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A Question of Balance

We met a man who splits his life between the backcountry and a van. I go on few night trips to the backcountry. It is the right length. I like being warm, comfortable, and clean. I like being connected – to what, I couldn’t tell you. I don’t want to live in the woods. A second trip per year, a few more nights on each trip, that would be perfect, but I don’t want to retire from society.

Yet, whenever I leave the woods, I’m overwhelmed with a sense of existential dread. There is something very wrong with normative existence. There is something smothering, stifling, attached to life writ large. Having not touched my beleaguered fingers for days, I start idling gnawing on them once more. I feel my blood pressure rising, I feel the need to gird myself against a coming gale.

Every morning, I give myself a silent pep talk getting out of my car and walking into work. Something simple, “you can do this, you have this.” I take a deep breath and press against the weight of the world. A grown man, rarely flappable, repeating meaningless aphorisms to face standard existence.

I’ve mulled this, once more, these last few days. This likely isn’t the first time I’ve written about it. Having not written in some months, with months before that and years of limited output, I am writing to no one but webcrawlers and people who learned how to set up RSS feeds a decade ago but don’t know how to turn them off.

It comes down to a balancing of the humors. Competing personas. There’s the me who lives in the backcountry. Who runs to exhaustion (that limb is nearly severed). Who lifts weights and glowers ominously under the spell of the associated hormones. Who digs in dirt and grows flowers; listening to birds, encouraging the bees, drifting in the breeze, sweating in the sun. This is all one version, with the backcountry being the most extreme variant. This persona takes center stage only briefly during normal life, but in the woods wins out completely. It is physical, with little mental and social exertion required. Primal. Simple. But temporary.

Then there’s work, which I also tend to enjoy. It’s more aggressive, social but in a strategic manner. Mental. Humility as a tool to covert weaknesses into relatability. Eccentricity to hide awkwardness under a veneer of socially acceptable middling genius. It’s a tight-wire act, but one that I’m good at, and it’s the enabler of all other aspects of life. Sure, my profession itself is somewhere near morally bankrupt, but the day-to-day challenges are interesting and unique.

Domestic; there’s the rub. Socially exhausting, littered with failed expectations, constant responsibilities, and misplaced hopes and dreams.

Toward the middle of our trip, we took a wrong turn. We followed a gradually sloping rockface, toward points unknown. Eventually, we would come to a place where travel became difficult. We’d need to make a decision: confront our mistake and backtrack or embrace our mistake and push through. It is perhaps possible to get to the other side from where we are, but not easy. It is possible that this will waste even more time, or lead to an increasingly perilous situation, making matters worse for all parties. But one thing is certain: with each step down a path, one gets further from where he was supposed to be. And at some point, one finds himself on a different trail altogether. Maybe parts of the trail are good, but where does it go?

I’ve been cliffed out for years. I’m pressing forward. I have to. Too much is at stake. There is no way back. And one doesn’t walk alone through the domestic realms. Where would the victims of this meandering climb end up, and whose conscience would bear their own plights?

For completeness, add in a spiritual self. On good days, it connects all of these together with a sense of meaning; a larger world that makes suffering worthwhile and transforms minor things into eternal things. On the bad days, it’s a tin veneer, a delusion, a spit shine of a rusty hubcap, a wary bludgeon waiting to punish missteps or retreats.

In any case, given time, the humors balance. Potential alternate paths disappear into the mists that they came from. Purpose and clarity shine through the mire, not because something is fixed, but because something is. Being supersedes all other considerations. Existing requires effort, and this existence comes with its own worries and challenges. I’ve always made plans and followed them. One, followed by the next, followed by the next. The trail, whatever trail it might be, has this climb, then that turn, then I’ll be there, next I’ll be there, eventually, I’ll be elsewhere. Each stage, follow that stage’s plan. Sometimes it’s so godawful sad that it shakes the foundations of existence. Most of the time it just is. There’s some meaning in simply existing. Isn’t there?

