America

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I am not a patriotic American. Which I have long believed makes me a good citizen.

At some point in the last decade or two, patriotism became something unseemly. It got tied in, distinctly, with nationalism and culture. That shift came from a place of fear: America was something fragile, something which must be preserved.

This is horseshit. Utterly. It is wrong-headed thinking, backwards, and misunderstands the basic ideals of America's formation.

America is an idea, a theory, that once given form gave rise to a flawed-but-great society. America is not a culture or identity or flag or history book or show of force or even benevolence. America is a belief and concept: that all men are created equal and free, and that together we can create a society and system of government that respects that fundamental idea.

Ok, so it's a work in progress--and there is a long, long way to go. But despite all the shit flying around in the news, the awfulness in the world, and our own failures towards our fellow humans, it is undeniable that we have made progress.

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So what the hell happened? How did we end up back in the muck, deeply splintered and covered in one another's excrement?

America demands responsibility from its citizenry. It is a work in progress that DEMANDS the work be done. To view America as something complete and distinct, as  derivative or representative of something else, is a mistake that will result in a complacency which can and will be hijacked.

The idea of America requires an informed and thinking populace. And this is one place we have failed. Why? Because we believed it was done, fixed, complete; that we'd built something which needed to be maintained, rather than actively regenerated.

America requires responsibility.

If you believe the guardrails are in place, that out choices can't take us too far astray from the center line, then you aren't looking.

America requires understanding.

You are not important. Neither am I. America requires understanding, accepting, embracing this simple and wonderful fact. It requires some sacrifice, and a willingness, an eagerness, to put a greater cause ahead of personal security.

I am not a patriotic American, but I believe deeply in America the idea.  And watching the events of the past two years unfold has helped renew that belief in an exuberant way. As the current government exhibits every UN-American ideal I can think of (they are small-minded, petty, greedy, vindictive, fearful, selfish and dishonest), it also highlights the goodness which has been misunderstood.

America is an idea.

You're not standing on it. It's got nothing to do with your passport. The flag is just a flag, a symbol not a sign. 

The United States of America is deep in the shit right now, and I'm not willing to offer a prognosis. But the ideals behind it aren't the sort of thing which can be tarnished. They remain fundamental, inviolable, true, and central to the human condition.

Vote the bastards out. We can be so much better than this.

 
Posted on August 25, 2018 .

& Ranch #3: Donald Trump & the Inevitability of Now

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Donald Trump & the Inevitability of Now … the Fiction of Border Policy & the Truth of Our Humanitarian Failures

This isn't your fault. But you are responsible for it.

And the worst thing is: it works in reverse, too.

In 1996 the Olympics came to Atlanta. I was a freshman in college, in South Carolina, and rounded up a few friends to make the road trip. We got baseball tickets to see Cuba play Australia, but what stands out most from that day is the insane heat and the crowds and the suffocating, damp thickness of the air.

Cuba beat Australia 18-9 in one of the highest scoring Olympic baseball games ever. But we didn't see more than the first couple of innings. Instead, we wandered the streets of downtown Atlanta, soaking in the freakshow-carnival atmosphere of a glorious and revolting homage to greed. A McDonald's franchise near Olympic stadium raised its “Golden Nutbags” an extra 75 feet so they would dominate the background of photos and videos. Bottles of water sold at buck-suckingly evil prices, and the streets were littered with plastic cups and trinkets, all branded with the Olympic rings or the city's name.

And lining the streets for miles, brightly colored but hanging heavy with humidity and impatience, were a million t-shirts, all available THREE FOR $20! ... so long as you wear an extra extra large and don't mind that OLIMPICS is misspelled.

It seemed all of capitalism's wretched masses had descended on Atlanta. It was madness, but if one thing held constant it was that everything had a price.

And then a week later, the bomb went off.

We stayed up watching the news well into the night. I fell asleep at some point but at 5 a.m. my friend was still sitting upright in his chair, two feet from the television, unable to tear himself away from news coverage that provided no answers.

Afterward, when it was all over, the Olympic committee president in his traditional closing speech called the Atlanta Olympics exceptional and among the greatest ever – which was actually quite an insult, because the president typically, almost by rote, calls each "the greatest in Olympic history."

