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.

god may not matter, but faith does

god may not matter, but faith does

God is irrelevant yet essential. Irrelevant in that it he or she – let us use the pronoun they for the fun of it – They the God do not actually control us. We go about our lives influenced, not by God, but by our neighbors, our biology, and our circumstances.

But the idea of God is essential. Even in the mind of an atheist it represents the great, fuzzy irrational thing against which they can push. God to an agnostic is as laden with possibility as the next season of Game of Thrones. And God to the faithful is life itself.

It is easy for the logical atheist to write off a religious person. But by doing so the atheist fails to acknowledge an as-yet unmeasurable, but very real, thing: faith.

Faith is a physical fact of existence as much as a stomach ache, or heartbreak, or inspiration. Write it off as an emotion, yet who writes off love, or sorrow?

You must simply allow for faith.

Which leads to the existence of God, not as an omniscient force, not as a He or a She, not as the ruler of heaven and hell. God as a human idea. One must acknowledge the human idea of a Holy All. And in acknowledging this you realize it doesn’t matter if there is a god, or not.

What matters and what, frankly, is rendered moot by how much it matters to so many billions of people, is belief.

What is belief, or faith? Just blind agreement with a collective fairy tale? Perhaps if we all lived, uneducated, in small isolated villages with powerful churches, one could argue religious faith is just the act of agreeing with the tribal myth. Instead, a lot of people grow up with an education and travel through spacious spheres of experience. Yet, in spite of everything they’ve learned about evolution and historic discrepancies in the Bible, still they will say…

I believe in something.

Why? It is not enough to shrug it off as, “People being dumb.” People are, generally, very dumb, I certainly am. But most people are also relatively reasonable. Most people accept the theory of gravity, and do not try to fly by leaping off their roof. Most people wash their hands after taking a shit. Most people will return a lost wallet. And this all happens, not because everyone has experienced violent run-ins with broken bones, E. coli and theft.

These acts of reasonable behavior occur all day, every day, amongst most people, because we have evidence of their value. We haven’t gotten E. coli, but we’ve had the flu. We haven’t broken bones landing in our yard, but we have broken a bone in Little League. Whatever your story, you’ve had experiences that, while not as extreme, still taught you not to leave the stove on or yell on an airplane or fart on the first date.

If most human behavior is based on education or experience, what is faith based on?

I find that the simplest explanation is usually the true one. The simplest explanation for the existence of this human emotion called faith is that there is something to believe in. Maybe we can’t measure what that is, yet. Maybe we can’t see God under a microscope (or in a telescope). But maybe people believe in They because They exist.

The question, Why do people believe, is more important than What do people believe in?

a cozier ecology

a cozier ecology

I’ve struggled with IBS, the allopathic doctor’s catch-all term for “We have no clue what’s wrong with your poo’ing system,” my entire adult life. But being at home on a sort of grown-up winter break, I started doing some fresh reading, and I stumbled on this whole thing about the human microbiome.

It sounds very sci-fi, but the idea is that we have billions of little microbes living in our gut that not only handle the mail, process returns, and tut-tut over that cream donut as it passes by for Fred to deal with. They also manage a lot of our hormonal activity, our serotonin levels, and coolest of all, they communicate directly with our brains.

Remember at Costco those little suction tubes that the cashiers put canisters of cash into, to be whisked away to some bookkeeper in the Back Offices? We have an entire community of creatures, most not possessing any human DNA, by the way, doing that from our gut to our brain all day every day.

For years, my family and friends have implied, some more gently than others, that my digestive issues may be related to the fact that I’m a sensitive worrywart who thinks too much. And I usually agreed, but I wasn’t sure how much more I could do about it. If my life was any calmer at this point I’d be dead.

What changed when I read this research was that I stopped thinking about how my brain talks to my stomach and started thinking about how my stomach talks to my brain.

It made me start wondering what it was saying.

The beauty of this scientific research into the human microbiome is that it is, on an individual personal level, mirroring what is going on in the entire planet. My tummy is a noisy, quaking landscape full of smog and acid rain. If my intestines were a country, the Red Cross would be collecting donations to save it. And yet I ignore all these rumblings exactly the way we’ve been ignoring the changing planet.

Why? Because we’re creatures of comfort. We like treats made of white flour, and gas-guzzling SUVs, and made in China slippers, because they’re comfy. Cozy, even. When people hear phrases like, “climate change,” their eyes glaze over, not because they don’t care, but because it’s horrid. The sight of a dying polar bear is horrid, toxic waste signs are horrid, a bay black with oil is horrid.

