Friday, April 14, 2017

Temporal Transilience: On The Implications Of Eternity & The Meaning Of Life

The human mind is innately incapable of processing terminally unbound concepts like infinity and eternity. We can conceptualize them and discuss them at length but to envision and embody them is nigh impossible for most. We are a species that is obsessed with extremes where, contrary to popular belief, size does matter. We ask constantly: what makes up the smallest things? How big are the biggest things? How far is the farthest thing? How old is the oldest thing?

It is perhaps ironic that we are comforted by boundaries though it may seem that we like to push or pulverize them at every opportunity. Knowing the limits of things provides us with reassurance: we like our seasons to change every few months (for those of us in temperate climes)--we like our lowest seafloor to stay put and our highest mountaintops to remain relatively stable. It allows us to go about our everyday lives content in the knowledge that we understand the way of the world.

Where we get into trouble then is when the limits are unknown or when we are unable to accept those limits (or, more importantly, a lack thereof); time in particular is perhaps the most unsettling. We are hardwired to think of time as being unidirectional--of events occurring in singular sequence. To us, life is not unlike a novel: there is a beginning, a middle, and an end to everything--past precedes present with future following faithfully ahead.

We examine time and reality from a position of myopic solipsism, assuming that, because we view and experience things one way, that such is the true nature of things. Our examinations invariably lead us along similar directional arrows both spatially and temporally. With the advent of telescopes we began to look deeper into space and thus time and with the advent of the microscope so did we look inward.

The discovery of the atom led us to think in terms of composition: what are we made of? I'm still awed by the beautiful symmetry that exists in our cosmobiological histories: the elements that dominate our lives from the carbon and hydrogen in our bodies to the gold in our wedding rings all came from stars billions of years ago--some of the biggest things in the universe that existed in a time and place almost impossibly distant from our present state. We are all made of star-stuff from aeons poetic!

The problem though with our tele- and microscopic explorations is that they led us constantly along the same direction to points that might not actually exist (again something that addles us incessantly). If the atom makes up matter then what makes up the atom? And thus the discovery of subatomic particles--protons, neutrons, and electrons. But, then, what makes up these particles? Why, quarks and leptons, of course! But what makes up...

You see, no matter how small we go we will always ask what is smaller because, I believe, it is simply how we are programmed to think. We cannot envision something that cannot be divided further--dissected into yet smaller constituent pieces. At that point we wind up falling back upon approximations:

"Well, at that point it would be so small that we couldn't measure it so it wouldn't matter anyway."

Go in the opposite direction and we reach a similarly disconcerting conclusion. If the universe is finite in size then what lies beyond the edge of the universe? And if it is infinite then is it not still in our nature to wonder what exists outside of it?

Once again we find ourselves trading in science for the metaphysical or philosophical. Even religion is forced to shrug its shoulders in response to such queries. If God created everything then who or what created God? (The typical answer is, "It's a mystery," which is the sacred equivalent of the secular, "It wouldn't matter anyway." Ditto for the responses to, "Where does God live?" and "What came before God?")

We live within a bounded world and thus it is exceedingly difficult for us to picture anything being physically unfettered...but what about time? Marcus Aurelius said in his Meditations that:

"Time is a sort of river of passing events, and strong is its current; no sooner is a thing brought to sight than it is swept by and another takes its place, and this too will be swept away."

This notion of time as a river seems to complement our typical perspective of an arrow of time dominating and directing our lives since a river begins at one point and moves steadily in one direction...and yet it works also to contradict that purview. A river, despite its motion, exists all at once. Heraclitus famously proclaimed that, “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it's not the same river and he's not the same man,” and yet, while the river does change, it exists still in perpetual entirety.

But just what is time? It is commonly defined as:

...the indefinite continued progress of existence and events that occur in apparently irreversible succession from the past through the present to the future. Time is a component quantity of various measurements used to sequence events, to compare the duration of events or the intervals between them, and to quantify rates of change of quantities in material reality or in the conscious experience.

Time in physics is defined by its measurement: time is what a clock reads. In classical, non-relativistic physics it is a scalar quantity and, like length, mass, and charge, is usually described as a fundamental quantity. Time can be combined mathematically with other physical quantities to derive other concepts such as motion, kinetic energy and time-dependent fields.

We know from Einstein's work that time is malleable--that two people with identical clocks traveling at significantly different speeds will experience differing durations of it but this refers essentially only to the present. The real issue stems from the past and the future--those uncertainties that stultify us (the past with its esoteric origin and the future with its questionable inevitability). We are used to experiencing things and analyzing them in terms of three time states: past (before), present (now), and future (ahead) but, as I stated earlier, merely because we encounter reality with such boundaries does not mean that time cannot or does not exist in an all-at-once state; perhaps we have evolved to be so constrained in our thinking or have yet to evolve to a higher order level of cogitation.

I should note that what prompted my thinking on all of this was a movie I saw recently that probed the idea of a timescape as opposed to an arrow of time.


In an excellent analysis of the film on NPR, Marcelo Gleiser refers to the brain's "neurological plasticity" when it comes to learning new languages enabling it to adjust for its differences to other already known languages. He references too the iconographic language of the Heptapods--beings who view time in its entirety and thus speak in a way that is devoid of time values. They are able to move freely through time and space because of this perspective and, consequently, there is a profound impact upon the protagonist when she eventually learns to become untethered in time. (The article can be found in its entirety here.) 

I could not fall asleep after watching the movie because my brain was afire with analytical excitement. Two recurring queries dominated my thoughts though and it is this pair that I wanted to explore here in this essay. The first and perhaps most pressing is: why don't we see all states of time simultaneously or, more importantly, why can't we? If there is neurological plasticity with regards to language then why not time?

It might seem like an insignificant differentiation between don't and can't but I believe that it is utterly material not just to our discussion here but to our very existences. I understand that the notion of time existing all at once seems incongruent with commonsense and indeed our everyday experience but many giants in physics not only support but adhere to that very belief. Richard Feynman touched upon it in his sum over histories theorem but Einstein took it a step further. In 1955 the latter wrote a letter of condolence to the family of a friend who had recently passed saying:

"Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That signifies nothing. For those of us who believe in physics, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."

We are used to our arrow of time and we allow it to shape not only our thought-processes but the very actions of our lives. We have our earliest memories from childhood or perhaps infancy that represent one terminal boundary and then we have our inevitable demises that, presumably, create the second terminus thus closing the loops of our lives. We can read about the distant past much as we can surmise about the far future but in terms of actual memory--that which is utterly internalized and drawn upon with a much different sense of realism and emotional energy--we are privy to only that which we have already experienced and are experiencing now.

Having access to all of our life at one time (as explored in Arrival) would have an intensely immense impact upon our present (ha!) states of mind as well as our future actions; it would defenestrate our long adhered-to beliefs and tenuous knowledge about the natural order of life. In the movie (again, SPOILERS!), the protagonist knows that her daughter will eventually die prematurely of a disease and that her foreknowledge of this presumed inevitability leads to the disintegration of her marriage (with the assumption being that she knows of the future circumstance but will take no action to affect the outcome). She remembers what it is like to hold and to be held by her beloved as she meets him for the first time.

She manages somehow to live her life in spite of this knowledge but how would we, then, approach such daunting information in our own lives? How could we possibly engage in relationships that we know are doomed from the start? How could we develop attachments to things that we know are going to break?

Say you had a favorite teddy bear. You know that nothing lasts forever except love but even this fades over time. Let's say you could see the future--the exact moment the bear falls apart. Would you hug it less or sleep with it less frequently if it would extend its life by a year? A few months? Even a day? Wouldn't you get to the point that you never interact with it just so that it can go on existing...and yet now you run the risk of losing the meaning that it had to you in the first place?

The first issue with what I like to think of as temporal transilience is whether or not knowledge of future events can impact the present and thus lead to changes in said future. If we see the pain of a future loss is so acute that it destroys us would we then at the moment of genesis of that relationship or interaction choose not to embark upon that journey in the first place? Of course few things would be solely saddening and thus one sequence of poignant pain couldn't possibly negate the perhaps lifetime of happiness that would precede it.

Would we exist then as representatives of Feynman's sum over histories? Instead of particle wave paths canceling each other out resulting in a few states of higher probability would it be our emotions that experience time as such? Would we feel in the present the net sum of emotions resulting from past and future in concert?

