How to Get Away with Buying a Playboy, Circa 1970

(About a 4 minute read)

It occurs to me this morning you might be wondering how someone would have gone about buying a Playboy in a small American town in the early 1970s — and get away with it.  Of course, that was back when buying a Playboy in a small backwards town could break your reputation, so getting away with it was key.

Now, I don’t recall how old I was when I bought my first Playboy.  Older than 16, at least.  So long ago some of the details that never mattered to me anyway now escape me.

I do, however, recall that I bought my first Playboy at Potter’s Drugstore, and that Old Man Potter himself rang up my purchase.  Old Man Potter owned and operated one of two drugstores in my pathetically small town of 2,500 people where it seemed everyone knew everyone else.  And here’s what I recall about buying that Playboy:

I recall I began sweating the moment I picked it out of the magazine rack, and I began blushing the moment I handed it to Old Man Potter at the check out counter.  The only two people in the whole store at the time were Old Man Potter and me — I had carefully seen to that — but I nevertheless felt like the eyes of the entire community were upon me.

For a moment, everything seemed to go smoothly.  I handed the Playboy to Old Man Potter; Old Man Potter took the Playboy; he looked at the price just like he would any other magazine: and then he entered the price into his cash register.   Smooth.  Normal.  I was almost about to breath again when suddenly he said, “I’ll be right back.  I have to make a phone call.” Then he dashed off to the back room with the Playboy still in his hands.

I waited.

And waited.

And waited.

I didn’t stop blushing.  I didn’t stop sweating.  I just waited.  Nothing like this had ever happened to me.  No one had ever before interrupted a transaction, leaving me waiting forever at the counter. I began imaging things.

I imagined he’d gone to the restroom.  I imagined he’d had a heart attack.  Worse, I imagined my aunt was about to walk through the door to the shop at the very same moment Old Man Potter came back with my Playboy.  For some reason, I could vividly imagine that, and the mere thought of it sent new waves of blood to my face.  By the time Old Man Potter came back, I was so red, I must have looked like a fire truck in estrus.  Fortunately, my aunt did not appear.

The rest was uneventful.  Old Man Potter simply finished up ringing up my purchase, took my money, handed me the Playboy and wished me a good day.  I thought I detected a tone of disapproval in his voice, but that could have been pure imagination.

At any rate, I left the store with my Playboy and walked straight home.  I wanted to get home before mom came home from work so I wouldn’t need to hide my Playboy in the garage, instead of taking the risk of trying to slip it past her on my way into the house.

By the time I got home — thankfully, ahead of mom — I had been thinking about where to hide the Playboy in my room.  Mom was a great respecter of my privacy, and she was by no means a snoop, but I was taking no chances.  I wanted neither the embarrassment of her finding out that I looked at filthy pornography, nor the inevitable loss of my filthy pornography if she did find out, because I knew she’d make me throw it away with my own hands if she discovered it.  Finally, I decided to hide it in the bottom drawer of my dresser, beneath my Psychology Today magazines.  She never read my Psychology Today magazines, I thought.

Nowadays, it must be difficult for people who were not alive in the early 70s to realize just how scandalous Playboy was to so very many people back then.  I knew, for instance, that if word got around my school I was buying Playboys, nearly half the kids in my class would think I was either creepy, or a pervert, or both.  The only thing powerful enough to overcome my fears of the risk I was taking was, of course, testosterone.  All conquering testosterone.

Lucky for me, I got away with it.  I even went back to Potter’s Drugstore the next month and bought the next issue.  And the one after that.  And so on, until I left town for college.  It never got any easier:  I always blushed mightily and I always sweat profusely, but I also always waited until I would be the only one at the counter — and I always got away with it.

Or so I thought.  Several years later, I was back in the town visiting mom.  I don’t remember what we were talking about, but at some point she mentioned — as casually as if she were talking about the tomato harvest — that time Old Man Potter had called her at work to inform her I was attempting to buy a Playboy.  Then as my jaw dropped she went on to say how she had shocked Old Man Potter by telling him she thought I was of an age now when it was only natural I’d be interested in girls and that he had her permission to sell me all the Playboys he could.  As I sank lower and lower into my chair, she mentioned, with a wry smile, that some of her friends thought she was a bit radical once word got all over town I was buying Playboys with her blessing.  Last, she thanked me for not leaving my Playboys lying around the house.  It’d been her only real worry that I might.

And that, my brothers and sisters, is how you get away with buying a Playboy in a small American town in the early 1970s — you must first get yourself an understanding mother.  The rest is easy.


This article was originally published September 7, 2008.

Dealing with Fear of Rejection

(About a 22 minute read)

One of the mysteries of my life is that sometime between my 37th and 39th birthdays, I lost my fear of rejection.   It simply disappeared, evaporated, without my having done much of anything to overcome it.

It’s been about twenty years now, and I can only recall a single instance of the fear returning during that time.  That happened six years ago, and though the memory of it is still vivid for me, the fear lasted only a few hours.  I was visiting someone from my childhood, an older man that I had looked up to, and whose rejection I was always afraid of incurring.  It was more of a flashback to old fears, than the emergence of new ones.

Now, it seems to me possible that I’ve had other episodes of the fear during the past twenty years, episodes I no longer remember.  But if so, it does not seem likely they are many.  Instead, my memories are of doing with ease things that would have once made me feel awkward or embarrassed — or that I would have once never risked doing at all for fear of rejection.  To be clear, I can’t say rejection has never concerned me in all that time, but I think I can safely say that any concerns I’ve felt have very seldom risen to the level of fear.

Which is a good thing because the fear can be debilitating.  It can significantly influence your daily life, causing you to behave in ways you might not otherwise behave.  Among other things, the fear of rejection can impact your partnership and marriage prospects, your friendships, your other personal relationships, your career, and the quality of your life in general.  You can pay for it not only in lost opportunities, but also in anxiety, acute self-consciousness, social awkwardness, and even emotional suffering.  It is even for a few unlucky people, significantly more traumatic than hearing my poetry sung aloud!

The Science of Rejection

So far as I can find out, scientists have been studying rejection for about two decades now, but the focus of most of their studies has been on rejection itself, or the pain and suffering it causes, and not on the fear of rejection per se.  In this post, however, I will do the opposite by focusing more on the fear of rejection than on anything else.  Still, let’s start out with a few things the scientists have discovered.

One fascinating discovery has been that the brain by and large does not distinguish between the pain of rejection and physical pain.  Instead, it uses pretty much the same neural pathways to process both kinds of pain.  In brain terms, a broken heart and a broken arm aren’t all that different.

In fact, this is so much the case, that Tylenol can actually work to lessen the pain of rejection.  In one study, scientists placed a group of people on a daily regime of Tylenol for three weeks.  Then, in the actual fun part of the study, they brought the people into the lab, where they arranged for them to be cruelly rejected.  By placing these lucky people in an fMRI scanner, the scientists discovered that the folks taking Tylenol suffered significantly less pain from being rejected than the folks taking sugar pills.  Again, the brain treats a broken heart and broken arm much the same.

One difference, however, has to do with memory.  That is, we can relive and re-experience the pain from rejection much more vividly than we typically re-experience the pain from physical injuries:

Try recalling an experience in which you felt significant physical pain and your brain pathways will respond, “Meh.” In other words, that memory alone won’t elicit physical pain. But try reliving a painful rejection (actually, don’t—just take my word for it), and you will be flooded with many of the same feelings you had at the time (and your brain will respond much as it did at the time, too).  [Source]

So why is emotional pain in the case of rejection so closely linked to physical pain and — at least in our memories — even more vivid than physical pain?

The short answer is, because we’re social animals.  The slightly longer answer is that for millions of years during our evolution, we and our ancestors lived in circumstances in which getting kicked out of our community meant nearly certain death.  Humans generally don’t survive all that well outside of groups, except in the fictional imaginings of some authors, adolescents, and ideologues.  Consequently, those individuals who became our ancestors — that is, lived long enough to have offspring — were the folks who suffered the most from rejection, thus making them the same folks who took the most care to avoid being rejected by their groups.

  Obligatory Warning Lable

The science, while fascinating, is still very much emerging, and does not — so far as I can find — thoroughly address the question of how to deal with the fear of rejection, which I think can be at least as consequential in its own ways as the pain of rejection.

