President Trump Did What Now?

I haven’t written about politics in a bunch of weeks. The reason is simple: it’s only a matter of time before Donald Trump gets impeached. There seems to be enough smoke now for any fair-minded person to agree that there must be some kind of fire. I don’t claim to know exactly what it is or who was involved, but I don’t doubt that the act of collusion includes the man at the highest level.

The NY Times is now reporting that Presidents Trump and Putin had an undisclosed, private conversation that lasted as long as an hour during the G20 Summit. It’s true that the conversation occurred in front of many of the world’s leaders, but except for Presidents Trump and Putin, only a Kremlin-employed interpreter knows exactly what was said.

Trump is attacking the Times for the story — “Fake News story of secret dinner with Putin is ‘sick.’ All G 20 leaders, and spouses, were invited by the Chancellor of Germany. Press knew!” — but it’s not about whether the press knew about it (nor is it about the President’s use of quotation marks around “sick” — does he think he’s quoting somebody or is he misunderstanding  the use of scare quotes?). It’s about whether the press reported the conversation, and until now, they had not.

Journalists know a lot of things. They don’t report on everything they know. The best of them only report on the things they know for sure, which means they have evidence to support it.

And what did the NY Times journalist, Julie Hirschfeld Davis, report?

She reported that “hours into” a G20 dinner, President Trump rose from his seat and joined President Putin for “a one-on-one discussion…that lasted as long as an hour and relied solely on a Kremlin interpreter.”

She wrote some more words to allow the White House to register its reaction,  and she wrote some others words to provide context for more casual readers, but at bottom, those are the only facts that she reported.

And President Trump calls it “Fake News!,” not because he denied it happened, but because he’s upset someone thinks such a conversation should be news.

This is the reason those of us on the left think he is an idiot. He can’t stop getting in his own way. How hard is it to not have a private conversation with the person you’re being accused of colluding with? And if you must have a conversation, how hard is it, really, to arrange a truly private one?

You know how hard it is for this president? Incredibly hard. Everyone in the bureaucracy is out to get him. He can’t make a phone call to anyone on the planet without someone else knowing about it, and with the leak culture being encouraged by the press and, let’s face it, the American people, that someone else is more than likely to let the information slip. How much worse would it look if President Trump tried to arrange an actual secret meeting with President Putin?

He had no choice. He can’t just not talk about the situation with President Putin, collusion or no collusion, so his only choice is to do it in the most public place possible.  If he actually wants to talk about the collusion issue, he can’t trust the State-department interpreter to not share the details of their conversation, even if only under oath to a prosecutor.

So what the President did, collusion or no collusion, makes complete sense. But to think, even if only for a minute, that such a conversation doesn’t deserve to be news is to think something bat-shit stupid. If the President of the United States had a private, one-on-one conversation with the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, the existence of that conversation would make the news — and I don’t even know if they have Prime Ministers there. To imagine it wouldn’t be news when you do it with your alleged colluder in treason…that’s just dumb.

That’s why I haven’t been writing about politics lately. I’m so done with trying to understand this President. I don’t have to anymore. I get it, and I honestly don’t think he’s a match for the one-two punches that keep coming at him from the bureaucracy and the press. If Mueller is as ethical as the press suggests, then it’s only a matter of time before they take him down.

At this point, writing about Trump feels more like trying to catalog and predict the ending of a one-sided fight — will he go down because of some kind of final, powerful blow or will he just succumb to a continuous onslaught of jabs? Making those kinds of prediction can be fun some of the time, like trying to predict which character on your favorite HBO show is going to die next, but more often it feels like trying to get excited about the arc on a crappy reality show.

There’s a danger in feeling that way, of course. If we allow ourselves to get bored by the lack of progress or overwhelmed by the case’s ever-growing details (how many fucking people were in that room with Don Jr. and how the fuck are they all connected again?), then we risk losing the urgency of the resistance. I get it.

But seriously, let’s look at this shit. Yes, the Republicans are trying to fuck up all kinds of shit in Congress, and yes, the President is doing a ton of real damage via Executive Order, but it seems the most they can do right now is all short-term stuff. They’re not organized enough to ram something through Congress — Trump is too unhinged and vague, and the Republican Congress has to reconcile the desires of too many “moderates” (as if…) with too many Tea Party crazies. If the Democrats can stay united in their resistance, the Republicans can’t deliver on the biggest promises they’ve made to the electorate, and they’ll continue to look and act completely dysfunctional.

Yes, there are things to do. Yes, there are real dangers to fight. But in all honesty, it seems like those who are doing the fighting for my side of things are doing a damn fine job, and I’m trusting them to continue to do so.

Me? I’ll keep going to work each day to teach the next generation of leaders how to think for themselves. It’s the least I can do.

What does it mean to be a self-published writer?

I’ve always interpreted self-publishing in terms of a bookstore: A self-published writer is someone who, from start to finish, is responsible for getting that book on that shelf.

