Media, George Carlin, and Change

It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows me or has read some of my posts that I am not a fan of Facebook. Social media sites like Facebook have converted our would be electorate into a bickering mass who have resorted to proliferating misinformation, selling out for clicks and likes. We have allowed our voices to be drowned out; and, due to conniving and conspiring by foreign governments (and possibly our own), we have adopted a currency that is this illusion of security and community. We sit in front of keyboards or with devices in our hands, pretending to be connected to the world, but really making us more isolated than any generation has ever been. Meanwhile, we are fed lies and fear and distortion of the facts, made to look like truth, and we wonder what is wrong with the world.

I took a “media holiday” recently. For the entire week of Thanksgiving, I refrained from checking Facebook, viewing news stories, listening to talk radio. I listened instead to classical music. I played video games. I enjoyed people’s company. I felt like this was a good thing. I admit it felt odd not being “connected” as it were. Ironically, I was better connected to people when I was not looking reading their posts, rather looking them in the eye over lunch. It was liberating in a way. After a week, and after the kick-start of the American capitalism festival that is holiday shopping season, I reconnected with the world, catching up on the news, looking through scores of missed Facebook notifications, and scanning Twitter for juicy updates from all our favorite celebrities.

While I actually still recommend an occasional break from the unrelenting tide of news and information that has replaced our own original thought, I’ve reconsidered my position on Facebook’s – and all social media’s – role in our lives. Before 2003, when both Myspace and LinedIn were released, social media consisted of message boards, user groups, and group emails. There was nothing like what exists today that allowed for so many people to join together for a cause, or to organize and collaborate, or that would cause anything to “go viral”. It’s hard to believe that the state of media ubiquity is still in its infancy. Looking at the early days of television compared to today’s live streaming and video-on-demand, the possibilities for the future of mobile internet and its potential effect on the human race are astounding and terrific. If you are not frightened about this future, you should be.

Alarming and dystopian though this may sound, and inasmuch as I get the whole “don’t have the player, hate the game” sentiment when I complain about people taking selfies in front of a location where a tragedy occurred, I can safely say that people are the problem, but the internet plays some part. The internet – social media, email, SMS text, all of it – is a tool that people use for good, for profit, for self-indulgence, for pleasure, and for evil. By comparison, with a hammer you can build a house; with it you can also break into a car. This is a rather simplistic analogy, and it can be said that the internet is much more powerful and complex than a hammer. I agree. The internet, not just the web, but all parts of it, is vast and decentralized, which makes it beyond the reach of government. Governments can restrict access to it, but no one owns the internet.

This brings me to my caveat. While the internet is this wonderful and dynamic force that could be used for good, it can also be used to deceive and control people. We’ve been fed a steady diet of misinformation and outright lies for many, many years. We’ve all been led to believe many half-truths and falsehoods that we were convinced were true, because those who perpetrated them will have you see what you want to see. Some lies might have a nice crunchy shell of luscious truth, but at their heart are untrue. Those are the worst kinds of lies. For instance, studies in food safety will often be funded by food manufacturers themselves. Russia may have actually bought the 2016 US election. Urban myths and legends, mostly false, have been promulgated across many forms of electronic media since the 1980’s. As a result, sites like Snopes.com, Politifact.com, and others have arrived on the scene to help debunk all the misinformation we’ve been digesting all this time. What is the antidote?

In 2004, George Carlin gave an interview on Fresh Air following the publication of his book, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? About 37 minutes into the interview, Terry Gross asks him quite directly about his decision not to vote. Carlin’s response – flavored by the cynicism of his generation – is that he believes that the “ownership of this country” doesn’t want change to happen. Yes, we go to the polls every two years in an attempt at peacefully overthrowing our government, but as Carlin puts it, it’s like rearranging the furniture. The “ownership class”, as he puts it, really controls everything, and we voters are under the illusion that we can make a difference. This seems possible, even likely to be true. However, what about we take over ownership? What would that look like, and is it possible?

