Thursday, July 30, 2020

John Lewis: May His Memory Be a Blessing

John Lewis, of Blessed Memory:

American Hero

King Ray

Ray Charles & the Raelettes was my first show, best show. Thomas Wolfe Auditorium in Asheville, 1988. It was a huge deal. I'd been a fan since watching The Blues Brothers as a child. Mom had a great collection of records upstairs by Ray Charles and John Lee Hooker in addition to Rachmaninoff, Percy Faith, and Ferrante & Teicher. LPs were the best. They still are.

Unlike Johnny and Jimmy, Ray Charles is not a close blood relation. I'm just a regular guy. Ray Charles will always be the king.

King Ray

Cousin Jimmy

Once you go up the Georgia family tree a branch or two, you arrive at the Carters. If anyone ever asks me how I can be Southern proud, it's because of my family.
Cousin Jimmy

Cousin Johnny

I talk quite a lot about being a Garrison, but there are three other important branches of the family: CASH, Stubbs, and Thomson. I can't remember how the Georgia Cashes and Arkansas Cashes connect up, but we do.
Cousin Johnny

My grandmother Louise Cash, of blessed memory, was a genius. I want to say that she was the first woman to chair the Republican Party in Georgia, back in the 50s or 60s. We had our differences, plenty of them. That's how family goes. That said, I owe her more than I can put into words, and I am extremely thankful that she was my grandmother.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Happy birthday, big brother!

My big brother, Webb Garrison, celebrates a birthday today. Webb was my best friend until he went off to college at Davidson. Our parents got divorced the same year. Everything changed in the next three years, and our relationship had changed by the time I joined him at Davidson and we shared a year as Wildcats.

After that, he moved to New York, went to grad school, started a family, and kicked off his career. I completed my time at Davidson, planning to become a journalist, which had been my dream since childhood, or a youth minister or teacher. I got a job in banking instead. In my 20s, I almost quit my bank gig to become a reporter in Asheville, a public school teacher in the mountains of western NC, and a professional musician. My father, Webb Black Garrison Jr, convinced me not to pursue any of them because I had a better job than I could have elsewhere. Our mother is Gayle S. Rozantine. She is a vital part of our story too, for all us kids and all our kids too. My daughter's Lulu's first name is a variant of Mom's given middle name.

During the period after school Webb and I both became fathers. His children were born before mine. Days turned into years, and we overcame our fears. Gradually we became friends again. I regret the lost years.

There are three other Webbs: Webb Black Garrison Sr, of blessed memory, my big brother's son Webb Black Garrison IV, and my son Levi Webb Garrison.

When I think of my brother Webb, I laugh at our childhood rivalry and remember happy times the most, mostly on Dorris Road and Littleton Road and Stuart Circle and Tranquility Place. I wish I had a photo of us in tank tops riding through Atlanta in the bed of Papa's truck screaming Donkey Dung at the top of our lungs and howling.

I love you, Webb. One of my favorite pirates looks at 50. Amazing. I am so proud to be your little brother, I want the world to know.

Public Service Announcement: when I cleaned up my diction

Attention all personnel. Attention all personnel. I'm bringing back Kiss My Grits. Somebody has to do it.

Unlike Van Morrison, I can clean up my diction* and still have plenty left to say.

That is all.

*Note: Just because I can clean up my diction doesn't mean I have a hint of a whisper of the beginning of any shitwhistling intention of doing so, to be entirely clear. Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and Al Swearengen are linguistic fucking heroes. I'm just bringing back a good one.


Sunday, July 19, 2020

Parenting After Age 8: An Experimental Approach Using Observation, Reason, and Love

Rand and Rogers: American Icons

I recently restructured my home by combining the ideas of Russian-Jewish immigrant Ayn Rand(1), born Alisa Rosenbaum, daughter of Zanovy, and Fred Rogers, born Fred McFeely Rogers. McFeely was his mother's maiden name.

Ms Rand is one of my favorite thinkers despite her many flaws and those who follow her unquestioningly. She was a cult leader who engaged in seriously evil, manipulative behavior. Her work is deeply problematic on many levels. The video game Bioshock illustrates in graphically violent terms the failures of her philosophy. She famously encouraged emotional repression, rigid moralism, and unkindness. I am a friendly critic of Rand, not a follower. Truths can be found in all sorts of places, and Rand was mostly right but intentionally provocative. For example, her book The Virtue of Selfishness would be more accurately titled The Virtue of Self-Actualization (true every time she uses the word "selfish" in a positive manner).

Much of what I do is a based on distillation of Objectivism. This is a philosophy created by Ayn Rand and formalized by Nathaniel Branden. He was the informal second-in-command of Rand's cult. Like her, Branden was an immigrant who changed his name, morphing Blumenthal into Branden (B+Rand+en). He and Rand had an affair while he was in his 20s and both were married. He brought Alan Greenspan and others into her inner circle and ultimately left the cult in the late 60s, leading to its crackup. Branden became a psychologist and established the psychology of self-esteem in the 1960s and 1970s, rooted in Objectivist thinking. Achievement is the root of self-esteem according to Branden.

I think of Mister Rogers whenever I want to be a better person. That one's simple.

I have five children: 19, 17, 15, 8, and 8. The experiment has been a remarkable success so far. These are initial notes and observations.


Philosophy

By applying reason to objective observations and principles, and using those results to filter our experiences, instincts, and desires, we can ascertain the meaning of life and how to behave.