But the Atlanta games were not the greatest ever--and we knew it. But they were inevitable. ... As a nation, in the months of reckoning that came after, America collectively settled on “Well, what did you expect?” as the big excuse for it all.

What did anyone expect? Crass commercialism is just the way of America and if you don't want that then don't invite us to your fucking cookout, OK?

Each moment delivers us and arrives us

as our true self. As a nation, the United States is AS SEEN ON TV crossed with the creepy DR LOUTZ'S CURE-ALL MEDI-RITE TONIC … The fuck we aren't. Just a bunch of monkeys with dollar bills glued to our foreheads and asses and then lit on fire (the dollars, not the monkeys …. at least not at first) ... all running around in circles screaming and hissing.

...

Look, I've got some bad news for you. Uncle Lou is dead. You didn't kill him, so you gotta plan the funeral.

...

This moment, this one right here, this is 1996 all over again. Perhaps they all are, but just like the Olympics were inevitable, so was this. This. THIS.

You know what I'm talking about. Just nod. Blink twice. Cool.

...

Alright, so Lou is dead. … Who is this Lou fella, you ask? You never had an Uncle Lou? Fuck you. Lou is the government, the zeitgeist, the moment, the beast, the awful intestinal bile we barf up like a slot machine belching quarters. Not hope—but aspiration run amok.

Something important in America is vanishing.

What I'm trying to say is, the cat crawled up on the roof. It's done. He's gone. Not your fault, but you gotta deal with the body.

But don't worry, there's no smell anymore, we bleach that out so as not to disturb your shopping.

...

Donald Trump was inevitable. The way his grotesque features are made more craven by his loathsome self-love, as though he exists in a masturbatory vortex in which his face turns a deeper shade of orange the more often his name is spoken … Donald Trump was always us. Perhaps he could have manifested in other ways … Sam Walton's ghost could have returned and pulled us all into weekend jobs as a greeter at the gates of a time share outside Hell … but this was always going to happen.

This is the land of Shop 'til You Drop, and it doesn't matter what you just have to buy something. Donald Trump has been a a public figure for almost five decades now. He's slapped his name on anything he thought might sell, run businesses into the ground, refused to pay his debts, was outed as a racist landlord and admitted to sexual assault on Access Hollywood.

But the important thing is: He was on Access Hollywood. And the Apprentice. And any television show or movie cameo that would have him.

Look, we all know the United States has a thing with fame. … people get famous for nothing but being famous, which sounds about right since fame itself is the goal.

As Oscar Wilde put it, "The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about."

You can hate or love Donald Trump but you can't avoid the fact that he is a grotesque caricature of the United States ethos run amok. That he just happens to be a racist monster is (almost) beside the point. He's a carnival barker, a con man … and we love a good bargain far more than we hate being lied to. In this country, it only has value in the public consciousness if you can wear it on a t-shirt or hat, or watch it on TV.

Think Old Yeller. We knew this was coming.

Deep down, did you think this ended another way? That we were heroes? There are none. No one is coming to save us, and the systems we built weren't strong enough to endure our misplaced hope.

Try to get us on the first shot.

...

Some nights, it takes me any number of substances to muscle through the evening news. It is both an act of self flagellation, and a ritual in the name of connected-ness. A duty to witness.

But with just the right cocktail, the anchors start to resemble slugs and the news stories seem connected.

Does it all make sense? No. . … but the people do look like slugs. Or just, maybe around the mouth, you can start to see how humans evolved from something primitive, many millions of years before we were apes. Maybe we were once bottom dwellers in the darkest oceans, planted in the sand, nothing but a mouth and tongue flapping around trying to catch plankton or whatever else is down there at the end of the world …

Once you start thinking about it, it's tough to stop looking at people's mouths. And it's television, so there is no end of big faces filling the screen, all talking about something … whether it's a new surgery doctors can perform or the humanitarian crisis Donald Fucking Trump created on the border, all the mouths start to look the same and other-worldy. … Not so much that it's crazy, though. Just so you can see that we, humans, are freakishly evolved from something that we, as humans now, would think hideous.

Fucking slugs that learned to talk and then to inflict pain, so we'd have something to talk about.