Social media might eventually change. Myspace might still be in use, and it doesn’t compare to its larger cousin, Facebook. Strangely, Google+ never really took off. But they haven’t been around long, and the way people use these sites has changed significantly over the 14 years they’ve been around. What if social media became a place to share ideas, to pursue understanding, to engage in civil discourse? What I mean is, what if we used social media in a way contrary to the way it is being used today? I like to imagine Facebook users sharing factual information, personal stories, truth. A Google search for “lies on…” will result in auto-recommendations, the top choice being “lies on Facebook.” Those hits are mostly links to sniveling and shaming retorts toward inaccurate posts. No big whoop, as it’s said. But polarizing memes, divisive language, hate speech, and utter bullshit have escalated all over the internet. People who believe the earth is flat have never had a larger audience. This despite the fact that scientists have known for thousands of years that the earth is not flat. Some of my friends and family members have shared posts that were clearly inaccurate. The misinformation was staggeringly obvious.

Why do we do it? Why do people continue to spread false information? How would we restore integrity to this medium? Even established news organizations have fallen to the trend of perpetuating rumors and hearsay. On the other hand, there are plenty of hard-working journalists who want to print or voice only the truth. Why couldn’t all media work for us rather than against us? The free flow of ideas doesn’t have to be constrained. We can still post videos of kittens. We can still take selfies. But my hope is that we would want more from ourselves. In my vision of the future people’s comments would be thoughtful and insightful. Social media would be used to call people to action. We could share ideas. We might organize change in our communities, our nations. We possess great power with this invention. Imagine what the great minds of the past would see in its potential. Maybe I don’t agree with George Carlin’s philosophy. Our world is not for sale. I believe regular people have all the power. I believe action and dedication can overcome any amount of money. I believe we are on the cusp of some colossal change in the world. When we have the sum of all knowledge ever collected throughout history, how can we not take advantage to educate ourselves and promote new, original thought? The human race needs to advance. We need to get past our petty squabbling and get to the business of healing our nations – all nations. We need to care for one another. We need to be invested in the future of humanity.

 

 

 

Advertisements

Flawless

For most of us, practically all our lives, we’ve been told repeatedly how imperfect we are. We may have been admonished for being flawed, shamed for being mere humans. Teachers and pastors surely reminded us that nobody’s perfect. Countless times, to be sure, everyone has been reminded that we are anything but perfect. They may have even gone so far as to tell us that we are unredeemable piles of human refuse. This is at least the impression I got from adults when I was young. We were told that no one was perfect except God. Who could argue with that? God, who made the universe and all its atrocities. God, who created smallpox and puff adders. God, who caused the great flood because, “the Lord regretted that he had made human beings on the earth…I will wipe from the earth the human race…”

When I was a kid, and I went to Sunday school to clear my mind of all the evil worldly thoughts filling my head, I began to question certain principles. Namely, that no one could be perfect. Believing oneself to be perfect was aligned with the sin of pride. How dare we claim this for ourselves? At the same time, it was impressed upon me the absolute necessity for me to strive for perfection. Grading systems were designed with an ideal to be made manifest. There is a “perfect” GPA. Baseball has a perfect game. A perfect storm. A perfect day. While we’ve been told there is no such thing as perfection, we certainly throw that word around a lot.

With all this shit swirling around like so many toilet bowls, it’s easy to assume that our teachers, parents, middle school bullies, swim coaches, and youth pastors were all right when they emphasized how we are all imperfect. Most of us were told to obey authority; and, therefore there was no reason to assume everyone was wrong. But they were. Not only is it possible to achieve perfection, I believe each that of us is already a perfect being. Before you start enumerating my many flaws, let’s first deal with that pesky issue of defining perfection. What does perfect actually mean?

