how we react to mass shootings

Note: I just found the first draft of this, written last June. Or maybe it was the June before that. Does it matter? Our country has been at war with itself for some time.

No declarations were signed as each side took up arms: Republican vs Democrat, traditional vs progressive, black vs white, Christian vs Muslim, shooter vs victim. We are a country of cowboys stirring up trouble wherever we go. Must we continue to do so?

Here was my response to a shooting, or a terrorist attack, or a bombing… was it last June? Or the one before that?

Let’s be bored by violence.

We react to these attacks with self-righteousness, anger, fear. We debate retaliation or legislation. We analyze the attacker’s motivations in search of clues to prevent the next unexpected slaughter. We look at cultural backstory, talk to the parents, and film the grieving. We protest in defense of kids at a club, kids in a car, kids at a concert, kids at school.

We march for the Victim of the Month.

Isn’t that the normal response, you ask? Well, yes and no. Marching is one way to express a desire for change to our legislators. Most of us can’t write the legislation ourselves, so as voters we look for other ways to express ourselves to our legislators.

But as a society the outrage can become palliative. It can become tempting to think that emotion has an impact. It doesn’t.

There comes a time when you have to ask yourself how you want to engage with evil.

For myself, I’m bored of it. I’m bored of hatred. I’m bored of judgment. I’m bored of aggression. Not just these heinous crimes, but aggression committed on a small scale every day: I’m bored of your opinions about how I dress, or how he acts, or what she does for a living. I’m bored of Hollywood’s industrial engineering of the villain, escalating his evil over the years to maintain our interest. I’m bored by our imagination for evil.

I’m bored by hate.

I’m bored by the melodious drama of loss.

We have suffered at each other’s hands for thousands of years in the name of gods, kings, ideas. We have accepted, This is life. We do this without noticing. Every day watching the news, we feel borrowed rage and post it on Facebook. We engage with evil in our hearts, loving the pain of it, the choices it forces upon us: Would you stop the terrorist on the plane? Would you stop a bullet?

We celebrate evil with speeches and vengeance and war. We sing ballads, we write stirring articles, we Tweet. God, we love to be moved by tragedy.

To avoid giving up the delicious delights of pain and suffering, we let the NRA roam free. We manufacture guns of more ingenious design. We fight wars with random countries to create more enemies. And most delightful of all, we put off actual vengeance, waiting years to seek and destroy known villains like bin Laden. We torture people for years to gain information that will be irrelevant by the time it is confessed, we hold murderers in prison for decades.

The addictive theater of conflict wages on.

We could dispatch murderers and terrorists, guns and cancer, poverty and bullying, quickly. If we wanted to. We don’t. We do not want a world without evil. We very much want evil. Because without it, we would have nothing to fight, and nothing against which to compare ourselves.

We cannot seem to measure our morality or find rewarding adventure without the aid of the Devil.

And so, he lives on.

The joy of cooking for one, moms in the kitchen, and Ruth Reichl

Excerpt from Ruth Reichl My Kitchen Year

This is the introduction to a recipe from Ruth Reichl’s My Kitchen Year. Part cookbook, part memoir, it documents the year after the renowned food editor was laid off, along with her entire staff, when Gourmet magazine was shut down. For anyone who loves New York, it’s an evocative snapshot of the city’s restaurants and markets, for anyone who loves magazines, it’s a poignant tale of one more recession-era death, and for anyone who loves food, it’s an engaging document of a creative person finding herself again in the kitchen.

I read a lot of cookbooks. I meditate by putting greens in a skillet with Bragg’s Liquid Aminos and chopped garlic. I unwind on a Saturday by going to the grocery store. It’s a good week if, when visiting my mom, I can tell her about a noteworthy dinner or two.

And when I describe to her a dish I’ve cooked, we both know it was “cooking for one.” I love cooking for friends and family, whether it’s decadent grilled sandwiches on those “visits with Ma,” or a whole party of savory finger foods. But I also believe one can enjoy home cooked meals alone. I disagree when someone says they see no point in cooking when they’re single. If anything, one should cook more for oneself when one is single, as a morale booster, to make it fun rather than torture to be alone.

Why in the world should being single mean missing out on one of the great delights of life?

I do consider cooking one of the great delights of life in spite of a lifelong issue with what they call IBS. It probably seems odd that someone whose digestive system is a land mine should prefer cookbooks to novels and biographies, and time cooking to time in front of the TV. But on the other hand, it must make perfect sense. When medicine has failed, the gentle philosophies of naturopaths in several cities have made no impact, and your waking life becomes an ongoing mental diary tracking the consumption of “trigger foods” and their impact, food is officially your most codependent relationship. You’re stuck with food, food makes you miserable and delighted, and you both can’t decide who’s to blame.