All these slugs … what do they want? Why do they do what they do? They writhe around but never seem to accomplish much.

But we are good at creating pain.

...

There's an argument that today, right now, this moment and this era, THIS is the most peaceful time in which humans have existed.

The argument looks at deaths per 100,000 people. Several researchers determined fewer people are dying violently, and hence concluded the Earth is more at peace than ever before.

This argument only works if you consider peace to be a zero-sum game, which is absurd. There is more misery today on Earth than there has been at any previous time.

Many, many people are doing very well. Billions of people exist somewhere along a continuum of barely making it to affluent. … but there are more people than ever before, hundreds of millions, living in poverty and in conflict zones.

There are almost 70 million refugees worldwide, more than half of which are displaced internationally.

Peace is not something which can be accumulated. Unfortunately, suffering can be.

...

In South Carolina, in 1994, Susan Smith made headlines when she reported her two children had been in the back seat when she was carjacked. The state and nation went into full-on pandemonium for more than a week, searching for her kids.

Susan Smith turned out to have killed both her children, drowned them by pushing the car into a lake, with them strapped in the back, and she now resides at Leath Correctional Institution, near Greenwood, S.C.

Her story ultimately fell apart, but for nine days the state and nation were riveted by the search for her children, who she claimed had been taken by a black man when she stopped at a red light.

...

Politicians will tell you that border policy is complicated. But have you ever tried to keep slugs out with a wall? … That's no crack on Mexicans, just an extended metaphor. Don't forget, we're all slugs … stuffing food into that opening so we can keep talking …

Border policy is not complicated; it is a fiction. All human beings should have the right of free movement.

...

When they took Susan Smith to jail, after the trial, a 50-foot walk turned into a gauntlet. Thousands of people—some from the local town of Union, which had been sucked into the awful drama—and others from across the nation, attracted by the wretched spectacle—thousands of people met Smith at the courthouse steps and the police had to forcibly hold back the crowd, which was out for blood. They hissed and screamed and spit, reached to grab her, clutching at hair, struggling to get their hands on her, screaming BITCH and CUNT and BURN IN HELL … one monster in human form; and another, a writhing mass of hate, desperate for vengeance.

...

They'd have killed her. Probably it would have been suffocation. Impossible to say what happens on the bottom a scrum, but with dozens of bodies on top of her, that's likely how she'd have died, had the police not held back the crowd.

But they got her from the courthouse to the jail, and decades passed. We forgot about Susan Smith and her awful crime. But we slugs can't ever forget, cannot leave behind, that animalistic response to protect a child.

We build societies and systems to remove Smith and others like them, in part to avoid crowd justice. So that those systems will act as a check on our most violent impulses. … but they can only be a check.

...

The Trump administration kidnapped more than 2,600 children this spring. Starting in April they separated families, they tortured children, all in the name of politics.

That will be the monster's undoing.

Suffocated at the ballot box. Millions voting in righteous anger. Standing at the gates, hissing and spitting and grasping at clothes and hair and dignity, desperate to rip the genitals right off every last one of the motherfuckers.

If our ability as huma-slugs to organize and do-si-do a half step out of the muck means anything … if this concept of America we have visualized and made real, if that is to mean anything … there will need to be a reckoning. No pardoning of Nixon here. No, “it's better for the country.”

Susan Smith is eligible for parole in six years. Multiple members of this White House ought to die behind bars.

Alright. Immigration. So what are we talking about? Here's some numbers.

The United States has about 325 million residents. We are a large country—the third most populous. We also have the world's largest economy.

If it weren't so selfish and misguided, it would almost be humorous for anyone to suggest that the United States cannot care for people who need help. … We don't lack the capacity to help, we lack the will. If we can't, then who can?

Worldwide, there are 68.5 million refugees, according to the UN Refugee Agency. That's slightly more people than live in the United Kingdom. A problem of this scale requires radical solutions and re-thinking, not tweaks of policy and excuses why we are impotent to do anything.

But first off, let's set one thing straight: The United States has a moral obligation to help the people arriving at our borders. All of them. The ones who have arrived legally, and the ones who enter surreptitiously.

We have a moral obligation--period, full stop. These refugees are humans (or huma-slugs) exactly the same as us, and that ought to be the end of it. We don't have to help them all in the same way, but we do have to help.