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Mind the Gaps

I recently read a book about disasters. One of the author’s principle points is that geological disasters, such as earthquakes and volcanoes, happen largely at random. We have little to no ability to predict their occurrence with any skill beyond saying that an event of a certain magnitude is likely to occur in a certain region at a certain rate. People hate random events, however. We ascribe meaning to everything, and refuse to accept that our actions have no bearing on the Universe writ large. As such, we look for supernatural explanations for events. We find some way to blame the event on ourselves, or, better yet, someone else, and then take steps to rectify the situation. When a rare event does not recur during our puny lifespans, we are satisfied that we have successfully appeased the previously affronted deity.

One example in the book was a massive earthquake in the eastern Atlantic which devastated Lisbon in 1755. As Portugal was a predominantly Catholic nation, their Calvinist Dutch allies refused to send aid, not wanting to subvert the chastisement brought upon them by a God who was trying to shake some sense into the papists. Meanwhile, the Jesuits in the city blamed the disaster instead upon the growing tolerance of Protestant groups in town. Were this disaster a message from God, it, apparently, carried with it no effective lesson. It’s like smacking your sleeping toddler upside the head in the middle of the night and leaving them to figure out what they did wrong.

The problem for the ancients is that these calamities were shrouded behind several layers of missing scientific theory. That which defied the logical explanations of the time was given over to the realm of God. Entire theologies were (and are, we’ll get to that) built around a providence that plugs holes in our understanding of our world and the Universe in general. There is a problem with building theology around miraculous events: what happens when we learn that they are not miracles? Lightning bolts occur for scientifically understandable reasons. They are not the whimsical fury of a God lashing out at trees and buildings and ships and the occasional person. Earthquakes don’t judge Papists. Volcanoes aren’t a chastisement of pagan Romans. Hurricanes aren’t sent by God to punish Oil Baron Texans. Tornadoes aren’t a judgment on sinful foundationless mobile houses. All of these things happen because the natural world functions by a set of rules. They are following the chaotic ramifications of natural law.

So, what happens when you build your theology around a God that casts lightning from his hands, or, on smaller scale, doles out pancreatic cancer on the righteous and unrighteous with statistically identical frequencies? One of two things. You ignore the world around you, denying truths for the sake of faith in an alternative reality. This requires that you put your head in the sand and avoid facts – these inconvenient realities shake the foundations of your faith and must be avoided. Alas, such people can’t go to the moon. They can’t cure cancer if cancer is God’s divine dart gun. The other option is that one day you learn, really internalize, a particular fact, and your worldview will fall to pieces like a house of cards. Putting God into your construct of the Universe, defined by your ignorance, is a good way to create for yourself a god as ignorant as you are.

Where does this leave one who would acknowledge that the world is on the order of 4.5 billion years old? That species arise by natural means – at least, that no hand is required to make it so? That disasters of all sorts: global, regional, local, and personal, happen for a variety of predictable reasons, and with deterministic likelihoods? The Universe and its inner workings were once filled with gaps, and with so many holes in our understanding, it was sensible to bundle them all up into a variety of natural gods. No longer. There are no remaining natural mysteries for which the most likely explanation is the supernatural. Even what we don’t know is adjacent to what we do know.

To me, the final frontier is the human condition; the human mind; the human soul. It is the gap that remains in the providence of a God who has intervened in demonstrable ways in the past. But what happens when the selfishness of sin is explainable by the selfishness of genes? Or when thoughts can be reprogrammed by a computer (future) or cable news (present)? Or when the soul is a natural manifestation of a consciousness struggling to negotiate that tricky moment when one day, in the arbitrary future, it will blink out of existence? Is it that all theologies are gap theologies? Plug the gaps, and what remains?

America has a problem. It is caught in a feedback loop of fear. Guns beget shootings. Shooting beget more guns. More guns beget more shootings. This brand of mass violence is unique to the United States. I’ve been trying to reason out why.