And, again, what if we could choose to alter things? Being somehow conscripted to the events of our lives would make it easier to accept the bad things but think about the implications: knowing every single thing that will happen to you at one point means in essence that there is no such thing as free will--that fate and destiny dominate your narrative. These are concepts that I explore deeply in my second novel of my Kosmogonia series, which, in turn, is inspired by the very nature of its name (Kosmogonia is a bastardization of the Greek word for cosmogony or the study of the origin of the universe) and that I still grapple with today.

Our discussion thus far has been merely superficial though--hardly scraping the surface of the topic. We have probed temporal omniscience as it pertains to one life bound by birth and death but what if those limits were altered? What if, at each point of decision in our lives, new universes or dimensions were created based upon the options that we chose?

Though it might sound like far-fetched science fiction it is actually based upon a well-known interpretation of quantum mechanics called the Many-worlds interpretation. It is described as: interpretation of quantum mechanics that asserts the objective reality of the universal wavefunction and denies the actuality of wavefunction collapse. Many-worlds implies that all possible alternate histories and futures are real, each representing an actual "world" (or "universe"). In layman's terms, the hypothesis states there is a very large—perhaps infinite—number of universes, and everything that could possibly have happened in our past, but did not, has occurred in the past of some other universe or universes.

The quantum-mechanical "Schrödinger's cat" theorem according to the many-worlds interpretation. In this interpretation, every event is a branch point; the cat is both alive and dead, even before the box is opened, but the "alive" and "dead" cats are in different branches of the universe, both of which are equally real, but which do not interact with each other. (From
The concept of a multiverse caters to this interpretation and perhaps makes better sense than a universe in isolation: every possible outcome has a universe or place of existence. To put it into perspective, imagine that in this universe you went to work wearing a navy blue skirt and white blouse. In another universe you opted for a floral print top and a rose-colored blazer. Then imagine that, for each of those, you stopped at Starbucks and ordered a different drink. In some of those instances it was raining and in others still there was sunshine. You left your house or apartment at 6:58 a.m. or 6:56 a.m. and drove yourself or partook in a carpool. Now imagine all of these possible scenarios where one tiny grain of sand was moved a millimeter to the left by the wind and another to the right...

When you begin to consider all of the possible outcomes and the variables therein then you begin to get a sense for how large and all-encompassing infinity is! With regards to the aforementioned access to all-time, what would the impact be of having access to the timescapes of all of those different realms of existence? Would we lose our sense of self and our penchant for persisting in the present? Would we become lost in the time-stream--choked by the waters of the past and future, drowning in the overwhelming flow of time itself? How could we possibly exist with exposure to that much information about ourselves?

Again, the Feynman approach might somehow factor in where conflicting realities would annihilate each other and we would be left with access to fewer outcomes but still, such omniscience seems to me a burden of unimaginable weight! And all of this is restricted to our own personal places in the multiverse! What if we had the ability to see literally ALL time? Not necessarily the memories of others, per se, but that which existed before and will exist after our own time on this plane?

Even this can be further divided between eternal and finite existences. If the universe had a beginning and has an end then what would we do with that information? The ability to see not just our own ends but the end of everything? I would imagine that it would be terrifyingly beautiful but also innately debilitating (for reasons I will explain in a moment).

And what if there really is no end and was no beginning? Would it be possible then to become trapped in our own examination of past and future--traveling forever through perpetuity thereby a) losing the ability to live in the present and b) depriving us of our physical experiences? We would be like YouTube videos buffering forever as we awaited a return to our regularly scheduled programming!

At that point, past and future would lose meaning because they would be indelibly linked; there would no longer be beginning and end--only a single state of being. Time would essentially loop in upon itself, which, interestingly enough, is the way that the universe's shape is often described. Many believe that there is no end or beginning to the universe and that one who embarks in a particular direction will eventually return to the spot from which one left or that there is merely the appearance of an end like the map in a sandbox type game like GTA IV.

Temperature too appears to be malleable in a quantifiable sense based upon the discovery of negative temperatures--the idea of the temperature scale looping back upon itself.

(By definition, Absolute Zero is the coldest theoretical temperature--the point at which all motion ceases--and yet temperatures have been discovered and created below Absolute Zero. At these so-called negative temperatures behavior changes from that of extremely cold particles to extremely hot ones thereby implying a closed loop of temperature--go too far in one direction and you find yourself approaching from the other end. For more information scope out this awesome article: about negative temperatures.)

This is a photo of virus molecules but, to me, it sort of looks like a lunar settlement: the macroscopic mirrored in the microscopic...the loop of existence demonstrating itself once more.

Wading into the murky metaphysical waters of the afterlife, what about time after death? Would we be privy to the arcane wisdom of the great beyond whilst still we lived? The ontological implications of this epistemological miracle would be profound! They would shake the very core of our philosophical and scientific beliefs (saying nothing of the various religions this would shatter) effectively redefining life and what it means to live--to be.

And what then of an endless array of afterlives? The idea of a paradisiacal post-life was created in part to comfort those who feared death but also to ensure obedience from those who existed on the present plane of existence. By fostering desirable behavior from the flock, the political heads ensured both obeisance and order through the promise of an idyllic post-existence rife with halcyon days spent amid empyrean environs; life was bisected into two distinct eras: now and then.

Of course, the notion of reincarnation most closely approximates the idea of an infinite existence but even that is curtailed by the confines of our lovely blue orb: each return trip would be inherently earthbound. There would be no need for other times or realms of existence because everything would take place here ad infinitum. In those instances, would we keep our memories of our past selves (assuming a lack of access to the proposed all-timescape)? If so, would we continue to accrue lifetimes as we aged?

The nature of the self then is tested; who are we if not ourselves, after all? Reincarnation implies that the self remains but the vessel changes. Our consciousnesses then defines us: we are comprised of our mind and memories--our emotions and experiences. The emphasis of course is on the word our; to have someone else's memories would be an exigent existential enigma!

Access to all-time would, I believe, damage our innate senses of self. We define ourselves based upon boundaries that we take for granted or aren't even aware of. It is the amalgam of experiences, decisions, feelings, and remembrances that make us who we are, bookended by birth and death--awakening and eternal sleep. Without these delineations we cease to appreciate our respective individualities.
A step even deeper into the rabbit hole leads us back to where we began: if there was a beginning of the universe and thus time and we had access to knowledge of such a point then what came before that? This, in my opinion, is the fundamental question that baffles most people and which sends them scrambling to God or the physics textbooks for answers. It is arguably the single most difficult thing to conceptualize: what came before time itself?

To ask such a question, to quote the great Corey Taylor, is a pseudo-sacrosanct perversion of the fabric of everything; time is the most hallowed aspect of our existence because, by its very nature, it establishes the parameters of our lives. By relinquishing our grip upon the need for such clearly defined parameters then do we begin to appreciate our own places amid the infinite.

The faithful find their answers in God. The universe itself was created and there was nothing before that--just an endless void. God the creator then becomes a cabalistic entity--the recondite source of all whose existence cannot be questioned and thus answers everything.

The scientific find their answers in inquiry. Though their godless examination is viewed as sacrilegious or even heretical by some they choose to use logic and reason to reach a qualitatively definable conclusion. The inimitable Stephen Hawking said of both time and God:

"Since events before the Big Bang have no observational consequences, one may as well cut them out of the theory, and say that time began at the Big Bang. Events before the Big Bang, are simply not defined, because there's no way one could measure what happened at them. This kind of beginning to the universe, and of time itself, is very different to the beginnings that had been considered earlier. These had to be imposed on the universe by some external agency. There is no dynamical reason why the motion of bodies in the solar system can not be extrapolated back in time, far beyond four thousand and four BC, the date for the creation of the universe, according to the book of Genesis. Thus it would require the direct intervention of God, if the universe began at that date. By contrast, the Big Bang is a beginning that is required by the dynamical laws that govern the universe. It is therefore intrinsic to the universe, and is not imposed on it from outside."

(Excerpted from

The answer from a scientific perspective is simply that there is no before; within the singularity that preceded the Big Bang (and thus time), the laws of physics broke down and thus time was impossible. Existence had yet to be and instead there was only a timeless point of potential--infinite energy and an eternity of time compressed to an impossible degree. What has ensued--now bounded by the laws of physics/quantum physics--has set the limits on not simply what is knowable but what is relevant.

We live in what is termed the observable universe. It is dubbed as such because it is as far out in space (and thus back in time) that we can possibly see: given the age and size of the universe, it is as far as the farthest photons could have traveled in the time that the universe has existed. We need light to see and so if the light is so far away that with even an infinity of infinities of lifetimes it could never reach us then whatever lies beyond that point has no meaning to us because we simply could never observe it. It is impossible to reach the edge of the universe and so whatever lies beyond it (whether something or nothing) is meaningless; it is impossible to measure time before it began and thus a time before time is also inconsequential.

