TCS Free on Kindle

Want a free copy of my book?  Here ya go.

Starting tomorrow 3/24/2017 and running until Tuesday, 3/28, my book The Curious Snowflake: A Parable will be FREE on Kindle!  So feel free (literally) to get your hands on one while you can.  If you already own TCS, thank you so much, you make this indy author very happy.  And if you liked what you read, please share this post with your friends and get the word around.

Lastly, reviews.  The only way an independent author like myself can get visibility on Amazon is through reviews.  The more a book gets, the higher priority it receives in searches.  So if you are one of the people who have already left a review, you rock my world!  But if you haven’t or you are planning on snagging it during this promo, pleasepleaseplease take 2 minutes out of your day and leave an HONEST 2 or 3 sentence review on Amazon.  I am just a handful of feedbacks away from seeing a big jump in TCS’s visibility, so every single one will make a huge difference to me.

Peace, light, love, and thank you all in advance!

Jim

Separation Consciousness

Hello friends, it’s been a long time.

A series of things came across my FB feed today that prompted me to dust off this old blog and write about them.  The first was one of those “watch until the end, ohmyheart” videos of someone doing something nice for a homeless guy… but not until after seeing him get literally dumped on by a series of other people.

 

The second was a post from a dear friend* who left a wonderful, share-the-love message in the sand at her local park…. only to have it defaced by profanity a couple of days later.

sandimageAnd then, of course, there was a series of posts from the major news outlets about the latest actions of our #RepublicanAdministration.

Needless to say, I am not oh-my-heart-ing right now.

Something seems to be coming to a head in this country, something I call Separation Consciousness.  As I’ve written in other places, I feel that the great glory and experience of being human is the tension created between Unity and diversity, between the One and the Many, between the Us and the I.  We gain joy and a sense of achievement from both kinds of actions, those which connect us with others and those which establish ourselves as individuals.  It is in the space between these actions that we define who we are and what our priorities are as people.

Where we silly humans get into trouble is when one or the other is over-emphasized.  When Unity pushed too much to the fore, the individual is subsumed.  We lose our identity, our ability to make choices, our dignity as individuals.  When diversity is over-glorified, we disassociate, we fragmentize, we become selfish and hurtful and greedy.

We have definitely swung towards the latter as of late.

cancercell.jpg

This is Separation Consciousness, what Edward Abbey called “the ideology of the cancer cell”.  Always more, always compete, climb higher even if you have to put your boot on someone else’s face to do so, grab what you can, hoard and hold, charity is for the weak and the sinful, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, if you’re poor it’s your fault, greed is good, on and on and on and on.

It’s a mindset I’ve never been able to grasp.  I’m just not wired that way.  I gain no joy from competition at another’s expense.  Other than a few creature comforts and my various geeky addictions, I am very non-materialistic.  I grasped easily and early the idea that love increases when you share it, that giving is far better than receiving, that whatever you send into the world returns sevenfold.  This all just makes sense to me.  Yet I look around at the world and see the complete opposite, and it tears my heart out to see it.

This, more than anything else, explains my hiatus over the last 6 months or so.  All around me, in my personal life as well as our greater culture, I saw an exponential increase in separation.  Our government aside (too easy a target and too big a tangent), we find ourselves in a culture where not only no one cares, but no one is supposed to care.  Money now equals speech.  Differences in language and religion become tools of dehumanization.  Companies care only for bottom lines.  Take from the Earth and ignore the obvious consequences.  And so I turned inward.  A foolish and counterproductive thing to do, but there it is.

Yeah, I’m done with that now.

Unity and diversity are both truths of the human experience, and to ignore either is to bring pathology upon yourself.  I cannot do that any longer.  So I make a pledge to you, in front of god and all the Interwebz.  If what I pledge resonates with you, I invite you to do the same.  I do not expect myself to keep this pledge perfectly, but there is literally no other way to change this world other than to try.  Because this is a statement of truth about the Universe, and even the slightest movement towards that truth will resonate into Eternity.

