels, and helped to make a lot of sense of who I am and who I’ve become as a result of the experiences I’ve had in my life, namely my time serving in the U.S. Army. Sebastian Junger, a highly regarded combat journalist and writer of several other works, gives a detailed and well-supported argument in his book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging for what he sees as a general and significant disconnect in the modern American society from the earlier tribal roots of the human species. This disconnect, Junger suggests, may be a leading and significant root cause of many of our modern ailments and psychological afflictions. The idea being that we are simply not living as our ancestors lived, physically, emotionally, communally or psychologically.

Early in the book, Junger discussed statistics and studies that arose during the early American settlement and associated wars with the indigenous inhabitants of what would eventually, and bloodily, become the United States of America. One of the more unexpected and difficult dynamics of these conflicts and the clashing of modern Western European culture with the stone age tribal cultures of the indigenous peoples was the thousands of white European Americans who allegedly defected from advanced society and joined the tribal clans of Native Americans. Some of these defections came in the form of captured men, women and children who, by the time they found themselves in a situation to return to white society, no longer wished to. What Junger does not discuss is the potential role in these cases that Stockholm Syndrome could have taken in preventing these people from wanting to return to modern life, and certainly a child who was captured or born in captivity would have a much easier time adopting the culture of its captors and therefore less apt to assimilate back into white society. I would think this could have played a significant role in the phenomenon.

Nevertheless, there were a significant number of cases of voluntary defection of people with European ancestry simply walking away from the budding urban and industrial life and finding a home with the tribes of North America. It’s suggested by Junger that this was simply a calling home of people who had an evolutionary trigger activated and, no matter how long back in their ancestry it had been since their forefathers wore buckskin and howled at the moon, the lure of a return to savage life, once it became possible to do so in the New World, was too strong to ignore.

The tribal life, although demonstrably dirtier, more dangerous and arguably harder to endure, offered many things that modern life had left behind. The sense of community and group survival was rapidly disappearing in modern society and replacing it was a highly individualized and competitive culture. Tribes competed, often violently, but they competed almost exclusively with each other and rarely ever was there competition to the point of in-fighting within the tribe. Liberty, especially that of women, was much more valued in the indigenous tribes. The women were free to marry whom they wanted and to cease being married whenever they chose. All members of the tribe had specific tasks and chores to accomplish for the greater good of the community, but the hierarchies were small and simple. Class and status was not celebrated and the tribal way of life made it nearly impossible for any one tribe member to amass a disproportionate amount of wealth above the rest of the tribe that could be passed down to offspring who did not earn it. Leadership existed and warriors celebrated, but all in all every member of the tribe acted in the interest of the tribe. This snapshot of prehistoric culture found in the American wilderness, and eventually hunted down to near extinction, represented a more natural and enduring culture than what the westward expansion and Industrial Revolution was affording the emerging American lifestyle.

Junger spends some time contrasting the historical tribal culture with the modern American one in ways that made a lot of sense to me. Like all things deemed progressive, the second, third and beyond order effects of the rapid rate of societal evolution was not immediately clear, and is only starting to become understood today. Our natural environment is being decimated, our population is increasingly unhealthy (despite all the modern marvels of medical science), wealth inequality is growing (as our Chief’s no longer have to answer to their tribe only their shareholders), our sense of community has been diminished to the point of forming home owner’s associations to compel our neighbors to cut their lawn so we don’t have to risk actually talking to them. Most pointedly in this book, our psychological states have become increasingly troublesome. Despite all the comforts of modern life, we are anxious, we are depressed and we are suicidal on higher scales than previously known in western culture. It’s difficult to get a handle on what the suicide and depression situations were in tribal cultures as such things were not well studied in the North American Natives. In general, suicide in a tribal culture came when one was no longer of any use to the tribe.

Old age beyond ability to do one’s fair share of work, dishonor on the battlefield and significant physical disfigurement were some reasons known to lead tribe members to take their own life. Although emotional parallels can be drawn between the feeling of exile and ability to contribute among tribal and modern urban cases of suicide, the tribal reasoning seems to be tied to physical impairment rather than irreconcilable emotional states without clear physical motivators. It would seem that some of us are simply having a tough time accepting the rapidly changing and continually less agrarian and community oriented lifestyle that is evolving around us.

To discuss and study the stark differences between these two worlds, the tribal and the modern civilized, it is natural to look at a group of people who have significant experiences living in, and traveling back and forth between, the two worlds. That group is combat veterans. This is where the book really begins to hit home and speak to my personal experiences and some of the emotional and cognitive states I have found myself in both during and after my time in the military.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the modern scourge of the military veteran. Although the actual loss of life and overall viciousness of combat operations as compared to our earlier wars has diminished greatly, we find ourselves with an increasing amount of diagnosed psychological impairment in our military members. To be clear, I am not someone who feels they have been psychologically impaired by their military service. If anything, I would describe my psychological state following military service and deployment as Post Traumatic Growth, which is the less notorious phenomenon of experiencing increased cognitive and emotional ability following a period of extreme stress and feeling of danger. Regardless, what Junger goes on to describe felt very familiar and reminiscent of several key crossroads I have come to in my post military years.

One of the strange parts of the emergence of the PTSD culture is that, as previously stated, by most objective and subjective measures, war has gotten a lot nicer in the modern age than it was in our grandparent’s time. Our loss of life and limb is down, the number of soldiers who actually see a fire fight is low, the carnage and mayhem of world wars fought in bloody trenches is something that is simply not seen today by the average American service member. Yet, there does seem to be a greater psychological toll that is occurring. One of the reasons Junger hypothesizes this could be is simply a cultural shift that has gone towards providing a victim mentality to those who have experienced traumatic events. The tendency is to take a veteran who is struggling to re-introduce to civilian life and hand them a diagnosis and disability check for the rest of their life. Junger cites statistics that show many veterans seek treatment and go to appointments long enough to be given a 100 percent disability classification (meaning they will receive a tax free salary for the remainder of their life) and then promptly cease seeking treatment once they have done the bare minimum needed to receive the lifetime salary. What Junger suggests is, in part, we are not practicing good diagnostic and treatment standards and there is significant abuse of the system. It is apparently not uncommon for these abuses to be noticed in therapy groups and VA medical centers and often scuffles between the truly needy and the abusers have to be quelled by the staff.

Although these abuses are certain to exist, it’s impossible to say to what significance they play a role in the increasing psychological cost of war, and systemic abuse is not the main point of this book. The main point in this book that Junger seems to be making is it’s not the war zone that causes psychological problems in many returning veterans. Instead, it’s the world they return to. The combat zone isn’t the problem, the modern world of competitive individualism and victim mentality, where no one knows their neighbors and no one regularly sees or works with the members of their social networks, and fewer and fewer people take responsibility for their actions or their situation in life is the problem. American veterans return to a society that habitually thanks them for their service, which can only emotionally serve as a reminder that only the very few will ever serve, while the rest just go about their lives. Junger cites the mandatory military service culture in Israel as supportive of this dynamic. Nearly half of Israel’s citizens serve in the military in some form at some point in their life, so Israelis walking around thanking each other for their service would be as natural as Americans walking around thanking each other for paying taxes. We might all have different feelings about what it means to pay taxes, but it’s nevertheless something that most of us do. It’s simply the norm.