And because they’re horrid, we get defensive. The dialogue about “saving the earth,” to a Westernized mind, has become one of “humans vs the earth.” It’s like our takeaway from all those ABC news programs and Ted Talks and Avatar is that in order to live harmoniously on this planet, we have to accept a dirty, hippie, pagan, sandlewood-scented existence full of disease and ravaging wolves and barefootedness.

Since most of us don’t want that, we’ve subconsciously decided, Why bother? We can’t win. May as well drive our SUV to the mall to buy an $11.99 sweater made in a sweatshop, and cinnamon roll scented antibacterial hand sanitizer, before waddling home to drown our confusion eating cheese sticks off Styrofoam plates.

We don’t listen because the answers feel overwhelming.

So here’s what I think.

Red panda by Ritchie Valens

Red panda photos courtesy of Jim Bread and Ritchie Valens.

To your health, Julia

To your health, Julia

What is health, these days? If, like me, you started answering that question by sitting on your butt reading articles online, you find out that health is yoga girls doing handstands surrounded by cacti, the rippling muscles of Paleo-powered weight lifters, and beaming food-gurus holding up clean salmon-tumeric bowls.

Health is illustrated on Instagram and Pinterest and the interwebs in general with these fabulous human specimens because we’re supposed to find them inspiring. And I assume a lot of people do. But I find it just kind of odd. Who wants to spend all day in Lycra or upside-down or at the gym? Who wants to smile like that? #healthyglow

What if I don’t want to be that happy or that Californian or that thin, but just, like, normal? Or is that a silly question in this country?

I was asking myself those questions today because I woke up the day after Christmas feeling like it was officially time to get my $@% together. I’ve been in this vicious cycle for a couple years now of feeling badly and then doing things that make me feel worse. I’m tired so I don’t go for a walk; I’m blue so I eat foods I don’t tolerate.

A few months ago I went to the doctor to see if she had any theories. As I listed my symptoms, weighed down by the litany of ickiness, I started slumping off the bench, finally collapsing in a puddle on the floor buried under maternity magazines as the doctor gave up and left.

“Can’t test for that,” her glazed eyes and lowered pen imply oh-so-clearly. “Insurance doesn’t cover lameness. Go… pin something.”

Now if you read all these health articles you discover that the lame, icky, lethargic, fat way I feel is pretty much how most of America feels. The causes are always described in compelling, scientific ways, but after you’ve read a few of these articles, you realize all they agree on is that all the best things in life are too blame.

Coffee, alcohol, binge watching shows on Netflix, bread, cheese, fried foods, deep fried cheesy bread with Netflix… the yoga girls and the California nutritionists and the #focused weight lifters all agree that everything you love is making you fat, miserable and, yes, un-Instagrammable.

The current list of villainous foods would seem reasonable except that I was raised, not that long ago, with a food pyramid built on carbs. I was advised in high school to choose the bagel and avoid the bacon. Today, bacon is having a glory moment not seen since 1953 and bagels are practically illegal.

Were the dieticians right before, or are they right now? Add to that all the terrible things we know are done to and with our food, from how livestock are raised to what they’re injected with to all the mysterious ingredients Michael Pollan has opened our eyes to, and one finds oneself wandering the grocery store looking for anything one could buy in good faith. This is usually celery.

And then there’s the question of your overall diet, the combinations of things. You can’t just eat stuff because it’s good, you have to pick a plan. Red meat may not cause heart disease, maybe, but you can’t just eat meat and bread and dairy.

You may find a nutritionist who will allow you to, but the foods will be limited to clean foods, or super foods, these foods that justify their consumption by not only having lots of nutrients but also looking great styled in a blue bowl in front of a San Diego sunrise. I’m talking kale, brown rice, quinoa, salmon, beets. I think maybe you can put a few nuts, seeds or pickled things in there. No cheese, no sauce, no dressings rich in polyunsaturated hydro-whatsis’s. Just the fresh, clean flavors of dry roasted beets and plain grilled salmon and, mmm, nutty quinoa.

As always in moments of severe personal crisis, I reach for Julia Child. My personal favorites are her Julia Child & Company books, from the 70s. They’re very chatty, like she’s dropped by to spur you on to make the cassoulet. It will be fun, she implies, in text accompanied by color photographs of pork feet.