  • I pledge to share whatever I can, whenever I can do so, whether that be time, money, kindness, or simply a positive thought.
  • I pledge to see others around me as human beings, with dreams and hopes and desires no different from mine, even when other behave in hurtful, selfish ways.  Especially then.
  • I pledge to take time to look at the world and see its wonder, and to remember that I am a part of that wonder.
  • I pledge to acknowledge my own dreams, and to take one action each day to move closer to them.
  • I pledge that, when I see hurtful, selfish actions being taken, that I will not sit idly by, but will take whatever action I can to negate them, no matter how small.
  • I pledge to take 10 minutes each day to stop, to breathe, and to simply be.

Obviously, if you can think of other things to add to your pledge, by all means do so.  Heck, recommend a couple to me if you think I would appreciate them.  Here’s a hint; I appreciate all feedback.  🙂

This is my pledge, to send what Unity I can out into the world and let it resonate.  How much difference can it make?  Well, go back and rewatch that little video at the beginning with a slightly less jaundiced eye.  If we make a difference in one person’s life, just for a little while, isn’t that enough?  Call it chaos theory of humanity.  If we alter the trajectory of one person, how will that affect the world?  Because it will, and in ways we cannot even fathom.  Kindness creates kindness.  Generosity breeds generosity.  We start with ourselves and then move outward.  It is all we can do, and more vitally, all we need to do.

* image from Lisa Cousineau

The Lost Lesson of 9/11


This day fifteen years ago was a Tuesday. 

I remember this because I slept in. Tuesday was Laundry Day for us back then, the only day of the week both my wife and I had off. We would go to Blockbuster (still a thing in 2001), rent 4 movies, and spend the day watching them while we sorted, folded, and schlepped clothes up and down from our 3rd floor apartment to the laundry room in the basement. Our oldest kid wasn’t 3 yet, and it was him who woke me up. 

“Daddy,” he said, still rubbing sleep from his eyes, “cartoons won’t work.”

Grumpily, I tossed the sheet off of me and stumbled out into the living room. Sure enough, instead of his usual PBS fare, the TV instead showed what I thought was the demolition of some building in Chicago. I grabbed the remote and started thumbing through channels to find something to appease him, only to find the same smoldering image on every station. Then I read the news ticker across the bottoms of the screen, and I immediately rush back into the bedroom. 

“Love, wake up, you need to come see this.”

No movies were rented by us that day. Like every other American, we  watched the news all day in a sort of awe-struck horror. At one point I walked across the street to pick up something from the convenience store, and I was shocked by the silence. No cars on the road. No planes in the sky despite being just a few miles from one of the busiest airports in the world. The whole country came to a standstill. 

****

By coincidence, I am flying today, the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. As I sip my Starbucks in the terminal, the news shows those low-definition images again of what we now call Ground Zero.  We’ve once again gotten used to such scenes only including foreign faces, so to see Americans streaked with soot and blood shocks me just as it did on that beautiful, quiet, horrible day. The talking heads pivot the story to the upcoming election, and how each of the candidates plan to speak about it. I can already imagine how those speeches will go, so I turn my attention to boarding my own flight. 

It is strange to me, to think I have lived through an event that will forever be in the history books, right along side Pearl Harbor, Gettysburg, and Lexington. It deserves to be, because it was the day that America was shown that there are people in the world who do not view us the way we view ourselves. To be blunt, we see ourselves as superheroes, mighty yet benevolent. 9/11 showed us how untrue that daydream truly is. 

Sadly the realization didn’t stick. 

This is the lost lesson of 9/11. We had a chance to understand what America truly is: an empire, no different from Rome or Britannia or any of the others throughout history. Yet as the intervening 15 years has shown, we haven’t learned. We want to have the power of empire but keep this veneer of heroism, but chaos is the only result that can come from such self-delusion. 

Will we learn?  Can we become the heroes, behave as such?  Or will we become bullies in mind as well as fact?  Only time will tell. 