I find that answer to be both confounding but utterly fulfilling: there is no place beyond space and there was no when before time.

Still, I can't help but wonder whether or not time exists all at once and whether our perspective of the temporal arrow is in consequence of or opposition to that reality. Like the heptapods in Arrival, were we to maximize our cognitive capabilities would our increased faculties enable us to see the true nature of things and to process it in ways that we are presently incapable of doing? Or have we evolved in such a way as to protect ourselves from time--to create boundaries that enable us to exist as ourselves (just as we have evolved to ignore background noise so as not to have our senses perpetually engaged)?

It leads me perpetually to one overarching question: would omniscience and omnipresence render our lives devoid of meaning?

We spoke earlier of the possibility of our free will affecting fate. What if through our free will we were capable of altering things in the present thereby changing our potential futures? Would we become obsessed with this tinkering--struggling to find the "right" combination to result in a perfect life? Wouldn't we lose much through the elimination of negative experiences since there is so much to be learned from them?

What if the decisions we make are irrevocable? What if we could STILL see the future but maintain knowledge of the past and thus our other possible futures? What if we give up the dream relationship in one for the dream job in another and lose twenty years due to illness or accident?

Is it like Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? You have a certain amount but you can gamble getting more; when you lose you're saddled with the knowledge that you could've simply walked away with what you had and been happy...but then again, what if the what ifs would have torn you to pieces and you wound up obsessing about what could have been rather than what was and what is?

If you could see the entirety of your life at a given moment then the joys would constantly be balanced by the sorrows. Would you still watch the big game knowing your team is going to lose? Would you still be as invested in that job or relationship knowing that it's ultimately doomed to fail? Being able to see all points in time and all places neuters those experiences of value--it robs you of your ability to experience them in their proper temporal position and it makes your present a living hell; it would make every living moment a nightmare fraught with worry about the future, which, by definition, would already be in the past for you in your present--something to look back upon before it even happens.

The problem with omnipresence and omniscience is that it strips the importance away from life events; their value lies in their mystery--in our not knowing the outcome. In any given circumstance--whether it's a sporting event, a relationship, or simply a walk in the park--it's our blindness to the end result that renders the experiences both enjoyable and worthwhile. We need the boundaries of temporal spacing--past, present, and future--but also simultaneously boundaries with regards to knowledge of our lives.

Being omniscient would afford us the knowledge of all-things but would at the same time render them worthless; it is the openendedness of each moment and experience that imbues them with meaning--the fact that they have potential and that we must make our decisions based upon the unknown that shapes not only who we are but the lives that we live.

The solution then is to take each day as it comes, to plan for the future, to reflect upon the past, and to derive our personal meanings in the present from the memories we've made and the moments we've yet to encounter.

Not knowing is ultimately what gives our lives meaning.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Subjugation of Subjectivity

Somewhere in the past ten years or so there has been a seismic shift in people's ability to handle subjectivity. Opinions, while proffered at unprecedented rates, transmogrified from simple observations and standpoints into full-fledged mission statements and personal philosophies; modern Americans have so much of their self-esteem tied up in their viewpoints that they no longer view them as malleable manifestos but rather as rigid truisms--ones that they must convince others are not simply the right ones but in some cases the only ones. Whether it's about something as intimate as one's personal politics and religion or as inane as musical or television preferences, people have inexorably entangled their self-worth in their opinions...and it's driving me crazy.

I'm a voracious consumer of music--it's easily the most important passion I have and is something that I partake in daily whether by listening, writing, or playing it on guitar and piano. My love of music has its genesis in my early childhood but it didn't fully take root until the mid to late '90s when I began to explore it more deeply. Growing up, my mother always had the radio on and there was no shortage of records and cassette tapes arranged next to the stereo. In the mid-'90s my parents got me my first CD player and, having nothing to listen to on it, my father took me to the Wiz on Avenue U to pick up a few albums. Among them were Billy Joel's "The River of Dreams," Seal's self-titled 1994 release, and the Batman Forever soundtrack. I remember loving the first album, being indifferent about the second, and having a mixed reaction to the third.

From 1997 through 2001 (incidentally the breadth of my time in high school), I began to refine my taste in music and drastically expanded my collection from radio classics to then-current alternative rock, nu-metal, and rap. Some of my favorite albums still today came out during that time and I remember discussing them extensively with my friends--both musically inclined and casual listeners in their own rights. We had our favorite bands with preferred albums and tracks among them; what we didn't have was the petty, puerile arguments that dominate discourse in 2016--not just about music but about everything.

I was so stoked when Korn released their new album in October and then again when Metallica's first release in eight years dropped last month. For as excited as I was about hearing the music though I was equally and oppositely dreading the inevitable explosion of ersatz experts on my favorite guitar site and on Facebook proffering their insipid musings about both. The torrential shitstorm of commentary that ensued though far exceeded the conjecture I was anticipating.

See, the problem is that it's s no longer enough simply to have an opinion on something. It used to be that people could engage in discussion about things without it turning into an argument with egos on the line. Sure there was always the odd argumentative type who would turn anything into a debate but nowadays it feels like everyone does that. Facebook, Twitter, and the like abound with faux perspicacious peripatetics spewing their uninformed diatribes, obscenely overcomplicating things that should be way simpler and that exist almost solely for our entertainment and enjoyment.

Take the Metallica release for example. At its most basic level, here's what happened: a band released an album comprised of a dozen songs. Here's what should have ensued: people made a decision to buy or refrain from buying the album based upon their feelings about the band; the ones who did make the purchase then decided whether they liked the album or not.

That's it! No rocket science involved--no smarmy, pathological pedantry. IS that what happened? Not hardly!

Aside from the requisite trolls who came to comment about how much they can't stand Metallica or how awful the band is (something that I still can't comprehend--do these people go into restaurants or stores that sell food and products that they dislike or have no use for just to pass judgement upon those places despite having exactly zero use for or interest in their offerings?), you had actual FANS of the band parsing through the album--dissecting it to the point of idiocy. I saw comments about the following:

Metallica trying too hard to sound like "the old" Metallica.

Metallica needing to sound more like "the old" Metallica.

The album sounding too much like the last album (Death Magnetic).

How washed up the band is/how terrible the band's live performances are.

The songs are too long.

How terrible Lars is.

I'm not saying there isn't any sort of veridical value in these statements nor am I trying to say that they aren't valid viewpoints; my gripe instead is that these are even issues at all for people in the first place. Look--I get wanting a band to sound like they used to. There's a lot of emotion and memory tied up in that era of personal discovery when it comes to bands but people often fail to consider the human and creative aspects of making music; writing fast, heavy, angry songs as a teenager works when you're that age but it might not necessarily still apply when you're middle-aged. Metallica, in particular, consists of some pretty old dudes and Lars in particular is fifty two years old! After playing this style of music literally for decades I'd be shocked if he didn't lose a step physically in terms of his playing; ditto for James and Kirk as well.

My problem with the Metallica album along with everything else is people's seemingly innate need to deride shit--to manufacture this sham sense of superiority in an effort to elevate themselves. It's become:

"Oh? You like the new album? Yeah, it's okay I guess. I mean it's not as good as Master or Kill Em All. Actually, I could barely sit through most of the songs. I'm done with Metallica. They're garbage."

The same thing happens with television shows. People no longer get behind a show and stay there. Instead, they live and die with every episode: one night it's the greatest show on television and the next it's full-on, "I'm DONE with this show." The Walking Dead is one of the biggest victims of this type of behavior and it stems mostly from a separate issue of folks demanding instant gratification and having non-existent attention spans. Two of the most incredible episodes of the series had comparatively little gore and violence and, perhaps unsurprisingly, they are among the show's lowest rated. They weren't artsy, highbrow pieces nor were they dialogue-heavy slogs; instead, they took what makes The Walking Dead great aside from the gore, violence, and special effects--the atmosphere, the inner/emotional turmoil (both for the characters themselves and the viewers), and the ability to evoke a very real sense of terror and dread--and they maximized them to great effect.

