The Social Dilemma: A Movie Review.

The Social Dilemma, released on Netflix on September 9, is a comprehensive evaluation of the dark side of social media, by some of the senior engineers who designed the underpinnings of these systems:

What is your history with social media?

I started this blog in the summer of 2010, after attending a seminar presented by the California Writer’s Club. I learned about “clickbait” from the blogger who led the session, who made his living managing eight blogs, and drew 50,000 – 80,000 hits a month. He used Twitter and Facebook to extend the reach of his blogs.

Fortunately, I didn’t have to hustle a profit from blogging, but I did take to social media to further publicize each post. For five years, I used it for little else.That changed in 2015, during the presidential election season and has only accelerated during our nation’s and the world’s accelerating disasters.

When I worked in the tech industry, we constantly had to think in terms of “cost vs. benefit.” By the start of this year, the benefit I received from social media was maybe ten percent – about the percentage of non-political and non-end-is-near posts my newsfeed provides. Continue reading

2020 Notes: This too…

Anam Thubten, a Tibetan meditation master, recently told a story that illustrates the Buddhist concept of “impermanence.” Long ago, a king gathered all the sages in his realm and asked them to tell him something that is always true. After conferring among themselves, the wise men and women returned and in just four words, told the king the one thing that is true in every possible circumstance: “This too shall pass.”

Sometimes that’s good news, but in 2020, it seldom is. This year, everyone has experienced loss and the fear of loss. Significant among the losses in this country is the loss of confidence in our future and in “the American way of life.” In a recent Gallup poll, only 13% of Americans expressed “satisfaction with the way things are going in the U.S.”

That many???  I don’t personally know anyone in that 13%, and it’s hard to imagine who they are. Extremely rich? Comatose? Living with wolves? The rest of us may be split over which outcome in November will benefit the nation or destroy the remnants of American greatness, but for most of us, the sense of multiple crises is pervasive.

I’ve long had the sense that the arc of that greatness and its decline extends over many decades, but I’ve not been able to express it or find someone who could until now. I highly recommend an article which appeared on August 6 in Rolling Stone: The Unravelling of America, by Wade Davis. It’s a long article, but worth it.

Davis relates that six weeks after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had captured 90% of the world’s rubber making capacity. To ramp up the war effort, the U.S. government called for a speed limit of 35 mph to extend the life of existing tires, and the nation complied! No one accused the government of overreach. No one complained that their freedom was compromised or suggested that mandating shared sacrifice during a crisis somehow violates the Constitution.

Perhaps that aspiration for greatness was best expressed by John Kennedy, when he said in his 1961 inaugural address, “Ask not what your country  can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” That spirit probably started to die when Kennedy did, and Davis reviews, in heart-rending detail, some of the missteps that led us from then until now.

Wade Davis’s article concludes with the observation that when Trump said of the coronavirus, “One day, it’s like a miracle, it will disappear.” he might as well have been speaking of the American Dream…

And yet, to start to imagine solutions to a problem, we must begin by trying to understand what the problem really is. It also helps to remember what the ancient king’s philosophers told him: this too shall pass. 

Anti-vaxxers, mask-slackers, and maybe pessimism is good for you.

Dr. Serizawa in Gojira, 1954

When I was a kid, scientists were a big deal, almost as important in the movies I watched as cowboys. At the Saturday matinees, we learned that when you’re under attack by Godzilla, or the Blob, or space aliens, things always go better when you listen to the people in lab coats. In the world outside, hydrogen bomb drills and the fear of losing “the space race” to Russia, added to the mystique of scientists.

So why is it now, when the world is under far greater threat than it was during the Cold War, that so many people don’t just ignore, but actively denigrate the advice of scientists, and especially medical scientists? It’s not just in America.  Recently, a large crowd marched in Berlin, packed close together and without masks, to protest covid-19 restrictions.

In a twisted way, it was comforting to learn that America isn’t the only land of idiots. It also makes the issue more complex, for the German protestors are clearly not members of the Cult of Trump. One clue is afforded by historical precedents – fear and denial are nothing new in the face of pandemics! Continue reading

2020 Notes: A Truth Teller

If you go online anywhere these days, you see advice on how to reduce stress. Mostly the suggestions are ones I’m familiar with and already try to practice: diet, exercise, sleep, meditation, contact with others by whatever means are possible, and so on.

A few weeks ago I saw a suggestion that keeping a journal reduces stress. I first started a journal when I was a teen and have done so on and off ever since, but it’s no easy task when all of our structures appear so fluid and ephemeral that nothng seems constant from one day to the next. “All the children are insane,” sang Jim Morrison when I was in high school. Nowadays truly insane adult children run the country.