The Israel contrast goes on in this book to point out something else modern American life has lost in relation to primitive tribal cultures; in the primitive tribal culture of North America (as well as the modern tribal culture of Israel), the community existed extremely close to the tribe’s conflicts. Warriors were the direct defenders of the society, and the enemy was not simply an abstract idea that came through the TV screen from the other side of the world. The enemy was there, lurking in the shadows, planning to strike at any moment. While I’m certainly in no hurry to live somewhere where I feel constantly threatened by invading forces, I have to admit that doing so provides a catalyst for a group of people to forget their differences and bond together for a common cause. The terrorist attacks of 9-11 serve as support for this, when America found a level of unity and patriotism not experienced for many decades prior, and has asymptotically diminished since.

Given this context, I can say from experience the military is a very tribal culture. Through training and environment, the differences that soldiers may have; be them racial, religious, gender, political and during my time in the army even sexual preference differences, become not as strong of focal points for soldiers. My time in the army was still underneath the don’t ask, don’t tell policy towards sexual preference, but for younger lower enlisted and officer classes it was generally well known who was and was not gay. Even the few who may have not liked homosexuality where not very apt to report their fellow soldiers for behavior they disagreed with. The camaraderie and tribal dynamics tended to govern in these situations, and only the old timers really expressed any concern for the sexual preferences of others.

For those who had families, the family too was a part of the tribal culture. The family dealt with deployments and field training issues in their own way. There were support groups and community advocacy groups, children went to school and associated with other children of military parents and a commander’s spouse often acted in several key roles within the community. The extended tribe was an important part of the success and motivation for the warrior members of the tribe.

During deployments, the tribal mindset increases. It’s often been said that soldiers don’t really fight for their country when they are in a war zone, they fight for the men and women who are directly around them; their tribe. I think there is a lot of truth to that. There is a phrase that Junger uses in this book that I have seen used in others as well to name the mental shift that occurs in solders who are deployed to combat zones. That phrase is the hive switch. In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt suggests that human beings are 90 percent chimpanzee and 10 percent bee. He describes the hive switch as a mental state that a human enters (notably in a war zone) where the self becomes less important and the greater good of the unit (the hive) becomes the focus. This is how great feats of heroism, often leading to the hero’s own death, can be explained in great times of stress and violence. The tendency for absolute self preservation that is so dominant in the sedentary and individualistic American society falls away when the enemy is actually at the gate (not just proverbially at the gate as often suggested by campaigning politicians).

As I’m writing this, it seems to me a good litmus test for whether or not what a politician is trying to make you afraid of is an actual threat would be whether or not what the politician is saying makes you want to band together with your neighbors despite your differences, or become suspicious of your neighbors because of your differences. If the hive switch hypothesis holds true, then the real threats should make us want to join together, not tear apart. If the enemy the politician is describing are your neighbors, then the politician might just be trying to control you with irrational emotion. A theory to be explored another day.

So soldiers generally live in this tribal sense. They band together as brothers and sisters, lean on each other both physically and psychologically and fight for each other and for the families left back at the base. There are squabbles and competitiveness and not everyone gets along all the time. However, the differences that soldiers fight over are more communal and less demographically oriented. Fights are more likely to occur over who plays their music too loud in the barracks than who comes from an immigrant family or has a slightly different religious ideology. No one cares about that shit, because it’s not important. Soldiers have a strange way of speaking to each other, which is something that, even though I only lived in that culture for a minority 6 years of my life, returning to the way civilians speak to each other has proved to be far more difficult than it was to grow accustomed to the shit talking of the army.

In the army, if you were not accepted by the tribe (for whatever reason) then you were effectively shunned. People simply did not talk to the members who struggled to fit in. Whatever communication was required to accomplish tasks was handled very matter of factly. The bare minimum amount of conversation occurred during duty hours, and virtually no socializing with the misfit occurred during free time. If a member of the tribe was more or less accepted, but not fully trusted, then the speech patterns to those members could be described as courteous, but not very inviting. If you want to know whether or not a member of the tribe was not only accepted but fully trusted, count how many times that tribe member is called a fuckstick and his mother a dirty hooker. The more insults, the more trusted and accepted the tribe member is. This is what is referred to in the army as shit talking and if you weren’t doing it back, you were at risk of finding yourself in one of the outlier groups.

If I told a fellow soldier to nut-up, quit crying, un-bunch their panties and carry-on before anybody notices what a little bitch they’re being, then rest assured that language came from a place of love and genuine concern. It took a long time for me to accept that this is not an effective way to talk to people back in the civilian world. Although I accept it and I approach people from that place of acceptance, I still don’t thoroughly understand it and I have to say I don’t believe the civilian way of talking to one another is objectively better. As course and rude as the shit talking culture may seem, it gets results, fosters bonds between group members, propagates emotional antifragility, breaks down barriers and motivates people to overcome obstacles instead of allowing their obstacles to overcome them. To be sure, it’s not a nice way to approach people, but life ain’t nice and if a group is going to become a tribe then they better get used to things that aren’t nice.

So American veterans return from their tribal culture of service, often to find their country increasingly politically and socially divided. The chiefs seem perfectly content at cultivating an air of dread and fear (see above remarks about the enemy at the gate, so say the politicians), using emotional marketing tactics to split us into camps of us and them which is antithetical to the core of military and tribal life. The us vs. them mentality within military and tribal culture is more of a struggle with external forces; the enemy. Returning to America we find ourselves in a culture that seems to be focused solely on attacking itself, something that can be disheartening to the men and women who spent significant time and youth operating at great personal risk for the good of the country.

The American veteran often returns to society to find little to no real sense of community, especially in the urban culture where our population density seems to be inversely proportional to our knowledge of our neighbors. We live on top of one another, but rarely ever do we commune with one another. The rural American culture seems to be holding on to this sense of community a lot better than the urban life, but the rural life is itself under an existential crisis. The long trend of our population moving to the cities continues and the rural life is itself dying.

With the mass exodus to the cities also comes further loss of many key dynamics of tribal life. Namely having an intimate understanding and association with the day-to-day struggles necessary to keep society going. As we’ve moved into the cities, our positions in society have become increasingly specialized. Very few of us have a working knowledge of how food is grown, water is made potable, how lumber and other building materials come to be or how infrastructure keeps us going. The miners and loggers and farmers have become abstractions to us. In the liberal ideologies, these people are treated as simpletons and regressive laborers in environmentally archaic industries. In reality they are the communities, that is, the tribes who perform the functions that are the basic necessities of modern life. The city folk have just become too disconnected to understand this. This all comes together to form a modern existence that is simply difficult for veterans to reconcile. Often in the early days of America, when thousands of white Americans by hook or by crook found their way back to tribal life, attempts would be made to bring them back to cities and back to their modern way of life. Many times these people would reject it all and risk great harm to escape the city and return back to the tribe they had come to know and love.