Reading Julia reminds me that we have gone insane. She didn’t need to ask, Is my food clean? Is it super? It was just food. She started cooking in France after the war when the market was full of people selling produce and meat they’d caught or harvested themselves only a few miles away. And you walked to that market and you walked back home to prepare it all by hand. Even in the 70s when she was writing these later cookbooks, industrial agriculture was only just being conceived. There wasn’t soy and corn buried in every ingredient list. We didn’t yet have generations raised on prepared foods so salty and so sweet they had actually destroyed our taste buds.

Yes, it’s true, Julia Child knew what an apple tasted like without having to spend three dollars on an organic Honeycrisp.

Some day we will trust our food again. We will trust ourselves to eat a variety of foods in moderation, and know they were raised humanely, grown ethically, and that we can eat them without weeping or upgrading our health insurance plan. (Because yes, in this fantasy future, we have health insurance.)

In the meantime, about that cassoulet…

Battle of the Sexes 2016: the Perils of Online Dating

I’ve learned not to use the phrase “Let me know” with a man. For example you might find yourself texting a guy, “Let me know when you want to come over.” In my mind, this means, “Let me know in the next day or so, when you’ve decided in advance, when you plan on coming over.”

A man may act like he doesn’t plan out his days, but somewhere in a dusty back corner of even the most “laid back” man’s mind, there is a clear itinerary: I’m going to go to the gym after work, then I’ll catch up with a buddy over a beer, and then around eleven, maybe midnight, I’m going over to Suzie’s house to fuck her senseless. This very explicit vision for the day’s events plays out in every single man’s mind on the entire planet. I have CAT Scans of various male brains, locked away in a secure academic facility, to prove it.

He’s not going to voluntarily tell you this plan unless you force him to. For one thing, at the risk of sounding sexist, but then why stop now, a lot of guys find it physically painful to verbalize. It’s like the highway between thought and articulation is full of cars driving very slowly and it’s going to take a good, long time before that idea reaches the mouth.

More important, with most single guys, their plans aren’t really what a new female acquaintance will want to hear.

Picture it, this guy being honest. “Hey baby, I can’t wait to see you. I just have to hit the gym for an hour, shower, get cleaned up, maybe grab some takeout, swing by the bar with the guys. Realistically I’ll have three, maybe four beers and probably a shot. I’ll stagger in to your place horny as hell right about when you’ve given up on the evening and just want to curl up in bed with a rerun of Mad Men.”

Instead, you’re going to text him saying, “Let me know when you want to come over!” and he’ll reply, “Sure :)” and then three days later, right as you’re turning off the porch light, you’ll get that text about his plan… and his plan starts twelve minutes from now… inside your vagina.

As I write this, I think, maybe I really do just have terrible taste in men.* Maybe women all over the world are dating lovely respectful guys who would never dream of acting like this. And they may be. I’ve just never met any of these women.

I have met women, including good friends, who draw the line. They have one encounter like that and they end the whole shebang. The problem is, in my observation anyway, a lot of these women are single well into their forties. Because waiting for a man to pursue you like a man is like waiting for Social Security to become a viable retirement plan.

The other night, in a fit of boredom, I reactivated my account on OK Cupid. I hadn’t touched it a couple years, having spent the last several months, since a tough breakup, assessing what the hell I want.

An interesting guy messages me, I message back (actually, perhaps it was vice versa, I don’t remember). Our brief virtual conversation is acceptable and we agree we should meet for a drink. We exchange numbers.

And then he starts texting me. At eleven o’clock at night. He’s a stranger, we’ve messaged a total of at most a dozen times. I know his career and that he lives in the same city I do, that’s it. Now he’s making bad jokes about my name, and masturbation. It gets awkward. I text him, “Hey, I’m going to bed now – let’s chat tomorrow about when we should meet.” He texts back in agreement. I think the night’s conversation is over. And then ten minutes later he texts again… “I’m not a pervert.”

Well if I didn’t think you were a weirdo before, I sure as heck wonder now.

Or, another totally random example from last year. I meet this guy. We have an interesting encounter on a Saturday night. We agree to go out the next weekend. He starts texting me on Monday. I tell him I’m looking forward to our date but that this week is really busy for me. Every night the rest of the week, he texts me asking if I can come out. And trust me, his texts were not, “Meet me for dinner to engage in deep conversation about politics.” They were, “I get off work at eleven and then will you come over and blow me?”