My children embrace the concepts of inalienable rights, though we each have our own ideas about what that means and how to live it. Dissent and skepticism are among the greatest human values. I encourage dissent and do my best to manage it.
  • We can frame most situations in terms of self-interest, including the interest of family or whatever in-group a person consider part of their Self (religion, political party, etc).
  • When we do this, we can see our motivations more clearly and understand when we are acting out of need versus want.
    • Needs are needs. Food, shelter, love, things like that.
    • Everything else is a want. We do not need fun things. We want them.
    • Framing needs and wants appropriately empowers people to make better decisions.
    • We cannot control our needs. We can control our wants.
    • Treating a want as a need leads us to pursue things that harm us. Those are blind spots.
    • When you want something, it is ok to want it. Don't trample on others to get it. Use any ethical means necessary to get it if you want it badly enough.
    • Be as kind as you can when pursuing your dreams. Sometimes you can't be kind, but you should always try.
    • Figure out who you are and what you want.
    • This view layers the Greek ideal of eudaimonia, or human flourishing, with Enlightenment thought. When we put eudaimonia at the center of deontological ethics, we show how everyone has a right to pursue self-interest by any means necessary, and we have a duty to use means of pursuit that minimize harm to others, particularly if we are harming them involuntarily.
    • Certain things are right and wrong, and those values never change. They are normative ethics, meaning that we are required to follow them in order to live fully human lives. Those rights and wrongs are defined by the balance of every individual's rights. They never change. They are hardwired into our species. We have an obligation to our fellows to respect their rights as much as we respect our own, while doing everything we can to maximize our own self-interest, as broadly defined somewhere above. This creates a normative ethical system that is deontological (based on duty), universal, unchanging, and rooted in eudamonia, or the the most amount of human flourishing desired and possible for every individual, whatever creative form that takes.
    • Our individual rights and our duty to preserve others' are two sides of the same coin.
    • Empathy is hardwired into the mirror neuron system. Pay attention to what it tells you.
    • The children and I are moral equals. I got here first. I know more. Once in a while I demonstrate more self-control than others. I manage the strategy for our family. Setting rules and boundaries is my job. They manage tactics whenever appropriate.
  • Every human being wants The Three Things: Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
    • My 8yo son envisioned himself chasing something to understand pursuit.
    • My 8yo daughter imagined a dog chasing a cat.
  • We can reformulate this more concretely as The Four Things: Life, Liberty, Property, and Love/Family.
    • We started with the classical Jeffersonian rights of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
    • They love the idea of pursuit, but my 8yo daughter thinks that Pursuit of Happiness is too squishy. Property makes more sense to her.
    • We discussed what you need to Pursue Happiness and realized that it is too intangible to use as a criterion for judgment. Paine, Rand, and related thinkers are missing Love/Family, which is essential to being human.
    • We worked out together how The Three Things are actually The Four Things when you dig in.
      • Pursuing happiness is a mixture of liberty, property, and family based on personal preference.
      • If we pursue happiness without a ramrod ethical core, we can do bad things easily by trampling others' rights to The Four Things.
      • Even with a strong ethical core, it is easy to violate others' fundamental rights. We need to practice care and empathy if we want to avoid this.
    • We alternate between talking about The Three Things and The Four Things depending on how concrete a situation is.
    • When thinking of one's own feelings, The Three Things are important. When thinking of others' The Four Things are.
    • By looking at a situation through these two similar sets of lenses, we can make more objective decisions.
  • When The Four Things are manifested in an ethical, healthy way and we have more of them, things get better. When they are bad or we have less, things get worse.
  • Therefore we can ascertain that The Four Things represent the essence of what it means to be human.
  • The Four Things provide a framework on which we can hang a meaningful life, but they are not meaningful in themselves. Instead, pursuing them ethically allows a person to understand what they value and what meaning their life will have.
  • Everyone gets to decide the meaning of their own life. That meaning is rooted in some form of creative work, whether that work is inventing a new thing or being an especially good listener. 
  • Ethics are essential and universal.  When people tell the truth, everyone is allowed to make better decisions.
  • Morals are important to understand and contextualize ethics. They are cultural, personal, or both.
  • Strong ethics and morals are both important even though ethics are universal and morals are not.
  • Morals are ethics in action, just as the mind is what the brain and body do when they work together.
  • An ethical life is one that seeks to get as much of the four things as possible without taking away from others' four things.
  • Relationships are nonzero sum games, so everyone wins or everyone loses rather than there being a winner and loser.
    • This is a slight oversimplification. There are obviously winners and losers.
    • The important thing to understand is that a relationship is like an economy. There isn't a fixed pie that represents wealth, or love, or whatever.
    • You can grow or shrink the pie (economy, relationship) by making wise or foolish decisions.
    • This is one of many reasons that capitalism grows pies while communism shrinks them. When everyone is trying to produce and earn more, economies grow. When people are fearful or when an overly powerful authority demands certain things, people make worse decisions and they shrink.
    • In addition to the inhumanity of command economies and their analogue, controlling relationships, they are inefficient. No one should tell another what they will be best at doing. No central authority can set wages as fairly and effectively as the free market.
    • The free market requires laws to establish fair play and equality. They don't always work.
    • The same principle applies to relationships. Love and empathy grow the pie. Fear and suspicion shrink it.
    • The rules of the house exist for the same reason as regulation: To ensure that everyone can maximize their enjoyment of The Four Things while balancing their rights with everyone else's.
  • All of the good things in life come from people pursuing The Four Things ethically.
  • All of the bad things come from people being unethical or seeking something other than The Four Things.
  • Physical force is wrong unless it is an act of defense.
  • All cultures must be respected. Most people are just doing their best to get The Four Things. Cultures reflect this. Some do a better job than others.
  • Most people are doing their best and need understanding more than help or advice.
  • People work harder when they negotiate compensation. Chores lead to wages of the individual's choice, if the request is reasonable. If not, we haggle. 
  • Whenever people fight, they must slow down, listen, and attempt to understand the other. No one is allowed to yell.
  • Being allowed to yell and yelling are not the same thing. No robots here, I assure you. We do try.
  • I allow them to spin our their own conclusions from the foundation of the four things.

Education*

*Important Note: These are supporting details to add to what my children have already mastered with actual educators at a world-class school. That is where it's at. I'm just doing my job as a father to reinforce things and teach critical thinking skills. Bear in mind, my grandfather wrote dozens of books after retirement, primarily focusing on easy-to-read American history and etymology. These family values go deep.