Naturally, at this point, I would like to be in a position to tell you that my years of relative freedom from the fear of rejection have provided me the “the seven secret insights” into how you, too, can overcome the fear of rejection, and that those powerful insights can be yours for only $29.95!  But the fact is, I can’t.  The best I can offer you is a mix of science and personal observation virtually guaranteed to mess up your life that might or might not prove useful to you.  In other words, it’s up to you to test these things for yourself.

Three Things That Probably Won’t Work Alone

Going through the online advice on how to deal with the fear, I repeatedly came across three things that I believe — based on both science and personal experience — are unlikely to work.  As I see it, if you try them and they do in fact work for you, then you’ve beaten the odds.   With that said, here they are in no particular order:

• Overcome your fear of rejection through willpower alone!  This is what I tried for a number of years with limited success.  For instance, when I young, I made a point when attending parties to introduce myself to as many women as I could.  However, it took an act of will to make myself do it, because I was actually rather shy back then.  I did find out, though, that I could indeed now and then will myself to do it, and that it did indeed pay off on occasion.  So why do I say “it probably won’t work”?

Overcoming fear through sheer force of will is problematic for a few reasons.  First, it requires a sustained, conscious effort.  You need to keep reminding yourself, pushing yourself “all night long”, as it were, to stick with it.  If you stop pushing, you stop doing it.  Which means that it’s fairly easy to just give up at some point — especially if you are not met with immediate success.

Again, all the while you’re pushing, the fear is still there.  You are at best overcoming your fear, rather than bringing about an end to it.  And that means you are constantly feeling your fear no matter how hard you push yourself to act in despite of it.  That’s fine and dandy if you’re a masochist, but not so good if you prefer to  live without sweaty armpits.

Last, there’s the backsliding. You can be successful on Tuesday, and yet a disaster on Friday.   Again, this is because you have to keep pushing or you stop overcoming.  Put differently, sheer willpower doesn’t appear to have a positive learning curve.   In my experience, merely willing to overcome fear lasts about as long as most New Year’s resolutions before the backsliding sets in.

To be sure, I’m speaking here of willpower alone.  It should be noted, however, that it can be a vital first step when combined with other techniques.

• Overcome your fear through studying the causes of it!  It’s quite tempting — almost instinctual — to search for the causes of your fear in your past.  People who do this tend to discover any number of life events that caused their fear.  Everything from a hyper-critical parent to social rejection suffered in middle school.   But so far as I can see, all such analyses suffer from at least one major problem: They aren’t solutions.

No matter how accurately you identify the personal causes of your fear, the knowledge by itself does little or nothing to resolve the issue.  So something further is needed, but what?  Frankly, I’ve yet to come across in popular advice a “something further” that seems likely to work.  One author, for instance, advised conjuring up your memories of past fears, and then having the “adult you time travel back in your mind to reassure the child you that everything will be alright in the end”.  Somehow, I seriously doubt that will work for large numbers of us.

To be sure, I do not wish to discourage self-examination.  Knowing yourself is key to so many good things in life, but in this case, it’s just not enough unless or until it can be combined with some other technique that will render it effective.

 • Overcome your fear by focusing on the good things that will come from acceptance rather than on the bad things that will come from rejection!  The problem that I see with this nugget of advice is fairly simple.   Just imagine you’re in a poker game.  You’ve got $100 bet, and your feeling mighty anxious you might lose it.   Would the sensible way to overcome your anxiety be to bet another hundred?  Or a thousand?  Or ten thousand?  As you can see, the more you jack up the potential cost of losing, the more anxious you are likely to become.  So why should “focusing on all the good things that will come from acceptance” make you much more than acutely conscious of how much you’ve got to lose if you are indeed rejected?

To sum up, each of these three things seems to me unlikely to work all that well alone.  Yet, in combination with other techniques, I believe they can often enough make a contribution.

Therapies

Encounter therapy is a standard tool of psychotherapists.  Not to be confused with encounter group therapy, which is a very different thing, encounter therapy involves overcoming one’s fears by physically encountering them, over and over again, if necessary.  For instance, a psychotherapist might encourage an especially shy person to walk up and down a busy sidewalk bouncing a basketball in order to draw attention to themselves.  The shy person is thus forced to confront their fears.

Encounter therapy appears to be at least fairly effective, although I doubt it works for everyone.  For instance, back in the day when I was approaching women at parties, it never did get much more than temporarily easier to do so.  That is, it tended to get a bit easier as the night wore on at any given party, but by the time of the next party, I was back to square one.

 It seems to me that encounter therapy is best combined with play.  Put differently, it’s best to make a game out of it.  For instance, instead of bouncing a basketball down the street — which is for merely shy people — decide to directly confront your fear of rejection by setting yourself the goal of getting rejected by a stranger at least once or twice a day.  Setting a goal turns it into a game. Then go out and find a stranger.  Ask him or her to, say, give you a ride across town.  If by some odd chance they accept your offer, then find another stranger.  And keep at it until you get your coveted daily dose of rejection.

Sounds horrible, doesn’t it?  The fact is, it has actually worked for some people, and in my opinion, it most likely would work for most of us.  But it won’t work unless you begin by making yourself do it — and that’s where sheer force of will comes in.  Apparently, it’s best to keep at it for perhaps 100 days, maybe longer, in order to see decisive results.

If it seems rather daunting to bounce out of bed tomorrow morning on a mission from Café Philos to achieve being rejected by strangers twice before midnight, then perhaps you can ease your way into such a noble pursuit by beginning with visualization.

The basic idea here is to face your fears.  That may sound cliché but it’s actually a fairly effective technique.  You begin by, as vividly as possible, imagining a situation in which you are rejected.  Here, your memories can come in handy.   What was the worse rejection you ever experienced?  Drag that sucker up as vividly as you can recall it.  It can help to write it down in alarming detail.  The point is to get make it as real as you can.

Now intensify it!

Yup, you heard right!  Make it worse!  Think of some way it could have been even worse than it was, and then vividly imagine how you would feel if that actually happened to you.

Next, do it again!  Make it worse than the worse you thought it could be.  Rinse and repeat this fun game for an hour or more daily.  Spend at least ten minutes on each stage in the progression.  And remember — writing it all down is better than just thinking about it.

The astonishing fact is that is a science-backed method for putting a significant dent in your fear of rejection.  Your goal should not be to stop with visualizations though.  You should, when you’re ready, progress to actual encounters.

Frequent readers of Café Philos may be forgiven if — up until this very post — they thought I didn’t know anything about how to have fun.  I am quite certain, however, that I have by now laid that myth to rest once and for all.

A Cognitive Landmine

In general, I’m a great fan of the notion that we are more efficiently changed through our actions than through our thoughts.  Put simply, a hundred days of seeking a rejection or two a day is, in my opinion, more likely to ameliorate one’s fear of rejection than a hundred days of contemplation.

Yet, I have also noticed that sometimes no amount of experience will do the trick because the experience is being interpreted in a counter-productive way.  So I’m now going to mention one belief in particular that has the potential to undermine one’s efforts to deal effectively with the fear of rejection through action, or for that matter, through any other means.

The idea here is fairly simple: Emotions, very much including fear, are reactions to the world as we see it.  But the world as we see it is by and large informed by our beliefs about it.   “Was she laughing at me or with me?’  The answer I give to that question might say more about my beliefs about her, and about people in general, than it says about her in fact.  With that in mind let’s forget all about this stuff, break open the beer keg, and party till it’s Christmas! turn to a belief that could be the cognitive foundation of one’s fear of rejection.

First, I would suggest you carefully examine yourself to see if in anyway you might harbor the desire that everyone like you.  That can be a bit tricky to do because it requires great self-awareness.  Time and again, I’ve heard people say that they do not desire everyone to like them, only to turn around moments later to say something that directly contradicts that notion.  It seems to be a frequent mistake.

In fact, the desire for everyone to like you — whether you are conscious of it or not — is one way to create the fear of rejection.  That’s because desire and fear are companions.  To desire something is to automatically fear that you won’t get it.  To fear something, you must see it as capable of thwarting a desire, unless your fear arises as an instinctual, knee-jerk reaction to, say, a sudden noise.  Otherwise, fear and desire travel hand-in-hand.  So, if you desire for everyone to like you, you fear rejection from anyone and everyone.

Now, the desire for everyone to like you is based on the unrealistic belief that it is actually possible for everyone to like you.  Think about this carefully.  Even though people routinely say they desire the impossible, they don’t really do that.  At least not in any significant way.