Finally, on Thursday, I lose my temper, and he acts totally startled and pissed that I’ve found his nightly queries annoying.

Now you may be thinking I just have terrible taste in men. And you might be right. But I don’t know a woman who doesn’t feel frustrated.

Nowadays, we’re supporting ourselves, we have birth control, we can wait for marriage. We don’t have to make men jump through a bunch of hoops before they have sex with us. We’re horny too. Let’s do it. If I was a feminist living in the sixties looking into the future I’d think, “Wow, good for them, they have it all now!”

And yes, if a woman’s goal is to have lots of sex with people she doesn’t know or care about, she is much more free to pursue that than women ever have been.

If a woman’s goal is to meet a guy who doesn’t act like a weirdo, jerk or adolescent… that’s a lot tougher in our no-rules era than it ever was back in the “sexist” past.

Face it, without the societal rules developed over millenia to hustle young couples into legally binding, child-protecting, wife-supporting marriage, men have no idea. And I can’t say I blame anyone for feeling confused. We are all confused.

Does being a feminist man mean you have to let her make all the decisions?

Do you want to occasionally throw her on the bed and spank her, but feel a bit worried that that desire makes you an abusive SOB?

What if you like a dominant lady? Does that make you less of a man?

Maybe you think, We’re all on the same playing field now, this is clearly a one night stand, why do I have to pretend I care about you?

Conversely, I’ve met just as many men who find casual sex a total limpifier. Gawd forbid anyone admit that there might be a mind-body connection between a man’s erection and his feelings for the woman he’s about to fuck.

Meanwhile women are thinking, I can admit I’m horny. I can hit on someone. I can drag him to my bedroom. There is a primal thing occurring for women all over the world: after hundreds of thousands of years of being told who, what, when you would marry, and do not have any fun until we as your parents arrange that…

It is really hard to enjoy that historic level of liberation and then stop and say, “Wait a minute, you may be insanely hot, and we may both be single, and I may get wet just glancing at your fingernails, but I need you to connect with me on a meaningful level for several months before we get naked together.”

You could argue that women being able to have sex freely and without fear of pregnancy or social penalty is as major a change on this planet as dinosaurs going extinct. I don’t say this lightly, I’m stone serious. It’s turning everything upside down. We can’t just expect this level of social change to sort itself out over night. We can’t ask Tinder to bridge this gap for us. We are in a crazy time.

We need an Emily Post to codify some shit.

In the meantime, I have two gender-based requests.

Girls, be explicit. If you want a guy to call you instead of texting, say that when you give him your number. If you think contact after 8PM is rude, ignore the 11PM messages (I should have). If you want to have sex but don’t think there’s longterm potential, consider mentioning that before you rip his clothes off.

Guys, listen. That’s all I ask. Be a real feminist and take a woman at her word. Don’t interpret. Don’t assume. Meet each woman as a new, unique circumstance. Even if only for the evening, take her on her terms. If she plays games, that’s on her. In the meantime, she said, “Call me,” you actually called her, and you know you did your best.

Until Emily Post’s great-great granddaughter turns up to write the Etiquette of Casual Fucking… that’s all any of us can do.


*Full confession: in the past four years I have seriously dated only two men. They were both twenty years older than me. They both believed in calling. Taking you out. Doing what they said they would do. These values have somehow become “old-fashioned.” As progressive and open-minded as I am, I’ve learned I’m simply unable to develop a serious romantic connection with a man unless he’s like this. Which means I tend to get involved with older men. Because younger men don’t follow rules. And it shows.

let’s talk about political correctness.

This may come as a surprise to some but free speech doesn’t just mean “free speech for liberals who love everyone.”

Free speech means all of it. It means that as long as it is not breaking a law, it is okay for anyone in this country to feel anything they want to feel, say anything they want to say, buy anything they want to buy.

ANYTHING.

This includes dildos, Confederate flags, reality TV, inspirational pamphlets, yoga, fried Oreos, guns*, abortions, racist jokes, bigoted sermons, cosmetics ads, self-help books, and tie dye.

Freedom of speech means all of it.

Let’s get one thing straight: I’m a lifelong liberal. I caucused for Bernie, I tithe to Planned Parenthood, I believe the LGBTQ community deserves all the civil liberties that straight people enjoy, and although it breaks my heart that we even have to say this, hell yes, black lives matter.