The implication in Junger’s book is this is why some American war fighters miss the war, why Londoners following the blitz of WWII joked that they wouldn’t mind one night a week of bombings just to keep things interesting and why Israeli’s who live danger-close to their conflicts seem to escape many of the psychological aftermath that plague American military servicemen and women. Counter-intuitively, what we are lacking is a strong and communal country for veterans to come home to, we lack a culture prepared to help them feel useful, empowered and wanted in society. Veterans return to the country they left, only to find a nation of what my drill sergeant would call a bunch of goddamned individuals. If you had the tone and inflection of a drill sergeant’s voice in your head while reading that they way I had it in my head while writing it, you’d have no doubt that drill sergeant meant the word individual as a great insult.

I’ve never been very comfortable with people thanking me for my service. It’s something I’ve struggled with a lot since returning from the military. I know that my discomfort towards the gesture isn’t shared by all veterans, but I have recently and finally become aware that I’m not the only one. I ran into an essay on the internet a while back that let me know there are many other veterans out there who share my discomfort. I know the gesture is well-meaning, and I’m not mad that people feel motivated to make it, so I typically just say you’re welcome and leave it at that. I don’t stand up at ball games to be recognized and I don’t get free meals at participating restaurants on Veteran’s Day.

If I cut through the emotional response I have when someone thanks me for my service, which is mostly frustration, vulnerability and confusion, then I’d have to say a root cause of the emotion is that I’m not sure what people are thanking me for. I’m really not even sure if they know what they are thanking me for, which I think is one of the points of this book. The culture, the perception, the understanding and the fundamental dynamics between military, that is tribal life and the average American civilian experience is so far disconnected that the well-meaning gesture can seem to some veterans as something empty and obligatory. Well meaning civilians understand the veterans among them have done something, something deserving of gratitude, something they haven’t done…but they don’t seem to know what that something is. They don’t know what they are missing.

My emotions are not unique, which I was very happy to discover. I spent a long time feeling like there was something wrong with me, something ungrateful, for not feeling the gratitude that others were trying to express to me with their thanks. My emotions are also not standard for all veterans. I have many veteran friends who I’ve told about my feeling towards the phrases and gestures who don’t agree with me. Veterans aren’t as monolithic as some try to treat us. We come from a common forge of tribal culture, but we still retain a broad spectrum of diversity. That said, if you want some suggestions on alternative things to say to veterans, I would try asking them what their experience was like, how they feel it shaped them and what they have been doing since returning home. Junger suggests in this book that more needs to be done to make veterans feel useful and important in society, the way they were in their tribe. In my opinion, a lot could be done if more people made the effort to strengthen their communities and stop being assholes to their neighbors and their fellow Americans who have differences that are easy to focus on.

When I was a child I got into an after school fight with another boy in my class, I think I was in fifth or sixth grade at the time. We took the time to wait until school was well over, and the traffic of other kids and parents cleared up. After a few moments of the fight had passed (which seemed like forever), a man came out of an apartment across the street from the patch of grass we had chosen for our battle ground to stop the fight. I didn’t remember this until I started to write this post, but I think now I’ll never forget it. The man was tall, white, thin and his hair was buzzed short. He approached us shirtless from across the street, commanding us to stop fighting. He said that he had just gotten back from Iraq, the timeline matches up to the Gulf War, and that this is not what he wanted to come home to, this is not what he fought for. We broke up the fight and went our separate ways, the man walked frustrated and emotional back to his apartment. I didn’t really understand at the time why the man had taken such an issue with two kids fighting. In my childhood mind, if he was a soldier then he must have liked fighting. I think I understand what he meant now.

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Book Report: Stealing Fire

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Stealing Fire came to me as a suggestion from an entrepreneur friend who is a fellow avid reader. I have no idea what his personal journey with altered states is, and, as will be discussed, there really are natural ways to gain access to the worlds within us. My friend’s suggestion did come with the comment that this book would be good for me due to the things he knows I’m into. He was right. This book was like picking up a textbook that was written to counter all of the war on drugs messaging I received as a child and in support of my own personal journey with the benefits of altered states of consciousness in my younger and more wild days. This book was validation for the world I discovered and often wondered whether or not was real, the one transposed over the world around us, hidden in plain sight from the people who don’t know how to look for it. This book was a sigh of relief, and a hope for a future with a more realistic approach to drug policy and the benefits that can be, and have been, obtained by those who have the cognitive wherewithal to explore their inner minds through natural and chemically imposed altered states of consciousness. First, a little backstory about me.

When I was in the sixth grade I won an award from the D.A.R.E. program for an essay I wrote on the dangers of drugs. I’ll pause now to wait for everyone who knows me to stop laughing and catch their breath.

So a few other sixth graders and I were honored for our compositions at a special assembly. We took turns reading our essays for the school and received a nice certificate and a coupon for a special chocolate record that commemorated our success in the Drug Abuse Resistance Education course. Yes, they actually awarded children for their essay on the dangers of drugs with refined sugar and trace amounts of THC. It was a well intentioned program, but not a well conceived one. D.A.R.E. would eventually be called a massive failure and a waste of time and money, having literally no positive outcomes attributable to it. The cracks in the “Just Say NO” philosophy of the 80’s and 90’s were beginning to become hard to ignore.

Not that I was, at the time, a sixth grader who was into drugs. It would be a few more years before I started dipping my toes in the forbidden molecular fruits around me. I was just a kid who could spell, use good grammar, held a vocabulary well beyond my grade level and had learned to use my intelligence and skills to game adults into handing me grades, awards and refined sugar with trace amounts of THC in it.

I have zero recollection of what I actually wrote and recited. There may be a copy of the essay around somewhere in one of the boxes of memories my mother cultivated for me over the years. I’m about 100% confident that whatever I wrote was 100% regurgitated information from the lectures and materials of the program that, much like the speech I gave, found no lasting place in my memory. It was 100% bullshit.

Somehow I always knew that it was all bullshit. Like praying to a god you don’t believe in just because the adults around you were doing it (which I also did till I was about twelve). I cognitively knew that I was supposed to just say no to drugs, but I never really felt it in my heart. That’s probably why, as childhood evolved into adolescence, I skipped the phase of saying “no” to drugs and went straight to saying “perhaps” to them.

Alcohol came first, naturally, as that was the one that could be swiped from parents and sometimes purchased from less than reputable drive-thru liquor stores (thank you Monti’s on 16th!). I never cared much for marijuana in high school. In retrospect that was probably due to the inability of teenagers under the full prohibition of the 90’s to get anything but dirt weed. It took decriminalization and market regulation to produce access to good herbal medicine. It also took me growing up and becoming a discerning adult to be able to know how to treat that plant right.

LSD was cheap and pretty available in the 90’s. The rave scene was in full swing and still underground enough that a highly motivated 15-year old could infiltrate and find whatever they were looking for. MDMA was around, but too expensive for my allowance. Psilocybin mushrooms were an occasional treat, whenever they could be found. (I can already see my mother shaking her head while she inevitably reads this. Hi Mom!)