For a desire to get hold of you, you must — at the very least — think that it is remotely possible for it to be realized.  You may tell yourself that you truly want to walk through walls, but you don’t fear that you won’t be able to.  You don’t ache when you see a wall you can’t walk through.  You don’t feel frustrated that the wall is solid.  In fact,  you show few if any signs of genuinely desiring to walk through walls.  Thus, if you come to an honest belief that it is impossible for everyone to like you, you will cease to desire that everyone will like you — and with that cessation, you will no longer fear rejection from everyone.  You might still fear it from some people, but not automatically from everyone.  At least, that’s been my experience.

It is important that this is more than a mere intellectual exercise to you.  Instead, the truth that it is impossible for everyone to like you must be real to you.  As real to you as a memory of an actual experience.  So, if you wish to take this approach to your fear of rejection, you must be willing to study the issue until you can all but see the truth.

Once you have become clearly aware of the various reasons not everyone can like you, you will find, I believe, that you have not only lost your desire for everyone to like you, but also quite often your desire for this or that person in particular to like you.

For instance, one reason not everyone can like you is because there are intractable personality conflicts between people that you or they are powerless to change.  But once you see that, you are very likely to recognize when you have encountered someone with whom you have such a conflict.  And you are no more likely to believe they can like you than you are likely to believe everyone can like you.

The bottom line is that if you harbor on any level a belief that everyone can like you, you need to root out that belief if you are to deal effectively with the fear of rejection. In my experience, if you can do just that much, you will have gone a long way toward solving the problem.

Gleeful Summary

There is much else that could be said about this subject but lucky for you, a blog post is not a book.  However, I’ll briefly mention some further ideas you might want to consider:

  • Try setting your expectations of being liked low, but not too low.  Put them in neutral, so to speak, rather than in forward or reverse.
  • Avoid end of the word thinking about rejection.  I have too many friends who bump up their fear of rejection by fantasizing that the actual experience will be far worse than such things tend to be.  Yes, it can be painful, but you’ll survive.
  • Check your motives for wanting someone to like or accept you.  Are they honorable.  Unless you are a fairly wicked person (in which case, we should get together for coffee), dishonorable motives will backbite you.  That is, the intention to, say, exploit someone will increase your fear of being rejected by them.
  • For much the same reason, avoid being hyper-critical of people.  If you are, you will tend to take it on faith that any rejection you suffer from them is because of some flaw of your own.  This is absolutely not true the vast majority of the time.  But if you believe it’s true, it will surely increase your fear of rejection.
  • Even if and when someone rejects you for yourself, try to see it as a compatibility issue, rather than a condemnation of yourself.  “She didn’t like your sense of humor”?  That says little or nothing about the quality of your sense of humor, and everything about her own tastes in humor, and how incompatible her tastes are with yours.  If you see it as a condemnation of you, your fear of rejection will blossom like a weed in your heart.
  • There are over seven billion humans on this planet, and perhaps a few million more politicians, too.  That’s a lot people, human and otherwise, and with that many people, there is no real reason you can’t find at least a few — say a million or more — who genuinely like you or even love you as a person.  But how to filter out the ones who do from the ones who don’t? Try looking at rejection as a filter that is actually helping you to do that very thing.  This might not decrease the pain of being rejected all that much (there is science to suggest it won’t), but it can in my experience at least decease the fear of being rejected — if you take it to heart.
  •  Now, if you take none of my advice save for one thing, then take this: Never, ever universalize rejection.  If someone tells you they’re dumping you because you’re “too kind”, never conclude that means everyone, most people, or even a significant fraction of the world’s seven billions will think you are “too kind”.  Never!  Such thinking is totally barking up the wrong tree, hounding down the wrong trail, sniffing the wrong crotch, humping the wrong leg.  Get my drift?  And worse, it will increase your fear of rejection nearly astronomically.

There ain’t no good guy.
There ain’t no bad guy.
There’s just you and me,
And we just disagree.
— Dave Mason, We Just disagree

Nine times out of ten, Mason is right.

I’m turning the conversation over to you now.  This is your BIG opportunity to cheerfully tell me how wrong I am!  Please feel free to share your thoughts, feelings, opinions, and stories in the comments section!

A History of Love and Marriage, and How to Survive Both

(About a 28 minute read)

Love is Timeless

Love is an ancient thing
That travels back before gravity was born
And forward beyond the last gods.
I have wanted to sip your breast
In between the lights of night and day
And tell you how I’ve taken sides
Against a mammoth
To bring you his tusks
So that you, my woman, my love,
Will be happy now
For all the worlds
You have given to me.

I’ll grant it’s possible I might have factually exaggerated a little when I wrote that love, “travels back before gravity was born and forward beyond the last gods”.   Yet, there is still poetic truth to that statement, for love is indeed an ancient thing.

Love easily predates civilization, which is not much more than 5,500 years old.  And it almost certainly predates our own happy species of spear-chucking super-apes, for in all likelihood, our ancestors felt love too.   Some of the most current science on the subject — the work of Helen Fisher and others — strongly suggests that love is deeply rooted in our DNA.    All three kinds of it.

You see, Fisher has found physiological evidence that we humans experience at least three distinct kinds of love.  Not just one kind, as the English language suggests, but three.

Fisher calls them, “lust”, “attraction”, and “attachment”.  And each one comes with its very own physical “core system” in the brain.  Take that, English language — you drooling moron who only has one proper word for love!

I myself believe there is evidence for more than three.  Fisher, after all, has concerned herself only with the kinds of love directly involved in mating and reproduction.  She is mute on the topic of loves beyond that relatively narrow focus.   Which is fair.  No law obliges anyone of us to look at everything.

One of the games adolescents in particular like to play with each other — when they aren’t actually “playing” with each other — is to ponder what “true love” is.  If you look closely at their ponderings, however, you will usually find that they are comparing and contrasting Fisher’s lust, attraction, and attachment, without really knowing that they are doing it.   “True love should be enduring!” Attachment.  “It should be passionate!”  Attraction.  “It should not be merely sexual!” Lust.

In fact, all three kinds of love are equally true in the sense all three are deeply rooted in our DNA, and all three kinds are ancient.

The Suppression of Romantic Love

Perhaps a bit newer than the three loves, but still very ancient by human standards, is the instinct to pair off into couples.  That instinct, which is the psychological basis for marriage in almost all of its various forms, is just as certain as the loves to be older than civilization, and it might even — like the loves — have arisen prior to our own species.

Now, I think we can confidently suppose that, prior to about 11,000 years ago, the three kinds of love and pair bonding — or marriage, if you wish — often enough went hand in hand.  Then, sometime between that date and the rise of the first civilizations, all hell broke lose.   “Hell”, in this case, being the Agricultural Revolution.

You see, the Agricultural Revolution changed us from wandering hunter/gatherers to sedentary farmers.  And that change brought about a change in marriage customs that split apart the three loves and marriage.  Or, to be quite precise, split apart at least attraction and marriage.

Fischer’s “Attraction” can be thought of as what we commonly call today, “romantic love”.  Especially the early, most intense, stages of it.  And quite unfortunately for romantic love, it was capable of interfering with the new agricultural economy.   Basically, one or the other had to go, and it was romantic love that — in a decision so typical for our noble species of nincompoops — got the boot.

The problem, according to what seems to be the consensus of scientists, was inheritance.  Hunter/gatherers don’t have a lot to pass down to their children.  After all they can’t carry a whole lot with them in their territorial wanderings.  But farmers are another matter.  They have land to pass down.  And that means marriage becomes, not mainly an issue of who loves who, but at least significantly, an issue of who gets the land.

In hunting/gathering groups, the status of women — including their rights and freedoms — is closely associated with how much they contribute (relative to men) to the group’s total food supply.  Women, as providers, mainly gather plants.  Men, as providers, mainly hunt animals.   Those hunting/gathering groups that live in regions where plants are the main source of food are generally more egalitarian than those groups that live in regions (such as the Arctic) where animals, as a source of food, far outweigh plants.

It is generally thought that women might have been the sex that first domesticated plants, but at some point, men took over the actual labor of farming and thus became the main breadwinners of the family. That fun development most likely led to a decline in the rights and freedoms of women, and the rise of patriarchies.

Add to all of that, the eternal desire of men to insure that their women folks don’t cuckold them, and you perhaps get the first stirrings of the notion that women ought to be the property of men.  For what better way to make sure your woman doesn’t cuckold you than to basically turn her into your property?  And once you do that, you must also, to be consistent, make her the property of her father and her sons, as well.