I Am Privileged As F**k

I am privileged.

privilege

I am male.  I am white.  I have a college degree.  I am American.  I was raised in a middle-class, suburban neighborhood.  I am over 6 feet tall.  I have green eyes.  I am in excellent health for my age, albeit rather out of shape.  I have never been truly poor.  I come from a family where several members have lived into their 90s with all their mental faculties intact, and both my parents are in their 80s and going strong.

I am, pardon my French, privileged as fuck.

But a lot of people like me really don’t understand what privileged really means, and what it entails.  This does not mean that I have not experienced hardships, nor does it lessen them.   I may not have been poor, but I have been very, very broke.  Like food pantry broke. I may have a college degree, but I am both significantly underemployed and still-endebted.  I may be white, but I have been in situations where I felt afraid simply because  of the color of my skin.  I may have good health, but I still feel the aches of middle age.  I may have good genes, but I could still die at 47, as my oldest brother Mike did.

Privileged does not mean my life is perfect.

But what it does mean is that I have a leg up on just about everyone in the world.  I never had to worry about getting shot while waiting for a school bus.  I’ve never clutched a weapon inside my purse while walking through a dark parking lot.  I never grew up wondering about my next meal.  I never had to worry about the quality of my education, nor about getting into my college of choice despite my very-average grades.  I have never been pulled over because of the color of my skin.  My only experience with chaos or war or armed militias is through the filter of a TV screen or Internet connection.  I’ve never been cat-called.  I have never had to worry about dysentery, or malaria, or dengue fever, or any of the myriad diseases that plague poorer parts of the world. I have never felt threatened because of my religion.  I have never had to worry during a job interview that my skin color didn’t match that of my prospective employer.  I’ve never had to ask a girlfriend to watch my drink while I use the bathroom.  I have never had to walk miles just to get water.  I have always had a toilet that flushes.

I have never truly feared for my life.

This is privilege.  There are hardships, problems, fears, and frustrations that simply do not appear in my life, not because of any effort on my part, but simply because of luck, geography, and genetics.  Now, as a privileged individual, I have a choice.  I can be blind to my good fortune, and thus dismissive of those who do not possess it, or I can be aware of my luck and grateful for it, and instead understand the hardships of others that I have, through no effort of my own, avoided.  From this place of understanding, I then can use my privilege, use my good fortune to try to level the playing field.  I can give what I can, whether that be money, time, support, words, or actions, to try to make our world more fair, more even, more inclusive.  I can basically use my privilege to destroy it.

This is my mission, and should be the mission of every other educated white middle-class male American with half a brain and an ounce of decency.  Anything less, to put it bluntly, is selfishness, greed, and hubris.  Anything less truly is privilege.

Springtime At Last

lilacs

The green creeps upward in Spring.

tulips

First grass transforms from thatch to verdant

seemingly overnight,

then the first plants, peeking out from under last autumn’s leaves.

green

Soon after, the shrubs join in,

spreading a faint haze of life through the undergrowth

hiding the skeletal branches in a wrap of green.

treebuds

Then, at last, the explosion of life,

flowers bursting from ground and branch,

leaves finally leaping to the treetops,

banishing winter’s final remnant of bareness,

and softening the wind’s voice

from whistle to susurrus.

redbuds

Life wins again

lilacs

When Geek Wasn’t Chic

Geekout

It’s a good time to be a geek.

Everywhere you look, geek culture is booming.  The movies based off Marvel Comics franchises have pulled down over $19 billion, video games sales hit $91.5 billion in 2015 alone, and sci-fi and fantasy have been the top-selling book categories for years.  For the generation that has grown up with Harry Potter, XBox 360, and smartphones, these things are and, to their eyes, have always been cool, or at least acceptable.

Let me assure you this has not always been the case.