The Greek philosopher Plato maintained that not only is our world imperfect, but it may not even exist. Plato held that the constantly changing world was only a copy of the ideal, the perfect and constant vision only attainable in human thought. A perfect circle, for example, might be conceptualized, but could never be physically produced. Indeed, even modern machines can render a near-perfect circle, but our even more advanced measuring equipment may now detect the smallest imperfections. And so it continues. In our minds, we can identify the ideal, but is that ideal based on something we were taught, or is it a universal, collective vision of perfection?

snowflake

For many of us, we have an idea of what perfection means. For example, we like to point to snowflakes as perfect units. But notice something about these? They’re all different. In fact, every snowflake is unique, each one different from the next. If a snowflake is perfect, then all of them are. But any difference, according to Plato, would in essence be an imperfection. But what is the ideal snowflake? How could there be just one perfect one? How could all copies of the ideal be considered less than perfect? In the world where we live, we are not afforded the opportunity to contemplate the ideal, the snowflake Form; we only have the real, the physical. All snowflakes, therefore, are perfect. And so is every potato, for that matter.

As for me, I know I am more complicated an organism than a potato. But I see wonders every time I check in on things around the world. For instance, there are sea creatures that do everything from change color to emit light, to name a few. Human beings might appear less significant in the grand scheme of things, if we’re going for existential despondency. I mean, we’re more than just animals, even though we are classified as primates who have simply evolved. The very act of my writing this indicates that there’s something more going on. Therefore, here we are, each of us, contemplating our existence and our place in the universe. Meanwhile, we’re still basically controlled by our basic urges and needs: sleep, eat, fuck, survive.

Now that I’ve established that I am ordinary, it makes my perfection argument a little easier. If we were as simple as dogs or grasshoppers or potatoes, how could anyone dispute that any of us were anything less than perfect? Naturally, there are those who might judge. The Westminster Kennel Club holds an annual event to decide which dog breed is superior to the rest. This is highly subjective, and the results should never be construed as to mean there is any one dog that is perfect. Really, aren’t they all?

The thing about perfection – a human preoccupation – is that there really is no such thing. What I mean by that is there is no one ideal of any item, person, or situation in our plane of existence. That “perfect storm” we keep hearing about is actually a confluence of forces or elements crossing a threshold, arbitrary perhaps, where conditions may be just right for the worst case scenario. This term is almost always used as a metaphor to describe some social or work situation where things go horribly wrong. Shit happens, but I wouldn’t call this perfection.

Perfection is kind of an illusion. Except that here I am trying to convince you that we are all perfect beings. What makes this impossible to accept is that we’ve been told how imperfect we are our entire lives. But I maintain that we are all perfect and essential. We’re like cogs in the intricate machinery of the universe, to use a hyperbole here for a moment (if Plato can do it, well…) Perhaps we are perfect in that we are precisely where we need to be for the cosmic algorithm to function. What if we are all exactly where we’re supposed to be? Can’t we be perfect in the place we find ourselves?

I admit, my previous notions of perfection were rooted in that latent Catholic school guilt and self loathing, where we lesser things cannot possibly approach perfection. One of my instructors was wrong about many things; it stands to reason he was wrong about this, too. Maybe I am perfect. I’m not without fault, but my perfection may lie in the niche I fill. For my wife, I am exactly what she needs, or so she tells me sometimes. Am I the perfect husband? Perhaps for her. I might be the perfect employee for certain needs of my company. I might have been the perfect student, not because I made A’s, but perhaps because I made my teachers think or because I made them work harder. I may never know. But my point is that I believe we are all perfect beings.

In a sense, we are more than all the cells and plasma and elements in our bodies, the electrical impulses between our nerve endings, or the chemistry in our brains. We’re beyond the body and the physiology of the human animal. There’s no proof that we have souls or spirits, but there’s a lot we have not discovered about ourselves. There might be something perfect within all of us. Maybe our struggle, our suffering, is simply our souls colliding with our human instincts and emotional pressures. Is music a transport vessel for the soul? Is art another? What about acting or stand-up comedy? Or writing?