First, let’s talk 2nd Amendment. “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

I’m not going to get into the nuance of the well-regulated militia, as the courts have ruled that the grammar allows for two separate rights: one for militias, one for people who also have the individual right to bear arms. I find that to be a mistake, but regardless, why do we have this right? Transport yourself back to the late 18th century. A ragtag group of revolutionaries, using the weaponry available to both individuals and militaries alike, overthrew the yolk of a tyrant. What is the surest way to ensure that they would never again fall under tyranny? To make the government as scare of the people as the people were scared of the government. Our constitution provided not only for institutional checks and balances, but also societal ones – try to enslave free men (well, you know, the right kind of free men), and face armed rebellion. For a nascent state, this was a real threat.

Many in the pro-gun community espouse this concept as their justification for the right to bear the biggest and best arms. I find this to be absurd, as an AR-15 (or whatever), is no match to an Abrams tank or an A-10 or a Predator drone. I think that most can see, at least at a subconscious level, the ridiculousness of this argument. Strip that away, and in reality, the motivation for owning guns is two-fold:
1) People like guns and think they are cool, in much the same way they like horses or cars or scotch or baseball cards or Van Goghs.
2) People are afraid of the world in which they live and need some way to assert control over it.

I reject #1. Some people think kiddie porn or slavery are cool. We don’t let those people and their destructive habits pollute society. #2, then, is the only valid reason to own a gun. And…part of me wants one for this very same reason.

Long ago, humanity evolved beyond toughness, nerve, and grit. In the past, if you wanted to come for my daughters, you’d have to come through me – and I have more to lose than you have to gain. Human ferocity was a buffer against violence. Deadly action at a distance emasculated the act of violence. Any coward with a fire stick could extinguish any number of brave men with everything to lose. In fact, this is what happens several thousand times a year in our country. Cowards with firearms kill the innocent and guilty alike. How is one to protect his family, when no amount of animal strength or righteous rage is sufficient? By fighting firearms with firearms.

This has led to a literal arms race. Half of society has decided that the toothpaste is out of the tube. They only can think to fight violence with additional violence, a sort of microcosm of the mutually assured destruction of the Cold War. The only way to protect the good guys is to kill before you are killed, or at least provide enough deterrence to make violence less likely in the first place.

But, we’ve all paid the price for this Faustian bargain. Our toddlers are far more likely to shoot themselves in the face with our protection than they are to be shot by a home invader. We are more likely to throw gasoline on a minor conflict when firearms immediately raise the stakes to life or death. We are more likely, in a moment of blind passion, to become the very same threat to our own families that we assumed would come from without. And, we become the enablers of the insane with our lax laws and prevalent weaponry. Most of these shooters are using a legally purchased firearm.

But even if we realize this, we are still unwilling to do anything about it. We refuse to relinquish the perceived control, even if it’s for our own good. This all comes down to control, or the illusion of control, over one’s life.

What I don’t understand is the scale of guns. Guns won’t go away. I think that #2 is a strong enough motivation that we will never be a gun free society. But…it’s the influence of the “guns are cool” crowd that gets us into real trouble. Because guns are cool, we need military grade rifles, with attachments that maximize their deadliness. It’s because guns are cool that people decide to shoot 600 of their fellow men from hotel windows. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. If the crazy person didn’t have a gun, he’d use something else. No. If he didn’t have an AR-15, he’d kill less people. He’d kill the other guy’s daughter, but be stopped before he killed yours too. These aren’t statistics, these are dead people, and less dead people is better than more dead people.

Here’s what I think.

1) Improve background checks because why would you not do that? The only reason because you believe restricting any gun right is the opening salvo in an attempt to roll back additional rights. And so people continue to die because we let terrorists and the mentally ill buy and keep guns. Stop it. And who needs a gun an hour from now, unless they intend to use it to shoot someone an hour from now? A mandatory several day cool off period is only sensible.
2) Limit the use of high powered weaponry to “well-regulated militias.” These well-regulated militias can fulfill the role of Civil War re-enacters. A martial hobby, guys that don’t like the gym getting some testosterone flowing with less effort. Fine. Even let them have MORE weaponry, to fulfill the original intent of the 2nd amendment and serve as a check on power. But also make them financially liable for the actions of their members. If your militia’s grand wizard shoots up a church with your grenade launcher, you are liable. You lose your well-regulated militia license and are sued for millions of dollars. This pretty well takes care of #1.