The twins' minds expanded three sizes in the first few weeks. They want to learn everything about everything. So far this summer they have learned:
  • How to use a thesaurus
  • How to use a dictionary
    • How to read an entry
      • focus on the importance of order when reading definitions to understand which meanings are most and least common
    • How to read phoenetic symbols
      • listed on the bottom of each page of our Elementary dictionary
    • How to triangulate a word
      • They know how to do this, but we honed the skill
    • How to read a book with a dictionary to help you understand words on your own
      • This is what started it. I got tired of spelling and defining words, and I realized that I've been infantalizing them.
      • A simple 20 minute lesson is all they needed. They read the dictionary for fun now.
    • The purpose is to create self-sufficiency, good vocabulary, and accurate pronunciation
  • What's in an almanac
  • That an encyclopedia will provide almost all the information they'll need for many research papers.
    • I ordered a World Book set from ebay for $85. Still trying to coordinate delivery with the USPS because of course I am. The pandemic makes mundane tasks onerous, and the postal service is what it is.
  • How an appropriately deployed slingshot or paper projectile can add just the right amount of zest to life, but never during instruction time. Exceptions include instruction time related to the the safe use of dangerous objects and general troublemaking. These instructions are typically provided through example, though naturally we have all the right books as well. Harmless projectiles are discouraged but allowed at such times. Never in school.
  • How a child can have a full, rich life with a friend, a pencil, some paper, a rope, a pocket knife, a needle, a candle, a lighter, a stick, a ball, the right books, and loving caregivers to instruct in the safe use of dangerous objects, supervise everything for a few years, and take away dangerous objects when not in use.
  • It is helpful to have a father who
    • specializes in the safe use of dangerous objects
    • spent his summers and many weekends in college years working at camps with a focus on doing dangerous things safely
    • has been learning to deal calmly with emergency situations for decades, as a rough-and-tumble kid, as a camp counselor, and as and parent, including
      • recalling with crystal clarity what it feels like to have three hernias at the same time and why you should never challenge children to punch you in the gut as hard as they can
      • "grounding" people who do not follow rules and safety protocols (At Windy Gap, wranglers were grounded if they were unruly or had any safety violations)
      • the nightmare  a camper being dropped out of tree by a wrangler who was not following safety protocols, in front of my eyes
      • many broken bones
      • stitches
      • meningitis in a stepkid and in myself, including the horror of holding a sweet child for a spinal tap
      • multiple rare diseases
      • helping others through emotional emergencies and learning how to listen by volunteering for decades
      • wrecking a pickup truck at age 12
      • driving my brothers around on a Bush Hog as a teenager and knowing what to do if the tractor started to roll over on the hill
      • cleaning out horse stalls and swimming pools more times than I can count
      • learning from experience that you need a good pair of shoes and a dull knife before you play mumbletypeg. Got the scars to prove it
      • knowing from personal experience of how to stop, drop, and roll during a Roman candle/bottle rocket war
      • understanding that I should never explain that there is a safe way to cliff dive in Tennessee
      • knowing that it's much better to describe what happens to someone when a bottle falls on them from that cliff
      • trying not to remember how foolish I was to go spelunking, armed only with a flashlight, with my friends from Kroger no matter how knowledgeable they seemed and regardless of how powerfully the combination of a mullet, Fakeleys, a mustache, and a few more months on the job conveyed a level of experience cave diving with zero equipment. Good grief.
      • remembering how scary it is to look below you while climbing a mesa with no equipment 
      • explaining to my daughters precisely what happens if you don't tie your hair back since I had "Robert Plant hair" in high school and lots of associated lighter use
      • being able to say why you should never try a handheld stun gun as a form of self-defense because of that one college-age experiment with Grandpa Webb, of blessed memory
      • Note: He zapped me with a stun gun. It was my idea. He died 15 years later due to heart failure. I don't want to create the impression that they were related. The stun gun thing was hilarious. I still miss him.
      • describing how important ear protection is and how important it is to pay attention when using power tools, something I learned in a brief factory gig during my year at the University of Tennessee
      • stating emphatically that I would never willingly allow my children do a fraction of the things I enjoyed surviving. Not even my teenagers know 5% of what I've scraped my way through.
      • Yes, I know they stop asking permission eventually. I stopped long before age 8. I am so fortunate not to have clones.
    • has a few years of experience teaching. When I was an apostate from Judasim, I spent three years teaching Sunday School, with a focus on feelings, art, music, and personal experiences instead of religion. I didn't want to mislead anybody, so we stuck to the basics like love and empathy and virtues that I borrowed from Comte-Sponville. They were great kids.
  • Movies and toys and video games are nice to have.
  • People are better off with the fewest restrictions possible on video games, tv, and candy. Knowledge about over-consumption will lead to self-control. If it does not, people learn from their mistakes.
  • A candy bar that is uneaten out of wisdom is better for a child than a candy bar that is uneaten because it is forbidden.
  • They are finally old enough to get it.
  • The scientific method
    • What it is
    • How it works
    • How to apply it to everyday life
  • Evolution by natural selection and how Darwin’s dangerous idea changes our understanding of everything since everything evolves, from bodies to ideas to language. They understand basic genetic and memetic concepts going into third grade. 
  • Why the only way humans can become a different species is through extreme isolation like a group of humans living on a different planet for thousands of years.
  • How we must rely on the evolution of ideas and technology instead of bodies if we want to keep improving life for our species and others.
    • We are the same species as cavemen, with the exception of some epigenetic changes that probably did not alter human nature.
    • If we follow our instincts instead of applying the powers of observation and reason to our insticts, we are no different than cave people.
    • The accumulation of technology and human experience is why life is improving and is likely to continue.
  • Epistemology, memories, and dreams
  • How Ada Lovelace dreamed of flying as a 12yo, and how the flying machine she invented laid the foundations for other things. Lovelace is known as the mother of computer programming. My 8yo daughter loves Ada.
  • How a trip to the library inspired 5yo Carl Sagan. My 8yo son loves Carl Sagan. His twin sister pored through Cosmos after we read a picture book about him.
  • Jefferson’s theory of individual rights
    • The sole purpose of government as being something to institute and balance individual rights
    • What each branch of government does
    • How expanding notions of individual liberty have led to more people getting rights over time
    • How judicial precedent works and evolves, and how it played a role in securing the rights of minorities and other fragile groups
    • How Jefferson's theory grew from the ideas of Paine, Locke, and ultimately Spinoza.
  • How the application of Spinoza's ideas contributed to the radical Enlightenment, which is why we have individual liberties, capitalism, artistic self-expression, religious liberty, science, medicine, most forms of fiction, and everything else that makes the modern world so wonderful.