At any rate, my early childhood suspicion towards the war on drug’s marketing materials was gaining supportive data in high school and into my 20’s. They tried to throw some Prozac or Zoloft or something to that affect at me halfway through high school for the crime of exhibiting angsty behavior. I quickly threw those things in the trash. They simply made me placid, and placid was the last thing I wanted to be. Between the choice of feeling something vs. feeling nothing, I choose something. Every time.

I’m probably painting myself as being more in control than I was at the time. My early intuition told me that the messages I was receiving about substances didn’t feel right to me, my early experiences with substances supported my hypothesis, but if you were to look back in time through a crystal ball I was just a kid getting high and trying to figure out what all of that meant for me. I know that my experiences didn’t feel bad, they didn’t feel dangerous. It was simply a different way to experience the world around me that I had discovered. I didn’t feel like a dope and, despite my failing grades in high school, I was well aware that I was intelligent. I was simply disinterested in going to class. The flat out lies of the “Just Say NO” philosophy were becoming exposed.

Of course it wasn’t perfectly safe, and not everyone makes it out alive and/or well. That’s true about a lot of things. Studies cited in this book state that horseback riding is more dangerous than recreational drug use on a per capita basis, but I had no idea of that at the time. The risk vs. reward ratio seemed, at the end of the day, worth it. So I continued to have no sympathy for the Devil, buy tickets and take the rides to varying outcomes, most of which I can honestly say were positive and I wouldn’t have changed for the world.

It wasn’t easy. There were certainly forces working against me. Friends who had bought into the every user is the beginning of an addict bullshit of that D.A.R.E. program I aced, parents and teachers who had to be negotiated and sidestepped, authorities to outsmart and black market products to acquire at high risk were all obstacles that had to be overcome. The obstacles weren’t simply functional, though. They were also philosophical and existential. My experience was obviously at odds with the narrative around me. I was smart enough to understand that I may, in fact, be fooling myself into believing that everything is fine when in fact it is not. There were a few times when everything was not fine, even though I thought it was. There was no guarantee I would come out on top of those times, I simply did in the end. How much of that was cognition and how much was luck is impossible to determine.

As I got older, the data became more robust. I noticed that, while a few friends seemed to have taken it too far and ended up burned out, for the most part everyone was fine and seemed to be enjoying themselves as double agents of the counterculture. As I got older still, not only were the overwhelming majority of my drug friends fine, a significant pack of them seemed to be thriving. They were becoming educated professionals, successful non-starving artists, musicians, actors and entrepreneurs. If you are still holding on to the illusion that all the well adjusted people around you must not have done drugs in their life because otherwise they wouldn’t be well adjusted people, then I’m pleased to help shatter your illusion. Having climbed, high, a top the mountain and able to look back, I promise you that you can’t throw a stick into a crowd of well adjusted people without hitting someone who has dabbled with illicit substances and come out the other side better for it.

If you don’t believe there is such a thing as societal benefit that comes from criminalized altered states, then please take whatever device you are reading this on and throw it in the trash. Your computer, phone, tablet, they were all conceived, invented, designed and coded by people who have found creative and innovative solutions to complex problems through natural and artificially altered states of consciousness. Stealing Fire states something that should be implicitly known; that nearly every billionaire in Silicon Valley uses psychedelics to solve problems. But enough backstory, on to the book.

Beginning in ancient times, Stealing Fire (a reference to Prometheus, the Mythological Titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans) starts with the story of a party in Greece. At this party, the host distributes a banned substance among his guests that sends them all into an introspective cognitive journey. The substance was called keykeon and until the host, a decorated military commander named Alcibiades, stole it from the Grecian elite and distributed it to his friends, it was a pretty closely guarded secret of the ruling class.

Keykeon was a staple of an ancient ritual called the Eleusinian Mysteries, a secretive nine-day ritual held annually by members of a certain religious cult. The purpose of the ritual was to strip away all known points of reference in the consciousness, to gain new perspective on the world and society and to take that perspective and the learnings from it to go out and lead the world to a better place. It has been suggested that some of the greatest mathematical and philosophical discoveries of the ancient world came out of the Eleusinian Mysteries. While you’re throwing away your MacBook because it was invented by a guy who did LSD, go ahead and burn your house down for all the Pythagorean theorem that was used to build it.

You still with me? You still not homeless? Good.

In this introductory story, Alcibiades is Prometheus and he has stolen the fire of keykeon from the egotistical religious elites who held that they were they only ones fit enough to sit around getting high and think about thinking. For the crime of stealing fire from the gods, Prometheus was chained to a stone and sentenced to an eternity of having his guts eaten out by crows every day, only to have them grow back overnight and go through the ordeal again the following day, ad infinitum. Alcibiades got off light, he was only tried in absentia for blasphemy, a crime punishable by a simple mortal’s death.

This is only one story, from long ago, about the rogue actions of a counterculture leader simultaneously stealing and playing with fire. There are many others throughout the ages that serve to illustrate the ebb and flow of man’s dance with altered states of consciousness, their rituals, the hypocritical vilification of the plants, fungi and synthetic molecules that people have used to reach them and the overall struggle that organized society has had to accept the fact that, no Mrs Reagan, there is not a universally good reason they call it dope.

While this book is obviously meant to help break down the fears and walls surrounding substance-induced consciousness expansion, it does give ample regard to the natural methods of reaching the mental state defined in the book as ecstasis. Ecstasis, whether it comes from a mushroom, a molecule, an ancient Greek elixir, surfing a big wave, free diving to 700 feet, meditating on a hilltop, handling rattlesnakes at church, dancing till you’re drenched in sweat or praising the lord of your faith can be defined as reaching an elevated mental state of flow and transcendence.

This conventional definition permits the authors the ability to define their scope from ancient Greeks to the tea-headed hipsters of the beat generation to the hive-mind operation of the U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team Six. As promised, the authors fully recognize at least one truth of the war on drugs, that is You don’t NEED drugs to get high.

As it turns out, brain scans of Buddhist monks in meditation, wing-suit gliders in flight, Christian revivalists chanting in tongues, highly trained special forces military groups,  Jewish pilgrims and many others in a sober state of transcendence look nearly identical to the brain scans of people who took the express route to the dissolution of all time and space by ingesting various natural and synthetic substances. You don’t need drugs to feel at one with the universe, it just turns out to be a faster way to get there.

Playing with altered states of consciousness doesn’t universally lead to positive results, either. The master switch to these mental states is not always controlled by benevolent hippies and harmless gurus. Cult leaders have at times emerged and wreaked havoc, suicide pacts have been carried out by followers who lost their way to life, and recently declassified documents have outlined the experimentation of the government and military with mind control techniques that were not too shy or conservative in values to keep designs to an LSD bomb off the table of possibilities. If you think there won’t be declassified documents in another 50 years that outline the experiments they are certainly doing today (but won’t currently admit to), then you haven’t been paying very much attention.