Let’s be clear. Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. But people cannot change. People are what they are, and short of Christ returning, we’re going to keep being evil to each other. No extra hugs are going to eliminate sin. People with knives wound people. People with bricks bruise people. People with guns kill people. And our own fear has made us deserve this fate.

2052: Part of me likes the Balvenie Caribbean Cask, but part of me thinks it has a stomach bile taste early finish. It’s not the rum, I’ve had this with other Balvenie’s as well. Anyway. We don’t have cable, so if NBC is not broadcasting this after this Ellen DeGeneres flushes people down the toilet game show, this will be a very short live blog.
2055: Will and Grace is still on. I don’t watch TV.
2056: I just realized that I’m sitting on the couch cushion that my 2.5 year old peed on a few hours ago. I’m not going to mention it, less my wife take said cushion away.
2057: I’m not sure Ellen is going to be able to wrap this up on time. Wife asked if I’m live blogging the silent game show (which is on mute, because I don’t care what Ellen has to say really).
2058: Lost the cushion.
2059: Quit your yapping DeGeneres.
2100: It would appear that NBC is doing the SotU. By the way, most of the time I watch things like this on Fox, to see if it is possible to justify this moron. Spoiler alert, I loathe Trump. Other caveat. I won’t make it much past 10 PM.
2102: I forgot the punch line of the story – we do over-air TV and Fox doesn’t really come in.
2103: It’s funny that the Dow lost over 300 points today. Sad.
2103: Guy on NBC. I am the middle. I am also hate watching. Look it’s Megyn Kelly! She was like the 8th one to talk. She sounds more gravely than she used to. I think the Fox News made her perk it up, now she’s going for salty dog.
2105: Melania Trump is in attendance. I feel bad for her. Speaking of which, the Trump campaign (which is currently fund raising) has been reusing the term “complicit,” about 8 months after it was relevant, which gave all the home schools time to add it to their vocabulary list.
2108: I pray he doesn’t use a teleprompter. Is it typical to clap for oneself?
2109: Melania’s cold, dead eyes.
2110: WaPo reports that Melania rode to the speech by herself.
2111: He sounds hoarse, sort of like Megyn Kelly.
2112: I thought Las Vegas didn’t happen? He’s not really playing to his base.
2113: Is this going to be 100% stories of Trump supporters being good to people? It is possible.
2116: OK, we’re waiting for some content here.
2117: I miss watching Nancy Pelosi blink. Instead I can see her chew the inside of her face. By the way, I am the last person who should be standing placidly behind any president delivering a speech. Far too fidgety.
2118: Wife is sopping piss out of couch cushion as she watches. It’s the circle of life.
2119: Here’s where Trump takes credit for Obama’s economy, neglecting the fact that the economy of the socialist EU grow faster.
2121: Pooping Turtle Mitch McConnell.
2123: Our government is very creepy looking, all of them. Wife points out that Don keeps clapping in his own microphone.
2124: Trump just said that $4000 is a lot of money with a straight face. That would pay his Secret Service detail for about 14 seconds. Hey, Staub, bring a black guy with you, would you?
2127: If you believe in fairies, than clap your hands (into the microphone).
2128: Speaking of hands, Kevin Love just broke his.
2129: Ut oh – into the flag portion of the speech. This could be dicey.
2130: I thought that was Baron, but Preston. Clap clap clap clap clap.
2131: Melania really does have nice hair. Here we are in the anthem standing portion! Is Colin Kaepernik in the audience tonight?
2133: Neil Gorusch: Leave me out of this.
2135: Removing Federal Employees who “Undermine the public trust or fail the American people,” which sounds nice, except for who is defining the parameters. Good Lord, that’s scary.
2137: All those people with “Clean Coal Lung”.
2139: I’m want to put anyone who comments on Facebook in a ticker in the live blog. Except that that might be an indication of undermining the public trust or otherwise failing the American people.