Judaism

I like to think that my home is firmly rooted in Jewish values. It is certainly based on Jewish thinkers. Almost everything I believe can be traced directly or indirectly to a Jew somewhere in history. It's taken me 45 years to figure that out.

The connection between Judaism and my home philosophy may seem tenuous, but it is not. I am a classical liberal, which is very similar to libertarianism, an intellectual movement founded on five 20th century thinkers: Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig Von Mises, and Murray Rothbard. A novelist and four economists. Four Jews and Hayek, who spent a lot of time with Jewish intellectuals and speculated that he was of Jewish ancestry, enough that he researched all of his ancestors going back five generations.

One of the biggest things I have learned so far: There is no Judaism. There are Judaisms. They all have certain things in common that I won't get into here. The Judaism that I model in my home is the one I understand: that of Spinoza, the Haskalah, Rand, Friedman, Einstein, Sagan, Shubin, Pinker, Simmons. I don't know very much about religion, so I leave that to the experts to teach my kids while I study on my own until I have time to do so with a scholar someday. I've got plenty of time.

The twins reinforced the value of a Jewish education a couple of weeks ago when they explained the ending of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is pretty much the best movie ever. I don't think I've ever seen them so excited. They understand that it's special effects, but this is something they've learned about in school, and they're seeing it depicted in my favorite movie, and those are not actually ghosts, Dad, so it wasn't a spoiler, and they're teaching me this time, which is as exciting as things get once you've rinsed off enough summertime grime to be comfy and had your fill of ice cream. They wish it were possible to show it in school but understand why it's not.

Life, Garrison Style

The children have my permission to pursue the four things however they want, as long as they do so ethically and seek guidance when safety or difficult questions are involved. No one here is a big risk taker. No third degree burns or broken bones seem likely with me in charge.
  • Curiosity is front and center.
  • The sole form of discipline I use is taking away electronics. This is never used to punish. It is simply used to force a pause in the conversation until everyone is calm enough to talk.
  • I can't remember the last time I had to take away electronics from the twins.
  • Instead, I use timeout as calmdown time. I allow the twins to select however much time they will need to process their emotions and move from, “I’m mad right now, but everything is going to be okay,” to, “Everything is okay. I think I can talk about this.” If they try to rush out, I gently redirect them back to time-out.
  • Everything else is done through a positive incentive structure, which includes wages for basic chores and the ability of people to name their price to do an extra job, subject to negotiation. I want them to ask big first.
  • The twins said they wanted to clean all the walls and bathrooms if I would let them pick out a nice toy. That was their idea. I love it. I accepted their offer immediately to create a powerful set of memories. 
  • We have been working out scripts to help them navigate difficult situations. The goal of the scripts is to reveal the motivation of each person and understand that a particular thing (or idea, whatever) is a limited resource that must be negotiated. They work through trade-offs together and come up with a compromise if one is agreeable.
  • Script development is hilarious.
  • Fear never helps children. I do everything in my power to use communication, love, compassion, empathy, reason, and trust.

Rights, Words, and the Power of Positive Imagery

What does all of this mean? Is it just random nonsense? Perhaps. I think there is more to it than that. By envisioning who we want to be, and by working hard to achieve it, we can become better people, and make the world better, healing it through one act of love after another.

I believe in the power of achievement and the self-esteem it can create. I believe in kindness. I believe in gumption, which is one of the things that makes America great. We hustle. We remember our immigrant roots, whether our ancestors came seeking opportunity or bound in the chains that humans so frequently bind one another in. On the 4th of July we talked about individual rights and ate food from all over the world.

Kindness does not mean being a wimp. It does not mean checking your convictions out at the door. It means gentle truthtelling. It means firm boundaries without sharp edges.

It is wrong to take unless you must. It is much better to create and share, and to ask the same of others.

When we recognize our rights as rights and all others as our equals, we see that we have an obligation to care for others, just as they have an obligation to care for us. Interdependence is part of the deal. It's essential to being human.

The rights of life, liberty, property, and family are universal. Every human being is a family member. Animals are too, but less so. I find it sad and strange that people are often more willing feed stray dogs than the homeless. The phrase, "Pets' lives matter," is less controversial than, "Black lives matter." To many people, pets matter more than black people. I'm not talking semantics. Our use of words reflects and shapes our view of the world. Many worldviews are nasty, brutish, and small.

We have a right and a responsibility to give, to care, to feed, to shelter, to provide equal justice, to make health care available to all, and to ensure that all children and adults have access to knowledge and education. In my opinion, we would do well to refocus public policy away from left/right and toward practical solutions that ensure the provision of necessities to everyone, with the least amount of central authority possible. A tall order for sure.

To simplify things, I refer you to this infographic from Parks and Recreation. Even when under the influence of Snake Juice, which I would never touch, Ron Swanson(2) provides a roadmap to better living.

Hard work. Self-reliance. Gentle truthtelling. Kindness. Life is good. Please and thank you.


Author's Notes
(1) The biographical information about Rand is based on my recollection of books that I read years ago: Goddess of the Market: Ayn Rand and the American Right by Jennifer Burns, Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement by Brian Doherty, Ayn Rand and the World She Made by Deckle Edge, and Why People Believe Weird Things by Michael Shermer.
(2) Ron Swanson is obviously a wackadoodle, but he is a delightful one. He reminds me of my father, and trying to be like Ron often leads me act a bit more politely, though not always. Given the fact that this is a piece on my kids and education, absolute clarity here seems important. My college entrance essay for Davidson was a cynical one-page comic strip. I've never been able to take things 100% seriously.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

An important note on what follows

What follows is a collection of writings from the past. I no longer hold many of these views. I left the GOP because of its opposition to marriage equality. With the rise of Trumpism, I can't imagine a return to compassionate conservatism or anything truly conservative. Being a reactionary is every bit as un-conservative as being a radical.