In claiming my perfection I am not placing myself above other people. On the contrary, I make no statement to that effect. I am not better than anyone else. But that’s not what I mean by perfection. I don’t mean to say I am flawless. But as Confucius said, it is better to be a diamond with a flaw than to be a pebble without one. In other words, being perfect may not be what it’s cracked up to be. Perfection might equal banality in that scenario where the world is populated with pebbles, or potatoes, or snowflakes. One’s  perfect state might be typified by his or her nonconformity or eccentricity. Where there is a “perfect” field of snow, the perfection we possess might be the footprint that provides dimension. What was seen as a flaw is now perceived as absolutely essential. In a word, it’s perfect.

 

The New World

This year, Thanksgiving in the US is on Thursday, 23 November. I have always enjoyed this holiday, mainly because the day itself has escaped a lot of commercialization that other holidays in the States attract, like Christmas and July 4th. Most of the time, holidays are simply an excuse to spend money on things we either do not need or can’t afford. The Lexus December to Remember campaign, while very effective advertising, reveals a very materialistic world, where getting what you want is automatically assumed. Christmas, therefore, is all about what’s in it for us.

With companies working so hard to get our attention, advertisers have ignored Thanksgiving. Well, not entirely. But somehow, Thanksgiving has managed to stay pretty much on course as a celebration of this country’s blessings, rather than being used for marketing purposes. For many of us, we remember being taught that in 1620, “pilgrims” came from England to Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts to establish an American colony in the new world. These undocumented immigrants arrived and immediately ran into trouble. They were only saved by the help of the native-born people of what is now Massachusetts. A Patuxet man by the name of Tisquantum, or “Squanto”, was instrumental in assisting European settlers, really keeping them alive amid hostility by the Patuxet and Nauset people, the harsh winter, and unpreparedness of the pilgrims.

The real first Thanksgiving has been so romanticized that we could hardly recognize the reality if we were actually able to witness it. This event has been depicted so many times in film and literature that it’s nearly impossible to replace those images of the Native Americans, or Wampanoag, and the English settlers gathering at a large outdoor spread, complete with roast turkey and cranberry sauce. We can see women in their white bonnets and aprons, and men with tall black hats and buckled shoes; and the “Indians” in their buckskins with fringe hanging from their sleeves. These images are almost certainly false. Be that as it may, Thanksgiving has become a truly unique American holiday.

These days, Thanksgiving is celebrated in as many ways as there are families celebrating it. My personal preference has always been to serve a roast turkey with Better Homes and Gardens Harvest Stuffing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes, and homemade croissants. Others might choose a picnic (in warm climates), or traveling to New York City to witness the Macy’s Parade. American Football is also a huge part of the Thanksgiving tradition. I spent one Thanksgiving playing halftime at an NFL game. But that’s a story for another time.

The main reason for the holiday, according to Abraham Lincoln, who first declared it as a national holiday in the height of the Civil War in 1863, is to set aside a day for giving thanks for what we have. In Lincoln’s time, as in times thereafter, we see trouble in our midst, as did those first European settlers; but we must pause to be grateful, to recognize that we have more than we deserve. Many people are going hungry tonight. There is great need out there, and yet we live in one of the richest nations on earth. Perhaps while we are giving thanks we could also think about giving of ourselves.

Maybe that first Thanksgiving wasn’t only about the Pilgrims being grateful for what they had relative to the loss and the suffering they had endured. For the Native people who assembled that day, they might never have known the fate of their civilization at the hands of European encroachment. For them, that event might only have represented the feelings of brotherhood, of sharing what they had so that others would not starve. Some Europeans (Thomas Hunt) did not treat them with as much love and respect. And hostile feelings persisted between some tribes and the English settlers. Tisquantum’s Patuxet village, the entire tribe, was wiped out by the plague, to which Native Americans had no immunity.