Think about it: would a show like LOST have a snowball's chance in hell of making it through six full seasons if it started airing today? I doubt it! In 2004, millions of people watched the first few episodes and had the same simultaneous response: "What the hell is going on!?" Back then (it feels like 112 years ago instead of the decade and change that it actually was), that was enough to get people interested in the show and to maintain that interest for years on end. They didn't decide from episode to episode whether this was the greatest show on television or the worst: they recognized that the writers were telling a story and they wanted to see where that journey would take them.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, towards the end of the show's run, people began to grow disenfranchised with the aforementioned story. It took too many twists and demanded too much from them to keep their fandom and hold their interest; the genesis of the modern mindset was already beginning to be seen. Lost was judged suddenly on a per-episode basis with more and more people jumping ship--citing "this season (5 or 6 in particular) sucked--it was wAaAaaAy better in season 1 or 2."

People are clearly entitled to their opinions but my problem is two-fold: if you're going to pass judgement on something then at least have a reason for that critique OR, if you can't qualify that stance, at least don't try to act like you're basing it upon some unspeakable enlightenment that the rest of us mere mortals are incapable of processing or at the very least aren't privy to. I don't understand why things (bands, albums, songs, television shows, movies) can no longer be viewed in isolation--assessed based solely upon their individual merits. At their core, why can't the Metallica songs be good or bad--ones that you like or don't like? Why do television shows and movies have to be judged on the whole based upon isolated instances of mediocrity?

Again, my problem isn't the negative opinions that people have about things--it's how shallow and uninformed those statements ultimately wind up being. If you ask someone who says, "Eh. Metallica's sucked since The Black Album" WHY Metallica has sucked since The Black Album then you'd like to think there would be a well-thought out reason; more often than not though all you get is fluff, rhetoric, or circular reasoning. If you're going to start a debate about something or take a differing stance then you should at least be able to articulate YOUR OWN STANCE ESPECIALLY if you're shitting all over someone else's!

My plea though is just for folks to take a step back (or one down off of their soapboxes) and just enjoy shit for whatever it is. Either you like it or you don't so why not just leave it at that? Just because there are schisms of opinions doesn't mean either side is wrong or somehow less valid or worthy than the other. It's okay to take a dissenting stance and not feel the need to put down the other side simply to make yourself feel worthy or righteous. I just can't wrap my head around the schizophrenic way in which people approach their recreational activities! How enervating must it be to listen to a twelve song album and, with each track go, "LOVE IT. BEST BAND EVER. UGH. HATE IT. SO OVER THESE GUYS. THEY'RE THE WORST. OMG LOVE THIS ONE. THESE GUYS STILL HAVE IT! THIS IS TOTAL GARBAGE."?

I miss the days when opinions were just that: responses to a yes or no type of question. Did you like the movie? Yeah--thought it was great/Nah, it wasn't my cup of tea. What do you think of the new album? It's awesome/It's terrible. Don't get me wrong--I'm all for having a meaningful discussion about something but the problem is that most people no longer engage in actual discourse. It's become: I think this, I'm right, I don't care what you think because you're wrong. People don't take the time to listen to other people's viewpoints and, if they do, they rarely resist the urge to convince them why their opinion is the wrong one!

I'm just amazed by the capriciousness that defines people's perspectives and how alarmingly incapable they are of backing up whatever claims they make. "This was the worst _____ ever...because." Is it really that hard to go that extra step and to explain why you feel that way? There'd be so much less bickering and unnecessary arguing if only that seemingly trivial act were to occur with greater frequency.

Then again, what do I know?

Everyone's a critic.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Power of Silence

Silence, in all its forms, can be one of the most destructive forces in existence. It is a perplexing dichotomy--a perfect marriage of two opposing effects elicited from the same catalytic source. Silence can heal and silence can kill: it can condemn and absolve. It can provide for moments of contemplative introspection or it can feel like the weight of the world.

I have been reflecting upon the power of silence lately because I have encountered it in numerous forms. There are people I was once close with with whom I will likely never speak again. This type of long-term silence is at once enervating and invigorating. I have been the victim of the so-called silent treatment before and know all too well the pain that being shunned brings with it but, unexpectedly, the same circumstance with different people can bring about an entirely different response. By shedding these negative influences from my life I feel free--as if I have been liberated by the shackles of the past. This seemingly simple silence has washed away the poison that festered in my heart allowing me to look forward to the future; it has rendered me cancer-free in a mental and emotional sense.

Silence certainly has its healing properties. I love my kids more than anything but there is certainly a yearning for a few moments of solitude by the end of the day. There is a peacefulness that accompanies the bedtime rituals--calm and quiet to help whisk them away to the land of dreams. Then, in the tranquil time that ensues, the silence that fills the house is restorative and rejuvenating--replenishing my patience and energy for the next day.

Silence is integral to music as well oftentimes offering as much in the way of musical meaning as rhythm and melody; rests can fill sonic space in a way that no number of notes or chords ever could. It provides a sense of anticipation and can be the source of the heaviest moment in a heavy song or the darkest, most ominous one in a dark tune. Two of my favorite examples come from songs from the late '90s/early '00s. If you listen from 2:25 to 2:52 on Incubus' Pardon Me, you'll see that the dip in volume and that brief silence before the final chorus renders the closing section all the more powerful.

The frenetic, upbeat tempo of the Foo Fighters' tune Monkey Wrench has a similar moment of anticipation built in to the end of the intro:

Still, there is a dark side to silence--one that, in many ways, overshadows its positive aspects. Social silence can be demeaning whether it occurs in person or digitally. I know this type of silence doesn't bother some people but it absolutely infuriates me because of the implied denigration. Picture yourself sitting at a table with friends. The group is carrying on a conversation with each member participating in turn though in no particular order. You offer up an observation or a quip...a moment of silence ensues...and the conversation carries on as if you never spoke. How does that make you feel? For me, that act of dismissal is one of the most derogatory things that can happen in a social setting. I'd be less offended by someone telling me off to my face with a string of colorful expletives than I would someone completely ignoring something that I said.

Silence often reminds us of loss and conflict. Parents fighting and yelling undeniably has a negative impact on children but how much worse is it to live amid the tension that comes with icy silence between one's parents? Silence is what often fills the room as one awaits test results in a doctor's office...and what comes from the other end of the phone line when bad news is delivered.

Victims of abuse are often shamed into silence; when many do find the courage to speak up, they are either met with silence or told to keep quiet (at least at many, many institutions of higher education where the cash cow sports teams matter more than victims' rights). Lying by omission is by its very definition the act of remaining silent to suppress the truth--ethical elision at its finest. When people fail to speak up in defense of another or when they fail to correct an egregious error their silence can have a far-reaching impact.
The most poignant destructive distinction of silence though comes with the assumptions that we seem compelled to draw when we encounter it socially. How many quiet girls who abstain from friendly communication get dubbed bitchy or priggish--snobs who think they're too good to talk to others simply by the act of keeping quiet? I met a few including my wife in college who were unjustly and improperly judged and who suffered as a result of these specious suppositions levied upon them; they were wallflowers assumed to be elitist divas.

Young children, too, are forced to bear the burden of their verbal reticence. How many kids respond with silence to well-meaning adults who try to engage them in conversation and are then questioned as to their mental faculties? They can't merely be shy or simply not in the mood to speak with a stranger--no no, instead, there "must be something wrong with them."

This assessment of cognitive capabilities is the one that I find most troubling and the one that has occupied my mind the most of late. For many native-born Americans there is this bizarre connection that is drawn between silence and intellectual function. How many folks see an immigrant who doesn't speak English--regardless of race, mind you--and automatically assume that, because of their silence in responding to questions, that they are intellectually inferior or even mentally retarded? How many of these supposed imbeciles, in turn, were professionals of distinction in their home countries? Doctors, lawyers, engineers? How many mocking epithets were hurled at these people especially as children by their classmates?

I spent almost a half an hour on Tuesday night speaking with the father of one of my son's flag football teammates. He speaks English fluently but has enough of an accent that I suspected that he emigrated from elsewhere; what I couldn't have predicted was the magnitude of his actual life story. Having already served in a war as a native son of Montenegro, he decided to exile himself from his homeland when he was recruited to engage in the Yugoslavian conflict of the early 1990s. He engaged in a harrowing journey that took him first to Germany, then to Mexico, and, ultimately, across the border and into the United States where he had family awaiting him.

He came to New York City without speaking or understanding a word of English. He lived first in Brooklyn and then in Staten Island, working and going to school to provide for himself and his family, spending his spare moments engaged in labor as opposed to the sports and games that his neighbors enjoyed. He taught himself English, worked his way through his adolescence, and ultimately came to be in charge of a significant construction company. He now provides for several children of his own giving them all of the things that he never had and shielding them from the atrocities that he endured all for the sake of their own peaceful existences. He does so in silence, never burdening them with the pain that marred his early life.