I've always been a strage beast politically. Bush in 92, Clinton 96, Gore 2000, Bush 2004, Obama 2008, Romney 2012, Clinton 2016. I take pride in every one of those votes. That said, if I had a do-over, I would go Obama in 2012. Also, I think the Clintons are as much of a crime family as the Trumps and Corleones. To be clear, the Bidens, Bushes, Obamas, and Romneys are not crime families.

A lot of this is worth reading, but just misguided enough to be totally wrong in places.

I hope you find it thought provoking if nothing else. Most of these pieces were cross-posted on RedState, where I attempted to pull things in a more moderate direction. That's why I became a precinct chair of the GOP as well. Once I understood the culture from within, I realized that I had been tilting at windmills. Hubris was a thing. Being a Republican no longer made sense.

White Terrorism and What Love Can Do

Note: I wrote this piece in 2015. I no longer hold these religious beliefs, but with a different theological wrapper I still hold these beliefs about the need for religious groups to help young people find their actual self instead of their hateful self. We are bear sparks of divinity and just need to breathe on them and be patient. They grow when you do that.

See The End of Church for my views on why I am no longer a Christian. In short, I believe that the doctrines of propitiation by blood sacrifice to atone for sin is one of the most dangerous memes ever to transform a regional cult into a global religion. This take on Christian theology is my opinion and not intended to offend anyone. I'm sorry if it does, y'all.

White Terrorism and What Love Can Do.

More Than a Feeling

Tonight I went to an event called More Than a Vigil: A Community in Conversation for Healing & Change. People talked about their views, primarily on race, and reacted to the mass murder last week at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. Anyone who was so inclined was invited to speak for up to three minutes about their personal experiences.

I didn’t get up and talk because I’m chickenshit I wasn’t sure what to say, basically, and I think a lot better with my fingers than my mouth. If you don’t believe me, let’s spend some time together, and you’ll see how quickly my mouth runs away with my brain. Writing allows for a tad more circumspection.

At any rate, it was a pretty cool event, and hopefully the weekly follow-up meetings will lead to some good.

One of the things that I didn’t hear much (and maybe this means that I should have talked or not zoned out when people said it) is that acts of domestic terrorism of the sort committed by Assmonkey Shifflebrane* are pretty much a white people problem, and white people need to engage in order to prevent it.

Don’t get me wrong. Improving intercultural relations between people of different races is awesome, and I’m all for it, especially for tackling things like institutional racism and the like because those are ultimately even more harmful than the sort of thing that happened in Charleston. But eliminating redlining and having a just justice system and reducing police brutality and everything else won’t stop some evil little shit from arming himself (yes, himself...always a him) and murdering a bunch of people. Ditching the Confederate battle flag and outing people’s ties to hate groups will go a long way toward changing the culture. At the same time, mass murder has to be prevented one heart at a time, and that is something that individuals can do.

It's Only Terrorism When It's One of Them

These days, when we hear the word “terrorism,” it is almost always a synonym for terrorism connected to Islamic radicals despite the fact that domestic terrorism has done a helluva lot more damage to the country over the centuries than terrorist acts committed by Islamic radicals. As many commentators have pointed out, when brown people commit mass murder, it’s terrorism, and when white people do it, it’s mental illness, but that’s a different subject for a different ramble. When people talk about Islamic terrorism, the only workable solution to it is for moderate Muslims to win the debates within Islam and stop the radicals. Sure, better American foreign policy might lead to fewer opportunities for radicalism to take root in the minds of young men, but we can’t bomb or finesse our way out of the fact that a lot of people on the other side of the world are dangerous. Their coreligionists or countrymen or whoever need to change that.

In the same way, Americans who are committed to the idea of love as the ultimate good need to win the war against reactionary, dangerous, stupid, just plain wrong ideas. Good ideas are better than idiotic, malicious ones, and people with good ideas should engage in arguments in order to win them. The thing about armed white guys with bad ideas is that there are a lot of them—a lot of armed white guys, a lot of bad ideas that misguided white guys like, and a lot of armed white guys whose heads are full of said bad ideas. Love can do what ideas alone cannot. It can win arguments and transform lives at the same time.

I’ve known a few extremists pretty well, and they may not be a huge percentage of the overall population, but they’re very real and very scary. (Let's say that 1% of all white people are crazy racist radicals. That's 2.5mm crazy racist radical Americans. And I think that the percentage is considerably higher than that.) Despite going to integrated schools and having a lot of black friends, apparently Shifflebrane was radicalized by websites like that run by the Council of Conservative CitizensIt's not kalumny to point out that the CCC acronym is a krazy-klever wink-wink way of revealing the organization from which it evolved.

Love Does

Now, it's easy to go down the path of how terrible the CCC and other acronymized hate groups are, but I’m going to shift gears and talk about love. One of my favorite writers is a guy named Bob Goff, and he writes about how love does. Love is engaged. Love acts. Love does stuff. Here’s a video of Bob. It has nothing to do with this subject, but if you have 20 minutes, you should watch it. Basically whenever you find a video of Bob, you should watch it.



Tonight, I’ve been thinking: How can love do stuff that will prevent the next Assmonkey Shifflebrane from committing mass murder? If we take this belief that God loves us seriously, then we have to trust that love can do a lot, especially if we are willing to take risks and engage.

The thing is, adolescent males make a lot of bad decisions. I don’t know if it’s hormones or misguided sexual energy or just being horrible people because they’re adolescent males, but they just do. Sometimes they light bags of poo on fire on their friends’ porches because it’s funny to watch them freak out (I never did anything of the sort, naturally), and sometimes they join a gang because it gives them power or whatever, and sometimes they arm themselves and set out to change the world one corpse or congregation or community at a time. I think that a lot of them seek to feel strong and powerful, and it’s way too easy for them to get their hands on weapons.

I don't phrase it that way to excuse Assmonkey's actions. Nothing can excuse them. They're inexcusable and evil and monstrous and everything else. I phrase it that way as a way of talking out how to prevent the next evil Assmonkey from murdering innocents because he has a dark heart and a head full of hormones and horseshit.