The marketing industry has gotten a hold of the altered state of consciousness buzz terms recently, as well. Conglomerates of advertisers funded by billion dollar industries have spent considerable efforts the past few years to learn how to hack the brain of the consumer in exponentially more efficient ways than untrustworthy focus groups. This leads to a whole new big book of ethical dilemmas as these titans of industry attempt to circumvent the troublesome task of producing products the consumer wants, and instead look for new and subconscious ways to make the consumer want the products they produce. I seriously doubt that our society is ultimately in much of a position to stop them at the policy level, so maybe think twice before you strap on that cool new VR headset. Subtle programming in your augmented reality could very well be giving you daily Big Mac attacks. Which brings us to what I believe to be the central thesis of this book; what do we do with these altered states of consciousness?

Expanding our minds through various methods, it would seem, is something that is as old as humanity itself. What is humanity except a bunch of walking and talking apes who, somehow, managed to expand their minds enough to gain self-awareness? We often count the discovery of fire as a pivotal moment in our species’ technological evolution, which makes the story of Prometheus stealing fire and giving it to us resonate at least on a fabled level. We could continue to openly deny ourselves a positive relationship with substance-induced altered states, relegating them to hush-hush parties of cults and billionaires in some sort of pseudo-moral campaign against the dangers that do come along with an expanded mind. But that doesn’t just leave the induction of ecstasis in the hands of the few benevolent, malevolent and ignorant innovators in California. It’s highly unlikely that government, and functionally impossible that industry, is going to cease and desist their experiments in citizen and consumer control through the development and understanding of altered states of consciousness. The book does start to sound a little conspiracy theory-ish at this point, but to quote the late Kurt Cobain, “Just because you’re paranoid, don’t mean they’re not after you.”

What Stealing Fire suggests, in line with the Burning Man ethos of open sourcing creativity and innovation, is a likewise open source approach to ecstasis. Keep it socialized, keep it out there. The more people are in control of their own states of reality, altered or not, the harder it is to consolidate our sense of reality into one unified, or several partisan, brands. The more we are free to look within ourselves by whatever methods we deem fit, and as long as we harm none but ourselves, then the more our world around us will stay a place of wonder, creativity and innovation. Hopefully that does more harm than good. Fire can bring warmth and permit a society to flourish and evolve. It can also bring death and destroy everything that people have built. Prometheus didn’t give us instructions to build or destroy, he only gave us the tool to do both more efficiently. The key, it would seem, to outweighing the destructive blazes with transcendent light is making sure that more of us can carry the spark.

I highly recommend this book.

Book Report: One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

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This is my first venture into Russian literature. Well, sort of. I started Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy a few weeks ago, but it really was not sucking me in at all and I ended up putting it down. There were a couple of interesting passages, but mostly I found it to be little more than aristocrats talking to other aristocrats about being aristocrats, which wasn’t of much interest to me. I know that Tolstoy is regarded as one of the  great writers of all time, and I’m certain Anna Karenina is an accurate and important portrayal of the culture, I simply felt like I was watching a movie I wasn’t interested in, and a long one at that. Nothing was being retained and I was just going through the motions. There’s no sense forcing something with little promise of a return.

But, I still wanted to get into the Russian works, so I pivoted in lieu of retreating and picked up One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. This book was about as far in the other direction as I would think one could get from the drama of the Russian Aristocracy in the 19th century.

Set in the Soviet Gulag prison labor system following World War II, the relatively short (approx 150 page) novel follows one day in the life of prisoner Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. Shukhov is currently serving a ten-year sentence to hard labor, officially for the crime of being a spy for the Nazis in WWII, but in reality he was a prisoner of war who escaped and found his way back to the Russian front lines. His true crime seems to have been admitting to the truth and telling his superiors that he was, in fact, in the hands of the Germans for a period of time which was more than enough to spark espionage paranoia and convict him of treason. The tragic irony being that if he’d of had the foresight to create a lie and state that he simply got lost from his unit and wandered the forest until he found his way back, he might have been spared the accusation of being a soldier tainted by the culture of the enemy and allowed to rejoin the ranks. Such was not Shukhov’s fate.

Despite this injustice, Shukhov does not seem bitter about his predicament. Perhaps he was to some degree in the beginning of it all, but certainly if he had displayed much bitterness or tried to fight what was happening to him he would have simply been executed. For whatever reason, by the time we catch up to Shukhov he seems rather resigned to the life thrust upon him. Better to live in hell on earth than be sent to the one below, I suppose. Regardless, this isn’t a book about the ways things should have been, it’s a book about the way things were.

At least Shukhov was only given a ten year sentence, a hard thing to survive for certain, and there was no chance of him ever being the same even if he did survive it. The true tragedy, in his mind, was all the poor souls who started coming into the camps in recent years. At some point, the sentencing practices of the judicial system had changed and now it seemed that everyone was coming in with twenty-five year sentences no matter how benign their crimes were. Shukhov had never seen or heard of someone surviving twenty five years in the Gulag, and didn’t ever expect to. Solzhenitsyn himself served eight years for writing critical remarks against Stalin in letters to his friends, which I am certain served as ample research for this novel.

The description of this one day in the life struck me as a combination of prison (which I’ve never been to) and Army Basic Training (which I have). Being a labor camp, the day is described as something very different than what we are used to seeing on TV about the modern American prison system. Rather than simply a large concrete fortress used to house thousands of inmates who have nothing really better to do with their time other than lift weights, press license plates and run internal crime syndicates in concert with corrupt prison guards, life in the Gulag contained a rank and file system, official prisoner leadership structures and work projects that more explicitly served the needs of the Soviet Union (without having to hide behind pesky bureaucracies to profit from prison labor the way we do in the US).

The prisoners were divided into platoon-sized elements with their own prisoner leadership and numerical designations. Shukhov belonged to the 104th labor team headed by a prisoner/squad leader named Andrey Prokefyevich Tyurin. Tyurin was on his nineteenth year of imprisonment as of that day. The role of the squad leader was to act as liaison between the rank and file campers and the guards, who themselves seemed to only be in a slightly better position than the prisoners. The guards had more power, more access to warmth, better clothes and better food, but they were still stuck in the camp regardless.

Survival in the Gulag was not at all assured or much tended to by the guards. It took a savvy squad leader, who himself was in competition with the other squad leaders, to do what he could to shelter his squad from the bad labor details, to jockey for position in the food lines and to run an economy of trades and favors that both came to him from below and went up from him to the authorities to ensure that his team had the best conditions they could, tacitly at the expense of the team whose misfortune found them lead by a less effective leader. Perhaps this is something like the criminal groups that exist in the modern American prison system, but in the Gulag this seemed to be more of a fight for survival than what occurs here and now. No one starves to death in American prisons because their cell block leader can’t cultivate enough favors to obtain enough extra bread to meet the basic caloric needs of the cell block.

The intricacies of the subculture of Gulag prison life are explained in great detail, how to hide good tools from guards so that your work was a little bit easier, the dangers of being caught with an extra layer of warm clothing underneath your standard dress, the no guarantees that the extra firewood that everyone smuggles every day in the form of broken sticks would ever make it back to the barracks, the fight for food that leaves everyone licking their bowls clean even on the good days, the barter and trade of tobacco and bread to ensure that you and your allies got what they needed that day, and implicitly had it to do all over again the next with a different but also constant set of changing variables and obstacles to overcome. Some days were going to be better than others, and all anyone can ever do is the best they can.