Thanksgiving is therefore a more complicated day than we usually consider. The classic* American image of the feast, as the Norman Rockwell painting “Freedom from Want” depicts, may be far removed from anything seen in modern times. Then again, most holidays are not celebrated with any historical accuracy. Christmas, for instance is an appropriated pagan winter festival, and Jesus was most likely born in April, not December. Saint Patrick would probably be abhorred if he saw what they do in his name. Yes, Thanksgiving is now what we have made it. Maybe there will be no turkey. Maybe there will be no dinner at the table. But Thanksgiving is not going to be removed from the calendar where it sits, on the fourth Thursday in November. It’s there. Why not take the day to celebrate something?

freedom-from-want_3_5

white, privileged, middle-class

Tejas

I am not a very good friend. I have friends, but I think I do not excel in being one. Now, when I talk about friends, I’m using the classic definition, not the modern, social media version. In fact, even on Facebook, when I add a “friend” I have a rule that we know each other well enough that either they have had dinner at my house, or I at theirs. Ironically, my next-door neighbors, whom I have known for 14 years, do not qualify in this regard. This rule helps keep my contact list on social media limited, and that’s fine with me. How many friends does one really need?

I make casual acquaintances very easily. I have many work “friends”, those who I get along with very well. But I don’t really know them, and they don’t know me. One or two work friends have become my best friends over the years. They had Thanksgiving dinner at my house. We’ve gone camping together. We trust one another, and we will be friends for the rest of our lives. But when I look around, I realize I’m not that good at being a friend. I don’t know why I feel this way since the only framework I have for this is within my own experience and the little I have picked up from what I’ve read. I mean, what do we have as a guide to how to be a better friend?

Anyone who has grown up in Texas, and who attended public schools here, may remember taking Texas History in about 7th or 8th grade. Having lived my entire life in this state, it’s hard for me to see things objectively; but, I have many friends from abroad, and that gives you a bit of perspective. As such, I clearly see how unique Texas culture is. People here seem to have a dash of nationalistic fervor from time to time. How is it that being south of the Red River, and west of the Sabine River can make such a difference? One of those things that they taught in Texas History was the origin of the name of this state. The Caddo word “tejas”, meaning friends, eventually became Texas.

Friends are what, just the people you know, the people in your village? I don’t live in a village. I live in a major metropolitan area of about 6 million people. Sadly, as I mentioned before, I barely know the people in my neighborhood. My best friends live on the other side of town, several kilometers from my home. We met through church, and through mutual acquaintances. It’s strange who we consider friends. Sometimes we make friends with people who are unlike ourselves. Maybe it’s easier that way. I don’t think I’d want to hang around with another “me”.

As I said, I have no idea what kind of friend I’ve been. I’m often clueless whether I’ve offended someone. I am distracted, and I can be a bit obsessive. Of course, all my friends are perfect in every way. Seriously, I don’t know why people consider me their friend. It’s a mystery to me. They tell me their deepest secrets and worst fears. They confide in me. They ask me for life-altering advice. And they reach out to me earnestly seeking companionship. And what have I done? For one, I’ve wasted my life on social media. My real friends are not there. True friendship cannot be maintained in such a way.

If I want to be a better friend I know what I must do. I will have lunch with them. I’ll visit them when they’re sick. I’ll help them with a project or when they move house. I’ll attend their performance. I will accept invitation to dinner. And I won’t look for any excuse to get out of it, because friends are better than that. Friends do what’s right. Friends are trustworthy and reliable. Friends help you when you’re down.

Recently, a friend of mine passed away. She was sick for a long time, and it was difficult and sad to see her wasting away. I visited her before she died; she had asked for me. Later, her daughter asked me to be a pallbearer at her mother’s funeral. I never realized how much I had meant to her. I didn’t consider myself to be one of her closest friends, and yet, here I was, transporting her remains to their final resting place. It was devastating, but it was my obligation to do this last thing for her, and for her family. I’ve served in this capacity three times now, and yet this one was more significant. This was the first time I helped to bury a friend.

