Category Archives: Personal

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One cigarette

I wake up in hell. My back hurts. My back always hurts since I came here. Something happened in Kuwait when I was dragging equipment through the sand in a windstorm. A ripping in the muscles I think. Now the endless hurt. Groaning, I rise from the bed, pull on a pair of shorts and a t-shirt. I grab the pack off the night stand. Cheap Iraqi cigarettes. I find it ironic that I am pulling little streams of smoky death into my lungs daily that are marked with the brand name Miami.

This trailer park I live in is a very different world from Miami. Nothing I’ve seen in Iraq resembles Miami. Here I sit, pulling on my cigarette named Miami. All I can think about is the nature of death. In the months I’ve been here, I’ve seen it fall from the sky at random. The realization that there is no god becomes stronger with every moment I spend in this place.

I take a drag and ponder it. The idea of a just and loving god is ridiculous to me. The idea of any intercessory supernatural force is asinine. Here I am, in the middle of a war, trying to make sense of the universe. Fatalistically pondering the blue sky above and the waves of heat radiating off the paving blocks under my feet. The world around me is peaceful for the moment. I am keenly aware of how deceptive the moment is.

We are fragile. I am surrounded by chaos and a city in which slow, murderous retribution is playing out on a daily basis. Murder squads roam the streets at night. Men in trucks position themselves as close as they can to where I live and lob mortars into the neighborhood, hoping to kill. They don’t know I exist, but they hate me nonetheless. If they could take a drill to my head and make me suffer, they would. Every day I am exposed to the savage effects of the worst behavior that humanity can dream up. Rape. Torture. Outright murder. Most of it is being done in the name of god. The cigarette’s vapors fill my lungs. I relish the calm, this sanctuary of reflection under a sun we all share, and upon whose light we depend for continued survival. I think about how humans used to worship that sun and call it a god. There have been many gods in the history of this species. As far as I can tell, every one was invented to fulfill a desire to be more important than the inventor actually is or was.

This planet is a backwater in the universe. The universe is a cold, uncaring place.

All the good and bad things that happen on Sol are either cause by natural phenomena or humans. There is no supernatural force manipulating anything. Miami is only a fleeting state of mind, and I am not important.

They taught me about Jesus, who came to die for my sins, and in whom I have no faith. Legends say Jesus was hung on a cross at 33. My cross is this place, a cigarette named Miami, and the uncertainty I feel about this war that surrounds me. I can never come back from here. I will never be the same. It is already harder to laugh. Harder to talk. Harder to care about what happens next. I am numb, but the cigarette that is my cross reminds me I am still human. It is making the fingers I hold it with warm. The cigarette is almost done serving the purpose it was made for while I am still pondering whether I was made for any purpose at all.

I stub it out on the paving blocks, blow out the last cloud of smoke, and suck in another breath of Baghdad. I wonder if there is any growth I can find in existing today. Surely, there must be. My back hurts. It always hurts now. One cigarette is never enough. Life is a series of addictions.

I think about how, at some point, somewhere nearby, someone else must have been caught up in a narrative opposite mine. One that felt like heaven. I hope to myself they can hold on.


A memory for Raya.

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More than a selfie

“You are not your body and hair-style, but your capacity for choosing well. If your choices are beautiful, so too will you be.” —Epictetus, Discourses, 3.1.39b– 40a

Every little choice adds up. It may not seem like there is a huge difference whether you spend the next half hour watching TV or going outside to find something beautiful to photograph. Twenty years from now you won’t remember the TV show. If you took the picture and framed it to hang on the wall, chances are that you will have an anchor point in time that draws you right back into whatever moment it was that you captured two decades ago. Those little anchor points are what determine whether your life has real meaning.

If you ask 100 people what gives their life meaning you will likely get 100 answers. In order to create meaning in your life, a sense of purpose is key. Meaning doesn’t just happen. It is created through narratives. You are in control of the narrative of your life, and that control is represented in thousands of choices that your brain makes every day. What you put in your mouth and what you put in your head determine who you become, and what the arc of your existence looks like.

Modern life tends to present too many choices, most of which are like fast food. They taste great but ultimately leave you feeling unsatisfied because the content isn’t healthy. It isn’t healthy because it generates no meaningful sense of purpose. The online game World of Warcraft is an example. The game allows you to create characters who inhabit a fantasy universe that is fun to explore and full of interesting creatures you can kill or be killed by. The game has its own economy and system for ranking players. Creating an avatar is fun. Entering a massive world full of other people who are exploring it along with you using their own avatars is fun. You even have a sense of purpose at first. Your avatar grows in power and gains skills. You can buy magic armor and weapons to aid you in completing quests throughout the game’s imaginary world. The problem with World of Warcraft is that the more you give, the more it takes. To get your avatar to the highest level possible takes an investment of hundreds if not thousands of hours of your life, as well as paying the fees to continue playing month after month. Let’s say you have the time, funds and motivation to climb the game’s ladder all the way to the top. What now? Your reward is that you’ve sunk hundreds to thousands of hours into becoming…what exactly?