That idea, of course, angers many people in this country—particularly those who think the United States government should be helping Americans first. … It's such an entitled view, like children shouting for candy.

Guess what, you little bastards … you gotta learn to share.

Immigration policy in the United States is a sick hypocrisy in many ways, but you can't get much more fundamental than the Declaration of Independence.

While the opening "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” is well known, less-so are the grievances against King George III, which stood as justification for the United States' independence.

The Declaration included 27 grievances … (which by today's standards doesn't really seem so bad) … This one seems relevant to the immigration debate:

"He has endeavoured to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither, and raising the conditions of new Appropriations of Lands.”

King George had been limiting and slowing immigration to the colonies, and limited their further expansion, which became part of the justification for revolt.

It's vital to remember that the 2,600 children that the Trump administration kidnapped are the most visible and heart-wrenching atrocity here—but by far they are not the only crime against humanity and decency committed by the administration.

But against all of this, it's also important to note than no President has ever gotten border policy right. Some of this is politics, some is the slow evolution of our human knowledge and understanding.

It is true that President Obama separated some families, for instance, and deported more than 2 million in his eight years in the White House. It is also true that comparing Trump's and Obama's border policies is wholly disingenuous.

Obama faced an actual, significant spike in border crossings in 2014. Trump instituted his “zero-tolerance” policy as border crossing numbers returned to their average, near historic lows.

Obama's family separations were the exception, rather than rule, and were ultimately halted.

But that's no excuse—they were still the wrong decision.

Trump's separations were policy, and resulted in more than 2,600 separated families in a little over a month—a plan executed with a clumsy and malignant calculus.

The Trump administration also ignored clear warnings from its own people about the harm that would be caused.

Commander Jonathan White works for the U.S. Public Health Service Commissioned Corps. On July 31 he testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that his office and the Office of Refugee Resettlement had warned the administration against such a policy.

“Separation of children from their parents entails significant harm to children,” White told Senators, testifying that he informed the White House “there’s no question that separation of children from parents entails significant potential for traumatic psychological injury to the child.”

But they did it anyway.

No President has ever gotten border policy right. But Donald Trump is the only one to use cruelty towards children in a fucked up attempt to get his way.

And make no mistake, this policy was set in place as a deterrent—a threat, that if people fleeing violence tried to cross the U.S.-Mexico border, their children would be taken from them.

Administration officials only changed their tune on the “deterrent” plan once the shit hit the fan.

There are numerous instances where officials admitted this, some more explicit than others, but here's what White House Chief of Staff John Kelly said when asked about the policy:

“They’re coming here for a reason … And I sympathize with the reason. But the laws are the laws. But a big name of the game is deterrence.”

What a slimy piece of shit. … So, you sympathize, you understand what they're fleeing and why, BUT DO NOT COME HERE ….

You know how many people the U.S. Immigration and Customers Enforcement agency keeps in detention, on average? While border crossings are at historically low levels, the number held by ICE continues to rise.

ICE has requested funding for 47,000 beds—which would be a 23.5% rise over ICE's 2017 average daily detention population of about 38,100, according to the National Immigration Forum.

It's easy to understand why: Money. Many of the ICE detention centers are owned and/or operated by private companies.

Private prisons, where corporate profits are derived from incarceration, are a despicable concept that illustrates how capitalism run amok turns people into commodities. The idea is rotten at its core, and President Obama had determined the federal government would no longer use them--a decision Trump reversed.

Just before the 2016 election, shares of GEO Group, the largest private prison contractor, traded around $14 per share. Now it's $25 per share. Same for CoreCivic, whose stock has almost doubled to $25.50 per share from $13.50 in October 2016.

GEO recently reported its earnings, tallying almost $600 million in revenue in the first quarter of 2018. And the company has a rosy outlook. Here's what CEO George Zoley told analysts in the company's earnings call:

There are several active procurements, which we are participating in, which total approximately 12,000 beds and could result in the opening of some of our idle or underutilized facilities. We are pleased that we've already begun to reactivate some of our idle capacity with the activation of our Folkston, Georgia Annex in the Eagle Pass, Texas facility.”

The fucker sounds like he's talking about oil refineries, instead of people.