And what kind of friend was I in her life? Naturally, we go to this place after losing someone, doubting ourselves and becoming self-critical. (Maybe it’s just something I do). I imagine what she would be saying to me. She might say I was a better friend than I realized. Perhaps I would be a better friend if I told them what they meant to me. I think I’m going to schedule lunch with one of my oldest friends this week. I like visiting with him, and he and I will have some interesting stories to share. I need to do this more often. I think this is the answer I needed. What is my guide to being a good friend? It is my conscience.

 

Sticks, Stones, and the Effect of Language

About a million years ago, a proto-human picked up a stick and bludgeoned a deer with it, and voilà! dinner. And ever since, this was the way of mankind. Rather than talk things through, we communicated with sticks, some pointy, some thick and club-like with stones lashed to them. Later, we developed language, a way of describing all those sticks. We needed words as a delivery system for our more complex thoughts. And eventually, we would develop insults, and later, passive-aggressive tones. Hooray!

About a million years after this stick incident occurred, we were taught a pearl of wisdom that said words used against us were not going to harm us. This “sticks and stones” maxim reminded us that insults were the last refuge of the ignorant, and no words could injure us, no matter how harmful. It was a way of fending off bullies, by equating them to knuckle-dragging, thick-sculled cave men. The thing is, those insults and verbal jabs do take their toll. I argue that being punched does less harm in most cases, especially when I was a middle-schooler being punched by a pint-sized assailant.

But the words are sometimes used as ammunition by people other than our classmates and peers. Teachers and parents were capable of much more harm to us. I never would have believed that grown-ups could inflict such cruelty, but I was twelve, and I grew up believing that adults knew what was best for us. But they were as clueless as any 30-something today, perhaps even more so. At least now, people have a wealth of information at their disposal, practically the entire repository of human knowledge by way of the internet. You might expect there could be no excuse for being ignorant, and yet many of us are. We should know better, but we don’t.

Back to that sticks and stones analogy. Physical injuries tend to heal completely. There are of course cases where lasting damage occurs. Broken bones, like those in the little phrase, may heal, but it might affect the way you move further on. I broke my thumb when I was 14 (I was practicing throwing punches after being tripped earlier that day, and my thumb caught the edge of the chair and went “crack!”) That hurt like hell, and I felt really, really stupid. But the physical pain went away after a while, and my body “forgot” the pain. Decades later, when the barometer falls or when geese migrate, my thumb gets stiff or a little sore. It’s not my body “remembering” the original injury. Instead, this is a lasting result. Be that as it may, this injury troubles me a lot less than some of the things people said to me over the years. Even though the words dissipated in the atmosphere just after being spoken, they still echo in my mind to this day.

You see, words can indeed cause long-term emotional pain, far beyond what a physical injury might have. We must therefore be extremely careful when choosing our words. We might start by developing effective feedback skills. This might be one of the most important parts of being a manager or any kind of leader. Saying the wrong thing can create problems further down the road. It is very difficult to undo the damage once this happens. You cannot un-say the wrong thing. Positive yet constructive criticism is like a precious resource, because it is rare that we receive it, and not very many people know how to deliver it. Saying something like, “I’d like to tell you where I see your strengths,” rather than, “do you know what your problem is?” for instance.

Once we have delivered valuable feedback, we can encourage others to learn this skill, as they begin to appreciate its worth. It will be like currency in a world where good communication is rare yet valuable. Right now I fear it is rare but unappreciated. Eventually, as we mature, we do see the value of it, but by then a subsequent generation has already been at the helm of our society. It’s important for teachers to develop this skill and pass it on. It needs to begin early on in a child’s development, earlier than we thought in the old way of thinking. Back then, children were not regarded as contributors to our society, but our understanding of the brain’s development has improved, and we know better now, so we tell ourselves.