I thought of him earlier today when I was at the doctor's office with my son. I watched a white woman explaining to a Hispanic man the paperwork and procedures that he needed to fill out before his son could be seen. It was obvious that he didn't speak English and didn't understand most of what she said--particularly in the way he and his wife proceeded to pore over the paperwork like a test given in a foreign language (which, in a way, is precisely what it was). Meanwhile, she's holding their baby and trying to comfort their older son who is in a cast and still with a hospital bracelet around his wrist, wincing every few seconds as tears of pain sprang to his eyes.

I thought of my own recent ordeal with my son--the time spent at the hospitals and the slew of assorted doctor's visits that we've endured. I thought of how draining it has been for us and then I thought of that man and his family. Can you imagine how much worse it must be to go through those things--emergency room visits, ambulance rides--doctors and nurses trying to explain things to you while your child is suffering in pain...and not understanding most of what they are saying? Responding, more often than not, with silence?

Don't get me wrong--I am a firm believer that anyone who wants to live here should, at some point, learn English. I understand how incredibly difficult it is for older folks who make their way here but at the same time I also believe that it is the single most important thing that an immigrant can do. If I decided to move to France, Spain, or the Middle East then I would be damn sure to work as hard as I could to learn to speak the respective languages. Often the burden is laid upon the children of immigrants to be the translators and go-betweens and I'm sure that in at least some of those instances it's not for a lack of trying on the parts of the parents.

With that said, there's clearly a learning curve involved--one that has nothing to do with intellectual faculties. I think of Gonzalo Le Batard--one of my favorite sports entertainment personalities. He fled Cuba and was able to build a life for his wife and two sons in Florida while so many of his relatives remained trapped in Castro's time capsule. One glance at the Tweets and Facebook comments written about him tells you everything you need to know about the perception towards non-native English speakers in this country. Mr. Le Batard is fluent in English but clearly picked it up as a second language. How many people listen to him speak and think that he is unintelligent or mentally defective? How many people know that he was an engineer in Cuba? That he came here and earned an American engineering degree in his second language?

Think about that for a second. This man, who is routinely derided and called stupid (or worse) did something that many native-born Americans can't his weaker language? If you have a four year or specialized degree then can you imagine going to school in a different country and earning that same degree in a second language that you didn't even learn until you were an adult?

The closest experiences I have come from trips I took to Puerto Rico and Ireland. Puerto Rico was the first country I've ever gone to where English wasn't the dominant language spoken or written in and even then it's still a part of the United States! I remember wanting to take photographs at the capitol building in San Juan and not being sure if I was allowed to. I used my piss-poor gringo Spanish to ask a security guard if it was okay and I barely understood what she said in I nodded and smiled. She nodded and smiled quietly in return, giving me a thumbs up. She might've been giving me the approval for the photos or maybe she thought there was something wrong with the grown man with the childlike Spanish pronunciation; another silent gulf.

As apprehensive as I was in Puerto Rico, it was even worse in Ireland, if you can believe it. I mean, we are talking about a place where the people not only speak the same language as me and enjoy a nearly identical cultural background as me--they even look exactly like me! And yet, it was my first time being in what was, to me, a faraway, foreign country. The language wasn't so much an issue as the customs were. I didn't think of it until my wife and I left the hotel to head into Dublin and had to get on the bus. I realized that I had no idea how the bus worked. I knew that it would be easy enough to ask...but I was afraid of looking stupid.

I was in a place that was as close to being identical to home as it could be and still be different--the closest thing to a foreign comfort zone as possible...and I was still petrified of being judged and ridiculed. It made me think of the few foreign students I encountered as a student growing up in Brooklyn. I remember the abuse they took and I can only imagine the effect it had on them.

I think now again of the father of the boy on my son's flag football team. Can you picture yourself as a child and him suddenly showing up in your elementary school class? The new kid who stares blankly at the teacher--unresponsive when prompted for an answer? Who blinks and nods instead of speaking up? Can you imagine the fear that he must have felt--not wanting to be made fun of, not wanting to be thought of as stupid for the way he spoke or for his lack of understanding of an utterly foreign language? Can you picture the other kids laughing at him? The names they must have called him? A boy who wanted nothing more than a better shot at life than he had back home.

There is an alarming lack of empathy that is exhibited by people when it comes to immigrants. These people are presumed to be something that they are not and it sickens me; it also stems from one simple experiential factor: those who sit in judgment have never been put in a similar situation. I would be shocked if any of them have found themselves in a foreign country where they didn't speak the language and were forced to engage in daily functions with absolutely no help and then still had the gall to judge the immigrants who come here seeking a better life. Would you be able to muster up the courage to work shitty, low-paying jobs to give your kids a chance that literally millions of people take for granted--one that they have never given a second thought throughout their entire lives? Would you be able to be that kid--the one who gets laughed at and picked on because he or she dresses differently and doesn't speak the language correctly if at all? That teenager whose entire life has been uprooted suddenly in a place that might as well be an alien world? That feeling of awkwardness and wanting desperately to fit in but being utterly incapable of doing so?

Do you know what the answer most often is to these questions when I pose them to folks who barely interact with people of other cultures--particularly those who came here from somewhere else? The single most common response?


Thursday, August 11, 2016

Why Personal Relevance Is The Key To Reducing Racism

Racism is a far more complicated word than many people realize. It's something that goes beyond black and white, both figuratively and literally, and it encompasses a broad range of practices and perspectives. At its core, racism is an act of subjugation--a method of developing a sense of superiority for one person or group of people over another that is ascribed with inferiority. At its worst, racism leads to acts of violence and tangible discrimination but it exists in far fairer shades as well. Racist jokes and purportedly innocuous comments about other races are often deemed socially acceptable despite their hurtful potential.

Oftentimes, what renders such behavior as accepted is intent. A joke with a racial theme told among friends of varying ethnicities might be less acerbic than one told among a homogeneous group different than the subject of the jibe. One can make racially insensitive comments but not necessarily be considered a racist, themselves. It's difficult to discern just where that line is but the fact that it exists at all denotes the malleable, subjective nature of racism.

I have a hard time distinguishing where I draw my personal boundary when it comes to racist behavior in others. As a white male I am afforded a certain immunity to the sting of racism while simultaneously laden with a default position of perhaps being racist merely because of the societal privilege my skin color affords me. As such, I hold myself to a far more stringent set of moral codes, particularly when it comes to racial prejudice, than I do others, especially those of varied ethnic backgrounds.

Of late, I have been forced to reconsider just how much wiggle room I am comfortable with when it comes to the people I choose to engage with. I have witnessed an alarming number of white people grow suddenly bolder and more pointed with their biased views, throwing around freely both racist jokes and blatant barbs against people of other ethnicities. I've long wondered why so many white people seem to be so willfully ignorant and unempathic towards cultural minorities.

Now I think I might have an answer--one that might serve as the starting point towards more ethnically enlightened times ahead.

Unexpected, the genesis of this epiphany came not from white racism but rather racist behavior from a person of color towards Asian-Americans. This person chose to promote mean-spirited, racially-infused humor both in terms of written jokes and, sadly, in video form where they acted out a horrific stereotype of Asian Americans. The latter ultimately proved to be the last straw for me with this person--a man I once admired, ironically, for his adherence to championing better race relations--and it was, in part, because of my personal reaction to it.

Anyone who has been discriminated against knows the sting of that moment. It could be a joke someone writes or says, a behavior they act out, or something more subtle; regardless of the impetus, there's a sick feeling in your stomach and a sudden sense of self-worthlessness. It was these things that I felt not for myself but for my children, my wife, and part of her family--all of whom are part Chinese (my mother-in-law emigrated with her family from China to the United States nearly fifty years ago). Watching my one-time-mentor acting out a Chinese accent and stereotypical Chinese behavior--especially after already writing equally disparaging comments about Chinese people at an earlier point--felt like being kicked in the stomach.

At one point, he ranted about Chinese take out restaurants and their employees and all I could think was, "My wife's grandfather worked as a cook in a Chinese restaurant." I thought of my mother-in-law and the similar mockery that she undoubtedly endured as not just a child of immigrant parents but an immigrant herself, both as a child and an adult. These people are now a part of my children's personal histories and thus a part of my own as well.