If Christians are committed to loving others, then we must engage and help kids to know the power of God instead because it’s wholly different than this sort of power. I don’t exactly know how to do it, and I’m just trying to be part of the conversation and encourage people to think about it and try things.

Maybe we just reach out as best we can in all of our goofy human frailty to at-risk kids and adolescents and just love them. We do our best to be God with skin on just like Jesus was, which was part of the last thing that Jesus was recorded praying. Maybe we help to get them plugged in through mentoring or through churches and parachurches doing whatever else works. Or just hang out with them and help them to start asking who God is and why he loves them and everyone of every color and ethnic background. White terrorists are obviously not the same thing as kids in gangs, but they’re all young men with dangerous weapons and bad ideas, and maybe this kind of vague outreach can help all of them. I don’t mean outreach to win belt notches for Jesus or whatever. I mean just hanging out with whoever is willing to do so, loving them, and seeing if any of the God stuff rubs off on them.

Also, don't give your kid a handgun for his birthday unless he's turning 60 or something. Ass.

The Power of Man and the Power of God

Frederick Buechner has an excellent sermon called “The Power of God and the Power of Man,” which is published in his book The Magnificent Defeat. It’s more concise and more beautiful than anything I’ve ever written, so if you’re so inclined, here it is.

I’m not a great writer like Buechner. I like to look at things from pop culture and show how they illustrate our ideas, and there aren’t a lot of popular, recent, kick-ass illustrations of the power of man versus the power of God. Interestingly, Superman provides both, shown below in clips from the unfortunate film Man of Steel and the superb tv show Smallville, respectively. Both of them are heavily laden with Superman-As-Christ imagery, and in the clips below we see him battle with General Zod, a fellow Kryptonian who has the same powers as Kal El/Clark Kent/Supes (warning: spoilers).

The Power of Man

Man of Steel spends a decent amount of imagery on Superman-as-Christ, but gets its Superman mythology and its Christ mythology wrong in the end (Side note: It gets a lot wrong, but this is not a movie review). This is the version of Supergod that appeals to the adolescent male. He defeats Zod using the power of man. This is American Jesus. This Superman is seriously dangerous iconography.




The Power of God 

Smallville, on the other hand, gets Christ right over and over and over again. It even has a multi-episode story arc that seems to illustrate the power of the Holy Spirit in transforming the heart of one of the show’s most evil characters and making him good. So it’s no surprise that when Clark defeats Zod, it's by using the self-sacrificial, self-emptying power of God. Ultimately (spoiler) love—not brute force—conquers, and if we want to take on and conquer white domestic terrorism, then I suspect that it is how we will do so. One heart at a time.



Footnote:
*I refuse to call the murderer from last week by his name because he wants to be a hero. I will only do so in hindsight if this particular event was a turning point that did the opposite of what he intended. The only way he gets to keep his name is if his ideas lose. Otherwise I’d love to see it relegated to a footnote in the dustbin of history.

The End of Church ☮️

Note:
I spent 2009-2010 converting to Judaism. I became angry and confused about what it meant to be Jewish. It wasn't Judaism's fault. Saying anything beyond that is inappropriate.

I started going back to church in 2012, and during my divorce St John's Episcopal Church took us in, cared for our needs, and never judged us for our differences. Later, St Martin's Episcopal Church did. These communities are full of open, kind people. I learned a lot about how to be a better person from them, even though it was a hard time for me. I can never thank my friends from those years enough. I'm sorry if my silence hurt.

The essay below describes why I stopped believing in Christianity and left church. It doesn't describe the guilt and agony I felt the entire time I was there, I wasn't myself. I used to worry about offending people when I say why I believe Christianity is untrue without being offensive. With time and reflection, now I know: Belief is what it is.

  • When the twins started attending Charlotte Jewish Day School in 2017, I remembered what it meant to be Jewish and recognized that I had a responsibility to raise them un-divided. I had stopped believing in Christianity by this point. Going to church started to make me feel ill.
  • In May 2018 I built a minecraft Fortress of Solitude. I think I was telling myself something. 
  • I returned to Judaism in June 2018. I wrote this letter, but I knew the time wasn't right to share it yet. Except for getting rid of the word "woke" because it is obnoxious and silly, the piece is unchanged.
  • In July 2018 I quit facebook and stopped returning calls.
  • I wanted to rediscover and reclaim the self.
  • In December 2017 I weighed over 260 pounds. I dropped down to 170 by getting rid of fat. Now I hover around 190.
GG July 2020

The End of Church
It would be nice to talk about this in person, but this is easier. I think better with my fingers than with my lips. And I’m only courageous up to a point. And I need to talk to a few people at once.

In the past few years, I've taught your kids Sunday school. I've played bass and sung in worship services. I've done comedy routines to lighten things up. I put together an ecumenical hymn party at a bar to try bring folks around the city together. I've helped (sort of) with Game Night. I helped organize a group of amazing guys. So I'm writing this because you deserve to hear it directly if you want.

Our friendship developed because we were Christians. I'm not a Christian anymore. I hope that we will still be friends without Jesus.

You probably know my story since I am direct and unguarded: I was a Christian for over 30 years. I was an atheist--out of anger more than conviction--for a year or two. I studied and converted to Judaism. After a college reunion, I missed the Christian friends of my youth. I felt torn between the religion of my upbringing and the religion that I had chosen. I started going back to church, trying to recapture the magic.

What I've told few people is this: I couldn't make it work, at least not once I started taking church seriously instead of quietly coming and going.

I tried to claim dual citizenship: Jewish and Episcopalian. I couldn't. I tried to believe the things that I had believed when I was young. I couldn’t. I moved from one church to another, hoping that a more progressive house of worship would allow me to hold humanism and Judaism and Christianity together, in my mind and heart, at the same time. I couldn’t. I clutched to find bits and pieces, scraps of something to hold onto, a reason to stick around. I couldn’t.

I came to that realization that I was trying to believe things I didn't believe and forcing myself and (more importantly) my kids to fit into a community of believers where we did not belong.