Words have amazing power. We use them to inspire one another, to incite crowds, to soothe, and to charm. The right words are absolutely necessary for certain events, like toasting the bride and groom, delivering a eulogy, or giving someone bad news. Our words can injure. Words can be a weapon. Words can even heal. With the right words, a skilled negotiator can change the world more than any number of rockets and tanks. And the simple statement of, “whatever” can stop some of us in our tracks. Yes, sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can injure you for a lifetime. So be careful with what you say.

Violent

Plenty has been published in literature, produced in films and television to depict (or predict) a world where violent behavior had all but been eliminated due to a draconian system of justice, where even petty theft or vandalism could result in severe penalties. It goes without saying this is the west’s impression of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), true or not. In the 1980’s we were instructed on what life in the Soviet Union was like, how the Russian people had no freedoms, no choice. The indoctrination of American youth during the Cold War could have been as equally oppressive as any Communist regime we imagined.

Singapore is famous for administering harsh punishments for seemingly insignificant offenses like littering or vandalism. They are very proud of their low crime rate, and it should be obvious why that is. So one might ask himself, why don’t more countries do this? Before attempting to answer this, I am reminded of something that puzzled me for years. Japan has very strict gun laws, severely restricting gun ownership, limiting sales, and granting the government shockingly sweeping authority regarding firearms, at least by American standards (but the US has fairly relaxed gun laws by comparison to most of the world). In Japan, perhaps as a result of these policies, nearly all gun violence has been eliminated. The big question is whether restricting gun ownership has resulted in a reduction of gun-related incidents, or was it something else?

I posed this question to someone who lived in Japan, and he told me something I did not expect. He is a gun rights advocate, and, like me, has had experience with firearms from an early age. Despite this, he and I don’t agree on every aspect of gun control. That said, he told me that the reason there is almost no gun violence in Japan is not because guns are hard to get hold of, but that the Japanese culture figures significantly into the equation. Of course, there are guns in Japan. But even the Yakuza gang rarely uses guns to commit crimes. Consequently, homicides in Japan are pretty uncommon. It’s worth noting that gun violence in Canada is also rare, even with dramatically fewer restrictions over gun ownership. What, then, is the explanation?

As a means to deter crime, I suppose courts in the US could throw people in prison for nearly anything, like spitting on the sidewalk or jaywalking. Many municipalities have passed some crazy laws that stay on the books, but we typically don’t incarcerate people for overdue library books. (I’m reminded that I need to write about Emmett Till, the black teen who was brutally murdered for allegedly making sexual advances toward a white woman, Carolyn Bryant Donham. In the Jim Crow South, and elsewhere in the US, simply being black was a crime.) Looking at our past, one must conclude that America possesses a most violent culture, one that can barely be contained. The US is chock full of guns. Our art is violent. We have been in a continual state of war since the beginning of the 21st century. We are constantly exposed to violence through video games, television, and film. Simply put, we are a violent people.

Could we eliminate crime by making the punishments so severe that they would serve as a deterrent? Many states still administer the death penalty, and yet capital crimes are still committed. This doesn’t appear to be the solution. One thing that is certain: violence tends to bring about more violence. I admit I have thought about making certain individuals wish they’d never been born. I won’t go into details. Is this something in the human genome? Are we taught to be violent? Can we unlearn this tendency? This may not be something we can overcome in the next 100,000 years. If that depletes your last hopes, do not despair. Humanity should be able to progress if we don’t destroy ourselves first. Carl Sagan was confident we could reach the stars with this contingency in mind. We are continually evolving, but that takes time, and our evolutionary gains have not kept pace with our technological advances. In other words, we’ve become efficient killers with our advanced weapons, but we haven’t developed the ability to conquer our base instincts. We are dangerous animals until that happens.

