My mom made Christmas everything it was. Even well into my twenties and thirties, it continued to be the high point of my year, from her phenomenal decorations, to her elaborate meals, to her thoughtful gifts. She made everyone feel the spirit of the holidays, and made us all so very happy. Sadly, those Christmases ended in 2010 or so as dementia began to strip her nature from her. This year things have progressed to the point that she no longer seems to know who I am, beyond being vaguely familiar. So it is hard not to feel a bit lost during the holiday season. So much that was good is gone. And without her leading the seasonal charge, it's hard to know what to do. I do not feel up to the challenge of replacing her. But this year I did want to try to do something special for her, to try and prove that her legacy continues, that I can take on the responsibility, that I can carry on her traditions. In reality it is too little and too late, but the effort gives me a bit of peace and I am hoping that there might be some flicker of remembrance, or at least some novel joy.
To this end, the first step in my Christmas plans was to erect the biggest Christmas light display I could. I've never decorated the outside of a house for Christmas, but I felt inspired to try and run lights up the large 70' tree in our front yard. I wanted to turn it into a virtual Christmas tree, running the lights up as high as I could. I spent a few weeks planning it and today spent all day today doing it. I strung lights up in the shape of a Christmas tree, 50' height with a twinkling start at the top.
Originally my plan was to use a small drone of mine to fly some fishing line up and over the desired branch. After a few test flights it became clear that approach was going to fail. I would most likely end up with the drone stuck in the tree; the wind up there between the branches is unstable and the fishing easily snags. I then tried simply throwing a baseball, with fishing line attached, over the desired branch. But, throwing vertically is much harder than horizontally, none of my throws went quite where I wanted, and after ten or so the ball became permanently snagged on a branch about 40' up. I finally realized I needed to use a bow and arrow. I ran to the store and bought a "Lil Squaw" $20 children's bow and arrow set. I stuck tennis balls on the ends of the included arrows and attached the fishing line. I nailed it on my fourth shot; technically I got it on my first, but that arrow overshot a bit and joined the baseball as a permanent resident of the tree.
After a few hours of running lights, I was done... The video fails to capture the real beauty of the scene.
Some minor moments in life stun you. Today I learned that the moon looks upside down in the southern hemisphere. Having lived in Buenos Aires for almost a year I am embarrassed that I either never noticed or just forgot.
I assumed I would love modern "flat track" roller derby. I was vaguely aware of its previous incarnation (of the 1940s through 1970s) and it seemed pretty exciting. When I heard it was back and that it had come back led by women and free any ugly sexism, that was supposed to have been a part of it before, I thought, "Great!" A few years ago when I was in Los Angeles some friends were going and I had planned to go along, but at the last minute I couldn't. Without any roller derby near me, and without any friends who go, it just slipped from my attention. And then the other night as a tangent to searching for roller skating videos on YouTube (after watching the so-bad-it's-good Roller Boogie movie) I clicked over to see just what a modern roller derby match looked like.
Ugh. It was awful. I had no idea what the rules were. I tried figuring it out by watching, but it made little sense. And it was just quite possibly the most boring sport I've ever tried to watch (arguably worse than curling, snooker, and sheep herding). Any strategy or logic in flat track roller derby seemed so subtle as to be irrelevant, and despite little of interest seeming to happen the score incomprehensibly climbed faster than any sport I have ever seen (almost 2 points/minute).
Here's what I observed (my impressions before subsequently reading the rules)...
A person or two standing like they were at a starting line. A few clumps of people in front of them, one clump five feet or so ahead, another clump ten feet or so ahead. And then the single people run at the group of people, get caught up, and very likely get pushed out of bounds, at which point they go back to where they started. And this just repeats itself ad infinitum. Occasionally the single people do get past a clump of people, but instead of zooming super fast away or this being the start of something dramatic, the person goes just a few feet and then slows down and returns to the starting line. Whoopie?
The biggest thing I don't understand about modern flat track roller derby is, they've gotten rid of speed, they've gotten rid of a feeling of motion and dynamism, so why have they bothered to keep the players on roller skates? It feels unnecessary and forced. If the argument is that skates make the game harder, well, sure, but why not just play on a slippery surface or wear slippery socks? Roller skates are made to allow people to go fast, to be graceful, to be able to go big distances. The old roller derby clearly understood the purpose of roller skates. But this modern flat track derby requires none of these roller skate features.