Without hesitation, I knew that I could no longer allow the person making the comments to be in my life. I was furious but reflective. I thought about the reasons why I took those comments personally and admitted a certain arbitrariness to them; had I married a woman of Hispanic heritage then perhaps those comments would not have hit so close to home.

As much as I hate to say it, I have to admit that there is a certain degree of less-than-desirable behavior that I have to allow in order to maintain a social existence. But it's something that we all have to do. Think of the people who seem to get all up in arms about every little injustice--the ones who find racism, sexism, and practically any other -ism in every aspect of life. How do you feel about that person? The odds are that it's not particularly positive.

Therefore, in order to maintain social sanity, we allow a certain degree of tolerance for behavior that might otherwise conflict with our own stances on those things. We don't cut out people from our lives for having differing political or religious views--even when they make disparaging remarks about the things that we believe in. Somehow, we find a way to overlook these behaviors, chalking them up to quirks or citing the benefits of social heterogeneity.

Even still, there comes a point where we DO find ourselves offended and it was in considering that point that I realized something that might prove to be the key to race relations in our country: personal relevance. Now this is hardly a revelation in the discussion of race and racism but its importance is often overshadowed or shouted down as the discussion begins to heat up. At its core though, I feel like certain types of racism simply cannot exist when there is personal relevance at play.

To me, a racist is someone who holds an entire racial group in disdain and who willfully ignores the illogical and unethical nature of their beliefs and behaviors. This is the classic bigot and is the least likely person on the racism spectrum to change his or her ways. Fortunately, I believe that these people make up the minority (ha!) when it comes to racist individuals.

Far greater in number are what I would deem the racially insensitive. These are people who have racist leanings or who employ racially offensive viewpoints, tendencies, or behaviors without malicious intent. Admittedly, this does not excuse those aforementioned aspects but it does allow for a higher likelihood of change to occur with those things. Simply put, these people aren't aware of the fact that they are racist and, were they to attain that awareness, they would take different actions.

I feel like an inordinate number of white people fall under this latter category if for no reason other than the fact that they've never truly had meaningful interactions with people of other racial backgrounds. They are the ones who have grown up in ethnically homogeneous neighborhoods, have mostly white friends, work with mostly white people, and otherwise fail to engage with people of color to any great extent or frequency. In short, they don't have a personal reference point and thus emotional connection to someone of, say, African-American, Hispanic, or Asian heritage.

Here's why that's important: white people often freely engage in communication without considering the emotional impact of the language that they use. Some whites genuinely don't care and would fall into the former category of bigots but there are many who don't realize the pain that their words cause others. When I was in college so many people used the words "gay" and "retarded" in inconsiderate ways to denigrate things other than the folks that those words disparagingly describe. A joke that they didn't find funny was "retarded" and a song that they didn't like was "gay." They flung the words around without ever considering whether or not someone might be hurt by them.

The important detail to consider here is whether or not those people would have stopped using that language if they found out it offended someone. Would they still have used those words if a homosexual was present or someone with a mental handicap? More importantly, if they had someone close in their own lives who would've been offended by that language, would it have given them pause?

This is where that personal relevance comes into play. All too often, racism stems from a place of hypocrisy. It's often, "not my people, not my problem," whether it's whites, blacks, or any other culture. A black man much like my former mentor would have been livid over a white person making a video mimicking black stereotypes but he thought absolutely nothing of doing the same exact thing with Asian ones. The reason is simple: the latter has no relevancy for him while the former does. Because he has no one of Asian descent in his life who matters to him he has no reason to care about whether or not his behavior offended anyone of that culture. I wonder though if he had a family member or close friend who was Chinese then would he have been as quick to make that video or post those jokes.

I feel like that when there's a personal point of reference then it might cause people to consider their words and thus their perspectives more carefully. Self-awareness and general mindfulness help us not merely to understand ourselves better but also to consider ourselves in relation to others and thus the importance of others' feelings and viewpoints. There are plenty of people who think nothing of making racist comments online or even in person among people of their culture but not many of them would have the courage to do so directly to the subjects of those jokes; conveniently, the ones who would be able to do so freely are almost undoubtedly the classic bigot.

And thus we arrive at my overarching point: exposure to and immersion in cultures other than your own are the keys to eliminating racist tendencies, individually, and many forms of racism, societally. I was fortunate to have grown up with and to maintain best friendships with two guys of backgrounds far different than my own. One is half-Chinese and half-Irish and the other is from El Salvador. As a result, I was able to learn about two foreign cultures and thus gain personal points of relevance. When people make offense jokes and comments about Asian and Hispanic people, I don't find them funny or acceptable. I'd like to think that part of it stems from a sense of egalitarian altruism but the truth is that I love and care for people who would be offended by such utterances and so, by proxy, I take offense to them as well.

If more people (white, black, or otherwise) got out of their ethnic enclaves--their social sameness bubbles--and began forming meaningful connections with people of different races then I believe that many racist behaviors would become passe. By associating a face with the race, it might give folks second thoughts about being insensitive and thus lead them along the path towards understanding and thus social self-actualization. Personal relevance is a powerful aspect of racism that should not be overlooked.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Dr. Arthur T. Bradley's Disaster Preparedness For The Family & The Survivalist Book Reviews

Several years ago my wife and I purchased our first home; we were simultaneously enthralled and terrified by the prospect. To that point, I had lived in rented homes for my entire life and thus never had to bear the responsibility of taking care of home repairs let alone preparing for potentially catastrophic scenarios as a homeowner. With a burgeoning family also under my watch, I was compelled to learn more about ways that I could keep my home and the people within it safe.

My brother recommended a book called the Handbook to Practical Disaster Preparedness For The Family by Dr. Arthur T. Bradley. His suggestion came at a time when Disaster Preparedness was all the rage with television shows like Doomsday Preppers and post-apocalyptic blockbuster programs like The Walking Dead. I was reluctant to pick up the book at the risk of joining the bandwagon but, simply put, it was one of the most important purchases I've ever made.

In short, we moved into our home in July of 2012; less than four months later, Hurricane Sandy hit and our entire world was shaken. Our area is literally only a few blocks away from some of the hardest hit spots and we were very fortunate not to have sustained similar damage and destruction. Luck clearly played a role in that aspect but with regards to our lifestyle during the week-long power outage and subsequent tough times, it was our preparedness that ultimately got us through with far less strife than some of our neighbors; that readiness and knowledge came almost exclusively from Dr. Bradley's books.

While many of the other preparedness tomes on the market key in on the excitement and fear brought on by various far-fetched disaster scenarios, Dr. Bradley's guidebooks take a more pragmatic approach--one that is instantly applicable. Sure you can spend hundreds if not thousands of dollars outfitting your house with all sorts of disaster-ready foods but most people can't afford either the expense or the space of such luxuries. Instead, to give but one example from his book, Dr. Bradley advocates keeping an extended supply of things that you already eat and enjoy.

We have a warehouse store membership and thus buy our breakfast cereal in bulk; adding an extra few boxes of our favorite ones provides us with emergency food that we will ultimately eat anyway at little additional expense and requires little space. Prior to Sandy we had grabbed enough milk to last us the week so, while many others were choking down their rehydrated disaster foods, we were enjoying the same morning meals we would have been eating anyway.

Arguably the best part of Dr. Bradley's Handbook is the fact that he explores numerous negative scenarios that I would never have even thought of that could prove highly detrimental--things as simple as a tree coming down during a storm and puncturing a hole in the roof. He offers a variety of solutions to prepare for and react to that and many other circumstances that have a fairly high chance of occurrence. He explores many of the lower likelihood ones that are glorified on shows like Doomsday Preppers as well but does so without exaggerating or elevating them above other higher probability events.

As someone who isn't particularly adept at mechanical things, I found Dr. Bradley's suggestions for various household fixes easy to understand and to apply. The last thing that you want to do in or after an emergency is to have to try to figure out how to fix something, especially when you have no idea of where to begin or how to go about the repair. Dr. Bradley's books provide you with two things: a resource for how to solve issues in and after the moment but also the knowledge and mindset to be prepared for things before they happen.

So whether you're looking to protect your home, your family, or yourself--or are simply looking to learn more about potentially detrimental scenarios that you might encounter in our modern society and how to handle them, then you should absolutely consider reading Dr. Bradley's non-fiction.