Private operators are responsible for about three-quarters of ICE detainees, and GEO and CoreCivic have about a quarter just between themselves.

The United States has a greater portion of its population behind bars than any other country in the world. We've got about 4.5% of the world's population but more than 20% of its prisoners.

How can we develop systems and ideas that move away from incarceration, when the underlying economic system puts corporations in a position to lobby the opposite? … Well. You can't.

Border crossings are near historic lows, yet we're locking up more people than ever before—and spending more to do it, since private prison beds cost about $150/day compared with just under a hundred bucks at a municipal facility.

This shit isn't subtle.

As of this writing, the Trump administration has been directed by a judge to reunite all the families it tore apart. Except the administration had no plan for reunification and the process has been a disaster.

More than 500 remain separated; many parents were deported without their children, without understanding the process, without any regard for their humanity.

More than 500 kids, and the government can't find the parents.

Our government did this.

So what's the long-term solution? It's not complicated: Recognizing our humanitarian responsibilities and separating them from today's tribalistic politics-as-a-game environment.

The simple fact is, this isn't new. And most of it is already baked into the cake. Yes, thousands of people come here illegally. Thousands also leave. … Immigrants are a vital part of the economy in the United States, both documented and working under-the-table, whether we admit it or not. … So let's admit it already and stop acting like monsters.

But between a sane and human immigration policy, and Now, this moment …. that seems like an eternity. It will require not just a rethinking of policy, but also of how individuals view themselves and others, and the responsibilities we have.

So, it doesn't seem likely. I'm not getting my hopes up. … but in the meantime, the United States can at least stop acting like a caricature villain—IF voters respond to the administration's blatant contempt for those most vulnerable.

Donald Trump's decision to separate families--holding kids hostage in an attempt at political gain, uninterested in the human damage being wrought … if this country has any shot at achieving its aspirational ideals, the American people will reject this morally bankrupt son of a bitch and let justice for the entire administration play out in a way that leaves no doubt that we reject their vicious and corrupt actions and ideas.

Government tortures kids, ACLU lawsuit reveals

Last year, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Department of Homeland Security on behalf of asylum seekers, as it also has to reunite the separated families.

These suits have led to numerous filings and exchanges with the government, which in turn has led to some horrifying revelations.

ICE tortures the children in its facilities. Unfortunately, this is not an overstatement. There are reports of psychotropic drugs widely administered with little oversight and no parental contact; children kept in isolation; children crammed into cages with insufficient beds; and the use of punishment and restraint techniques which one MIGHT argue were appropriate for adults, but which are absolutely wrong in a situation involving vulnerable children.

There is plenty at which to be horrified. … the government never prepared for the ramifications or repercussions of caring for the THOUSANDS OF KIDS it was taking. The result has been a disaster, and more than likely will mean some number of permanent orphans.

In the following pages, read the declaration filed by the ACLU for an immigrant identified as R.B. He was taken by ICE when he could not provide identification during a traffic stop where he was a passenger. The agency then incarcerated him in its byzantine system of detention facilities.

There is little oversight. A report from the Office of the Inspector General concluded inspections and monitoring of ICE detention facilities do not lead to improvements.

R.B.'s story is heart-wrenching and is proof positive of a broken system. That these actions are taken in the name of America should haunt all of us; that that they occur at all is an atrocity.

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If this essay resonated and you would like to help spread its message, considering supporting the Kickstarter, ending Aug. 22, 2018.  -Yuri

 
Posted on August 17, 2018 .

Blogging Walden #3: Solitude; immeasurable in miles; points in space & exertion of the legs

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The cabin where I live sits seven miles from town, and from the porch in summer there are no neighbors visible. In winter, when the trees between us have lost their foliage, across a large pasture a distant farm can be seen. And in mornings, when the air is still, I can here the cries of an infant coming from the farmhouse, which is a new sound and was not there the year before.

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My neighbor is a farmer and we have met just twice, both times at the hedge between our properties. Once, discussing his fence, and a second time shooing away a pair of trespassing hunters.

In the years I've lived here, many people have expressed concern about my isolation and solitude. There is something about being alone which frightens many people—though I suspect at heart some of those are truly frightened of themselves.