2140: I agree with the idea of trying experimental trials. By the way, I was “cupped” at physical therapy today.
2141: Paul Ryan looks like a Vorta from the Dominion in Deep Space Nine. And to paraphrase some other person, Mike Pence looks like someone who does mean things to the X-Men.
2144: You know what would have been handy for updating the infrastructure? The trillion dollars that you just gave to the wealthy…
2146: I’m running out of steam. Go off script. Be a man. Tell us how you really feel!
2147: Bernie Sanders with the most pitiful clap of the night.
2148: Unrecognized by wife, by the way. “Older than I thought,” yes, they are all ancient. Sanders, Clinton, Biden, and Trump. Get rid of old people!
2148: Whatever, prison reform. Are you kidding me? Jeff Sessions wants everyone in jail.
2149: Guys, come in the audience, I’m going to talk about how your daughters were murdered. Seriously, this is in your best interest.
2153: Losing interest. Wife thought that he said cweed instead of creed. Americans are dreamers too – eff those immigrant kids!
2154: Trump located literally every minority Trump supporter and has them in the crowd tonight.
2157: Rubio did not clap about that. Wow. Little Marco Rubio.
2158: Awesome, the government will be evaluating “moral character”. I trust Donald with evaluating moral character.
2159: Ahem. I support letting in every single skilled person that wants to be an American. We should be pillaging the world of their best and brightest. I agree with that.
2200: Donald’s family came to America by Chain Migration.
2201: Running low on Scotch, but not buzzed enough to find this interesting anymore. I like the guy with the whooping cough in the background also. Vaccinate your children!
2203: Trump: good with numbers. That was some nice division there – he knew all the days in the year and the hours in the day. Amazing.
2204: Opiods…not obtained from pushers and drug dealers very often eh. Drug companies, can we call out drug companies? No? Are they on the Trump donation ticker, perhaps.
2205: Tell me she was breast feeding at the exact moment Trump called on them. I have to say, that is awesome!
2206: A young Woody Harrelson, that Ryan the police man. If Woody Harrelson were in American History X.
2208: It’s unfortunate, sadly.
2212: My arms are cold, I need a long sleeve shirt. When possible, we have no choice but to annihilate them!
2213: Got a jacket during the torture section.
2214: Interested in the second half of that sentence, the torture part. By the way, Obama, not very effective at closing Guantanamo Bay.
2216: The Democrats are a grim lot, aren’t they. Ivanka is excited about the Jerusalem thing. She’s got about 40 million reasons to be excited.
2218: How are those Russian sanctions going?
2221: Do people like the personal stories? I want him to cut to the chase. But I suppose this is what people want – reality TV.
2222: I am afraid he’s going to announce that bombers are en route.
2223: By the way, Jeff Session would throw that coal thief into jail.
2224: Are you saying that the Korean guy was a chain migrant or what?
2226: I’m going to pack this up soon. Hopefully Trump is also. It sounds like he’s wrapping it up. USA-USA-USA!
2230: Whoa, Alex Smith signed with the Redskins – I guess Kirk Cousins is out.
2230: He’s still talking, sorry, I faded out for a second. This is supposed to be the good part, written in Stephen Miller’s fever dream.
2231: I want to hear what Megyn Kelly has to say. Savannah Guthrie, never heard of her. He TRUMPeted the economy.
2232: Tillerson is still on the job, by the way. I’m ready to call all that strife fake news.
2233: Megyn Kelly is cynical. “I hate news, States of the Union are sucky, this is all stupid, life makes me empty.”
2235: OK, I’m done here. I can’t stand Trump. He’s signing hats now.

Twice in a Blue Moon

Tonight, into tomorrow, is a Blue Moon – the 2nd full moon of the calendar month. (This is the calendar definition – there are others). Because it is January, because February only has 28 days, and because the lunar period is around about 29.5 days, February will skip a full moon entirely, and we’ll have a second Blue Moon in March. This same thing happened back in 1999 and will happen again next in 2037. Blue moons occur in any form multiple times a century.