Now, if you are interested also in post-apocalyptic entertainment like The Walking Dead, The Stand, The Last Ship, and other similar examples, then I would also highly recommend exploring his fiction series called The Survivalist. It's a brilliant marriage of vintage Wild West good guy versus bad guy scenarios and post-apocalyptica, with an occasional infusion of interesting, practical survivalist advice. The main character Mason Raines is a United States Deputy Marshal who finds himself in a world that is suddenly decimated by a supercontagion. In his quest for survival he begins to learn more about both the virus and the questionable circumstances surrounding its creation and the subsequent government controlling the country.

The writing is great and features realistic characters that are easy to identify with. Mason Raines encounters a variety of sidekicks along the way but none are as beloved as his Irish Wolfhound Bowie. Other characters like Tanner and Samantha round out the lot of protagonists, each offering his and her own unique personality to the mix. The plot is moved along with great action sequences that focus on Mason's preternatural ability with firearms and Tanner's inimitable hand-to-hand fighting skills. The pace is steady throughout and, if you enjoy the first book, then there's no doubt that you'll be hooked and interested in checking out the remainder of the series.

Here is a selection of reviews as well as the author's description of the first novel:

"The Survivalist may be the best post-apocalyptic series out there," raves Steve Erwood of the Disaster Preparedness Blog. "In addition to a steady stream of gunfights with zombie-like mutants, roadway bandits, and opportunistic warlords, the books teach dozens of useful survival tricks. Learn to hotwire cars, construct homemade booby traps, build garbage-powered generators, and retrieve fuel from abandoned gas pumps."

Bryan Foster, author of The Prepper's Handbook, says "It's rare to find books this entertaining that are so well researched." Nicholas Sansbury Smith, author of Extinction Horizon, adds "The Survivalist books are incredibly addictive. They create a cool western vibe not seen since Louis L'Amour's timeless classics."

Frontier Justice is the first book in a series described as "a cross between Justified and The Walking Dead." The Superpox-99 virus has wiped out nearly the entire human race. Governments have collapsed. Cities have become graveyards filled with unspeakable horror. People have resorted to scavenging from the dead, or taking from the living. The entire industrialized world has become a wasteland of abandoned cars, decaying bodies, and feral animals. 

To stay alive, U.S. Deputy Marshal Mason Raines must forage for food, water, and gasoline while outgunning those who seek to take advantage of the apocalyptic anarchy. Together with his giant Irish wolfhound, Bowie, he aligns with survivors of the town of Boone in a life and death struggle against a gang of violent criminals. With each deadly encounter, Mason is forced to accept his place as one of the nation's few remaining lawmen. In a world now populated by escaped convicts, paranoid mutants, and government hit squads, his only hope to save the townspeople is to enforce his own brand of frontier justice.

Authored by renowned disaster preparedness expert, Dr. Arthur Bradley, Frontier Justice is "the start of a great apocalyptic saga."

For more information about Dr. Bradley's books please check out his official website here. I can personally recommend the entire Survivalist series as well as the aforementioned Handbook to Practical Disaster Preparedness for the Family as well as the Prepper’s Instruction Manual: 50 Steps to Prepare for any Disaster. Both of the latter have proven indispensable as a homeowner and father and the latter has proven to be a continued source of enjoyable entertainment.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Makin' America Great Again

This political season has validated every antipathic, misanthropic inkling that I've ever had and, in my opinion, represents the lowest point our country has faced in a long, long time. Some people scoff at the pervasive platitude that's dominated the scene: Make America Great Again! The sad part is that it's absolutely true--only not for the reasons most people think. In many cases, it's the very people who are perpetuating that phrase who are imbuing it with its truth. Worse, what they're really saying is, "Make America White Again!"

So much of what we deal with in modern American society stems from a centuries' old class struggle. Racism, in many instances, is generated from class conflict--sexism too. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people touting one candidate or another this year screaming about how there are people who are struggling economically in this country. They're right but the problem is how many of them use the word "we" in their cries.

It's time for some truth: the odds are that most of us have no idea what it means to struggle--truly to suffer on a daily basis. So many of the people who are whining about the 1% and the 99% don't realize that they're a part of the latter only because it's a lump sum, catch-all statistic. Really, they're a hell of a lot closer to the 49% or higher. I'm sorry but many of these people need a wake up call--especially the ones using social media platforms as perches for their feel-good rhetoric.

"We" are struggling? Really? And you posted this on Facebook, yes? Did you do so from your smart phone? I'll bet you did. And where were you at the time? Was it a Starbucks? A Panera Bread? Your apartment that costs somewhere between $1,100 and $2,100 a month?

So many of the people spewing the above are white and in their twenties. They might not have a ton of money but, kid, that ain't struggling! It's called being young and starting out. But if you happen to be white, well, it's also called having a leg up.

I had an epiphany recently where I realized that so much racism on the part of white people stems from schisms in economic beliefs and the consequent involvement of government but it really comes down to shared economic situations. I'm thinking of the blue-collar, middle or lower-middle class white men who are working 60, 80, or 100 hours a week to make ends meet. Sure, their families have some nice things but they're also drowning in debt to procure those creature comforts. They're consigned to a life of hard labor, they're tired, and so they're resentful. See--they look at government relief programs--welfare and the like--as opportunities for the lazy to loaf--to leech off of their hard work and at the expense of their time and energy.

What these people fail to understand is that the people who truly need such assistance are in the same financial situation as them or worse! The odds are that they are also people of color thereby putting them in an even more disadvantageous position. How many times have I heard, "Just go get a job." It's not that easy, especially when you're not given the same access to educational opportunities and the framework that we, as white people, take for granted.

These people often balk at welfare and talk about the black families who need food stamps to feed their kids and then use the money they have to buy expensive sneakers for their kids. They scoff at this while having absolutely no understanding of what that circumstance means. Those Jordans aren't just an expensive pair of kicks--they're an existential declaration--a fleeting, evanescent sense of worth in a society that denigrates and oppresses them--that fears them, all while devaluing their very identities. There's a reason that many poor, urban residents place such a heavy emphasis on appearances--the clothes on their backs and the sneakers on their feet--but too many white people refuse to put in the effort necessary to understand that. It's a way of saying: we're here and we're worthy of being here.

For the dominant social, political, and economic race, white people sure are a fearful bunch. Granted, the fear is primarily of losing that power but the inherent xenophobia stems, perhaps ironically, from an utter lack of interaction with other people. So many of the white people that I know live whitewashed existences utterly encapsulated and devoid of meaningful interaction not just with people of color but with communities of color. Making small talk with the black cashier or the Asian coworker doesn't equate with exposure; true understanding and empathy comes only with immersion--something that makes white people inherently uncomfortable.

I'll give them the benefit of the doubt--that the reticence to move beyond the invisible color boundaries comes from a place of fearful ignorance--of the unsettling unknown that such communities represent. The sad part is that, were they to interact with these communities, SO many of those misconceptions would disintegrate and they'd realize that so many of their own struggles are shared if not magnified by people of color. Plus, so many of these cultures are totally welcoming to outsiders, in large part because of the systemic bigotry that they face: in the face of oppression they are forced to rally around themselves, relying on the strength of their communities to create and to maintain their identities.

I'll never forget the time my best friend and I undertook an epic bike ride from south Brooklyn all the way up practically to the Bronx. It was a seventy mile ride in total and it was my first time going through areas that I had only heard of but the seminal moment came with an unexpected encounter with a Dominican festival. We were on the return leg of our journey when we passed through a park with a huge party going on. Some kids were looking over a flat on their bike and so my buddy and I stopped to try to help. The generosity of these people engendered by a simple act of kindness on our part was humbling. They offered us food--invited us to join their party. As a Hispanic himself, my buddy was used to such encounters but for me, coming from a place where diversity meant Irish AND Italian, it was a revelation; it was also merely the first of many eye-opening cultural encounters.

The problem, primarily, is that whites are oblivious to their own privilege. Sometimes it's willful ignorance but in many cases it's really just that it's never been pointed out to them and they've never had the opportunity to consider it. I'm 33 years old and I've been discriminated against exactly twice. Twice! I remember both instances vividly. One was in Chinatown when I was in high school and I went to a store that had the old school Generation One Transformer action figures. I asked what the price was for one and the clerk quoted me something astronomical. I had a feeling that I was getting ripped off so I asked a friend who was Chinese to go in the next day (since he went to the area every day after school anyway) and ask about the same figure; he was quoted a price that was 60% lower.

I was pissed off about getting ripped off but it gave me pause. I considered the circumstance and realized that shit like that happens every day to people of certain cultures. Yeah, it sucked that the guy tried to dick me over and it made me feel really bad but then I thought of how much worse other people feel going into stores and being mistrusted--followed around or side-eyed because of the color of their skin or the type of clothes that they're wearing.