We are inundated with learned essays by people trying to make sense of it all, but even the best analyses are also fluid and ephemeral. Their relevance barely lasts a day.

I often think that if we want truth, we’re better off looking to poets. Think of The Second Coming, which has only increased in relevance in the hundred years since Yeats wrote it.

This morning, Mary showed me, Of the Empire, a 2008 poem by Mary Oliver which also seems more true today than it did a dozen years ago when it was published.

Of the Empire
by Mary Oliver

We will be known as a culture that feared death
and adored power, that tried to vanquish insecurity
for the few and cared little for the penury of the
many. We will be known as a culture that taught
and rewarded the amassing of things, that spoke
little if at all about the quality of life for
people (other people), for dogs, for rivers. All
the world, in our eyes, they will say, was a
commodity. And they will say that this structure
was held together politically, which it was, and
they will say also that our politics was no more
than an apparatus to accommodate the feelings of
the heart, and that the heart, in those days,
was small, and hard, and full of meanness.

Finding a truth teller these days is infinitely precious.

2020 Notes 5 – Freedom and Fear, the General and the Zen Master

Zen master Hakuin, 1686-1769, self-portrait

Over the last week, most of us have seen pictures of protests against the coronavirus shutdowns. A lot of the protestors carried signs saying their “Freedom” was threatened by shelter-in-place orders. Some of the viral images of rage are more than a little disturbing.

Another image, from Illinois shows a woman wearing an American flag face mask, holding a sign that reads, “Arbeit Macht Frei,” German for “Work Makes You Free,” the words inscribed at the entrance to Auschwitz. These pictures bring a lot of things to mind – for me, three things in particular;

(1) The nation has experienced this before. I urge everyone to read this brief summary on History.com of the “Spanish Flu,” which actually first appeared in Kansas in 1918, and over the next two years, killed more Americans than all the wars of the 20th century. Among other things, we learn that:

  • “Mask slacker” was the name given to those who refused to wear face masks in public. In San Francisco, they could be fined $5 or jailed.
  • Philadelphia refused the urgings of doctors to cancel a parade to promote the sale of War Bonds in October, 1918. Two-hundred thousand attended. Eleven thousand died that month. “Drivers of open carts kept a near-constant vigil circling streets while hollering, ‘Bring out your dead.'”
  • The article ends with this summary of the effects of the flu on the nation: “The combination of the flu and the war made Americans afraid of what was out there in the wider world, so there was a growing notion of becoming an isolationist country and keeping out foreign elements…It combines for a period of great fear—fear of communism, bolshevism and socialism. There’s a tremendous growth of the Ku Klux Klan because people were afraid of what was foreign. The whole nativist impulse was fed by people’s fear.” 

(2) It’s a psychological truism that anger is a “secondary emotion” – there is something underneath it, such as grief or fear. Grief and fear is a natural reaction to something invisible that has killed more Americans in two months than we lost in 20 years of war in Vietnam. I’m told that if a person were 500′ tall, the virus wold be the size of a tennis ball. Right now we cannot do much more than try to hide from the virus. For many, it’s easier to displace that fear and rage onto a visible target, like a governor, if they believe their “Freedom” is at stake.

(3) What kind of freedom are we talking about? Especially in light of the images we’ve seen in the news this week, I think of “freedom” in the Buddhist sense of “freedom from afflictive emotions.” That brings to mind a classic Zen story:

“During the civil wars in feudal Japan, an invading army would quickly sweep into a town and take control. In one particular village, everyone fled just before the army arrived – everyone except the Zen master. Curious about this old fellow, the general went to the temple to see for himself what kind of man this master was. When he wasn’t treated with the deference and submissiveness to which he was accustomed, the general burst into anger.

“You fool,” he shouted as he reached for his sword, “don’t you realize you are standing before a man who could run you through without blinking an eye!” But despite the threat, the master seemed unmoved. “And do you realize,” the master replied calmly, “that you are standing before a man who can be run through without blinking an eye?”

“You can’t always get what you want,” as the Stones told us more than 50 years ago, but if we try sometimes, we don’t have to lose our peace every time the world refuses to meet our demands.

2020 Notes 4 – Silence

It’s strange to walk in the local park when it’s so empty – just a few other dog walkers who wave from a distance, or runners, or families with kids on bicycles. The silence has an appeal all its own. It’s not really silence, of course. It is bird songs and the sound of a breeze stirring the leaves rather than calls of “Hey batter, batter,” from the softball fields.