Thus marriage became nearly a master/slave relationship.  Women generally still retained a few rights — such as the right to have children by their husbands (an infertile marriage was often enough one of the very few grounds by which a woman could divorce her husband), the right to compel their husband to support their children, etc — but the man had definitely become the lord of the household, and the woman his mere helpmate.  Adios to soulmates!  Goodbye to equal partners!   So long romantic love! The door is on the right!

For most of history it was inconceivable that people would choose their mates on the basis of something as fragile and irrational as love and then focus all their sexual, intimate, and altruistic desires on the resulting marriage. In fact, many historians, sociologists, and anthropologists used to think romantic love was a recent Western invention. This is not true. People have always fallen in love, and throughout the ages many couples have loved each other deeply.

But only rarely in history has love been seen as the main reason for getting married. When someone did advocate such a strange belief, it was no laughing matter. Instead, it was considered a serious threat to social order.

— Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage (2005)

Of course, everything I’ve written here has been a superficial overview, a big picture look at it all.  There are myriads of details.  I must now ask you to fast forward to around 800 A.D. and the Arab World.

The Rebound of Romantic Love

It is about then, according to Joseph Campbell, that things start to change again.  That is, that romantic love begins to make a comeback.  And the comeback starts with the poets of the Arab World, of all people!  Poets, as every sensible person knows, are a suspicious lot.  While its certainly true that many of them — perhaps even most of them — are decent people who support the status quo with their verse, there are enough scoundrels among the lot that we should always be vigilant when dealing with the species.

For example:  Roughly around 800 A.D., a few quite scandalous Arab and Persian poets decided to reform romantic love — which at the time was widely regarded as a kind of madness.

According to Campbell, those deviates got it into their heads that romantically loving a woman for her individuality, her uniqueness as a person, was far and away more important than using her as — an in some sense interchangeable — means to economic betterment, or as a mere sex object.

Only being poets, they said those things with all sorts of unnecessarily flowering words of poetry and strikingly beautiful prose.   As for myself, I never use flowery or poetic words, even in my poetry, but that’s mainly because I don’t want the CIA to mistake me for an Arab or Persian and then send a few drones my way, if you’ll pardon my realism.

Now, I am no longer certain whether Campbell says the poets advocated actually marrying for love.  It seems more that they merely advocated romantically loving a mistress (as opposed to merely loving her erotically), while keeping a wife for heirs.  But at the time, saying anything at all in favor of romantic love would have been radical.

Of course, the powers that be pushed back on the newfangled idea.  For, if you first allow that “true” love is about loving someone for themselves, then you must soon enough afterwards allow that true love has a moral right to cross social boundaries. Rich can love poor, noble can love commoner, a person of one social class can love someone of another social class; and pretty soon no one keeps to his or her proper place in society.  Even common folks would no longer be primarily their social roles, but would become persons, individuals.  Next thing you know, they’ll demand rights as individuals! rather than merely demand them as members of some group, such as peasants, masons, or carpenters.  There could be no end to the scandal!

It wasn’t long after the worst elements of the Arab and Persian societies had invented romantic love that it got packed into the songs and speeches of the troubadours, who brought it to Christian Europe beginning around 1200 A.D. And the notion soon got the European upper-classes to wondering whether their customary marriages were really all that they could and should be.  For the upper-classes were for the most part the only ones at the time who had the wealth to indulge themselves in the thought of — if not actually marrying for love — then at least keeping a mistress for love (and not merely for sex).

In twelfth-century France, Andreas Capellanus, chaplain to Countess Marie of Troyes, wrote a treatise on the principles of courtly love. The first rule was that “marriage is no real excuse for not loving.” But he meant loving someone outside the marriage. As late as the eighteenth century the French essayist Montaigne wrote that any man who was in love with his wife was a man so dull that no one else could love him.  — Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage (2005)

Now please allow me to jump forward again.   The time, now, is the mid to late 1800s when the growing middle class in the Western nations is at last becoming wealthy enough that it is no longer strictly necessary to marry almost purely for economic reasons.  Hence, the flowering of the idea that one should marry for love.  And this flowering has continued with us up until the present age, known to scholars as The Age of Excruciating Blogging, when the idea has been expanding not only in depth (e.g. to justify such things as same-sex marriages), but also in reach (i.e. into the non-Western world).

The Specter of Divorce

However, the same economic conditions that make practical the notion of marrying for love also, beginning around 1970 when women start entering the labor force in large numbers, make practical the push for a greater egalitarianism between the sexes.   In a sense, society has ever since then been returning to the egalitarianism of most hunting/gathering groups — speaking strictly in terms of the sexes here (Meanwhile  wealth has increasingly become concentrated in fewer and fewer hands).  But with this return came rising rates of divorce.

If you have (1) the notion that you should marry for love, and (2) the economic means to support yourself without a partner, then you might be very disinclined to stay in a loveless marriage.  Divorce seems to have peaked in the United States in 1980, and to have slowly declined since then, but it is still a significant problem — especially, given how devastating it can be.

The wise American solution, of course, is often enough to try to make it tougher for couples to divorce so that their loveless marriages may endure.  Because we Americans all know that quantity is superior to quality, especially when it comes to marriage, right?

Fortunately, only a tiny fraction of the total number of bills making divorce harder to obtain have been passed into law by conservatives in recent years, but conservatives are unlikely to give up on such efforts anytime soon because, you know, conservatives.

Liberals, meanwhile, seem to vacillate far too much for an answer either because, you know, liberals.  In fact, both parties seem to be stumped for a solution to the divorce problem.  Which is not at all surprising these days because, of course, politicians.  Even though quite a few scientists from multiple branches of science have now reached a firm consensus that politicians are actually Homo sapiens, members of our own species, I myself still have legitimate doubts about that.  It’s well known there was some scandalous interbreeding with Neanderthals going on a few thousand years ago.  Just sayin’….

Now I should perhaps mention that I am not personally a great and hearty proponent of marriage.  While I think it’s a wonderful thing for some people (in much the same spirit as I think parachuting naked onto an Alaskan glacier in winter to fight grizzlies with a hand-axe is just dandy for some people), I myself find oaths of eternal monogamy stifling on several levels, and I would only be able to tolerate a marriage if it was between me and a free spirited bonobo an open one.

However, I am not yet insane enough to imagine that other people’s monogamy destroys the sanctity of my two divorces and current state of celibacy.  So I’ve tirelessly hunted down for you, dear readers, some fascinating information on how to stay happily married!  You’re welcome!

Here are the five stellar nuggets of reliable marital advice that I found after literally minutes of actual searching on your behalf on the internet!  You’re welcome again!

  • Keep the romance in your relationship alive by buying sexy lingerie.  (American Association of Lingerie Merchants)
  • Get your marriage off to the right start with a timely prenuptial agreement.  (American Paralegal Association)
  • Keep that “Special Sparkle” in your marriage by buying household cleaning products.   (Alliance of Cleaning Agent Manufacturers)
  • Be sure to visit the Friendly Mountain State of Colorado on your honeymoon and anniversaries.  (Colorado State Tourists Bureau)
  • Avoid the proven dangers of vaccinating your children by buying safe herbal remedies instead.  (Dr. Jenny Ann Smams’ Health and Happiness Herbal Web-Store)

As you can see, it’s a simple scientific fact that all it really takes to enjoy a long, happy marriage is a valid credit card!  And you thought this was going to be hard, didn’t you?

Seven Snippets of Science-based Advice

To recap: The Agricultural Revolution, along with other factors, changed marriage from a more or less egalitarian love match into an often loveless patriarchal arrangement.  Then, beginning around 800 AD, some low sorts in the Middle East started pushing back.  Eventually, that led to a rebirth of the notion one should marry for love.  But that raises a question: If love, in one form or another,  is now the basis of marriage,  then how does one nurture and maintain it in order to avoid unhappy, loveless marriages or divorce?

To be clear, I am in no way advocating that people stay in unhappy marriages.  In fact, I think such marriages are better off dissolved.  But “better off” is a relative term here.  In my experience, divorce is devastating, and the only thing worse than it is an unhappy marriage (Whether or not to divorce, however, is a decision best left up to the spouses themselves).  My aim here is not to promote staying in unhappy marriages, but to pass along some sound information about how to head off an unhappy marriage in the first place.

That information does not come from me, however — nor even from the ever trenchant and insightful people at the Colorado State Tourism Bureau — but from a group of scientists largely working at the University of Washington.  The leader of those scientists is John Gottman.   Gottman was one of the founders of the University’s so-called, “Love Lab”, and he and his colleagues’ findings might possibly provide some insights into how couples can build and maintain high-quality, loving relationships.