That one word sums up so much of what people of color have to deal with and it's something that's almost totally foreign to white people. They've never imagined what it's like to be categorically questioned because of their aesthetic--to be stopped and frisked, or to have an eye kept on you in a store, or not to be given a fair chance in a job interview. It's sickening when you begin to realize that, for your entire life, you've had this privilege bestowed upon you and you never even knew it.

My wife is half Chinese and half Irish. One of my best friends is too and the other one is from El Salvador. I've seen and heard what they have had to deal with in their lives and it makes me hate not just the people that put them through that but myself too for sharing that ethnic background. I'm nothing like them and yet I have to bear the shame of that similarity.

Then again, that sounds awfully familiar, doesn't it? Looking like a group of people who behave in a particular manner and then, though you bear no association to them beyond physical appearance, you're automatically assumed to be just like them? You wear camouflaged pants and a hoodie so you must have been incarcerated, right? Or your eyes have a particularly exotic tilt to them so you must be good at math and computers?

Funny that the ones making these assumptions are almost always white.

It's easy for me to get caught up in that self-loathing but it's become easier to pull the plug on that pity party before it gets started because I understand now that it accomplishes nothing. It won't effect change and it certainly won't help me open any eyes to the root problem. All it does it make me feel better about my whiteness--about the fact that, though I'm one of them, that it reassures others that I'm not "one of them."

That sense of self-disgust was born in that other instance of discrimination in 2006. My wife and I were on a road trip going to the Four Corners Monument out west. We had called ahead and been told that there were vacancies at the one hotel in the one town nearby. When we arrived at around eleven that night, the proprietor just happened to be walking in just as I was approaching the door. She was a very old Native American woman and when I asked her about the vacancies she looked me dead in the face and said there were none. I could see in her eyes that she was lying but that wasn't the only thing that she was emitting. I debated about whether or not to press the issue and it was either give it a shot or sleep in the car so I told her that my wife had called earlier, had spoken to her, and had been told that there were rooms available. She hesitated for a minute, shook her head, and then motioned me inside.

For the first time, I realized what I represented to that woman and I was ashamed. Again, I realized that what I was feeling was just a drop in the bucket when compared with what so many of my friends have had to deal with in their lives. Years later, my wife, my buddies and I were staying at a cabin upstate and me and two of the guys decided to go out for a really, really late walk. It was desolate along the highway until all of a sudden we saw headlights. Partly for the thrill, we flung ourselves over the guardrail and down along the snowy embankment on opposite sides of the highway. A few seconds later, we see the red and blue lights flip on. A few seconds after that we hear the cop saying that he saw "them go that way."

Not long thereafter, I hear my two friends--both Hispanic--talking with the cop as he ran their IDs. I realized also that no one was looking for me. It's late, we're in a predominantly white part of New York State, and two Latino guys just got stopped by the cops. I didn't know what to do so I walked up to the street with my hands up and tried to get the cop's attention. He whipped around and his hand went immediately to his gun but then something terrible happened: he looked at me and relaxed. I can't help but wonder what the response would have been if I had been standing on the road and one of my buddies was the one who came up from his hiding spot.

The point is that so many white people haven't allowed themselves the exposure of moments like that--instances where the sweet facade of society is pulled back to reveal the ugly, sneering skin hiding beneath. They stand there and bitch about things like Black History Month and channels like BET or shows like Blackish, saying asinine things like: "We'd get killed if we asked for a White History Month or an all WHITE television channel without ever realizing the obvious truth: "HISTORY" is white! EVERY OTHER GODDAMN CHANNEL IS THE "WHITE" CHANNEL! Damn near every show that we grew up watching in the '80s and '90s were about white families with predominantly white characters!

Until more people open up their eyes and realize the true nature of things though nothing's going to change. There's more that makes us similar than there is that makes us different--we just need to promote more self-honesty, self-assessment, and critical examinations of the way society is structured, particularly in New York City and other multiethnic, urban environments. When we take ownership over our whiteness, how we are perceived in communities of color, and why we are perceive that way, then we can begin to engage in productive discussion.

The idea of reverse racism is also a common one shared by whites who are offended by the fact that they are viewed negatively by some people of color. The problem though is that there is no such thing as reverse racism--it's a feel-good fallacy that whites have invented to make themselves feel better about the umbrage directed towards them while still managing to ignore the root issue. Racism is inherently about power--it's prejudice based on a sense of superiority by the sociopolitically dominant race thereby diminishing the other, purportedly inferior race. So-called reverse racism is really just the oppressed letting you know that they've had enough of the bullshit and refuse to stand for it any longer.

All of this doesn't even touch the issue of sexism though, which is the one that has me the most heated right now. Part of me can almost understand genuine ignorance when someone holds viewpoints that they've been told are true about people they've never met before...but how the fuck can men discriminate so easily and freely against women!? I don't care who you are, EVERY male has had at least one strong female role model in his life! Everyone has a mother or a sister, an aunt, a grandmother, a teacher--SOMEONE who they can think of as a female figure that they respect.

I'm baffled by the fact that there is still the inequality that exists between male and female salaries--that women are still viewed as sexual objects who have to put the utmost care into their appearances while men can do whatever the fuck they want and wear whatever they want. People have been having conniption fits about Hillary Clinton's $12k ensemble but if Obama, Trump, McCain, hell--even BILL Clinton--had worn a $12k suit, no one would have said a goddamn thing.

And men who have daughters who perpetuate this shit? Ugh. It kills me.

I'm a father of three amazing kids who have the blessing and the burden of multicultural backgrounds. My daughter, in particular, is the one whose future I think of most often and most intensely. I've been fortunate to have had strong female presences in my life throughout my life: a phenomenally strong mother, sister, grandmothers, aunts, and cousins--none of whom kowtow to the societal expectations placed upon them. My mother sacrificed her corporate career to stay home and take care of me; my grandmother, too, raised eight children while still doing what she could with her employment. I look at these women and I think of the discrimination that so many of them have faced and continue to face simply because of their gender--the assumptions made because of how they look and dress--and it infuriates me. Then I think of my daughter and what her future could be like and it makes me absolutely fucking sick. I believe that we will make strides when it comes to resolving racial issues by the time she's in her golden years but I have absolutely zero faith that we will even put a dent in the gender inequalities that exist--it's simply too deep-rooted.

I want her not just to believe that she can be whatever she wants and do whatever she wants with her life but rather to have the unshakable confidence that, regardless of what stands in her way, that she will succeed. As her father, I want to tear down whatever obstacles she faces and yet I know that I can't because them I'm just perpetuating the myth that, in order for a woman to succeed, she needs a man's help. Instead, I have to sit back and bite my tongue, supporting her as she faces those struggles and suppress my anger, providing her with the encouragement to figure it out for herself and never to stop pursuing the things that she wants in her life. I want her not to be content to be a cheerleader (both literally and figuratively) but to want to be on the field or the court showing the boys how it's done. If she wants to be a cheerleader, or a dancer, or a gymnast, or whatever the typically female pursuit is then that's fine with me as long as it's what she wants because she wants it--not because "it's what girls do."

I realize now that so much of my mistrust of organized religion stems from its inherent, across-the-board misogyny. I don't understand how so many strong, smart, self-confident women can support these paternalistic practices that serve only to undermine and subvert their very identities. It scares me too that the dominant culture in our country is, at once, male, white, and Christian.

All I know is that we are in a bad, bad place in American history right now--stuck in the past as we look forward towards an uncertain future. The progressiveness of other nations--whether in terms of politics, economics, or race relations--is utterly foreign to us and that saddens me. We were once a shining beacon in the world--a place of refuge for so many--one that called out to and welcomed those who were struggling and gave them the opportunity to fulfill their dreams. Now, we're fighting amongst ourselves--squabbling on Facebook instead of having the face-to-face conversations necessary to understand each other. People unfriend and unfollow others with differing viewpoints with reckless abandon--homogenizing their newsfeeds and their walls without realizing the cost of what they're doing.

In a way, what's happening on Facebook is a microcosm of what's happening in the United States--the virtual is no longer the surrogate of but has instead supplanted reality thereby becoming the actual. If we can't even see the patterns in our behavior in this ephemeral world then how the hell can we possibly expect to take ownership over the ones in our everyday lives?

We'll never make America great again and make peace among us if people are utterly unwilling to turn a critical eye upon themselves as individuals and own their responsibilities as global citizens.