Only one path made sense: Move on. Grieve the loss. Direct my attention where it should have been all along: providing an emotionally healthy home for my children and giving them the tools that will help them live well. That includes setting a good example across the board. So I'm getting physically fit and spending time at home instead of being socially active. They need me every day. No one else does. That's the way it should be.

If belief is the price of admission to church, the wallet is empty. I could keep up appearances, but instead, I'll keep it real.

The reason I reject Christianity is pretty simple: If a murder 2000 years ago leads to salvation in a supernatural sense, then the man behind the curtain is the monster under the bed.

In a movie, there’s a storytelling device called a maguffin. The Maltese Falcon is a maguffin. The Death Star plans are one. Rosebud. The Ark of the Covenant. Nathan Jr. The maguffin gets the action started, and it's what the movie is about in the description on IMDb.

Movies aren’t actually about maguffins though. They’re about the relationships that play out between characters, the changes that occur in those relationships, the changes within individuals. If a movie isn’t about those things—if it is actually about the maguffin and not the relationships and change caused by the search for the maguffin—it probably isn’t worth watching.

Religion is one of society’s most potent maguffins. It brings people together around something, and that’s what those individuals focus on. In the meantime, relationships are created by the search for the maguffin, the quest for God or truth or social justice or whatever that group is into.

Those relationships are the good part. What people do together is what matters, even if the maguffin falls away. I think that most relationships work this way. Hopefully those forged in religion are less fragile than those where you work together or where meet and enjoy the same things and just hang out because it's fun. I know that that kind lasts.

The maguffin that we used to talk about and pray about and worship is no longer a thing that we share, but every conversation we had is a thing that we always will. The important parts of what we talked about—at least to me—were always about life and kids and stories and music and art, not the maguffin itself.

Some of my values have changed in the last few years. I’m more liberal than I used to be. I’m more conscious of others' differences and needs. I want my kids to be themselves and live good lives. I don't care whether and what they believe about things that are invisible and intangible as long as it's not crazy talk.

The rest of my values haven’t changed. They're just not compatible with Christianity. I can be a disbeliever in church, but I can't be a disbelieving Christian, and if I'm not a Christian, it doesn't make sense to go to church.

Hopefully this helps to explain why you haven’t seen me there and won’t anymore. And I hope that our friendship will continue if there's more to it than the maguffin. I value my friends regardless of their metaphysical opinions. I hope it goes both ways. Just keep it real. I'm trying to.

Peace.

The End of Politics

Note: I wrote this piece in April 2012, six months after the death of my father.

Heroes
Cyrano De Bergerac was probably, at least in part, a political animal. He was fictional, obviously, at least as we know him, but one didn’t live as he did—able to navigate among fellow aristocrats—unless one was a creature with some political instincts.

When I was a child, I loved the movie of Cyrano starring Jose Ferrer, and I memorized huge chunks of the play (the Brian Hooker translation), a paperback of which I carried around far too frequently. I memorized lots of things back then, including all of the non-sports-related Trivial Pursuit questions (I’ve never been able to retain information about sports), Carroll’s nonsense poem Jabberwocky, the cast and crew of every movie that played on HBO (back when HBO only played movies at night), and heaven knows what else. I have forgotten the sorts of things that I used to remember.

It occurs to me, now that I think about it, that no one remembers Cyrano for his ability to articulate his position vis-à-vis royalty, taxation, and whatever else might have been the topics du jour in mid-seventeenth century France. People remember him because he had a huge nose. And he wrote poems and loved with a perfect mixture of heroism, valor, and absurdity.

Love is never complete without absurdity. End the refrain. Thrust home.

What about other childhood heroes and favorites? A random sample: Jim Henson, Batman, James Dean, Stephen King, Maxfield Parrish, Han Solo, James Kirk, Bugs Bunny, Andre-Michel Schub, Mozart, Beethoven, Billy Joel, Green Arrow, Green Lantern, Michelangelo, C.S. Lewis, Steve McQueen, every character in The Great Escape except for the Gestapo SOBs, The Shadow, the artists who made the Dreamery comic books, Berkeley Breathed, P.J. O’Rourke, Hunter S. Thompson, Roger Dean, Yes, The Grateful Dead, The Beatles, Superstoe by William Borden, Ray Charles (first concert), the Indigo Girls (second concert), Rolling Stone (before it became a cross between the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition and Tiger Beat), The Rolling Stones, Charles Schultz, and John Belushi. Most of my adult relatives.

There are a few political people and things in there, but by and large, it’s just stuff that I liked because I liked it. When I think of things that I disliked, a lot of them were political. A great example is Doonesbury. Its subtitle should be “Predictable, rehashed, unfunny crap since 1970” or “Here for the same reason as Rex Morgan, MD. We make Ziggy seem worthwhile.” I think that I liked the idea of the comic briefly when I found out that Uncle Duke was based on Hunter S. Thompson, but then I read a few panels and returned to my stance of disdain.

An Essay In Search of a Raison d'être
So what’s the point of all of this? There are at least two: 1) This is a blog, so it must occasionally turn to self-involved navel-gazing for inspiration. 2) I think that I’ve reached the end of politics, at least for now.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to say that I don’t read the news and have opinions—often strong ones—about issues that have a political component, but I have reached a point where I no longer care to let political positions define me or determine the nature of my relationships.

Political banter is tedious and tiresome, more often than not, and the political evangelist is the modern equivalent of a chattering door-to-door salesman who makes his living irritating people and convincing them to buy his space-wasting widgets, to make him go away if for no other reason.

A person’s political beliefs say something about him, just as his religious beliefs do, but they don’t define him. A lot of Americans take political issues—things over which each individual has virtually no control—and use them as crayons to draw childish outlines of who people are.

I think that this is a mistake.

Imagine someone believes that, say, blacks or Mexicans or Jews or gays (or members of whatever group) are inferior due to their [fill in the blank]. This can translate into a set of weird political beliefs or a preference for a certain type of fringe political candidate, but it’s not their political extremism that makes them so bizarre and discomfiting. It’s their crazy, abhorrent beliefs that do, and this drives their politics as well as their other choices. I’ve known a few people like that, and it’s easy to point out a dozen reasons why they’re assholes. Politics are usually present, but they’re not required.