What I intend to do here is to simply lay out some of Gottman’s research-based insights (with a bit of commentary for clarification provided by me).  He, of course, believes they are quite effective.  I believe they are most likely effective.  But the real judge must be you and your own experience when attempting to apply them.  This is, after all, science, not dogma.  With that said, let’s to the chase!

 • First, if you aren’t doing it already, keep up to date on your partner’s world.  A lot of us don’t seem to do this.  Early on in a relationship, we freely ask a lot of questions.  But so often we fail to actively check later on in the relationship whether anything has changed.  Knowing your partner is essential, according to Gottman, and keeping up with them is a vital part of that.  So, know his or her goals, worries, and hopes; their images of themselves; their relationships to the key people in their lives; and the major events in their history, among many other things.

 • Second,  nurture fondness and admiration.  In various studies, Gottman claims to have been able to predict with an accuracy of between 80% and 94% whether a couple will soon divorce.  Although his rates of prediction are still controversial, it seems that his insight into what factors to look for as dangerous warning sights a couple is on the verge of divorce are somewhat less controversial.  The key factors are: (1) criticism of partners’ personality, (2) contempt (from a position of superiority), (3) defensiveness, and (4) stonewalling, or emotional withdrawal from interaction.  Of the four, Gottman believes contempt is the most important.

To counteract at least some of the four factors, make it a habit to remind yourself of your spouse’s genuine virtues — even in the midst of a conflict.

• Next, turn towards each other.  Gottman believes that in marriages, people periodically make “bids” for their partner’s attention, affection, humor, or support. For instance, your partner might say to you, “Come take a look at my newest stick figure drawing of you, dear!  I think it might be my best work to date.  Do you think we can have it framed to hang above the fireplace?”  If you somehow positively acknowledge your quite possibly deranged partner’s bid in circumstances like this, then — according to Gottman — you are laying a foundation for emotional connection, romance, passion, and a good sex life.

On the other hand, if you routinely “turn away” from these bids,  then you are doing the opposite.  That is, you are undermining the foundation for emotional connection, etc.

• Let your partner influence you!  As Gottman puts it:

The happiest, most stable marriages are those in which the husband treats his wife with respect and does not resist power sharing and decision making with her. When the couple disagrees, these husbands actively search for common ground rather than insisting on getting their way. It’s just as important for wives to treat their husbands with honor and respect. But our data indicate that the vast majority of wives—even in unstable marriages—already do that. Too often men do not return the favor.

 

• Solve your solvable problems.  Not all problems are solvable, but you should certainly solve those that can be solved.  Gottman proposes how to go about it, too.  To quote:

  • Step 1. Use a softened startup: Complain but don’t criticize or attack your spouse. State your feelings without blame, and express a positive need (what you want, not what you don’t want). Make statements that start with “I” instead of “you.” Describe what is happening; don’t evaluate or judge. Be clear. Be polite. Be appreciative. Don’t store things up.
  • Step 2. Learn to make and receive repair attempts: De-escalate the tension and pull out of a downward cycle of negativity by asking for a break, sharing what you are feeling, apologizing, or expressing appreciation.
  • Step 3. Soothe yourself and each other: Conflict discussions can lead to “flooding.” When this occurs, you feel overwhelmed both emotionally and physically, and you are too agitated to really hear what your spouse is saying. Take a break to soothe and distract yourself, and learn techniques to soothe your spouse.
  • Step 4. Compromise: Here’s an exercise to try. Decide together on a solvable problem to tackle. Then separately draw two circles—a smaller one inside a larger one. In the inner circle list aspects of the problem you can’t give in on. In the outer circle, list the aspects you can compromise about. Try to make the outer circle as large as possible and your inner circle as small as possible. Then come back and look for common bases for agreement.

Apparently, those steps were not invented by Gottman, although they are recommended by him.  I myself, however, used to use a version of them back in the day to great effect.  The challenge is to turn them into habit so that you stick with them even in the heat of a conflict.

• Overcome gridlock by honoring your partner’s dreams.  Gottman believes that many “perpetual conflicts” have at their root possibly unexpressed dreams, goals, or visions.  These can be simple things, such as what neighborhood to live in, or they can be as huge as what one partner believes is the meaning of life.  In dealing with gridlock then, you should try the tactic of discovering your partner’s dreams for themselves and your marriage, and then honoring them.  You don’t need to make them your own, but you do need to honor them.

• Last, create shared meaning.  Once again, as Gottman puts it:

 Marriage can have an intentional sense of shared purpose, meaning, family values, and cultural legacy that forms a shared inner life. Each couple and each family creates its own microculture with customs (like Sunday dinner out), rituals (like a champagne toast after the birth of a baby), and myths—the stories the couple tells themselves that explain their marriage. This culture incorporates both of their dreams, and it is flexible enough to change as husband and wife grow and develop. When a marriage has this shared sense of meaning, conflict is less intense and perpetual problems are unlikely to lead to gridlock.

It strikes me that, to the extent they are effective, Gottman’s insights can be applied far beyond marriage.  They can, for instance, be applied to any partnership inside or outside of marriage.  And they can even be applied to “mere” friendships.

In my opinion, his insights look to be of some use, but of course, as I said earlier, the final authority on that is you and your own experiences trying to apply them.

Impressively Profound Summary

For various reasons,  old, patriarchal marriages seem to be on their way out the door not just in the Western world, but increasingly elsewhere, too.  It may yet take another hundred or two hundred years, however, before they are almost entirely a thing of the past.   The success or failure of those marriages was largely measured in terms of such things as the number of children born to them, whether they resulted in anyone’s economic betterment, and, of course, their duration.  Considerations such as whether they were loving marriages didn’t arise until nearly modern times.  But today that consideration has so much come to the forefront that even most proponents of traditional marriages now like to say love is key to a good marriage.

The old patriarchal marriages are being replaced by new, more egalitarian marriages based primarily on love.  Ironically, these allegedly “new” marriages are very likely to have more ancient roots than the allegedly “old” marriages, for they seem to date back to our hunting/gathering past, when societies in general, and not just marriages, were more egalitarian.

The new marriages, however, do raise some problems, for they usually are not shored up by oppressive or coercive societal pressures or laws.  Because they are based on love, they are freely entered into, and perhaps almost as freely exited.  Thus, to keep them together puts a premium value on nurturing and maintaining love in the relationship.  And that, of course, is great news for therapists and marriage counselors!

But where do you think marriage is headed?  Is it true that egalitarian marriages are increasingly shoving aside patriarchal marriages — perhaps even worldwide?  How key is love, really, to a happy marriage?  Are there any remaining reasons or justifications for unhappy couples to stay together these days?  And will civilization survive the Age of Excruciating Blogging?  Please weigh in with your thoughts, feelings, comments, and drunken offers of marriage!


A closely related post:  Women’s Sexuality: “Base, Animalistic, and Ravenous”

The Gifts of AL Remington

(About a 4 minute read)

It was difficult to beat Al. I think I only did it once. Or, maybe, I didn’t. Maybe I just came close. He was strongest in the endgame.

If you let him get that far — and it was hard not to — he had you beat.

Al said he learned chess when he was in the army, stationed in Greenland, with nothing else to do but his job and learn chess. By the time I met him, he was in his 60s, still enthusiastic about the game, and the man to beat at the Coffee Shop. He was a gentle man, reserved, modest, but exuding an air of dignity and confidence, much like a good father or grandfather. In his 60s, he drove a dark blue Cadillac on wet days and rode a Harley when the sun was out.

One day I discovered the Coffee Shop didn’t purchase the chess sets it had on hand. It was Al who did that. He would search garage sales for abandoned sets, buy them, and bring them to the Shop. He had to do that over and over again because people would loose pieces. But he didn’t mind. It was his hobby.

I think it must have been Al who got “everyone” — at least a third of the regular customers — playing chess. There were always two or three games going back then. Half the regular customers were kids and most of the kids were taught the game by Al. That is, someone else would usually teach them the basic moves — then Al would teach them the art.

Not just the art of chess, but other things too. He taught kids how to win graciously, how to loose without animosity, how to be fair (he’d spot the less skilled players a piece or two), and even how to keep a poker face. He never lost his temper, he was always encouraging, and he taught values. For instance: There wasn’t a kid at the Coffee Shop Al disdained to play, nor one he disrespected.