What else is left but to make love to it?

Cooking bone broth - pork bone broth made from smoked pork

So I read cookbooks. I read them for flavor combinations. I read them to learn how other cultures create a meal, because there as many versions of what constitutes a “dinner” as there are countries on the map. I read them because in my family, cooking was a classic woman’s ritual, conversation about husbands and home life building over the din of stovetop and cutting board, the laughter of men and children in the background.

Recently a friend asked me why I loved cookbooks and then answered it for me with another question: Is it because it reminds you of your mom? I realized, considering my answer, that it wasn’t about my mom, who is an amazing cook, so much as the absence of the dads. This isn’t because I hate my dad or my uncles but because when I was a kid, subliminally I felt like they were always preoccupied about work and sports and other competitive things.

Whereas my mom and her sisters and their mom, my Grandma, were talking about home. They were talking about relationship, family, the reality of now – and whether it needed more liquid smoke. They were not talking about themselves. There is no competitive spirit in these women, for better and for worse. They’re all remarkably okay with the now and with who they are. No blue ribbons needed.

Of course this is a generalization- everyone jumps in the ring for something. But by and large, a conversation in the kitchen was very different than the one going on between the uncles and Grandpa in the living room. I think more than anything, that is what I cherish: the sanctity of it.

And the emotional resonance of it.

We all talk about work a lot, but there is very little emotional meaning in how that meeting went. There is ego, who accomplished what, whether it went the way you wanted. Compare that to how the kids are doing, the new fourth grade teacher, sweet potatoes vs yams, cheddar or Swiss on the casserole, Jeremy’s visit to the doctor, the plot of the book they’re reading… the nuances of daily life. In retrospect, their supposedly “limited” perspective as homemakers looks much healthier than those of us “working professionals.”

In My Kitchen Year, Reichl is married with grown children. But most of her entries describe cooking as a project to satisfy her curiosity, or to feed herself, rather than for a meal with her husband. This was simply the reality of a woman suddenly at home all day instead of working, trying to find herself at the stove. It’s a perfect articulation of the joy of cooking for oneself, although that was not the point of the book by any means.

For the same reasons, I come home from work and I cook dinner. For one. Yes, I strategize about pots and pans, no, I don’t cook elaborate three-course meals. But I chop the veggies and braise the meat and create a sauce for the pasta, just for myself.

I do this because, like the women in my family, and like Ruth Reichl, I find a blissful mental silence at the cutting board. Whether you work in an office or at home, at a computer or by raising your children, your active mind relishes a break.

It’s odd how time in front of the TV silences but doesn’t relieve the mind.

Time at the cutting board, however, always works.

Ruth Reichl My Kitchen Year and Molly on the Range by Molly Yeh plus Helen Gurley Brown’s Single Girl’s Cookbook

A logical argument for spiritual practice

Educated people are raised to believe that life on Earth evolved through purely biological means and that there is no logical justification for a belief in God, the human soul, heaven and hell, or any other “spiritual” concept.

At the same time, we’re told that believing in something is better for our state of mind and our emotional wellbeing than atheism or agnostism. Presumably this is an argument for a symbolic faith. You go to a yoga class involving poses and mantras derived from centuries-old Hindu religious belief, but you’re not actually supposed to believe in reincarnation. You may consider Jesus a historical figure or an inspirational one, but not actually a god requiring worship. Maybe you toy with crystals, read a bit about chakras, or decorate with dreamcatchers. You might try a session or two of acupuncture, or read a weekly horoscope.

A lot of people in the Western world dabble in religion and spirituality without even noticing.

Our political and legal structures encourage this half-faith as well, from the ritual of swearing on a Bible before giving testimony in court, to our pledge of allegiance “one nation under God,” to the ongoing debate about when life begins, to the practice of sentencing people with substance abuse issues to religiously-based AA programs.

Citizenship seems to require a certain amount of symbolic belief.

It doesn’t really work to believe in Santa on a symbolic level. Without getting into an argument over what faith technically is, or whether it’s reasonable or intelligent or morally necessary, it’s either something someone feels, or they don’t. The cultural expectation that people develop their intellect based on scientific understanding, while also maintaining some kind of spirituality, has left nearly a quarter of the nation adrift.