Self-Involved Narrative 201: Intense Navel-Gazing
You can see, sort of flipping backward through the essays on this site, that I was playing with various things and trying to deal with current events with humor and even-handedness as I shifted from ill-defined liberalism, for lack of a better word, to a sort of Burkean conservatism. I was trying to figure out how and where I fit into everything around me, and I’m not going to go into all of the reasons why, because some things are personal.

A year and a half ago, my head swollen from the positive reception given to a few of the things I’d written, I was ready to get involved in politics. The idea was to establish a name for myself in the conservative blogosphere and try to turn it into a book deal or something. Eventually I showed up at a precinct organization meeting and was recruited to be the Republican chairman for my precinct (I had switched my political affiliation to Republican in order to get involved). I would also be a delegate to the county convention and, if I wanted to go, to the state one.

Around the same time, I was asked to help with MeckFUTURE, a grassroots political movement that put pressure on county commissioners to keep property tax rates flat. Soon thereafter, a friend ran for political office and wanted my help.

During all of this, my wife became pregnant with twins. The pregnancy was complicated, and she was on bed rest starting around the sixth week of the pregnancy until the babies were born. This meant that I had to do all of the errand-running, cooking, taking the other eight kids where they needed to be, and everything else in the household, plus work. A few other things were happening too. Suffice it to say, I had plenty going on and a lot to think about.

I had to prioritize, and naturally, I chose my family over everything else. I missed most of the MeckFUTURE meetings, never was able to help my friend’s campaign, missed every convention where I was a delegate.

At the same time, I became increasingly uneasy with the GOP because it was talking about social issues, which are almost totally irrelevant (at least from the perspective of what the government should be doing). Worse yet, some prominent Republicans have gone beyond irrelevance and said downright idiotic things about birth control, abortion, human papillomavirus and the cervix-saving vaccine that prevents it, homosexuality, and books that should be banned. I can't verify that last one, but there was probably at least one boneheaded elected official in the GOP pushing to prevent kids from being infected with Hogwarts. Fortunately, there is no vaccine for that.

The economy was crashing, the national debt was ballooning faster than my waistline when I stopped dieting a couple of years ago, and politicians (including a jackass also-ran who lost re-election to the US Senate by 17 points) were debating whether birth control makes angels cry. Ridiculous.

The NC GOP, which had a governing majority in the legislative branch for the first time since Reconstruction, did some good things like increase the number of charter schools. At the same time, they introduced an amendment that, if passed, will write prohibition of gay marriage into the NC constitution. For the love of God. I just can’t attach that label to my name.

By the end of the summer, I had decided that politics weren’t really that exciting anymore. When I thought about getting more involved, I just felt, well, unpleasant and kind of dirty. So I went back to being unaffiliated.

When In Doubt, Quote Songs or Movies
If not politics, then what? What makes the battle worth the fighting? What makes the mountain worth the climb? What makes the questions worth the asking? The reason worth the rhyme?

Six months ago—to be more precise, six months, twelve hours, and fifty or so minutes before I started writing this tonight—my father died because his heart had become too big to fit in his body. That probably has something to do with the whole business. I’ve been looking at things in a different way since then, trying to focus on doing things that matter.

I’d never lost someone before, at least not someone to whom I was so close. We were different in some ways, especially on the surface. I have a corporate job, and he was a self-employed intellectual bedouin of sorts. Beneath the surface, though, we were simpatico. I miss being able to call him and just talk about nonsense. I think that a lot of my political writing was for him. I liked the idea of being able to make my Dad smile. We enjoyed talking about politics and agreed on most things.

But I don’t love my Dad because of his politics. I love him because he’s my Dad. Or was my Dad. I still haven’t figured out how to use tenses correctly where he is concerned. He was born under a wandering star and became friends with people in every town that he called home. He made beautiful paintings and lived with a perfect mixture of heroism, valor, and absurdity.

And that’s when everything falls into place. The chunk of rhymes that I quoted above is one that I know by heart and recall without trying. If I close my eyes and think very hard, I can hear Dick Van Dyke’s voice. It’s not from Mary Poppins. I pause. It’s from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. It’s from the song “You Two,” which Caracatus Potts sings to his children. And that’s what really matters to me in the end. That’s my raison d'être: My family.


When listing out the things that matter most—God, family, country, honor, hard work—politics don’t even deserve a thought, much less a place.

My aunt Mary wrote a lovely piece about my father after his death, and a particular line has stuck with me: “He had strong opinions but managed to keep friendships with those with whom he disagreed.”

That’s how I want to be. That’s who I want to be: a bit gentler, a bit funnier, a lot more humble, and never willing to harm a relationship over a difference in opinion, especially political opinion. In the end, politics are just things that will get settled in a back room, bedroom, statehouse, courthouse, or battlefield.

For years, I had this sort of belligerent attitude of, “Gotta stand for something, or you’ll fall for anything.” I want something different now. Fortunately, Bebo Norman captured this something in his song “Here Goes”, and so I’ll borrow from him instead of trying to describe it myself: “Gotta reach for something, or you’ll fall for anything.”



The End of Politics
This is not the end of “The Joy of Reason.” I stopped writing on this site during the crises last year. This is the longest piece of non-fiction I’ve written since my wife went on bed rest, I think.

Our twins were born five days after my father’s death. Now that we have figured out how to manage a house with two more people in it, I’ve started focusing my creative energy on writing fiction instead of political nonsense. I’m currently trying to shop the book, a young adult fantasy novel entitled Children of Midgard, to agents. So far, I have not had any success.

I don’t know what I’m going to use this site for in the future. I have the idea for an adult novel called The Joy of Reason, and hopefully I’ll work out the plot enough to write it someday. I already know the last line, which helps.

Until then, check back once in a while, and I might surprise you by spewing my opinion on current events. I don’t shill for a party anymore, though, and while I do and will vote, I will not seek to change the way that you do.

I don’t know if you’ve been able to read this, Dad, but if so, I hope that you’ve enjoyed it.