I am 41 years old, the perfect age to ride the cusp of technology from childhood on.  I remember playing endless games of Oregon Trail on monochrome-green Apple IIe screens in the computer lab in grade school.  I got to experience how Ronald Reagan’s changes to the Federal Trade Commission turned Saturday morning cartoons into 30-minute geeky advertisements for toys.  I played Pong, Asteroids, Breakout, Pac-Man, all of them as they released.  I had a front row seat (and have the packed-away issues to prove it) to the great shift in comics storytelling.  In many ways, the 1980s were the Golden Age of geekdoms, where much of what is beloved today had its roots, and that was my childhood: Atari, Star Wars, Iron Man, Tolkien, and Transformers.

But it was not much fun to be a geek back then.

I may have been part of the first electronics generation, but these entertainments were seen as fads, fringe, or just plain weird by most people.  My parents, part of the Silent Generation,  refused to get cable TV, a microwave, or any video game system past a 1970’s solid-state Pong rig.  My friends couldn’t understand why I would rather read than play outside.  My schoolmates thought Transformers were cool but didn’t understand my obsession with the Macross Saga and Battle of the Planets.  I found a small clique of similar outcasts and we spent our weekends playing 2nd Edition Dungeons & Dragons and watching Monty Python marathons, but our entertainment obsessions meant we were on the outside of the popular world looking in.  We claimed we didn’t care, but we all did.

The shift, I feel, began in the mid-90s.  By that time I was in college and in my short-lived goth stage (never dyed my hair black, though), but I was still a geek at heart.  The Internet was just becoming a thing, and with it the realization that it created a space where like-minded people could find each other.  BBSs and AOL chatrooms became meeting halls for the socially awkward, where interactions were kept quite literally under glass and even the shyest among us could find a voice, even if it was just in text.  In the roleplaying game scene, this was the era when live-action roleplaying, or LARPing, exploded, where people would go beyond paper and dice and actually become their characters for a day or evening or weekend.  Suddenly we geeks had a social crowd of sorts, though the tabletop purists despised it.  Looking back, it is amazing how big it got.  I attended a weekly gathering for White Wolf’s vampire LARP that consistently drew 150-200 people, and once had over 350 show up.

As the internet matured, LARPing fell by the wayside, replaced by a black hole of geekiness that even I have never ventured down: massively multiplayer online games, or MMOs.  Starting in 1997 with Ultima Online (though others existed before that), suddenly geeks had an entire visual world to meet up at and hide in.  Stories abounded in the early 2000s of people getting addicted to MMOs, to the point of losing jobs, relationships, and in a few cases, even suicide.  This level of obsession has even been lampooned in The Guild, the Web TV show that launched the career of Felicia Day.

But if there is one event, one turning point where geek culture and mainstream culture truly began to merge, it can be described in one name: Harry Potter.  Suddenly, a new generation of geeks had a rallying obsession, a new generation of parents who grew up in a much more geek-friendly era had a tool for getting their kids to read, and we who had grown up on Tolkien, Brooks, and Lewis finally had a common ground with the rest of the world.  This explosion of interest in fantasy got Hollywood got involved, and soon after, Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Lord of the Rings went on to win 17 Oscars.  With this, geek culture finally went mainstream.

Perhaps I am a little bitter that today’s geeks don’t have the uphill climb I and my generation had, but not much.  A whole new slew of problems have crept into geek culture that I never had to deal with, from the addiction problems I mentioned above to sexual harassment in the video game industry to the fake geek girl idiocy.  But when all is said and done, I’m just ecstatic that all these things I’ve loved all my life are no longer denigrated as shameful or stupid.

Geek for life, man.  Geek for life.

Above all, Charity

Colossians 3-14Generosity.  Giving.  Charity.  If there is one thread that binds all of the world’s religions together, it’s that generous acts should be encouraged.  Charity, generosity, and giving to the poor are mentioned in the New Testament over 30 times, Zakat, or donating a percentage of your income to the poor, is the third of Islam’s Five Pillars, daana, or charity without expectation of a return, is a key aspect of Hindu teachings, and Buddhism celebrates even the simplest acts of kindness. Even the IRS encourages them by giving tax breaks for charitable contributions.  But why is it so universal, and what does this imply?  What does this say about humanity?