But if I’m a bookstore owner, why am I going to allow you to come into my shop and just put your book on my shelves? If I start doing that, I’m going to have hundreds of wanna-be writers showing up on my doorstep, trying to get their stupid-ass books on my shelves. If I say yes to you, the rest will think I’ll say yes to them, and next thing you know, to make sure the books I sell remain high-quality enough for my customers, I’m screening which books make it on my shelves and which ones don’t, which basically means I’m doing the job of a publishing house now, and damn it, I’m trying to run a bookstore, not a publishing house, so no…you can’t put your self-published book on my shelf.

Can you imagine trying to talk your way past that guy? That’s a hell of a struggle, and even if you’re persuasive, it just means you got your book on that one shelf in that one bookstore, and everyone knows that no one goes to bookstores anymore.

So now, when you’re talking about self-publishing, what you’re really talking about is putting your book on Amazon. And that’s simple. Anybody can do that.

And millions of them do.

So now what’s your next struggle? It’s rising to the top in the cage-match rumble for a reader’s attention. If you want people to find your book in the jungles of Amazon.com, you have to work your network, which means turning friends and family members into customers and hopefully having a few of them who turn a few friends of their own onto your book.

But that seems kind of slimy to me. It’s putting your network to work, and that feels like an exploitation. I don’t want my friends and family to work for me. If they dig what I’m doing and they recommend it to someone else in the natural flow of their lives, that’s great, that’s honest and genuine; and that’s how I want my relationship with my readers to be: honest and genuine.

So there has to be another form to self-publishing, one that doesn’t require me to haggle with a bookstore owner or exploit the strength of my network.

And that’s when I realized there’s this. My blog. There doesn’t have to be anything other than this. It’s a place where I publish my writings and make them available for free.

I’m not a professional writer, and now that I’ve reached the age of 40 and am involved in a career that satisfies me personally and professionally in so many different ways, I’ve given up the desire to become a professional writer. I pay my bills in other ways, so why not write for free?

This doesn’t mean I’m not going to self-publish a book someday. But if I do, I’m going to link to it here on my website and make it available for free.

Because that’s what I think self-publishing should mean. If I didn’t get paid to write it, why should you pay me to read it?

There’s no resource being consumed here, nothing but time. And if your time is just as valuable as mine, why should you have to cover the cost of mine?

Except, wait a minute, because if we’re really talking about an exchange of time, truth must be spoken: it takes me a lot longer to write these things than it does for you to read them. Doesn’t that mean you owe me something? If our exchange value is time, doesn’t that mean you owe me some of your time (provided I have’t wasted whatever time you’ve already given me)?

That would be true if our time was equally as valuable, but it’s not. By virtue of your presence here, we can assume that your time — i.e., your attention — is precious. There are literally countless other things you could be doing with your time right now, but instead of doing any of those things, you’re doing this: reading the words I wrote. That’s a gift I must truly appreciate.

Because obviously, as someone who actually keeps a blog, I must have a lot of time on my hands, a portion of which I choose to give to this.

As a self-published writer, I’m not being paid for this. But as a self-selected reader, you’re actually paying for the time that you give me: in an attention-based economy, giving someone your eyeballs is to give them a major form of currency. I can use your eyeballs as leverage in a negotiated contract where the other party would be agreeing to exchange their services (editing, publishing, and marketing) for your eyeballs. If I give them you (i.e., my network), they’ll give me money. They won’t even have to read my work first because decision makers don’t care about what’s between the pages they publish; they care about the number of eyeballs that will, at the very least, scan those pages.

But, as I said before, I will not trade on the strength of my network. I refuse to think of my readers — of you — as a revenue stream. That would fuck up our whole relationship, and I’m not willing to do that.

Your attention is expensive, and it’s the only resource being consumed here. Everything else I’m just giving away.

I hope you find as much joy in it as I do.

The Arts of Telling the Truth

During the first ten years of my writing life, I learned that readers don’t want any bullshit but they do want to be entertained. The art, then, was the art of telling the truth. Some people call it advertising.

Ten years ago, I gave up the art of advertising and dedicated myself to the art of fiction. To my delight, many of the techniques I used in the art of advertising applied equally to the art of fiction. Regardless of how fictional a story might get, it has to be grounded in a shared reality between reader and narrator; it has to be grounded in something that both the reader and the narrator consider to be the truth.

The source of the truth doesn’t always have to be acknowledged by the narrator, but as the writer, its your duty to know exactly what that truth is and to not be shy about letting it be so.

Partly in thanks to this shared imperative to artfully tell the truth, my decade of experience in advertising and my six year study in fiction allowed me to earn a Master’s of Fine Arts degree from a college of artists worthy of the name.

Eight years later, I’ve learned that the same imperative that grounds advertising and fiction also grounds the art of education. Like readers, students require truths to come to them in a language they can understand. They may not want to face the truth directly (because the experience of doing so might be boring), but they also don’t want to put up with any of your bullshit. Like advertising and fiction, then, the art of teaching is just another genre in the art of telling the truth.

But for the first time in a long time, I need to revert to the art of advertising, which, while sharing the imperative to tell the truth, also has a set of rules and practices that differ greatly from the arts of fiction and teaching. Where fiction tells the truth in the service of a story, and teaching tells the truth in the service of the future, advertising tells the truth in the service of a transaction. It’s been over a decade since I put my words in the service of something that feels so base.