I ended up glancing at the rules of scoring, and learned that all points are earned by a team's designated "jammer" passing members of the opposing team (not including their jammer); and both jammers I gather are active on the track at the same time.
And so I wondered, what happened? Why was I expecting this to be exciting? Had I misunderstood what roller derby used to be? I clicked on a YouTube video of a 1950 New Jersey vs. Philadelphia roller derby match (separate male and female matches) and wow, it was as I thought, that game made sense, that game was much more fun to watch, stuff actually happened! The people were constantly in motion circling the track, which is somewhat enjoyable to watch in and of itself, and because everyone is already at speed they can then do a great many interesting things to try to move the jammer forward, like one or more people sacrificing their own speed/energy to propel their jammer forward, by whipping them forward with their arms. Also because they were at speed and the track is banked people can quickly fly to the inside or outside of the track to try and get by, akin to auto racing. And because there was an outside railing the jammers are not constantly going out of bounds every two seconds and needing to restart.
I assume that the primary reason the sport has become so insufferably boring is because of the elimination of the banked track. Moved out of the velodrome, speed is severely limited. At speed the centrifugal force would fling anyone not paying attention out of bounds. With a flat track you could not have people smoothly loop the track because every turn would be a chaotic mess. No doubt they moved the sport out of the velodrome because velodromes are hard to find, and they were able to broaden the sport as a result. But, having gotten rid of the banked track they had to get rid of the constant circling motion of the teams, and having gotten rid of that, well, everyone is mostly just standing around in slippery shoes. Maybe some rule changes could have compensated, made the sport still interesting, but I don't know.
China mystifies me. Their recent military parade celebrating the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII is one confounding example. They stage a huge parade to show off all their offensive and defensive weapons, shut down the city days in advance to make sure people are out of the way and the air is unpolluted, invite some foreign dignitaries, and ban their citizens from watching the parade in person (no standing on balconies, no opening windows, no looking out windows, no standing on the street watching, no watching from cars, no photos, etc.); presumably there is approved news coverage they can watch/read. But, what a bizarre idea? I thought events like this were meant to impress the people, involve the people, akin to the pre-war Nazi parades. When you have to keep the people away out of fear of activism or terrorism then the parade seems more an admission of abject defeat than triumph.
Cults have always fascinated me. It is only natural as several relatives of mine have been members of organizations which most people, myself included, would consider cults. Of course these relatives don't believe their groups are cults, no cult member ever does.
The other day I had occasion to think about cults and it struck me that cults are really just magic shows on a grander stage, and with far more and lingering audience participation. Everyone who joins a cult joins to see "magic" worked in their lives. They can no longer wait for or no longer trust the more traditional routes to their better selves. And so they seek out or end up at the doorstep of any of thousands of cults, religious or corporate, ready to be deconstructed and reconstructed. And if they give the group their money, their time, their compliance, and often a bit of voluntary servitude, they just might become the people they imagined was lying beneath all the accumulated baggage from their many pre-enlightened lost years on this good earth.
But the magical analogy goes further, I think. Because a magician's show is built as a collection of tricks. And the tricks themselves are clever combinations of many discrete techniques chained together (e.g., the "force", the "dual reality"). These individual elements form the well used language of magicians. Each element might come in many variations, but at their core are the same trick. Most magicians go to great lengths to make their shows feel new, fresh, exciting, draw in new paying audiences, but the reality is, there is little new in magic. The presentation has been improved, the patter upgraded, but the fundamental building blocks and end result of the tricks remain the same. And so, too, with the cult leaders, the gurus, and their groups. For hundreds of years (at least) the new guru has relied mostly on repackaging the old guru's teachings and presenting them in language and formats more palatable to each more enlightened generation. The Eastern-heavy new age movements of the 1970s become the more sophisticated Western, corporate awareness training. But what's different about them really?
Cult leaders manipulate experiences, emotional states, and outcomes using a clever combination of discrete (primarily psychological) elements. For example, they might use "breaking", wherein members or staff within the group are encouraged/led to confront and challenge another participant in the group. It is a simple trick. When you have multiple people ganging up on someone using strong and challenging words/ideas, in a context in which the individual cannot easily escape, because leaving would be socially unacceptable, painful, awkward, etc. then you can create in that individual considerable doubt, desperation, and compliance, almost regardless of the content of the challenges. We humans are social creatures, built to respond to significant doubts leveled at us with significant doubts bubbling within us.