This got me to wondering – a double Blue Moon must be possible on a leap year, though barely. Turns out it happened last in 1608, and will not happen again until 2792. 2200 will have a double Blue Moon, but century boundaries skip leap years.

The more you know.

Dismount the High Horse

Stephen Paddock did not “snap”. He meticulously planned to do evil. It is my suspicion that he did this to prove that he could do it – to prove that those idiot amateurs were incompetent and anyone with half a brain could do tremendously more damage. But that’s irrelevant. Stephen Paddock is depraved. So are we.

You see it all the time; someone else’s kid grows up to be a drug addict and you tut-tut-tut at their parents and you look at your angelic kids. I’m better than those parents, a silent, hidden commentary says. But then your kids do the same. The families of mass murderers are always mystified and stunned. Don’t think they are just naive. YOU are naive. That could be your brother or father or son. The drug addled woman that leaves her kids in a hot car at Wal-Mart could be your sister or daughter. The jilted lover that takes out revenge, the loving father with a penchant for prostitutes, the trusted accountant with the off shore shell corporation, the kind housewife with an urge to steal things she doesn’t even want, the police officer whose mind goes blank for just the minute around the time when he shoots an unarmed perpetrator, the guy in the pickup who rams the distracted teenager off the road, the mom who drives home after one too many drinks and kills a toddler. These people are not remarkable. They are not outliers. They are representatives of the human condition, guilty of the corruption that infects all of mankind.

You included. Me included.

Thinks you’re better because you don’t murder? Jesus has news for you. The same infection is in your soul. Think maybe this is for one class of people, but not your class of people? You go to church! You are a police man! You are in the military! You are kind to animals! You donate time and money! You help the helpless! No, you are a whitewashed tomb. And no, you’re not exempt. No one is righteous, not even one.

This condition is not new, it’s as old as there are people. It’s restrained by the rule of law and the societal norms of morality. Both of those are crumbling around us. During the Enlightenment, humankind felt that it was getting better, smarter, more compassionate, more illuminated. Then we killed 100 million of our fellow men and women in a decade’s worth of World Wars. We will not heal ourselves. We will not evolve out of this. Evil, as a general trend, increases proportionally to the population. Sure, for a decade or two things might look better. Sure, specific societal ills may decrease. But our true nature will break through in the end, and we will, sometimes, shoot 600 people. Stephen Paddock was not an Other. He was an archetype of the depravity of all of us. Don’t think yourself immune, lest you too lose focus and expose the evil of your soul.

For all that it has been abused over the centuries, this is one of the key draws of Christianity. Biblical Christianity does not make believe that we are perfect. It acknowledges our universal brokenness. It points to a second archetype, a new Adam, in the form of Jesus. It doesn’t make believe that we become Jesus, it surrenders to that fact that we can’t, and instead falls upon its knees to humbly beg Jesus to save us. From ourselves.

House of Cards

Every few years, a deck of playing cards is generated immortalizing the “most wanted” within some band of miscreants. There was one for Iraq, one for Al Qaeda, one for ISIS, and more I’m sure. I don’t mind Trump’s choices for several roles. For instance, McMasters and Mattis seem to be perfectly acceptable picks. Others I really don’t know enough about to have an opinion. For the remainder, here’s my list of Trump Cabinet and Adviser playing cards. They are in order of Spades, Hearts, Diamonds, Clubs, sorted by how much I’d like to see them removed from their position. I’ve left the originals and included their replacements if they are likewise deplorable (though such an organizational scheme is not really extensible).

Ace: Trump, Bannon, Pruitt, Kushner
King: Miller, Sessions, Pence, Ivanka Trump
Queen: Zinke, DeVos, Conway, Spicer
Jack: Priebus, Flynn, Price, Mnuchin
10: Tillerson, Huckabee Sanders, Scaramucci, Perry
9: Gorka, Ichan, McMahon, Pompeo

That’s about as deep as I can go. Now, if we were including Congresspeople, this would be a much harder list to make – lots of tough decisions near the top for the spineless collaborators.

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