The system was rough and easy to find oneself on the outside of, if one was not careful. Find yourself out of line, and your punishment got worse. Solitary confinement for any more than ten days would probably mean death. If not death, you’d never be healthy again, making it that much harder to return back to the system of struggle and survival without finding yourself again on the outside of it.

The implication with the stern sentencing and mostly construction tailored labor details is that the system of crime and punishment in this era was less about crime or punishment and more about creating a cheap labor force to rebuild Russia following the war and to prop up the Soviet Union. I am certain there is some truth in that. What I think the main take away from this novel is that 150 pages could be filled with one day in the life of this one Gulag labor camp prisoner and, as the novel states at the end, this was only one day in the 3,653 days of Shukhov’s sentence. The three extra days for the three leap years he would experience in his ten years. While many of us simply go through the motions of our day to day lives, sometimes struggling to remember what happened a week or even a couple days ago, and while each day in Shukhov’s 3,653 days could probably fill nearly identical 150 page novels, I am certain he, and Solzhenitsyn actively felt every single day in a way that I hope to never know.

 

The Psychological Injustice of the American House Cat.

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The last couple of months my family has been working to rehabilitate a psychologically traumatized house cat named Nori (not pictured above). This cat came to us by way of my ex wife’s house where it had been living underneath the bed of my 14 year old son for the last year or two due to a frictional relationship with the two dogs that also live there. The dogs, for whatever reason, seem hell bent on eating the cat and the cat saw little reason to venture out of my son’s bedroom and cope with the chance of being eaten. Obviously this cat’s biological needs were all taken care of within the safety of my son’s room. There was food, water, a litter box and the safety of a bed the dogs can’t get under and a bedroom door that remained closed most of the time.

One night a couple of months ago, my wife started telling me the tale of Nori the psychologically traumatized house cat living in constant fear over at my ex wife’s house (my wife and ex wife have a great relationship and could appropriately be described as friends, which is a benefit to our lives and the lives of our sons that I think cannot be overstated).

“The dogs keep trying to eat her, and she has been living under the 14 year old’s bed for so long, and it’s just not healthy to have a litter box in his room and…”

I went ahead and skipped to the predictable end of this conversation and just told my wife that we should move the cat over to our house to see if we can fix this situation. There’s no guarantees we’ll be able to, but I see no harm in giving it a try. What’s the worst that could happen? The cat ends up living underneath the 14 year old’s bed in our house instead of his mother’s house? No change for the cat, no change for the 14 year old. Just a difference of scenery. Perhaps we’d still decide the cat needed to find another home so we could get the unhealthy litter box out of our son’s room? Okay, certainly a possibility but again there’s no harm in trying something different.

It’s not like we have an animal free house. We have two dogs and two cats, as well. The success or failure of re-homing Nori would largely be dependent on her ability to strike a balance with the other pets in the house. But what the hell, lets give it a try, so we moved the cat over.

It was decided that we would keep the conditions in our son’s bedroom much as they were at his mom’s house in the beginning; Nori would have access to food, water, a litter box and have a safe space underneath our son’s bed and his bedroom door would remain closed so the cat would be free to venture around the room without being bombarded by the other animals. The first step was just to change the cat’s address, and little else.

This went on, more or less, for several weeks. Nori the psychologically traumatized house cat was given a bedroom where she wanted for nothing, save the freedom to roam, which quickly proved itself to not be a very strong motivator. We forced meetings between Nori and the two dogs, who were of course interested and slightly aggressive, as Nori herself seemed to be a little aggressive towards the dogs. I started to wonder if Nori wasn’t the problem piece of the puzzle the whole time and maybe the dogs at my ex-wife’s house were just responding to a feisty, pointy threat in their den the best way they knew how.

There was hissing and growling and biting and scratching. My left hand received a puncture wound from needled cat teeth one evening while holding Nori down, trying to just let them get it out of their system for a bit. After about six weeks or so there really didn’t seem to be much progress.

We put up a baby gate to divide our son’s room/cat cave from the main house, which we hoped would allow the animals to get closer to each other without actually being able to attack each other, which may have helped a little but it still wasn’t driving much growth or change in the cat’s affinity for living under the bed. We decided that more drastic measures were necessary.

The reason that Nori the psychologically traumatized house cat was not experiencing the emotional growth necessary to join the family, put a couple of dopey dogs in their place and stop using a litter box uncomfortably close to where my son sleeps at night was that she had no reason to. She was safe in my son’s room, she was comfortable, she didn’t need to adapt even though she may have wanted to. So we created a necessity for change. We removed her food from the room. Not the water, not the litter box, just the food.

As far as we could tell, Nori didn’t eat for at least a week. She started attempting to venture out of the bedroom in the middle of the night, but the dogs were pretty in tune to her movements and would wake up like a finely tuned motion detector system and chase her right back. A few times we put the dogs outside and pulled Nori out of the bedroom and placed her next to the cat food, but despite having not eaten for many days, she still didn’t seem emotionally strong enough to eat out in the open. So we removed the water from the bedroom as well.

Now, contrary to what humans in modern society might think as a result of the hangriness they get if they are late to lunch or, food pyramid forbid, actually have to skip a meal, it takes a really long time for a mammal to starve to death. Not as long as a reptile or an arachnid, but it’s still not a quick process. It takes weeks for a hydrated and previously well-fed mammal to actually reach a point of harm or death in the absence of food. But water is a different story, so this did represent a significant increase in the potential for harm. Regardless, change needed to happen and there needed to be a catalyst to drive that change. We also started locking her out of the bedroom while we were home and able to supervise interactions between all the animals.

Nori quickly found and memorized a few key hiding places where she could audibly register her complaints about the situation, but still be safe from the prodding noses of the dogs. Our two cats, by the way, couldn’t really care less about Nori. They weren’t in any hurry to socialize with her, but were perfectly content to hang out on the other side of the house while the crybaby cat in the living room threw her little temper tantrums.

So now Nori the psychologically traumatized house cat was generally relegated to the five inch space between the side of our living room couch and the wall. No food or water in her safe space cat cave, and certainly none in her five inch crack. It was getting on to about two weeks the last time we knew for certain she ate and a few days without water, that we could tell. She may have run some successful stealth missions to the food and water during the night, but if she did they were few and far between and only during the times when the dogs were most heavily knocked out.

Slowly, but surely, she began to increase the sphere of her acceptable being beyond the crack between the couch and the wall. She stopped running and hiding at the mere sight of the dogs, allowing them to get closer and becoming increasingly less feisty and pointy in her response to them. The dogs in turn softened their approach. Necessity was driving growth, and growth was creating change. Success, as motivated by discomfort, was beginning to set in. But we weren’t finished.