You’ve solved no problems in your real world life. You’ve solved no one else’s problems in your real world life. The return on investment is that you are able to defeat powerful imaginary foes in an imaginary world. You may have made friends in the game, but most likely, you’ve never met them in the real world. That means you can’t hug them or share a cup of coffee, or go to an art gallery together. Fantasy can be a healthy escape, but in a modern implementation such as World of Warcraft it is more likely to become a debilitating distraction. Type ‘World of Warcraft addiction’ into Google and browse through the 4 million plus results.

Modern choices trade real meaning for instant gratification. Look around you next time you are in a restaurant. Chances are that many of the people you see will be looking into tiny glass screens instead of interacting with the real world. They are making a choice. Choosing a simulated world where everything is poised and posed over one the one that engages all five senses. One day maybe the simulated worlds we humans and our machines construct will have more depth than the real one, but that time has not arrived. If you are choosing the artificial worlds available in 2017, you are missing a great deal.

Life’s meaning cannot be boiled down to a single meme, or even all the memes you will be exposed to on Facebook during a year. Those memes are not beautiful choices. They distill complex real-world issues into easy to digest bites of information that will ultimately cause brain indigestion.

If you live an existence connected to the Internet, you live in the information age. Unfortunately, a great deal of the information that pops up each time you log on masquerades as something it is not: valuable to finding meaning.

The words you are reading right now are a narrative. There are armies of people motivated by different beliefs churning out millions of narratives at every minute of every hour of every day in the world I inhabit as I type out these words. Most of those narratives will not stand the test of time. They are the equivalent of your current haircut. Haircuts don’t age well. Ten years from now you will probably wonder why you wasted all that time. Choose well, because there are beautiful choices hiding in plain sight. Most of them involve getting out of bed and having an adventure. In real life, with people you can physically touch. That’s the essence of being human.

Next time you have dinner, power off your phone and look into the eyes of each person around the table. Tell them what you want to become and listen when they tell you what they dream of becoming. You’re not a Kardashian, and that’s a good thing. All those choices add up.

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Too much talking and not enough listening

“. . . I learned to read carefully and not be satisfied with a rough understanding of the whole, and not to agree too quickly with those who have a lot to say about something.” —MARCUS AURELIUS, MEDITATIONS

I try maintain a roughly ten to one ratio in regards to my listening/speaking. Why do I feel it is important? I know that I do not know much. I know my scale in the universe. It reminds me to stay humble. I know that seeking knowledge is a growth/survival mechanism with a proven track record.

Which brings me to one of the problems I have with the current administration of the executive branch of the USA. As far as I can tell, Trump doesn’t appear to put much value on listening. Or on reality. He appears to be willfully ignoring what is actually happening in the world around him. Don’t take my word for it. Take his.

“This administration is running like a fine-tuned machine.” No Donald. Your administration so far is a slow motion train wreck. Your national security advisor lasted three weeks. That’s a new land speed administration failure record.

“Drugs are becoming cheaper than candy bars.” Not even close to reality.

“The leaks are real, but the news is fake.” Translation: Anything that makes me look bad is bad and should be discounted. Reality doesn’t matter, only I matter.

Trump seems to want to attack anyone who questions anything he says or does. He appears hell bent on ignoring the counsel of the very people he should be listening to the most. He turns governance into a circus ring. The new American president has a lot of say about everything, and most of it sounds astoundingly uninformed. The rest of it sounds like blatant, unashamed lying.

That is not leadership. It is the opposite. It is a recipe for failure.

Success or failure often hinge on one’s ability to quietly take in the universe around themselves and contemplate. Those of us who shout the loudest about how great we they are are usually compensating for a lack of understanding. An inability to hear others is dangerous, and perhaps even suicidal in the right context.

We are on a train being controlled by a deaf and blind conductor. I hope the tracks ahead are intact.

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Destroyer of worlds

We do not believe any group of men adequate enough or wise enough to operate without scrutiny or without criticism. We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it, that the only way to detect it is to be free to enquire. We know that the wages of secrecy are corruption. We know that in secrecy error, undetected, will flourish and subvert. —Robert J. Oppenheimer, Physicist, Manhattan Project
What do you have to lose by trying something new like Trump? What do you have to lose? You’re living in poverty; your schools are no good; you have no jobs; 58 percent of your youth is unemployed. What the hell do you have to lose? — Donald Trump, In Charge of the Nuclear Arsenal of the United States of America
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door! — Old American Alternative Fact

Believe whatever you will. I will not preach to you, for I am an atheist. I have no holy books. I steal the good ideas I find and share them freely. I do not believe in a vengeful god, or many petty deities. I am content to live my life without the hope of eternal reward.

It bothers me that Donald J. Trump just gave preferential treatment to immigrants who claim to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ. Our newly appointed leader has expressed a preference for bringing into the nation called the United States more of the type of people who somehow voted for him despite his pussy grabbing penchant. That’s one of the things that bothers me about any kind of theological fundamentalism. Fundamentalism tends to cause tunnel vision. So does faith.