It’s time to reframe the conversation. First, spirituality as a sense of awareness of things not yet proven may not have anything to do with gods, chakras, angels, spirits, or souls. Spirituality can simply be the practice of acknowledging things that feel true but are not yet explained. As long as this practice does not encourage prejudice, fear or irrational behavior – as long as examining the inexplicable doesn’t include speaking in tongues or performing ritual sacrifices – what can it hurt?

Meditation is the perfect case study for this theory. The practice of sitting and doing nothing, developing a quiet mind, focusing on a candle’s glow, a simple mantra or just one’s breath, is one that millions of people around the world find helpful. Sometimes it calms down an obsessive or stressed mind, sometimes it leads to deeper insights or creative breakthroughs.

Marijuana and other drugs with hallucinogenic properties are also capable of putting one in a more reflective state or leading to genuine inspiration. Not always, but sometimes.

Even intense physical activity, or being lost in great sex, can take you “to another place.”

Do we need to write this off as a fluke? Do we need to downplay our experiences of a more expansive, intuitive mental state? Do we need to rationalize away the dream that offers a perfect solution, the urge to drive this way to work instead of that, the hesitation you feel when meeting someone seemingly friendly?

Why should we?

Becoming a reasonable adult means being vigilant about bias. We all have work to do in this area, all the time. You may favor women who remind you of your mom, or hesitate to talk to strangers of a certain race, or explain things in more detail to someone of a certain age. The only way to avoid acting on unfair bias is to become aware of it. Morality in day-to-day life is dependent on self-awareness.

Assuming that you cultivate self-awareness, and are practicing kindness, patience and so on, you should feel safe to trust ideas that arise from seemingly unknown sources. You should test them. You should engage in activities that encourage those breakthrough thoughts, whether it’s mountain climbing, meditation or just getting more sleep.

This is not blind faith in an angel whispering in your ear. This is a humble recognition that our conscious mind, fed by education and experience, is not all there is to consciousness.

Your gut processes information, your subconscious processes information at a different pace and in a different way than your conscious mind, and the people around you will influence what information is available to you about what you’re experiencing. (Anyone who’s ever been distracted by a child suddenly “acting up” around a stranger, or experienced dramatic weather influencing the mood of an entire group, understands that some circumstances provide more or less actionable information.)

Basically you know more than you know. It’s not New Age mumbo-jumbo to practice activities that help you think at a higher level. It just happens that a lot of traditional religious activities such as prayer, group song or dance, meditation and yoga were developed over centuries to encourage a trance-like, aka transportive, mental state. In a cathedral in medieval England, that prayer was designed to fill a peasant with awe of Christ. But prayer can help you, now, dig past everyday preoccupations to reflect on deeper goals. Meditation can help you create a clear mental space for new ideas to emerge. Yoga can help you kinesthetically let go of anxiety and fear.

You deserve to give your brain (and your heart) every aid you can. You are surrounded by shallow distractions that can make life feel mundane and meaningless: another notification from Instagram, another sitcom on TV, another argument with the kids about the same damn thing. It feels boring because it is.

You don’t have to go to church to find meaning in your life. It can start in your own mind. A new idea sparks new work. Processing inconvenient emotions lets you connect with others more authentically. Discovering unfulfilled desires changes your plan. This is not grandiose exaggeration. The meaning of your life is within you, but you have to be ready to hear it.

To listen, create silence within yourself. This is often called a spiritual practice but could also be called a mental one.

Step one: Create a quiet time and place.

Step two: Within that space, engage in an activity that is absorbing but “pointless,” ie it does not have a goal. This sets your conscious mind free to wander. Examples include exercise that is playful or exploratory, like a casual hike or trying out new dance steps. You may prefer a traditional activity like meditation or yoga. Hobbies like cooking, gardening and painting work great too. Even a nap can be valuable.

Step three: Repeat. Train yourself to let go of daily preoccupations during this time. You do not get to think about your debt, or the project at work, or your waistline, or whatever it is you usually obsess about.

The challenge is to develop a habit of thinking about nothing for 20-30 minutes.

If along the way you find God, awesome! Maybe you can introduce Them to the rest of us.

Namaste.

the meaning of life, what happens when you die, and other dumb questions

Here’s the scoop. Life on Earth is indeed hard AF, and there’s a reason for that: because we need it to be, and we make sure it continues to be. But let’s back up one sec.

Energy comes in degrees of physicality. Everything is made up of energy, but some energy is more dense, more measurable by human tools, more visible. The heaviest, densest energy is a rock, which is super interesting, and then a little further along the spectrum you get your average mammal. This is energy that requires physicality, and also requires complexity and conflict.