Imagine if this happened in your life, perhaps you are at the wedding of your brother and four close family members come up to you saying they need to talk, they all tell you that they love you and that they are worried about you, that they believe your job is not good for you. You actually like your job. You politely try to explaining that to them, but they begin ad hominem attacks saying that you are just defending your job because you are too cowardly to face the real truth that your career is going nowhere. You try to end the conversation and move away but they follow you and insist that you are leaving the conversation because you know what they are saying is really true. They say you are being disrespectful to move away because they are doing this out of love. You stop. You feel trapped and listen to them some more. After some period of time the episode ends, either because you have capitulated enough or because they feel the important seeds of doubt have been planted. If you had even the slightest doubts about your life, your job, your career, their confrontation surely magnified them. Our brains are not meant for such circumstances. These people seem to care about you, seem to have your best interests at heart, why would they lie to you? It seems inconceivable. They are saying everything so strongly, surely there must be some merit to what they are saying, usually when people speak so strongly it is because they have some basis for it. You do want to move ahead in your career, maybe you are not moving as fast as some friends of yours, maybe you have seen others get a promotion you thought you deserved. In a matter of minutes or hours you go from happy with your job, with the normal level of dissatisfaction and hopes for more successful tomorrows that practically everyone feels, to thinking that perhaps you should quit your job, change careers, something. Everyone has insecurities, doubts, weaknesses and cults know a host of methods by which they can magnify them to motivate you to some end, their end (which they insist is really in your best interest).
Another technique they use is "love bombing", creating situations and environments in which people experience a heightened sense of connection with those around them to the point that they feel a heightened sense of love from those around them. Who wouldn't respond positively to feeling more love from those around them? Participation in the group activities creates a feeling of love, an experience that can't be easily be gotten on demand outside the group. So you are trained to keep going to meetings. There are many, many tricks that cults and groups use to gather and control their members. Some do it for power, some do it for money, all do it for allegedly noble reasons.
The feeling of awe the magician and the cult leader can generate is muted once you know some of their tricks, and see them being worked into their acts. The magic is still fascinating, but no longer short-circuits your rationality. In the cult setting, when you see most of a room of a hundred people reduced to broken, sobbing masses expressing their inner most limiting beliefs you do not ascribe this to the power of the truths being revealed by the leader, you ascribe it to the power of the psychological trick being used to manipulate the group. You know that almost any cult leader could create the same response in any similarly ready group of people with "truths" that almost any rational person would reject. The technique matters, not the guru, and certainly not the underlying truth. But everyone in a cult always thinks on some level that they are smarter than that. Just ask the participants in the Milgram experiment, they believed they were immune to authority.
The question I would ask of any cult or group is, what percentage of your members 10 years after first being introduced to the group believe the experience was positive and worth the time and money they invested in it? I would suspect that for almost all groups which use cult-ish methods the percentage of people indicating they were satisfied with the experience 10 years on is less than 10%. I believe this anecdotally based on the people I have met who have been in cults, the experiences I've read about, and my belief that those entering these groups did not do so with sober minds, most of them were duped on some level, had their wills bent into participation. They did not make free, sober, rational decisions to participate. And this low satisfaction score (if it exists) would prove to me that the groups are fraudulent. The groups will blame the former members and say they chose to give up too soon, that they weren't the right sort of people, that they didn't keep learning what the group had to offer, that others have benefited so the people who didn't are solely responsible for their lack of benefit. But, to me it's a hollow kind of defense. People routinely make succeed and make millions selling bogus diet pills. They achieve success because most people won't ask for a refund (most people will be as fat or fatter but will be too embarrassed or afraid of confrontation to complain), b) they always recommend combining exercise with the pills (and exercise does positively correlate to weight loss), c) the placebo effect will guarantee some percentage of users will find some new will to modify their behavior because of powers they ascribe to the pill. Just because 10% of the people buying a fat loss pill are satisfied doesn't mean the product contains any ingredients which actually work.
There is always a new cult, a new group selling a new method to solve a very human problem, an existential dissatisfaction, a sense that life can and should be more than it is. It surprises me that cult-entering people can't see the pattern. Can't see the endless stream of cults formed and reformed, regurgitating the same (but now repackaged) esoteric "truths". But, alas they will not... Cults will never run out of followers.