Our two other cats are not complete house cats. Since gaining a backyard, we have started allowing them to roam free and we often keep our back door open while we are at home (and while the weather is nice) so they and the dogs can come and go as they please. For Nori to be fully socialized into our pack, she would need to be okay with a house that opens up to the outside world as well. Our end goal was to prepare the cat for the house, not the house for the cat. Last night, after a few days of even more gradual increase to her sphere of comfort, Nori the psychologically traumatized house cat apparently found the open door and was gone. She was nowhere to be found anywhere in the yard or around the house and we weren’t even really sure when she left. Our 14 year old simply looked up from his video game in the living room and she was no longer there.

The family was a little worried. Through the yard and over the fence was a much larger step than Nori had previously taken to expand her territory and if she was running from fear then it was possible that by the time she stopped she will have lost her way. Regardless, there was nothing to do about it except go to bed and hope for the best.

We woke up today and I spent some time looking around the outside of the house in the dark with a flashlight to see if she was maybe hiding in a tree or under a bush, but to no avail. It became time to leave for the day, lock up the house and drop the kids off at the school bus stop, so I gave up the search. I went out to the back patio one more time to call in our other two cats, who typically prefer to not be locked outside all day (although sometimes they don’t come in and are stuck in the yard until someone gets home in the afternoon). There was Nori the psychologically traumatized house cat sitting smug and calm on top of an ice chest on the back patio.

She’s still a little skittish around me, the big mean guy who took her food and water away, the big mean guy her pulled her crying and clawing out from underneath her safe space in her comfort cave, the big mean guy who held her down and forced her to experience emotional distress for her own good, but my 14 year old son was able to grab her and get her back in the house for the day. I’d say that she is well on her way to a full recovery and a happy life as a cat with an infinitely larger world around her.

House cats are not natural. After 5,000 years of attempting to domesticate the feline species, I think it’s more than safe to say the felines won and remain nearly as wild as they ever were, even if selective breeding produced a few ornamental variations. Your fluffy little Tinkerbell is actually a wandering territorial predator that suffers physically and psychologically when not allowed to roam. We can lock the doors around them, provide them with everything they need to live, remove all the snarling dogs and indifferent cats from their environment, keep them nice and safe and secure, but that’s not what’s good for them. Life grows in the presence of struggle, and atrophies in its absence. Our drive to remove all struggle from life comes from a place of caring and compassion, but whether we are talking about cats, dogs, plants, children or adults, there seems to be a shared common dynamic among the life on earth; comfort leads to lethargy and emotional instability. Conversely, discomfort is a catalyst to positive growth and emotional resilience.

This is a story about a cat in my house, but it’s a representation of more than just the cat. There is a culture in our society that has evolved to treat humans like house cats. We provide all the safety and comfort and subsistence we can, and that comes from a place of caring and fear of the dangers that are outside the back door. Danger does exist. There’s no guarantee that children will come home from the playground unscathed. There was no guarantee that Nori would find her way back to the patio. Hiding under the bed in a constant state of emotional panic, isolated from the world around us is not a better alternative, as comfortable and as compassionate as it may seem.

The Men they will become.

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Parenting is weird. Especially in the modern age when each generation is virtually indistinguishable from all previous ones. I imagine there was a time, before the industrial and digital revolutions, when raising a child could pretty much be done exactly how you yourself were raised (building on lessons and failures from the past). Life really didn’t change all that much for people before technology started taking off on its exponential growth. Not to say that people in the past didn’t have their challenges in parenting and that there was some sort of magic book to follow, I just imagine that there isn’t as much to pass down these days as there used to be. My parents had no playbook for what to do about the internet, fake news, YouTubers and social media challenges (I hear kids are eating laundry soap for some reason?).

But some things can be passed down which is why it came as no surprise to my father when I told him that, despite regularly asking our two boys if there is anything they need clothing or toiletry-wise only to be told that everything they had was “fine,” that everything they had was not, in fact, fine, and that they needed some serious back to school clothes shopping in January (that probably should have been done back in August). Parenting lesson learned; never trust a teenager to self report a situation that they tacitly know will trigger a trip to the store for socks and underwear. I also now understand why Christmas time always came with a couple unexciting presents of basic clothing needs. Turns out Santa wasn’t trying to give me the shaft after all, and the holiday was just a good way to time an annual replenishment of certain items.

I discovered this need not because my sons finally came clean about it, but because I myself was in a situation where I needed to borrow a pair of socks. The flu season threw us off our regular laundry game and I needed to grab a pair from my 16 year son who was at his mothers house for the week at the time, so I went into his room to grab a pair. Despite the fact that his shoe size is now two whole sizes larger than mine, I found the socks that he had to be too small even for my feet and about as thin as a paper napkin. My wife and I decided that the time for intervention had come and resolved ourselves to a full clothing inspection once they returned home on Friday for the next coming week (as is routine with our week on/week off custody schedule with my ex wife and her husband).

When we returned home with them that Friday, I instructed them to put all of their clothes into piles on their bed and make sure they had a piece of paper and something to write with so they could make lists of what they were going to need. I told them to remove anything that didn’t fit or that was full of holes and place it to the side, a donation pile for items that are too small and a throw away pile for items that were not serviceable. This reminded me very much of inspections in the military, but I saved them the grief of rolling their socks and t-shirts into six-inch rolls and organizing all items to a standard display pattern. Call me soft, call them spoiled, but I try to not push military training on them, even if they have been dropped for a few sets of push-ups when all other methods of communication failed.

Come to discover that, not only were the 16 year old’s socks too small and thoroughly worn thin, the 14 year old only had one pair of socks that he had apparently been wearing for a week at a time, washing on Fridays when their chores before returning to their mother’s house include doing all their laundry, then repeating the process for who knows how many months. Other discoveries were on the order of holes and stains on shirts, jeans that were purchased one or more growth spurts ago and shoes that seemed okay while they were standing up, but were falling apart upon closer inspection.

Throughout the whole process I still had to push back against the “everything is fine” assessment coming from the kids who were still trying to sneak unacceptable items through the inspection process. “No, those jeans are not fine. They are six inches too short, put them in the donate pile. Why are there no socks here? What do you mean you only have the pair you are wearing? Okay write it down. You need socks and underwear and jeans and…” you get the gist.

So with their lists made we all four, the 16 year old boy, the 14 year old boy, my wife and I, piled into the car and headed to the department store so they could get what was on their lists. We explained that it would be up to them to shop for what they needed, try things on, then let us know when they were ready to check out so we could rejoin them in the store and pay for the items. We were not going to hover over them, select items for them, give them our opinions on the fit of items or anything else that we won’t be there for in the next few years once they are fully launched into adulthood. We were merely financing this operation, and not much else.

I saw another opportunity to hand down a lesson as we were driving away from the house and started speaking to them through the rear view mirror. I wanted to push back against this tendency they’ve grown to report everything as “fine” even when it is not. I understand that in their minds everything was, actually, fine. They intrinsically had no problem with the state of their clothing. To them, holes were just holes and stains were just stains. An awkward fit probably didn’t even register to them. So I began to speak to them.