Physicality provides unique opportunities. To combat, to overcome, to enjoy desire and sex and deliciousness, to feel the sun on your face.

Physicality is the result of strong emotion. It is strong emotion. You feel, you want, you need. All these things weigh you down and keep you alive. We call these dreary challenges “the reality of life,” and yet it is only the reality of human life. It is unlikely that the average tiger, parrot, or fern spends a lot of time wishing it were really a basketball player.

Only the human has optional desires, like being taller, or richer, or more lovable.

All life forms desire to eat, procreate, and maintain the other basic requirements to remain alive. Only humans want add-ons.

We are here to explore the mess. We want mess. It’s why we became human. Pretending to “rise above,” feign intellectual superiority, or stifle emotions are just ways to buy time. Distractions like drugs, shopping and booze are also just buying time. You have serious things you need to experience. Until you do, you’ll continue to suffer.

Some of these experiences are pleasant. Some aren’t. Sometimes growth comes from letting yourself be loved; sometimes it comes from experiencing rejection. This ebb and flow is so hard to live through, and yet live it you must.

The only way out of this mess is to be in the mess.

Some may accomplish enough in one lifetime, some may need lifetime after lifetime. Maybe we take breaks, playing harps in the cosmos. Maybe we come back occasionally as dolphins. Who knows, and frankly, who cares. It doesn’t matter to those of us who are here, what happens when we are not here. What matters is that we have shit to do, and do it we must.

Over time, you will do it more awesomely. You do it with more love, more patience. You make fewer mistakes. You do more. You gain the add-ons you desired, or you realize you no longer needed them. You grow your hair out, spiritually seeking, and you learn to breathe from the tips of your toes.

You learn to look a stranger in the eye and truly see her.

You learn to hear the higher voices.

You learn when to wait, and when to act.

Over time, the weariness becomes curiosity, frustration becomes acceptance.

You grow.

And as you grow, you become less. Less real, less physical. Less needy, less desirous. You carry fewer emotions, toss aside preconception. Your appetites forget themselves.

For as you grow, you discover the hunger is sated by what comes without hunting. What has no taste tastes most flavorful. What has no value seems richest.

So,
watching the sunset one evening,
you fade
into the other side.

love, sex and other comestibles

He sat down at his favorite Italian place and ordered his favorite pasta and a beer. College basketball played silently from a discreet TV in the corner. A couple nearby were in a huddle over a plate of bruschetta. His buddy Sean, whom he’d known since high school, was behind the bar.

Just a nice, quiet Friday night.

When she came in, it was close to midnight and the place was empty but for a birthday group on its third bottle of wine. She sat down with a stool between them and Sean poured her a glass of white.

Small talk developed. Relaxed, he let slip a controversial opinion. He felt like Seattle was becoming a cultural dictatorship, so occasionally he liked to test someone. See how easy it would be to offend their PC sensibilities.

To his surprise she was not only not offended, she agreed, rejoined in fact. They took it further. Next thing he knew she had scooted over to the stool next to his, and he had ordered her another glass, and then…

He remembered to mention his fiancee. She remembered she had a ferry to catch. And as quickly as their connection had been made, it was over. She was gone. He paid Sean for his meal. Friday night ended with him walking home to walk his dog, and with her vowing to herself to time her evenings better so that she wasn’t stuck killing time with interesting strangers.

Strangers who had other commitments.

Grandpa

My grandfather is a difficult man. He has expressed, over the years, hatred of every type of person from women (father of three daughters) to African Americans to homosexuals to Native Americans. The worst human being in his view is the liberal female politician, since she is crazy, stupid, and in power.

He’s always been cool with Martha Stewart, though.

He’s in his 80s and health issues start to pile up now. 6’4″ and hale for most of his life, working in construction since childhood, he’s only started to seem “old” in the past few years. His mom lived to 89 with a retiree’s diet of vodka, Twinkies and “Wheel of Fortune,” but he’s outlived both his father and brother by many years.

For a long time I had nothing left to say to my grandpa. I couldn’t forgive him, as an adult making my own way in a still-sexist world, for raising my mom and aunts to think they were useless girls.

I couldn’t forgive him for programming my brilliant mother to see herself as emotionally troublesome and useless outside the house.

Now, many years have passed and journeys taken. I don’t necessarily believe in forgiveness, especially towards someone who has never sought it from anyone in his life. This is not a post about how I can see the old guy’s point of view, generational differences, letting go of anger, blah blah blah.