It reminds me of a line from the Sherlock Holmes story A Case of Identity by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In it Holmes decides not to reveal to his client that her missing lover was actually her step-father trying to wound her into life long maidenhood so he could have her money. Holmes explains to Watson his decision to keep quiet about it, "If I tell her she will not believe me. You may remember the old Persian saying, "'There is danger for him who taketh the tiger cub, and danger also for whoso snatches a delusion from a woman.'" (I try to ignore the contextual misogyny, and see it as a truth which applies to deluded men and women alike.)
And I may be wrong of course... but I do feel I at least have the carcasses of many abandoned cults and many disaffected followers adding weight to my side of the argument.
Few things in American history confuse me like the U.S. Civil War. I have spent time surrounded by its monuments, memorials, and museums, living for a few years outside Gettysburg, PA. What I can't quite work out is why...? Why would Northern brother, cousin, uncle be so willing to fight to their death against their Southern brother, cousin, uncle just to keep the United States of America as one nation? So many questions...
Why is the right to secede not a right core to a democracy? If a state feels so at odds and unrepresented by their parent nation why should they not be able to withdraw from it? Is this freedom not one that should be most sacredly preserved when a nation is formed from many states?
In the Civil War the Northerners were certainly not primarily fighting for the freedom of African Americans. That I could have understood as a reason to go to war, to liberate an oppressed people. Giving your life for that sort of a cause makes sense to this modern, arguably enlightened man. But while the North was somewhat more enlightened than the South on this issue, they certainly did not see African Americans as equals and it would be a rare Northerner willing to die for that particular cause.
Why could the North not just let the South go? I vaguely understand the Northern industrial and free farming folks were in an economic battle with the almost wholly agrarian South and its plantation and cheaper slave labor. But that's enough for a war, and not just a civilized parting of the union with peacefully signed free trade agreements?
What would it take for me now to be willing to take up arms against my cousin, uncle, or brother? I can imagine nothing, certainly not a mere secession. But 750,000 dead soldiers can't be wrong, they must have deeply felt their reasons were the right ones. I just wish I understood them.
The news is filled with people bemoaning the ACA (aka Obamacare). I am not one of them. My situation has greatly improved. I was a single guy, no kids, early forties, paying $650/month for a HIPAA plan with very high copays and $5,000 deductible. I am now paying $370/month for a platinum plan (10% copay) with $500 deductible. I couldn't be happier.
I have always been a non-smoker, non-drinker, non-drug user, and reasonably healthy. But no insurance company would give me an individual healthcare plan, not since I was 25. I was rejected without explanation by many companies. Presumably they rejected me based on pre-existing conditions, but my pre-existing conditions were trivial, some mild depression and anxiety, but never hospitalized for that or anything else. I finally got insurance through work, and was able to transition to an individual HIPAA plan after becoming a consultant. I could not switch to anything better or cheaper, though, still no company not forced by HIPAA to take me would have me. And I looked into the "high risk" pool coverage (the only other option) that California offered and was shocked to find it was a) expensive, b) had a long waiting list to get in, c) provided really low and weak coverage. So, until the ACA rolled out January 1, 2014 I was stuck.
The news reporting of others' experience with ACA plans has me a little confused. The vast majority of people seem to have had really lousy policies which didn't offer much coverage and they are now complaining that they are forced to buy a more comprehensive policy and thus pay more for it. I have somewhat limited sympathy for those situations, because I think the reality is that those cheap policies often just wind up shifting the cost to everyone when someone who has one of those policies gets seriously ill, finds their policy doesn't provide adequate coverage, and goes bankrupt or otherwise requires the hospitals and debt agencies to eat the loss when they can't pay their bills. The people buying those policies may claim that it's the right plan for them, the right price, and that it's just what they need, but I have to believe on a macro scale that's just not born out, that the rest of society takes a financial hit for their stinginess. If you know that to be false, please correct me. For the remaining minority of people making the news whose prices have gone up significantly without an increase in coverage, and without any offsetting tax reduction, I do feel very badly, and hope cheaper options become available, or other corrective measures are taken.
If nothing else, I am very glad that the health insurance system was finally forced to move away from the cruel and capricious system of excluding people because of pre-existing conditions, it was a savage system that usually unfairly penalized people who had no hand in their conditions, leaving them to fend for themselves or pay dearly for rotten coverage. Whatever people may say about the ACA, at least it did away with that...
It was finally time to leave California. But what a nightmare the exodus became.