“As you both continue to become young men, there are ways you need to learn to take care of yourselves. That is, you need to learn these things if you are going to become the men I want you to become..”

My wife at this point, hearing the word men, interjected as she saw what she felt to be a gender disparity in my statement.

“It’s not just men…” she slipped into the conversation.

I paused. Then I remarked, “They are young men. There are no young women in the back seat.”

My wife conceded her moment of asserting gender balance and remarked that it was true, I was not addressing a mixed audience, and I continued my spiel to my sons about the young men I wanted them to become. Young men who know when to throw away ratty-rags of socks and underwear, young men who know that old stained t-shirts are okay for house clothes, but not acceptable for public wear, young men who know explicitly that their appearance and the way they present themselves matters in this world. If I had a daughter, I would have probably said something similar with the words young woman added, but I don’t have a daughter and I see no reason to balance my pronouns until a day comes when one or both of my sons tells me they are deciding to become a different gender. Which, if that day ever comes (statistically not likely, but possible) then that will be the day I start handing lessons to my daughter(s). But that day has not come, and it will probably never.

In the back of mind I started thinking about this. We discuss so much in society these days, especially in the more liberal ideologies, about raising our sons to be non-toxic males. We talk about teaching our sons about consent and about respecting women and how not to rape, which I wholeheartedly agree with. Boys need to be taught how to become better men than the men who came before them, and we regularly do have those respect based lessons and check-ins from time to time. But I think that if we are truly to change the masculine culture for the better, then we need to replace it with a better masculine culture. We cannot just wash over masculinity with pronoun balance, replacing all the hes and hims with nondescript thems and inserting shes and hers when there are no women in the audience. We have to be able to change what it means to be a good man to include the type of respect that women want and deserve. We can’t just kill masculinity leaving a void where a problematic gender used to be. Lasting change is not going to come by teaching a generation of boys that masculinity by its very definition is toxic and that they simply need to fight their apish urges and adhere to a cultivated master don’t list of behaviors. First and foremost, cultivating boys this way is never going to be universal. Not everyone is going to decide in unison to parent in this manner, and many will still let boys be boys, even if that means some of those boys end up being shitty to women. Raising submissive boys who are afraid of their own psyches will only create a culture of men who will be easily controlled by the toxic men who were permitted to grow unencumbered and wild. The apes that bang their chest the loudest have a tendency to dominate not just the female apes around them, but the less chest-bangy male apes as well.

I think we can have both. I think we can raise boys to be strong, be kind, be respectful and to be assertive. We can raise boys to not just be better men, but to also lead the path to a better masculinity; one that is not simply psychologically belled against bad behavior, but a masculinity that empowers itself, empowers femininity and wins against other types of toxic personalities. That’s how we create lasting change to a culture. That happens when we take the time to teach our sons about the men we want them to become. Not just the people, the adults, the humans or the citizens we want them to become, but the good, strong, respectful men we want them to become. Ones without holes in their socks, or assault in their hearts. We cannot empower one gender by muting another. We have to do the work to replace what isn’t working with something better, and empower all genders to become stronger than the apes that came before them.

We had a good experience at the store. The wife and I wandered around, purchased a couple of items we needed and waited for them to finish their shopping. They got everything they needed and a couple of things they wanted. Asking for what they want is another lesson we try to instill. Then we all went out to a restaurant to grab a bite to eat.

My sons have long been trained to be very polite, especially in restaurant settings. They say “May I please have…” and “Thank you.” when ordering, and this often is noticed and remarked on by the server. It was noticed and remarked on by our server this day, as well.

She was noticeably refreshed at such politeness from young men, surprised when she found out their ages are 14 and 16, an age that can often come with an extra helping of bad manners, and told us all that she has never, never had two young men be as polite as my two sons were. I told her that the trick was that I never gave them a choice, and now, years later, the behavior is simply ingrained and natural. I used the opportunity to reinforce my earlier lesson; that the world responds to the men they show themselves to be. That’s simply how humans work. The service was excellent, and I didn’t pay attention to how the server treated her other tables, but I tend to think we got a little extra special treatment and the refills came a bit a quicker than they otherwise would have. My sons thanked me for showing them the right way to be, which made me very proud of the men they will become.

I can’t help but think of the server’s remark that no other teenagers, not one, in her experience in her job exhibited the politeness and respect that my sons did. We live in a post #MeToo society, where we will continue to have conversations about the past, present and future of masculinity. When I hear that our culture of adolescents are lacking the basic ability to assert respect and kindness, I can’t help but think that I’ve discovered a big part of the problem. It’s not enough to simply teach our boys what not to do. We have to teach them what is right to do.

Again.

I think I’m starting to see the pattern here. Write, stop, write again, stop again, start again, stop again… The process feels something like running for a long distance (something I haven’t done in a long time). All you have to do is get up and running, run long enough that running becomes the new normal. The same goes for writing. The same goes for a lot of things; reading, working out, going to class, cooking at home, building model ships… You do it until not doing it becomes strange. I think ( I hope) that’s the point where you can be free to flow and go forward with whatever it is you are attempting to accomplish, treating it as a way of life rather than a chore requiring an emotional jump start. I think this is what the are referring to when they say someone has “Hit their stride.

I’m currently trying to get this stride going on a lot of things. I want to write more, I want to write till my fingers can find the keys without thinking. I want to write until I no longer have to go back every few words to correct typos caused when my desire to flow clashes with my technical skills as a keyboard cowboy. I want to read more. I want to read until I can get lost in what I’m reading without bouncing back to check the clock to see how long I’ve been reading. I wnat to stop my brain from calculating how long I should be reading and determining when I’ve read enough and can move on to other things. I want to get lost in my tasks. I want to expose myself to more cold. I want to train my body to withstand the elements, I want to trek mountains in my shorts. I want to wake up earlier. I don’t sleep in, but I want to wake up earlier, if for no other reason than to make time for all the other things I want to do. I want to breathe more, I want to stretch more, I want to live with more intention. I want to eat better. I was eating pretty well for a while, intermittent and extended fasting with ketogenic dieting (with the allowance for volatile controlled caloric binge on weekends). I want to train more. I haven’t been to a taekwondo class in a month.

I could blame things for my lack of doing. I haven’t written more because I don’t know what to write about. I haven’t read more because reading hurts my eyes. I haven’t sought the cold more because it’s winter and the warm is especially inviting in the winter. I haven’t trekked mountains because I don’t live near any, and I have been sleeping longer than I want to. I haven’t been dieting and fasting because of the holidays. There’s too much tradition and good food around to be selective. I haven’t stretched in the morning because I spend that time sleeping. That’s bullshit. It’s not time sleeping, it’s time getting out of bed. I naturally wake up sometime around 4am, but rarely get out of bed before 6am. The rest of the time I just lay there thinking about all the things I could be doing, if I wasn’t still doing nothing. This sleeping thing seems to be presenting itself as the first thing that needs to experience an adjustment.

All the excuses are exactly that; excuses. All the paths to everything I want seem to be paved with the same stuff. Just do it. Do it till not doing it becomes the thing that feels strange. Run until not running becomes an alien thought.