I don’t have much emotion left, and I do not excuse a man of any generation for holding his daughter as lesser than a son.

But.

My grandpa’s having a tough go right now and I had to admit to myself that I do care. Here’s why.

He’s John Wayne.

I know that sounds like I’m romanticizing, but it’s true. He looks just like him. He hunts, builds, tilts his head to one side before making a joke. He has this restrained way of refusing to express an opinion, (assuming it’s about a subject close to home, and not Hillary Clinton).

He was still working on his own roof at, like, 70.

Maybe I’m still influenced by one time I was hanging out in his shop with him and a cousin. I was 9 or 10, and I heard him mutter a swear word – my grandparents don’t swear. Next thing I know Grandma is taking him to the hospital because he’s cut the tip of his finger off on his table saw.

Another fingertip went about fifteen years later. Context: He was 65, 70. I date men now who can’t go a week late on their haircut without complaining, and god forbid you need help with anything involving a drill.

I quote him when ranting about Seattle’s inability to deal with traffic and public transit issues.

I get the same pissed off, “Get off my property” rebellious anger when dealing with bureaucrats – they don’t teach you that in the postwar world. It is deep and it is genetic. A pacifist, I wonder sometimes at my quiet inclination to maybe, quietly, get some shooting lessons. Just in case.

Where does this come from? Many will say, attitude is not genetic, but they’ve found now that trauma impacts your DNA. Can roofing a house at 14 give you a feirceness you pass on, even if to a “dumb” granddaughter?

He does not see me as dumb. But I feel that if I had taken his opinions seriously, growing up, I would have been. I feel I had to make my capability a non-issue.

Maybe he’d say his dad made him feel the same way.

I’m trying, struggling, to express a true dichotomy. Is it love if someone is woven through you? Even if that person has, at best, come to respect you in your third decade because you gave him no option?

Even if, at best, he has forgotten how to hate and now just wants to chill the fuck out.

I have no words of redemption for my grandfather. But his ethos has influenced mine. Not the hate, but definitely the determination.

What can I say? John Wayne was beloved for a reason, Republican bastard though he was.

Maybe he’ll make 90 and I’ll read this to him.

a commodified soul

Asking myself big fluffy questions about art and my art and art as story versus art as craft… yadda yadda… it finally occurs to me how deeply inauthentic my work has been in recent years. Like a forgotten early 80s James Taylor song, my paintings and videos and photographs are so impersonal they disappear.

In my desire to tell moving stories, to inspire and even at times educate (many of those efforts can’t be found on this site because, hey, they kinda sucked), I kept trying to create a product. A brand name, a handle, a message.

Intuitives said: Think about who you are rather than what you do. But I couldn’t stop.

I wanted to create soul balm, vanishing cream for shame, a spray-on remedy for hopelessness. Not a terrible endeavor, but the harder I tried to document my beliefs in order to share them, the less clear they became. So I tried harder, pushing myself to codify my homegrown spirituality in some digestible form.

I didn’t want to package my ideas because it would make them more accessible, I wanted to because that’s what you do.

We live in the age of the personal brand. The lifestyle blogger, the influencer, curator, the hashtagged name. The way to excellence, today, is to pick a subject and a look and stick to it with every meme you’ve got.

And I wanted to do that about god.

Here’s the terrible truth: I have no idea why we’re here. I don’t know if there is a bliss to follow. I’m not convinced that it matters how you eat or whether you save for retirement. I’m not sure that personal growth is even possible for a lot of people.

I don’t know if anything happens after you die except the biological process of decomposition.

I do know that kindness tends to make life more pleasant, and I know that the line between kindness and weakness is perpetually shifting.

I was watching Manifesto tonight, a wonderful, very artful, movie, and remembered, Oh yeah. Artists and philosophers have only been asking these questions for thousands of years.

Questions like, Why am I here? Does any of this matter? Do I matter?

These kinds of questions are often waved off as depressing or “existential.” They are big, amorphous, dusty as the inside of a cave and dark as a starless sky. They serve no purpose, lead to no known target.

These kinds of questions will not be summarized in a hashtag.

After spending two years questing for a fresh-when-frozen, microwaveable meaning of life to sell the hungry masses one pithy tweet at a time, I am abandoning the pilgrimage. I have no answers. The existential question is all I’m left with.

And ironically, from that giant question mark in my heart, I find my voice. Simply to ask… What do you say? Why are we here?