I amassed a lot of stuff since moving to L.A. ~12 years ago. And almost all of it had to move with me across country. Partly because I'm attached to my stuff, partly because I'll need it on the other side, and re-buying things is vastly more expensive than moving stuff.
I looked at and priced all the options: professionally driven moving truck, self-driven rented moving truck, container/pod shipment, and finally buying a trailer and a truck to pull that trailer.
The price range for the move was going to be in the $7k - 14k. After weighing everything I decided to buy a trailer ("car hauler") and a suitable (used) truck to pull it. I liked the idea that even though it was a bit more it would at least be an investment of a sort (I would at the end have a trailer and a truck to resell or use).
Sadly, in retrospect it may have been the wrong choice. I miscalculated how much stuff weighed and ended up needing to also ship two pods across country, unexpectedly adding a few thousand dollars to the overall cost of the move. I discovered after loading everything that I was something like 7,500 pounds over the weight limit of the trailer!
Anyway, one interesting part of the move was that (aside from the weight issue) I planned it in meticulous detail and quite well. In particular, I planned the packing of the trailer using SketchUp to model how everything could fit, including furniture, a safe, four motorcycles (one with a sidecar). That part of it all went according to plan.
Venice, CA to Blue Ridge Summit, PA
Days: 9 days (1 day off)
Hours/day: 6.1 hours/day
Police cars seen: 13
Speed traps seen: 3
Accidents seen: 2 (flaming remnants of one, the other was just a minor one)
Roadkill seen (major animals): 18
Gas mileage: 8.9 mpg
Fuel: 303 gallons ($1027)
Payload: F-250 8,780 lbs and 9,450 lbs loaded trailer. Combined weight 18,230 lbs.
Oil consumed: 1 quart
Coolant consumed: 12 oz
As I approach my 40th birth I can't help but reflect on the folly of my having attempted to be a responsible human being. All around me I see the irresponsible inheriting the Earth, delighting in its rewards, and it makes me feel rather foolish and rather sad, for all I've missed out on.
There are two primary areas where my attempt to be responsible has seemed grossly the wrong thing: having children and home ownership.
I have always strongly believed that being a parent is the most important thing one can do, and one should not do it until they are mentally and financially prepared. No parent is ever perfect, nor perfectly prepared, but the child suffers for the flaws of their parents, so it seems only reasonable that one would minimize their negative impact on their children, while maximizing their positive impact. And it seems only reasonable that one would wait until they were in a relationship likely to last forever before kids were even considered. But all around me people flout these rules, with no ill effects that anyone seems to openly acknowledge. The harm done to the children is discounted, ignored as though that harm was unavoidable, as though all children can expect to be harmed in one way or another, so what's the big deal?
I have some relatives and friends who've had multiple kids with different fathers, having chosen to form unstable relationships, having chosen to forgo effective contraception, having chosen to engage in no serious employment, and having chosen to continue using drugs and alcohol. And while no doubt everyone might casually acknowledge some poor choices, all choose to focus instead on the joy of the existence of these children, and the "marvelous" job the mothers are doing despite the situations they've created, and the choices they continue to make. And I mean no discredit against the positive things the mothers do, and I certainly mean nothing against the innocent children brought into the situation, I just can't help but feel selfishly frustrated by the inequity of it all. That I, who would be a wonderful father, who has made many, many right decisions for a child's benefit, am denied that joy, that satisfaction, that comfort, that opportunity, etc. while others who have taken the role so much less seriously get all those wonderful things. It feels so cruelly unfair. Obviously there's no one to blame, other than perhaps myself, or perhaps the universe. It is I who has chosen to obey a rule I accept as in a child's best interest, and it's the universe which has created the other rules by which we are all bound.
Far less emotionally significant, but certainly frustrating nonetheless, I can't help but remark that I who have tried to be responsible by not buying a house I couldn't afford with a loan I might not have been able to pay back, am deeply annoyed and feel hard done by that others who made reckless home ownership decisions based on bogus beliefs in the housing market and interest rates are receiving sympathy and financial assistance. Why not help those who did the right and good thing, who did not place our nation and economy at risk selfishly? I understand the need to prop up those who have gotten themselves into trouble, lest our economy collapse even further, but how tired I am of irresponsibility being effectively rewarded, and with the resources and sweat of those who did no wrong.
Ah well, that's my useless, self-indulgent gripe of the week.