Disconnected

I just got back from an epic road trip halfway across the North American continent. Unfortunately, we drove across several southern states where everything is deep-fried. Oh well, it was only 10 days. But in that time we witnessed a total solar eclipse, took part in Cherokee rituals, saw elk sightings, a bent tree, and many other strange and beautiful wonders.

During this time, I realized the 21st century has a stranglehold on us. We are constantly connected to our world via mobile devices and wifi internet. For most of us, this is a relatively new phenomenon; many of us were born before the web was fully realized, and we can remember when instant messaging meant passing notes in class. But by the mid-90’s, things were changing quickly. The generations that followed may not feel the change, like that proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water. For anyone born in the 1990’s, their expectation is that information is perpetually within reach, and like we modern, post-industrial, space-age humans who never knew a world without electricity, there is no going back. At least not willingly.

Deliberately ditching your mobile for a week is harder than you think. Being among the various parts of Appalachia, Great Smoky Mountains, Blue Ridge, Pisgah, and so on, where wireless coverage is spotty at best makes it easier to keep one’s resolve to remain disconnected. I must admit, I failed to maintain absolute isolation; my phone would periodically find a signal every other day, and a deluge of messages would drain the battery, forcing me to scramble for my charging cable. As a result, I actually turned off the device – yes, it is possible – when I could not find the cable. Problem solved: no signal, no phone. The device was reduced to a pocket calculator and a low-resolution digital camera.

This idea that being in continual contact with the rest of the world is to me a little absurd. Bear in mind I remember a time when being unreachable was a distinct possibility when leaving the house. Before we all had mobile internet in our pockets, going out into the world untethered was not as scary as it might seem to some of you. Pay phones were ubiquitous, and you always carried some change in case you needed to call someone to check in or ask for a ride. By the way, I saw more than a few pay phones in Appalachian North Carolina. Apparently, this is still a good way to connect. Wifi was available in our motel. And I took advantage of it to plan a route back home. But I felt a little guilty doing this, even though we really needed help finding our way out of the mountains. Like I said, I wasn’t perfect.

2017 08 26_4390_edited-2
Chimney Rock viewed from Lake Lure, North Carolina

I have to recommend trying this for a few days at least. Go to the Smoky Mountains or Chimney Rock or any of the small, isolated communities surrounded by peaks, and when you realize maintaining a connection is pointless, simply turn off the phone. After one or two days you may see things differently. I am not saying that these devices are inherently evil, although some have gone as far as to blame mobile phone use for an increase in brain cancer. Maybe we are too dependent on mobile devices. It seems tragic that we forgot how to follow a map using a compass. Maybe we have devolved a bit by losing certain skills. Without our phones, what skills do we truly have?

Most striking, I found that without my connection to the internet, and thus, no ability to instantly share my experiences, I enjoyed savoring the moments in real time. The pictures I snapped would simply have to wait until I returned. The stories, updates, comments –  everything – were being stored mentally. The experience was just mine. Naturally, I shared the moments with my wife, and in terms of the eclipse, that was a mass event, so that was pretty cool. Also, we rode the Great Smoky Mountains Railway, and we listened to stories from the people with us on the train. These moments are what life’s all about. They can be documented digitally, but they become the planar, two dimensional aspect, less than an echo, and the experience cannot be transferred with the degree of fidelity as first acquired. In other words, you had to be there.

I have been converted. I am a believer now. I’m sold on the notion of unplugging, disconnecting if only for a few hours. I was fortunate to have been compelled into isolation. That made it impossible to cheat, at least for a while. But now there is a larger question looming: if being disconnected makes life a little better for a short time, should that be our natural state? I spend upwards of 50 weeks all year getting stressed out, then take off for a few days here and there to “unwind.” Why would I not want to live my life unwound? Well, some of us have to work for a living. But it does seem a shame to put off living until retirement.