I think Donald Trump is, at best, a moron, and at worst, criminally insane. But I take issue with liberals, and I know quite a few, who write off Trump’s followers as “rednecks” and “the idiocracy.” Sure, there’s probably a good percentage of those folks in his audience. There’s also a healthy number of people who are fed up with the status quo and see in Trump a route to change. Do I agree with his route? No. Do I agree with his bigotry? No. Do I understand why people find his utter disregard for political correctness refreshing? Hell yes.

Case in point: the other day I was enjoying a lovely afternoon with friends drinking cold beverages under the hot sun. One of these women mentioned that her friends from back home had discovered, on Amazon, a t-shirt that said I wish OJ had married Hillary. Since she works at Amazon she had addressed their horror by sending the item to the censorship team – okay I don’t remember what the name of the department was – in case they’d like to remove it.

“They’re the people who took all the Confederate flag stuff down, so they’ll do it if anyone’s going to,” she said breezily.

Everyone nodded as though about to move on to another topic of conversation, at which point I freaked out because I realized that my lovely liberal intelligent kind-hearted friends were also, just a little bit, acting like fucking fascists.

“Excuse me,” I said, “But this is censorship.”

At which point my friends looked at me like the third beer had just kicked in and I must be a drunk who speaks in tongues.

My argument is this: Amazon is, mostly, a marketplace. Almost anyone with the proper set-up can create an account to sell their shit on Amazon. It’s not a hand-curated boutique of specialized items that delight the vision of its artsy owner. It’s a free-for-all. We all easily came up with examples during the afternoon’s conversation: snake oil herbal remedies, clothes from China made of fabrics too synthetic and recycled to even name, eBooks written by deranged squirrels. Quality control is largely determined by user ratings, not Amazon’s. And we’re fine with all of this, in fact you could argue it’s exactly that open market attitude that has made Amazon the leading e-retailer in the world.

In this type of marketplace, where a variety of attitudes, products, lifestyles, standards and values are represented in hundreds of millions of products for sale, it seems a little specious to argue that there is a universal moral code at play. Obviously they’re not going to allow child pornography. But here’s a hint: child pornography is also illegal. My point is, if it’s legal, you should be allowed to say it, buy it, own it, or feel it. Does Amazon have the right to assert arbitrary values on its business? Absolutely. Does it have a right to call those values anything other than arbitrary and, the exercise of them, ultimately, censorship?

Nope.

Just to reiterate: I get why the Confederate flag bothers people. I get why someone who still treasures the legacy of being a soldier in the South during the Civil War can seem equal to being a racist bastard. I get if you don’t want to date the guy who has one of these flags on the back of his truck. In fact I even totally and 110% support you throwing a beer in his face if he hits on you at a bar. But again… you guessed it, that would be you exercising your right to free speech.

I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.
Evelyn Beatrice Hall

Interesting side note, I’ve been pretentiously repeating that quote since high school, apparently incorrectly attributing it to Voltaire. Apparently a biographer summarized his attitude in that memorable line but he didn’t actually say it. Which just goes to show… something.

I can’t stress enough that I am not defending the selling of Confederate flags because I am defending the Confederacy. I’m defending it because the entire point of free speech is that it is free. You cannot have it both ways. As liberals we assume that because we’re liberal, our beliefs are better. They’re not. They’re just beliefs. History may agree with us, and our beliefs may become the prevailing cultural ethos, but if we have to get there by forcing them down everyone’s throats, we’re no better than the evangelical Christian who wants to ban porn, hip-hop or Disney movies.

You have your core moral issues everyone on the planet agrees with: murder, theft, violent aggression. Your biggies. There are laws, effective and universally understood laws, in place to impose these morals.

Beyond that point, morality is subjective. Some people feel sex should only happen in wedlock. Some feel it should only happen in a committed relationship. Some feel that it should only happen at a supervised club, preferably clad in hygienic vinyl. It’s time that progressives and liberals came to terms with the reality that what they consider facts are, ultimately, morals. Subjective truths. Beliefs. They may be right beliefs. But others have a right to feel otherwise.

What freaks me out, truly? The world is full of people you disagree with. You can think whatever the hell you want about them. But the fact is, they have the right to exist. They have the right to speak their minds. You don’t have to listen. You don’t have to agree. You don’t have to like that person.

But you do, as an American, and on this point I am pretty sure there are very old documents signed by the fucking Founding Fathers to support me, let them speak.


*As long as they’re legal and please could we re-examine what is legal.