Several of the adults who hung out at the Shop were uncertain characters, but not Al. One man, Tim, was only there to proselytize the kids for Christ and had no other point in befriending them. Another man, Jeff, in his mid-thirties, was obsessed with getting laid by teens. A third man, who called himself Attila, dressed immaculately, neatly trimmed his white beard, and pretended to have wealth and connections. He would come every day to the Shop with his son, who he’d named Khan, and who was 15 and had lost his spirit. Attila would speak about Khan as if Khan wasn’t present and sitting right next to him: I’ve never in my life heard a more verbally abusive father. Unlike those characters, Al cared for the kids.

Al never told you he liked kids, but he did. He’d surely raised enough of them: Four biological children, two or three adopted children, and a number of foster children. I figure teaching them chess was Al’s way of raising up the Coffee Shop kids. He spoke to me several times of his belief that playing chess developed good, solid thinking skills. But he never quite said he considered himself on a mission to help the Coffee Shop kids. Saying something like that wasn’t Al’s style.

Al died at his home a couple years ago at age 72. I read his obituary to discover he was a minister. He hadn’t spoken of that; had never proselytized me; nor — so far as I know — had he proselytized any of the kids. I guess that wasn’t his style, either. Instead, he just served others.

Nowadays, I drop by the Coffee Shop once or twice a month. The kids Al and I knew have grown up and moved on. No one today plays chess. The adults sit with adults and the kids sit with kids. Maybe that’s the way people feel it should be.

I was reminded of Al earlier today by a comment Ordinary Girl left on another post. She mentioned how adults stay away from kids for fear of being thought creepy. That got me to thinking of how Al, born in 1933, belonged to another generation — one that had a stronger sense of community and wasn’t so set against mixing the ages. Yet, I wonder how kids are supposed to grow up with few adults in their lives?

Are they supposed these days to learn what they need to be a functional adult from Hollywood, the entertainment industry, and advertising? It seems to me we too often leave kids these days to be raised by the media.

Somethings we can only learn from another person. Things we cannot learn from a book, a movie, the television, popular music, or a video game. Somethings we must learn through our interactions with others. And some of those things that can only be learned through our interactions with others are very important. I discovered when I hung out with teens that many teens had what struck me then as a thirst to hang out with adults. I suspect they needed encouragement, insight into themselves, support, and affirmation, among other things. Those are not things we easily get from a book or movie.

Yet, it’s not a one-way street. I believe there can be tremendous benefits for an adult to having kids in his or her life. For one thing, watching a new generation grow up, seeing it go through the same things you once went through, can give you an invaluable perspective on life and a profound acceptance of your own aging.

I’ve come to believe any society which separates the generations will sooner or later pay a price for it. It even seems to me unnatural. I doubt any previous society has headed as far in that direction as ours. And, to me, it is all part of the larger break down of genuine community. It seems our societies are becoming increasingly fragmented, and I am unsure where that will eventually leave us. I rather hope Al’s generation is not the last to mix ages.


Note: Al was a grand- or great grandnephew of Frederic Remington, the painter.

Late Night Thoughts: Magic, Leadership, Feminism, Poetry, and More

(About a 9 minute read)

There are places you can visit at night in the San Luis Valley and not see an artificial light for miles.  If you stand in one of those places when the moon is down and tilt your head back until you are gazing nearly straight up, you risk falling into infinity.

I have never know a daytime sky to appear as deep, as vast, as infinite as a nighttime sky, though some of the crisp autumn blue skies of Colorado do seem to have a touch of the infinite.  Nothing, however, quite compares to stars by the thousands set in the black ocean.

Although you cannot possess the vastness of the night, you can long to possess it.  Long just as intensely as ever someone longed to requite an unrequitable love.  Long because its beauty makes you feel alive, and you want that feeling to stay with you forever.

It is wiser, though, to set aside any feelings of possessiveness.  Let them pass by you like winds without trying to cling to them or nurture them anymore than you would try to cling to or nurture those winds.  For possessiveness clung to kills the heart, kills love, even in human relationships, let alone in our relationships to nature.

To love the night so intensely that you might be in some sense renewed, reborn by it, you must be willing to let it go.

◊◊◊

Some years ago I took Becky’s children, Leah and Aaron, to a public Easter egg hunt.  Watching them and the other children dash about unsystematically exploring one possible hiding place after the next, and often the same hiding place they’d explored only moments before, I suddenly realized there was a sort of logic to their apparent randomness.  The logic of magic.

They were, it seemed to me, selectively picking “good” spots to explore, while ignoring “bad” spots, spots that perhaps did not seem to them magical enough to hold an egg.   And they would return to those good spots time and again, because, of course, magic.

The little legs of Easter
All hunt the same bushes
Each pair runs to check
And recheck the same spots

It’s the logic of magic
It’s found in good places
And appears where it wasn’t
Just a moment ago

◊◊◊

On a blog I recently came across a post by a young woman in which she expressed pride in being a leader.  She so reminded me of myself many years ago.  Had you asked me back then if I was proud of so often being the leader, I would have told you that I was, and I probably would have recited the choicest passages of my résumé, whether you wanted to hear them or not.

Then, in my 30s I finally got enough experience of people to have two or three modest, but still significant, insights into — not leaders — but followers.  It seemed to me then that there were two main (but not only) reasons people follow other people, and that neither reason was all that good of a reason for me to be proud they were following me.

Perhaps the best reason people follow is because they think their leader is going where they want to go.  People who harbor that reason won’t allow you to lead them down just any old path you want to take them.  They only go down the path they themselves want, and they stick you out front largely so you, and not them, must take the risk of being pounced on by a tiger waiting for its next meal to come loping along, full of pride at being allowed to play leader.

The second reason people follow seems to be that they themselves feel too insecure or threatened to lead themselves.  Such people would follow a chimpanzee if it promised them security.  And they are often so frightened of something that they would follow the chimp down any path the chimp chose to take, even the path to hell — just so long as the chimp kept reassuring them it was the safest route.

In either case, being a leader has less to do with special you, and much more to do with them, than your pride constantly tells you it has.  But add to all that the fact that about one-quarter to one-third of all people are such poor judges of character that they are incapable of distinguishing a wise leader from a damnable fool, and you end up with a pretty poor foundation for taking much pride in the fact people will follow you.

◊◊◊

On my second night in Colorado, I left my motel room to drive to a high place in the mountains where I got out of my car and witnessed a moon so seemingly huge that I had the absurd, yet remarkably visceral desire to see if I could touch it.  And I actually did stretch out an arm to it.   It appeared, then, to be just beyond my reach.

At the time I felt I was a refugee.  Earlier in the year, I’d gone out of business, lost my wife, my house, my friends, and most of my possessions.  It seemed to me that night that all my accomplishments in life were behind me, and that I’d been a fool to have for decades valued all those things more than I valued simply loving life.

On this mountain I’m alone
The moon a foot beyond my hand
And there’s nothing that I know
Do I ever understand?

I just wonder how it is
That all the things we ever did
Could mean so much more to us
Than the love we freely give.

For I am but a passing thing
From one moment to the next,
And with each moment’s passing
There is nothing left.

On this mountain I’m alone
The moon a foot beyond my hand
And for all the things I know
Do I ever understand?

◊◊◊

Few movements are as misunderstood these days as feminism.  Which is a bit strange because the movement is by and large based on a simple, easy to understand, ideology at its core.  That is, it’s a form of egalitarianism.  Specifically, the form of egalitarianism that asserts women ought everywhere to have the same rights, freedoms, and liberties as men.

Unfortunately for feminists, decades of anti-feminist propaganda have convinced vast numbers of people that the true core of feminism is misandry, the hatred of all things male.  And even more unfortunately, there are a few self-described “feminists” who feed and inflame that image of all feminists by themselves being actual misandrists.

What’s true of feminism, though, is true of all large movements, for every such movement has its lunatic fringe.

I wonder why.  Indeed, I quite often wonder why every movement has its lunatic fringe.  But I have yet to arrive at an answer that satisfies me.

◊◊◊

Have you ever reached the cardboard backing of a paper tablet only to find yourself torn between throwing it away and saving it for some use only god knows what?

◊◊◊

I had an uncle who grew up in the Great Depression when frugality so often meant the difference between eating three meals a day or merely two or one.  He taught me around the age of six or so never to throw away a bent nail.  “It’s a perfectly good nail.  Just hammer it out so it’s straight enough to use again.”