But I am never lonely here--at least, no moreso than when I am in town--because I never consider myself alone.

Henry David Thoreau's Walden is in some ways a treatise on solitude—and so it makes a certain kind of sense that the chapter actually titled “Solitude” would be among the book's shortest. And in it, Thoreau essentially argues that the solitude so many seem to fear is in fact merely misperception.

To say Walden is a naturalist book is some kind of an understatement. But woven into it are ideas that one might broadly call “eastern” – musings on duality and existence and the thin lines between who we are and who we are, and if we are.

Thoreau essentially makes two points in this chapter. The first is that in many ways solitude does not exist--particularly in nature. And second, the society we use to subvert our solitude is in many ways a cheap salve that is only surface deep.

"There can be no very black melancholy to him who lives in the midst of nature and has his senses still."

Thoreau does make that caveat: if you're not thinking straight, you can get lonely. He says it happened to him--once. A few weeks into his stay at Walden, he started to doubt whether being around people wasn't necessary after all. 

"In the midst of a gentle rain while these thoughts prevailed, I was suddenly sensible of such sweet and beneficent society in Nature, in the very pattering of the drops, and in every sound and sight around my house, an infinite and unaccountable friendliness all at once like an atmosphere sustaining me, as made the fancied advantages of human neighborhood insignificant, and I have never thought of them since."

Sometimes I wonder if Thoreau didn't eat a lot of mushrooms.

Thoureau argues that most people see solitude as a function of distance, when it is actually about sharing the same mental space.

"This whole earth we inhabit is but a point in space ... no exertion of the legs can bring two minds much nearer to one another."

But the next section really jumps out to me because Thourea starts to get into some interesting ideas. Check this out:

"By a conscious effort of the mind we can stand aloof from actions and their consequences; and all things, good and bad, go by us like a torrent. We are not wholly involved in Nature. ...

"I only know myself as a human entity; the scene, so to speak, of thoughts and affections; and am sensible of a certain doubleness by which I can stand as remote from myself as from another. However intense my experience, I am conscious of the presence and criticism of a part of me, which, as it were, is not a part of me, but spectator, sharing no experience, but taking note of it, and that is no more I than it is you."

That's Thoreau in the mid 1800s. Here's a more recent Alan Watts in the 50s: 

"The individual is separate from his universal environment only in name. When this is not recognized, you have been fooled by your name. Confusing names with nature, you come to believe that having a separate name makes you a separate being.”

And then Walpola Rahula, from his book What the Buddha Taught:

"According to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of a self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts of 'me' and 'mine', selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism,and other defilements, impurities and problems."

It's all the same energy. We are. Any separateness or distinctness is misperception. No Me, no You, Us or Them. No distance. No past or self.  And if that's true, there's no solitude. 

Was Thoreau the first eastern philosopher in America? Eh. Probably not. But he starts to get at it, in parts. Most of the book is very much rooted in the here and now and nature, but in Solitude he touches on some questions are central to other ways of considering the world.

Posted on June 2, 2018 .

Blogging Walden #2: Sounds -- 'a vibration of the universal lyre'

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Nature is not quiet.

It's easy to forget that, since it is quieter than many things. City life is loud: The sounds of many modern lives lived on top of one another. When you live in a city, you think of nature as quiet.

And in winter, it can be. The cold twists the humidity out of the air and forces all the birds to warmer climes. It creates a silence  that hollows out space.

But once spring arrives, the woods become a cacophony. My desk sits next to a window, and though it is a cool morning I have it open to listen to the sounds. I can hear at least a half dozen different songbirds, the wind in the trees, and some cows in the distance.

In "Walden," Thoreau devotes an entire section to the sounds he hears in the woods. Though it's just 15 pages (in my copy*, anyway), it is a dense section of the book with sentences that have a winding life of their own. There is a lot of excellent writing here that I am often tempted to--and do--skip past. It's just a bit much sometimes. Take for instance how Thoreau describes the "dismal scream" of a screech owl:

" It is no honest and blunt tu-whit tu-who of the poets, but, without jesting, a most solemn graveyard ditty, the mutual consolations of suicide lovers remembering the pangs and the delights of supernal love in the infernal groves. "

It's not the sort of snappy description that moves the plot along. And there is a lot of writing like it: from the baying of dogs to the screams of a whistle, Thoreau takes his time. He is unrushed. ... it's not the type of writing I am accustomed to reading these days and it can be difficult to slow myself down. I often feel my eyes skipping past these lengthy paintings of sound. ...