Every one of us have given a small bit of our abundance to those in need at one point or another.  We’ve dropped a handful of change into a Salvation Army red bucket.  We’ve slipped a dollar into the guitar case of a street musician or the cup of homeless veteran. One January when I was in college I saw a guy playing the tuba at 9 o’clock at night on a Chicago street corner.  I handed him $5 (a big deal for a broke college student in the 90’s) and told him to get inside before his lips froze permanently to the mouthpiece.  And this made me feel good.  Really good, actually, and I’m sure that you’ve felt the same way if you’ve had a chance to do something similar.  This is beyond simple conscience or empathy, beyond the norms of our society or the teachings of our religions.  Something about being kind just feels . . .  right, like an affirmation.  Reaching out and helping another person feels genuine, like doing so is an acknowledgment of something.  I’ve given this a great deal of thought, and I have a theory about why, but first I need to explain a little about my beliefs.

If I had to put a label on my belief system, the one that would come the closest is Pantheist.  Pantheism is the belief that all of existence is an interconnected whole, and that this whole is, for lack of a better term, God.  Not the God of Christianity, Judaism or Islam, for those religions teach that the Divine is separate from Creation. Instead pantheism teaches that the Divine is existence, in a very real and literal sense.  To a true pantheist, all of existence is holy, and the only sins come from fighting against the truth of our interconnection. Now, my beliefs deviate from this in quite a few ways, but that’s not important here.  The key fact is that I agree that “God” is not separate from us, and we are not separate from each other.  More importantly, I feel that the joy that we get from being generous is proof of this interconnection.

Take this experience we’ve been discussing, this joy of generosity, and apply it to other spiritual points of view.  To a monotheist, generosity is an edict from on-high, a requirement from God to behave in certain ways in order to earn a reward.  To a reincarnationist, kindness is merely karmic book-balancing, an attempt to work off negativity from previous lives. To an atheist, charity is an acknowledgment of empathy and a way to  keep the unfortunate and unlucky from destabilizing society.  Yet none of these explain or even acknowledge the joy of generosity.  They see it as nothing more than happy aftereffect or a result of Divine-given conscience.

I look at it differently.  Stop and consider for a moment  how it feels to receive generosity rather than to give it.  Once we get past any feelings of guilt or shame (which I believe is just an unfortunate result of living in a capitalist society), receiving succor also feels good.  It feels like an acknowledgment that we are worthy, that we deserve kindness. Think about this.  Being generous and receiving help both trigger positive feelings.  If we are individual souls trying to earn salvation, reincarnated souls seeking balance, or just bodies and minds going through the motions of our brief existences, why would receiving help feel as good giving help?  It doesn’t make sense.

Ahh, but what if we are interconnected?  Then a logic beings to take shape behind all these feelings.  Now, when someone is generous to another, it makes perfect sense that both would receive a similar positive emotion, for at a deep and esoteric level, there is no “other”.  There is just one Soul experiencing things from different perspectives at the same time.  Now, I know this is an odd, even alien concept for many people.  We are all taught the myth of the Rugged Individualist, we are all exposed to the rather lonely philosophies of most major religions, and what I am trying to describe runs counter to these in many different ways.  I am not here to convert anyone to any particular way of thinking, but I do want you and everyone else to think about this, and think deeply.

So the next time you feel the desire to give, stop for a moment.  Look into the eyes of that street musician, that homeless person,  that bell ringer.  See them as another person with hopes and dreams, joys and disappointments, foibles and graces.  And just for a moment, try to perceive in their returned gaze a flicker of that Divine Spark that lives in all of us, that crosses creeds, classes, and colors.  Look for that moment of namaste, the God in me acknowledges the God in you.  This is what generosity is truly about.  It is a chance for us to express our interconnection in a real and tangible way.  Few things in life feel more fulfilling, because few things in life better reflect what I believe to be the real nature of existence.  I give to you because you and I are connected, and if you lack something, then at some level so do I.  I receive from you with gladness, for I know that I deserve kindness and that you feel as much joy from this act as I do.  In this way, charity may be the most holy act we humans can do.