Shortly after my eight birthday, he taught me to shoot a rifle.  “Here’s your one bullet.  There will be no more bullets today.  Now aim well and carefully, Paul, so you hit the can with it.”

I took forever to aim, but I hit the beer can.

◊◊◊

As a rule, the more convinced we are that we are right, or have got hold of the truth, the less likely we are to have seen deeply into the matter.  So often, to look deeply is to become aware of how uncertain the truth is.

◊◊◊

The notion that our minds at birth are Tabula rasa, blank slates devoid of any innate knowledge, biases, instincts, etc., is an ancient one, dating back to at least the ancient Stoics.  It basically asserts that almost the whole of what we are as persons will be ultimately derived from our experiences in life, or from what we learn from them.   It is also a perennial idea in the social sciences.  And, last, is almost certainly nonsense.

For instance, humans have just too many ubiquitous behaviors for us not to be, at least in large part, an instinct driven species.  Moreover, we seem to be born with talents — that is, with aptitudes or predispositions — for various things.    We also seem to be born with inherent cognitive biases.  And there is at least some evidence that we even have in us at birth the rudiments of arithmetic.

All of which suggests the notion that we humans are connected to our past in much more profound ways than merely through the continuum of time.  Our DNA is ancient, and we are in so many ways, the manifestation of our DNA.

Throw Your Rockets Far

I shall not tell you Aaron at eight
Somewhere we walk in the yellow grass;
The sky huge, but our feet owning each step.
Somewhere we hear the shorebird’s cry
From a beach in Africa we never left.
Somewhere we are shaman, warrior, gatherer,
Women and men intimate with our past.

No, I shall not tell you Aaron at eight
What at eight you simply feel
On your lawn at dusk when you throw a bottle rocket
With a warrior’s grace — and hard at the moon.

Late Night Thoughts: Scam-Sharks, Poetry, Blogging, Rebirth, and More

(About a 9 minute read)

Grey skies, greyer rain.
We shelter our hearts
Together you and I
Beneath our bright
Yellow umbrella.

◊◊◊

Where are the best blogs?  I’ve come across several in the past few weeks, but not nearly enough to slake my depraved thirst for other folk’s  pleasantly twisted, often unique, vibrantly creative, or revealingly truthful perspectives on all things life.

If you know of any great blogs that fit any of those descriptions — or for that matter, are great and snerklesome in any other way — please link me to them!  I’d love to check them out!

 ◊◊◊

A young man, about 20 I would guess, recently told me that we know we are right when “the voice within” confirms we are right.  He was responding to another person’s question, “How do we know when something is true?”

I think, from what I’ve heard and read, that the notion we can discern the truth or falsity of an idea merely according to whether or not some “inward voice” tells us that it sits well with us, or feels right or true to us, is a popular one these days.

Frankly, I also suspect it is evidence of a disturbing lack of a competent education.  If that young man honestly didn’t graduate from high school knowing how — at least in principle — to sort what is true or from what isn’t true, he should consider suing his school board for negligent injury and malpractice, and name his teachers as co-defendants.

He should go for blood, too!  Settle for nothing less than hundreds of thousands.  It’s arguable that part of the foundation of any decent education is to learn what makes something true or not.

Whether the law will actually allow him to file such a suit is almost irrelevant to the fact that he does honestly deserve compensation — if he was not himself somehow to blame for being left ignorant of how to judge whether or not something is true.

He deserves it because he’s almost certainly going to pay for it again and again in the currency of messed up life decisions until he does learn.

Every politician and scam-shark out there can already smell his blood.

◊◊◊

I confess.  As you probably suspected, I just now cheerfully made up the newborn word, “snerklesome”.  I have no idea what it should mean.  Do you?  Suggestions, please!

◊◊◊

Without You

If I had this day to own
I think I could sit here for an hour
With nothing more important
Than coffee and this pen
And how much better living’s been
Without you.

I don’t do a lot these days —
It’s so crazy, but it’s fun
Just recalling what I’m missing
Without you.

It ain’t about good or bad
Or anything so grim —
I remember well your beauty —
But the mornings still have been
Lighter now without you.

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Is the desire for rebirth, renewal a human universal?  It seems ubiquitous enough: It’s found in every culture and society that I myself know of.  Perhaps it really is a universal, or nearly universal, trait of humans.

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I really do need more blogs to read.   “Please, sir, I want some more.”

(Silence)

“What? More?  The boy wants more?” Said the master bloggers in unison and disbelief.

“That boy will be hung”, said the author of a science blog. “I know that boy will be hung.”

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The most precious thing in life is its uncertainty.  — Kenko, Essays in Idleness (Tsurezuregusa).

Sometime around the age of 50, I began to notice how predictable, repetitious, and boring life was becoming for me.  The weariness took hold gradually, but steadily grew over the next several years until it reached something of a crisis in that I was becoming lethargic and dissatisfied under the weight of it.

Ironically, those years were still the happiest of my life up until that time.  Yet the boredom rose and began to threaten that happiness.  What to do?

I would prefer to tell you now that I found the perfect solution, but I didn’t, and I still haven’t.  I have, however, managed to greatly reduce the problem through more than one means, most of them commonsense (“Try new things”, “Break at least some of your routines”,  “Turn to the arts and sciences for fresh ideas and ways of seeing”,  “Start a guerilla war with the kids on your lawn”, etc.).  Some of them, however, are perhaps a little bit more than commonsense.

When I came across Kenko several years ago, I was struck by two things.  First, the novelty of his view of uncertainty.  Most of us, I think, are annoyed by uncertainty.  We even seem to run from it.  For instance, how often do we embrace all too tightly beliefs about the world that we cannot possibly — if we were honest with ourselves — be that certain of?  And how often do we cling to old, outdated, now worthless habits and routines for no better reason than they make our days more predictable?  We are usually inclined, I believe, to view uncertainty as anything but “precious”.

So Kenko’s view of uncertainty first struck me for a view I’d never come across before.  And in the second place, it struck me for a view I didn’t understand.  Why did he think uncertainty was so precious?  Was he really seeing something?  Something I myself had never seen before?   If so, then what could it be?

Something I’ve become acutely aware of is how we tend to turn to stone over the years: To ossify in our beliefs, daily activities, relationships, and self-identities and images.  Indeed, I’ve written about how and why our self-image can become our greatest tyrant and oppressor here.  The problem is that it does very little good to merely say to ourselves, “Don’t do it!”  That’s about as effective in practice as “Just abstain until marriage” sex-ed.

What has worked best for me to solve the ossification problem is to look for uncertainties in my self-images or self-identities.  Seeing how uncertain my notions of myself are has significantly helped me to hold at least many of those notions tentatively, lightly.  It even seems to me now that a lightness of heart or spirit begins with a lightness of self-image.

Thank you, Kenko.  You got me to barking up the right trees, sniffing the right crotches, for an at least partial solution to my problem.

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Is there an absolute reality?

That’s a bit different from asking if there’s an absolute truth.   Ideas are like maps, reality is like the terrains the maps refer to, and truth is a quality of the relationships between the maps and their terrain.  So when we ask, “Is there an absolute reality”, we are not really asking if there is an absolute truth.

Without an absolute reality, the notion of ever knowing all there is to know about the universe becomes impossible, even in theory.
Yet, would that be a good or a bad thing?
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Artists of all kinds so often think they must seek out new truths.  Perhaps their most vital service to us, however, is to make old, solid, and well-known truths once again visible to us.

For such old truths have become clichés, and few of us see much beyond the surface of a cliché, see it fresh, and as if for the first time.  Consequently, old truths so frequently have less impact than they should (for our own sake) have on our views, actions, and attitudes.

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Recently, I saw a man in anger destroy nearly at once several friendships that only moments before were important to him.  He did it because he felt slighted by two or three individuals, and to retaliate, he entirely broke off relations with a whole small group of people, and not just the two or three members of the group who he felt had slighted him.

“A man can only take so much”, he said.

But it was not the man who suffered the slights, it was the ego in the man who suffered the slights.  A more rational thing to have done might have been to look more deeply into the matter, for when someone slights you, they either do so accidentally, or with just cause, or with injustice.

If accidentally, forgive them.  If just, apologize and forgive them.  If with injustice, dump them and forgive them (Forgiveness is not for their sake, but for yours.  It’s unhealthy to carry around a grudge).  But whatever you do, don’t lose friendships valuable to you over such slights.  The poor fool was a puppet of his pride.

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We make too much of beliefs.