Which is fine. Not every line or page or chapter of each great book will enthrall all readers.

Still, there is much in the "Sounds" section to linger over. Take this line early in the chapter, where Thoreau is setting the scene for us. He is describing how he worked outside, but how the worked flowed naturally with the days and seasons rather than taking effort:

"The day advanced as if to light some work of mine; it was morning, and lo, now it is evening, and nothing memorable is accomplished."

Here, his words echo the classic Chinese text, Tao Te Ching:

"Less and less is done
Until non-action is achieved.
When nothing is done, nothing is left undone.

The world is ruled by letting things take their course.
It cannot be ruled by interfering."

Is Thoreau a Taoist? I'm not sure his staunch individualism meshes well with Taoism, but both writings focus on the idea of co-existing with a natural way. When things unfold as they should, it's not work. 

Really, I should not be so critical of Thoreau's "Sounds" chapter. But the ideas and thoughts I enjoy most are not about the sounds he heard but his ideas of individualism and life. He advocates living a simple life, unfettered by unnecessary wants, with a focus on the daily and common.

"... my life itself was become my amusement and never ceased to be novel. It was a drama of many scenes and without an end. ... Every track but your own is the path of fate. Keep on your own track, then."

Thoreau didn't eschew other people, but he also didn't think much of society's excesses and the idea of working long hours to afford unnecessary luxuries. Which makes a lot of sense to me. Wanting less is one way to have more, so long as you're ok with with "more" meaning time, independence, security and self-determination , as opposed to more stuff.

"All sound heard at the greatest possible distance produces one and the same effect, a vibration of the universal lyre ..."

Maybe Thoreau was being cryptic or metaphorical with this last comment here, but I tend to think not. A flock of geese -- just about the noisiest form of nature around here -- flew over my head earlier this month. Their bleating squawks had announced their arrival, but just as they flew over they were silent and I could hear the beating of their wings, but just barely, which created a buzzing effect that hit me like a physical vibration.

He may take a while getting to it, but Thoreau knew what he was talking about. 

 

* I'm reading from a Signet Classic edition that also includes Thoreau's epic "Civil Disobedience" essay and a forward by the great poet W.S. Merwin. Read his beautiful poem "For the Anniversary of My Death."

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Posted on May 22, 2018 .

Blogging Walden, #1: 'What's the news?' ... We need Thoreau now, more than ever

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It may come as no surprise that a writer living in a small cabin in the woods likes Henry David Thoreau. Despite a lot of recent criticism heaped on the man and his work, I continue to think he was a genius who penned amazing treatises on solitude, nature, justice and self determination.

That's not to say the guy was perfect. But I feel a certain kinship to the naturalist writer who once accidentally burned 300 acres of woods when a campfire got out of control.  He also had a tendency to annoy people, didn't mind contradicting himself, and could be kind of an ass.

Much of the criticism surrounding Thoreau centers on his seminal work "Walden," where he writes about living a life of simplicity near the shores of Walden pond outside Concord, Mass. He describes building his own cabin, growing beans and aiming to live so simply that he avoided the need for basket-selling or most other forms of work. ... What drives people nuts is that Thoreau did not actually live so simply as he describes in his book. He was located a short distance outside of town, frequently went in to socialize, lived on borrowed land and in general was not so separate as a reader might think.

As a self-described part-time hermit, however, Thoreau's approach makes perfect sense to me.

The primary problem with Walden, is that it was written 1846 and in the proceeding 172 years language has evolved quite a bit. Which is to say, Walden can be difficult for modern day readers--and to boot, huge chunks of it are boring. Nobody cares what your beans cost, dude.

Recently, I've been re-reading the book. Slowly. Forcing myself to linger on pages that give me trouble, making notes to look up out-of-date phrases or words, and underlining any passage which speaks to me.  Making a study of it.