Those tired, poor, huddled masses who are not whatever label voted your way might choose your worldview, if only you were willing to feed them, clothe them, lend them your ear. At our core, we all yearn for a tribe.

That’s the basic problem with the Donald. His tribe needs exclusivity, and it panders to values it does not really believe. Trump no more believes in the theology of Christianity than he believes in Cthulhu. The man just says whatever he thinks you want to hear. Or what he thinks enough voters want to hear to elevate him into the your sphere of worship. That’s where he really thrives. When he feels adulated.

What’s he done in his first week under that giant dome of light should make you afraid. It doesn’t matter how you identify. Trump is no more pro Christian than he is pro Satanist. Or pro BDSM. Trump is for team Trump. Period. He’ll tell you that you are fired the moment you aren’t useful to his false narrative.

You should be scared when someone who lies without actually believing he is lying has access to nuclear codes.

“I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, New Jersey, where thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down.” — Donald J. Trump

Except that never happened. No one in Jersey City, of any theology, was cheering. This is just another of Trump’s thousands of alternative facts.

In the real world, the one that you and I share, whether we want to or not, Trump is creating a world that denies hope to those who need it most. A world that denies basic needs to those who could thrive in world where there is plenty to go around and the only reason people suffer and starve is because of issues with distribution.

I will not be quiet until the delusional madman no longer has access to power. Especially the power of thermonuclear annihilation. I hope you’ll join me in the #resistance.

God knows that the huddled masses could use our voices so they can cling to the hope he is trying to deny them.

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Alternative facts are lies

fact

noun

  1. something that actually exists; reality; truth: Your fears have no basis in fact.
  2. something known to exist or to have happened: Space travel is now a fact.
  3. a truth known by actual experience or observation; something known to be true: Scientists gather facts about plant growth.

Lying is problematic. I speak as an accomplished liar. I learned the skill of lying early in life. Used lies to keep the machine that is a nuclear family running. I won’t go into all the details in this post because it isn’t primarily about me. This post is primarily about the idea that lying is toxic. Someone much smarter than I am has said it better than I can.

“Lying is, almost by definition, a refusal to cooperate with others. It condenses a lack of trust and trustworthiness into a single act. It is both a failure of understanding and an unwillingness to be understood. To lie is to recoil from relationship.” ― Sam Harris, Lying

Donald Trump is a liar in charge of a team of hand picked liars. No matter how many times you make a false claim, it is still not true. Alternative facts do not exist. Whether or not you voted for Trump, it is problematic that his campaign was one made up of lies, and that he is (unsurprisingly) kicking off his presidency with more lies.

The Trump team’s most recent lie has been to make the false claim that his inauguration was the best attended in the history of U.S. inaugurations. Lie. It is an important lie? You might not think so. I think all lies are important because they chip away at reality. Should a president be busily engaged in creating a false reality? I think that is extremely dangerous. Estimates from people I trust more than Trump tell me that about 160,000 people attended his inauguration while about 470,000 protested it the next day in the same city. This doesn’t count all the people elsewhere in the world who are concerned about Donald Trump holding the most powerful position in the most powerful country in the world.

The Washington Post recently reported that of 52 claims made by Trump during the election cycle, only four percent could be verified as completely factual. That means 96% of the things Trump was saying when he was campaigning for the highest office in the land were either only partially true or were outright lies. Does that bother you? It certainly bothers me. In fact, it terrifies me.

Trump doesn’t live in the same reality I am in. He exists in a world of lies that continuously pour out of his mouth. In fact, he lies so much I suspect he is at the point where the lying is pathological. Either that or Trump is a sociopath with antisocial personality disorder. Those afflicted with the mental condition know they are lying but aren’t bothered by it. These are the kind of people who claim that someone they raped ‘wanted it’ because they were wearing provocative clothing. People who do this need are extremely dangerous and have a disproportionately negative effect on society and its institutions.

A president who refuses to cooperate with others and presents ‘alternative facts’ is not a president I want in power. People who do this cannot be ignored because they are busy trying to reshape reality in their own image and that ripples out into society in ways that are likely to tear it apart. I’m making a prediction that this carefully crafted false reality is only just starting to grow like a cancer in the belly of our country. If we allow it to go untreated, it remains to be seen how many people will needlessly suffer as a result. In world where there is more than enough to go around so that everyone can have food, shelter and access to medical care, Trump is the antithesis of making anything great. He’s more likely to foolishly start the third and possibly last great war our species will fight.

I’m with all those who are against our new liar in chief. Things are going to get much worse before they get better. Today, I can still openly complain about the problems with the new administration. I suspect that, if we are not ready to fight to keep things this way, voices like mine will be silenced one by one until the only voices left are the ones currently holding the power. I’m willing to fight to keep that from becoming a reality. I’m not willing to pay for any new walls, and I’m not willing to be quiet while others are forced to pay for them.