For those of blessed to be safe and healthy right now, and with the time and inclination to pause and reflect, the space and silence we have is a gift and a profound opportunity. To reflect deeply at this time of pandemic driven isolation can be a way to reconnect with ourselves, which is, in many ways, a deeply subversive act in a manic culture so bent on distracting us that lately videos with loud and annoying soundtracks are even starting to show up on gas pumps.

In a 1985 essay that I recommend to everyone, Report From El Dorado, journalist Michael Ventura wrote, “To go from a job you don’t like to watching a screen on which others live more intensely than you…is American life, by and large.” In the same essay, Ventura noted that the average American family watched six to eight hours of television a day. He concludes that the “fundamental message of television is: ‘It’s all right,’ and “The culture…is in the infantile position of needing to be assured, every day, all day, that this way of life is good for you.”

Ventura’s essay was written during the “good times,” the Reagan years, one of those boom times for many, when the cracks in the culture were hidden from those who weren’t paying attention. I suspect it’s one of the periods of supposed greatness that inspires nostalgia in MAGA people.

There will be no return.

There never is after this kind of event. A cultural inflection point like this changes everything forever, as did World War I, Pearl Harbor, Vietnam, and 9/11.

Those with a vested interest in the crumbling status quo are in full panic mode, desperate for us “to get back to work,” no longer even pretending it’s good for us. A spike of 2% – 3% in the body count is “acceptable” according to both the Lieutenant Governor of Texas and Dr. Oz.

People who know how to pause and be silent, to disconnect from their screens and mental chatter, will not be so fast to lay down their lives for predatory capitalists.

I’m blessed to have a back porch where I can sit in the shade, and pause, and reflect. There are many ways to still ourselves. One simple method was advocated by James Finley, who teaches Christian contemplative practice. He advocated this reflection on a phrase from Psalm 46:

Be still and know that I am God.

Be still and know.

Be still.

Be.

People who are able to connect with their inner Awareness are the ones we will need to shape a post epidemic future that will be worth living.

2020 Notes 3: Apple Blossom Time

Apple blossoms are out on the tree in the back yard.

My grandmother had a  habit of blurting out snatches of song, without warning, at family dinners, or quiet evenings, or on Sunday afternoon drives, back when people thought it was fun to hop in the car and go somewhere.

One of her favorite songs was, “Apple Blossom Time.” Another was (I believe) part of the chorus of a 1920’s era song about Little Orphan Annie, “And it gets all over icky!” That would piss off mom, much to my sister’s and my amusement. I suspect my grandmother used to sing that during my mom’s teenage years, and she still hadn’t fully gotten over the embarrassment.

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In other news of the day, our oldest rescue dog, Kit, a chihuahua / pomeranian mix, is almost 13. She still has so much energy you wouldn’t guess she’s on three medications for serious heart problems.

At the start of February, after a checkup, the vet said, “I’m guessing she has a year or 18 months left.” No way, I thought. That got me back to daily practice of a Tibetan long life sadhana a few weeks before COVID-19 motivated all of us to pursue safety measures, both physical and non-physical in nature.

After talking to the vet, I wanted to make sure we had enough of one of her critical meds, called Vetmedin, that mitigates her leaky heart valve. I had a standing prescription at Costco for three months worth, but when I called at that time, they said it had been on backorder for some time. I wondered then if that was a result of the epidemic in China, for I’d heard that that China manufactures the components of lot of our pharmaceuticals.

I got some Vetmedin from our vet, but because it’s cheaper at Costco, I called again yesterday and was able to place an order that was ready today. They told me when I came to tell one of the people at the entrance that I was there for a prescription only.

Costco is one of those stores now dedicating the first hour of business, from 8:00 – 9:00 am, to people over 60 – a thoughtful practice, but one not exempt from the law of unintended consequences. When I got there at 8:20, I found several hundred people, most with shopping carts in line. With most observing the recommended six foot spacing, the line snaked around the front and side of the building, before disappearing around the back of the store and out of sight

I was just about to leave, to try in the afternoon, when a woman came out to urge everyone to patience, saying they were letting in 75 shoppers at a time. I told her what the pharmacist had said on the phone, and she very kindly allowed me to go in to pick up the prescription. I was in and out in less than 10 minutes.

While I was there, I asked the pharmacist if things generally slowed down later in the day. “By 11:00 it’s usually pretty quiet,” he said – a message I thought I’d pass on to anyone locally who is thinking of getting up early for special shopping opportunities – be ready to queue up really early, or wait and have a good breakfast and coffee first!