We are taught to make too much of them by our cultures, and then we never seem to get around to de-programming ourselves of such an insidious notion.  We are even taught that we are our beliefs.  That they are the very substance of our selves.  But a self made out of beliefs — no matter how profound those beliefs are — is a shallow, superficial self.

For beliefs — even when true — are no more than the maps we use to negotiate reality, and just like paper maps, they are not at all the reality they refer to.  A person who thinks his or her beliefs are their selves is like a hiker who thinks the trail map they hold in their hands is the trail itself.  You can’t lose your virginity by reading a textbook in biology, and you can’t really know yourself if all you know are your beliefs about yourself.

Beliefs should be worn lightly, tentatively, hesitantly.  They should never become balls and chains on our ankles.  How, then, can we dance light-heartedly through life?

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I Remember

I remember
Laughing under summer skies —
Would have thought we could fly —
And the winds pass on by.

I remember
Holding hands while the river flowed —
Came a time to let you go —
And the waters pass on by.

Now for all that I know
You have a good life
Filled with the stars,
The sun, and the trees.

But all that I do know —
It’s the life you should have,
So beautiful
You were to me.

Wealth Inequality vs. Freedom and Liberty

(About a 10 minute read)

One of the more interesting notions that most of us seem to accept at one or another point in our lives is the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible.

I have heard that notion advanced in this manner: Jones has many marketable talents, while Smith has few marketable talents.  Thus, if Jones is free to make as much money as he can, he will make more money than Smith.  So, for Jones and Smith to be financially equal, something must done to limit Jones’ earnings.  But anything you do to limit Jones’ earnings deprives Jones of his freedom. Consequently, you cannot have both freedom and equality at the same time.

There is great truth in that.

Yet, the notion becomes extraordinarily problematic when we think that’s all there is to it.   For if we were to attempt to secure our freedoms and liberties by such a simple-minded principle as the notion that they can best be secured via allowing the unrestricted accumulation of wealth, we would soon enough find ourselves enslaved.

The problem is — in a nutshell — that Jones, if he gets too much wealth relative to Smith, will inevitably possess the means to subjugate Smith.

Of course, that’s not a real problem, according to some folks, because Jones is a decent old boy and would never think for a moment to use his wealth to destroy Smith’s freedoms and liberties — not even when crushing Smith and his foolish freedoms and liberties would benefit Jones.

Yes, some good folks actually believe that! And in my experience, there’s not much you can say to such folks that will convince them to change their minds once the idea has got hold of them that the only real issue here is the sacred right of Jones to earn as much money as he can, and retain nearly every last dime of it.  “Taxation is theft”, you know.

Rationality is not, on the whole, one of the distinguishing characteristics of our noble species of  poo-flinging super-sized chimpanzees.  That seems to be the case because we happily neglected to evolve our big brains in order to better discern truths.  Instead, we apparently evolved them for other reasons, which I have written about here and here, among other places.  So, I am not writing this post for those folks who are firmly convinced that the bumper-sticker insight, “taxation is theft”, is the very last and wisest word on the matter of wealth inequality.  I am writing this post for those comparatively open-minded individuals who might be looking for some thoughts about wealth inequality to mull over before arriving at any (hopefully, tentative) conclusions about it.

I believe that, to really understand wealth inequality, one needs to remember that we spent roughly 97% of our time as a species on this planet evolving to live in relatively egalitarian communities.  Communities in which there was typically (with a few exceptions) comparatively little political, social, or economic difference between folks.  Everyone was more or less equally engaged in the struggle for food to survive, whether they were hunters (mostly men) or gatherers (mostly women).

Then, about 5,500 years ago some jerk got it into their head that it would be a very good idea if most everyone else would work to support their lazy butt while they spent their hours leisurely whiling away the time ruling over them.  And thus was born the complex society.

“Complex” because there was now a relatively complex division of labor in which, instead of two basic occupations (hunter or gatherer), there were now many occupations (king, priest, lord, judge, craftsman, merchant, farmer, etc).   Moreover, the wealth, and with it, the power in those societies was now concentrated at the top.

The way in which the minority retained their positions over the majority was back then mainly three-fold, just as it still is today.  First, through ideologies justifying the power, wealth, and status of the minority.  “After the kingship descended from heaven, the kingship was in Eridug. In Eridug, Alulim became king…”,  begins the ancient Sumerian king’s list.  Thus, from the very first, the masters were using ideologies to control the masses:  e.g. “kingship descends from  heaven”, and thus you should accept it as what the gods intend for you.

Second, through rallying the people to face a dire (usually external) threat.  It is mere human nature that we are most likely to surrender our freedoms and liberties in preference for slavishly following a leader when we feel threatened by a common enemy.  Indeed, an oppressive state — and not always just an oppressive one — needs a common enemy to unify the people under its boot.

When ideologies fail, then it is time to call upon the soldiers, of course.  Propaganda, a common enemy, and ultimately, force.  The three main pillars of government from the Sumerians to the current day.

In a way, the one major change has been that the government today is largely a front for the real masters — the wealthy corporations and individuals that so many politicians are beholden to, the economic mega-elites.

It should be noted that by “wealthy individuals”, I am not referring to the folks with a few million dollars, but to the folks with hundreds or (especially) billions of dollars.  The average millionaire, in my experience, is not much of a threat to the rights, freedoms, and liberties of others and, in fact, is often enough a defender of those rights.  Call him or her a “local elite” because they are so often focused economically, socially, and politically on the communities they live and work in.  And it seems their ties to those communities generally result in their being net benefactors to them.  But perhaps most importantly, they simply do not have the resources to compete politically with the billionaire class in order to buy the government.  That, at least, is my impression.

No, by “wealthy individuals” I mean the folks who have the resources to be genuine contenders to hold the reins of  power in this — or any — country.  In the most recent national election, the Koch brothers dumped nearly a billion dollars into buying politicians from the level of “mere” state legislators all the way up to the national Congress and Senate.  And they weren’t the only economic mega-elites in the game.

We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.  — Justice Louis D. Brandeis of the U.S. Supreme Court

The problem, of course, isn’t wealth itself, but the concentration of wealth in the hands of a relatively few people.  Over time, the concentration has a natural tendency to worsen.  That is, the wealth ends up in fewer and fewer hands.  Since power follows upon riches closer than a hungry dog follows a butcher, political power, as well, tends over time to end up in fewer and fewer hands.  There seems to be a natural tendency to progress from democracy to oligarchy, and then to dictatorship.

During the same recent forty year or so period in American history when huge tax cuts  for the wealthiest individuals and corporations allowed the billionaire class to explode in size, incomes for the middle class all but became stagnant, while the poor actually lost ground.  There’s no polite way of saying this: “Trickle down economics” is an ideology of oppression used to fool people into believing that cutting taxes on the wealthy will increase job growth.

The average American today arguably works harder, struggles more financially, and has fewer back up resources for a rainy day than his or her parents and grandparents had.  As it turns out, you can’t concentrate almost all the wealth in the hands of a relatively few economic mega-elites without hurting someone.  But who would have thought that?  After all, didn’t the ideologists inform us we’d all be better off cutting taxes on the wealthy?

A comprehensive study has found that the average American now has little or no influence on their legislators, and which bills get passed into law.  Those who determine both the content and success of legislation are the economic mega-elites of America, the billionaires and the large corporations.

Strong, responsible unions are essential to industrial fair play. Without them the labor bargain is wholly one-sided. The parties to the labor contract must be nearly equal in strength if justice is to be worked out, and this means that the workers must be organized and that their organizations must be recognized by employers as a condition precedent to industrial peace.  Louis D. Brandeis

But, of course, we do not wish to believe Brandeis today because the trusty ideologists have also told us unions are a net evil.  Got to trust those boys and girls!  It’s just not true that so very many of them are employed by billionaire funded think tanks and institutions.

Now, the rarest complex societies in history have been those in which most people were more or less free.  But those rare, relatively free societies have also tended at the same time to be more egalitarian.

Tocqueville, for instance, noticed that white males living in the America of the 1830s were both freer and more equal than white males living in either the England or France of the same period.  They were also, according to him, better off economically.  Again, both male and female citizens of the Roman Republic seem to have been both freer and more equal than their counterparts living under the dictatorships of  the Roman Empire.

So the notion that freedom and equality are incompatible, while perhaps seeming to have some inexorable reason and logic on its side, does not always pan out in practice.  Apparently, sometimes quite the opposite has been the case.

About 2000 years ago, Plutarch observed, “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.”  It will be interesting to see whether America has the political will to save its republic.