Walden has become a morning ritual. I wake up, put the kettle on, make the bed and straighten the cabin, make coffee and sit down to read. Sometimes I make it a dozen pages before the demands of the day come knocking. Other times it's just a single page, or two.

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I don't understand why Thoreau has drawn such ire. The process to make a thing, and the thing itself, often are different. And the man never claimed to be a hermit. He kept three seats:  "I had three chairs in my house; one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society."

We need Thoreau--perhaps more than ever. 

His work is a reminder that simplicity and solitude are important. That our internal lives are vital to our ability to live in a community. He does talk about withdrawing, but he also specifies it must be done in a way that is fair and just.

"Hardly a man takes a half-hour's nap after dinner, but when he wakes he holds up his head and asks, 'What's the news?' as if the rest of mankind has stood his sentinels."

That sounds remarkably relevant to today's 24-7 news cycle. It's easy to feel you must be invested in the outrageous news du jour, that you are obligated as a member of society to be constantly outraged.  But Thoreau reminds us that this isn't true, particularly in this passage from his essay "Civil Disobedience:".

"It is not a man's duty, as a matter of course, to devote himself to the eradication of any, even the most enormous wrong; he may still properly have other concerns to engage him; but it is his duty, at least, to wash his hands of it, and, if he gives it thought no longer, not to give it practically his support."

And bear in mind, that's the opinion of a staunch abolitionist. For all Thoreau's critics, few will deny he was consistently and emphatically on the side of justice when the topic of slavery was discussed.

So if Thoreau wasn't a hermit living solely off the land, what was he? He explains it all in the early (and decidedly non-boring) pages. In particular, these two passages:

“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.

and then ...

"My purpose in going to Walden Pond was not to live cheaply nor to live dearly there, but to transact some private business with the fewest obstacles."

In Walden, I do not find either excessive claims or admonitions. What I see is an experiment. A struggle to balance the realities of a more advanced, modern, fast-paced society, against an internal pull towards solitude when the values of the individual and society do not align. That makes a lot of sense to me.

Posted on May 19, 2018 and filed under Books, Writing, Essay.

Review of two 12v light bulbs -- Sunthin v. Chichinlighting

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 7 watt Sunthin bulb draws about 450 milliamps.

7 watt Sunthin bulb draws about 450 milliamps.

I've been spending more time thinking about the cabin's energy use: how to reduce it and how to supply it. The new solar panels are working great, despite not really having a sunny day since I put them up. And the second battery means I have enough energy stored, if the sun doesn't shine for a day or few.

Lighting is one of my major power needs, and so I've installed two 12 volt lighting fixtures wired directly to the battery. Going directly to the battery means no inverter is needed just for light, which is more efficient. 

Initially I purchased a pair of Chichin 3 watt bulbs (three!?!). As you can see in the photo, these drew a paltry 250 milliamps. I've got a pair of batteries totaling about 210 amh, so if the bulbs worked they would have run until about spring.

However.

The Chichin bulbs turned out to be a big waste of time, as they began flickering within two weeks. Despite their efficiency, not a good buy.

I'm now using a pair of 7 watt Sunthin bulbs. These are much brighter and still only draw 450 milliamps. They definitely appear more than twice as bright as the 3w bulbs, only need 80% more energy, and have continued. 

The Sunthin bulbs have a soft, warm color to them so it doesn't feel like you're hanging out in the emergency room or a police interrogation cell. Would recommend. 

Posted on March 13, 2018 .

New hobby: modding Opinel knives

Hobby, project, obsession ... any of those.

I had a lot of pocket knives growing up, but until recently, I'd never heard of Opinel. It's a very basic French-made knife. They're made to cut salami or to get tossed into the tacklebox, tool kit or kitchen drawer. Someone called it a "picnic knife." The blades are well made, particularly the carbon steel, but they lack any sense of ... style.

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Having never worked with wood before, all of this is new to me. I've been reshaping the blades with a dremel, cutting them into shorter and more dramatic lengths. And then bringing down handles, reshaping, staining and sealing.

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I've been doing some very basic leather work as well, and am making small cases for the knives. 

I've been buying them used on eBay, which is fun in and of itself--trying to see how low a price you can score. There are always dozens of used Opinels for sale, and a new one is less than $20 anyways.

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Posted on February 27, 2018 .