If I’d done my job correctly over the past year, this project would already be done. The goal: to create a brand-new website for my school, one that in no ways relates to the current content or design. The students were supposed to be in charge. I was there to drive the project and to lend support, and another adult was there to spark their ideas and educate them on the process of thinking like a marketer, but the students would be the people with their ideas on the table and their hands on the keyboards.

During the first three quarters of the school year, they met once or twice a week, during which time they developed concepts and ideas for the website. By March, they had approved the website’s structure, tone, and design. During the fourth quarter, they were supposed to get to work.

Unfortunately, the quarter moved too fast and their workloads grew too high, and so as a group, they could not finish the task of actually writing, testing, and launching a website. This was understandable — disappointing, but understandable — but it also meant that the project’s final deliverables fell on me.

That’s why my schedule for the next four to six weeks includes not only four days of teaching and/or administrative work, but also one complete day per week that is dedicated to the production and launch of the newest version of the school’s website.

The difficulty will come not from any of the technical details of the project (while I might not be able to achieve the website of our dreams, I’m confident I can produce, at minimum, a clean and professional looking website). No, the difficulty will come, ironically enough, from the task I’m most qualified to accomplish, that of writing the words themselves.

As you are aware, my writing borders on the verbose. Verbosity does not perform well on the web, where content is meant to be skimmed, not indulged in. Visitors to a website arrive to accomplish a task or to find some specific information; they don’t come to languish in the art of written creation.

I am able to be verbose on my blog because it’s my fucking blog, and if you don’t like my verbosity, that’s your deal and no harm to me.

But on my school’s website, if you don’t accomplish the task you came to accomplish or find the information you so desperately need, your child might not find the school that best fits their unique needs, or the school might not grow fast enough for me to grow in my job, or the parent of a diagnosed child might not find the water in the desert that our program can be for some families. If a visitor doesn’t like my blog, big whoop; if a visitor doesn’t like what I write on the school’s website, the harm could be great and the foul could almost be a sin.

At the same time, I know I can get it right.

Writing a contemporary website won’t be easy for me, and it will take humility to remember that my tone is not the school’s tone, but by the time the project is complete, I suspect I will, once again, discover that the art of writing a website is just another genre in the art of telling the truth (tasks and information not included).

A Declaration

I don’t run from the epithet, American. As a liberal in conservative America, I sometimes feel as if I’m supposed to. We’re a country full of nationalistic and self-involved racists whose ability to empathize with those whom we trod down upon is never enough to live up to our hypocritical claim of being a Christian nation. We’re loud, obnoxious, and willfully ignorant. We cling to guns and our religion because we’re too stupid to rise up against the capitalists whose propaganda we swallow whole every night. We are afraid of every little thing, and that fear drives us to wave our army dicks all over the world in an attempt to scare off anyone who might disagree with us.

Is that something to celebrate? No, not at all. But you know what is?

The ability to stand in my own backyard, surrounded by family and people in my community, people whom I’m proud to call my friends, and to share with these people some fine ales and wholesome foods, and to laugh with them as we await a public fireworks display, paid for through our donations and our tax dollars in celebration of those who came before us and of those who stand among us.

Somewhere tonight, a child huddled in the wreckage of a bombed out building. Somewhere else, a woman died giving childbirth in a dark and marshy field.

But here, on my property, in my community, no one worried about that. The thought of those realities didn’t come up once. Our children ran around and laughed, and the only reason any of them cried is because they bonked their heads together in the bouncy house that one of my neighbors, unsolicited, was nice enough to lend to our party. I didn’t worry for any of the babies in attendance; I didn’t once doubt their parents’ ability to provide them with food and shelter and love. During the evening, three different SUVs drove by my house with Sheriff written on the side, and not once did I imagine that anyone in those cars would be a threat to me, my family, or my guests.

But somewhere, a middle-aged man died of a curable disease, his family looking on, sadness and relief both present in their eyes. Somewhere else, a father cuddled with his son knowing that, if the rain doesn’t come tomorrow, there will be no water.

I know as a liberal white man I’m supposed to feel guilty about my privileges, and in some ways, I really do, but there also times like today, when I can throw horseshoes with new acquaintances and neighbors, when I can make fun of close friends and know that my humor won’t be misconstrued as meanness, when I can stand over a grill and non-ironically live out a Budweiser commercial, times like today, when I really and truly feel grateful to call myself an American, and I don’t feel guilty at all.

Happy Independence Day, everybody. May you have a life to be grateful for as well.

An Intellectualization of a Religious Experience

This week I picked up William James’ book, The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. I’ve been thinking about this book for several months now — not necessarily the subject of the book, but the title. The reason is because, over the past few months, I have had my own religious experiences and I am trying to process my understanding of them.

This isn’t the time or the place to go into the details of my experiences. They were mine, and for now, they will remain mine (though if you know me in person, I’m completely willing to share my experiences face to face). But I do think this is the place to process my intellectualization of those experiences (whether it’s the right time or not is completely up to you).

I’ve come to the conclusion that the terms “God” and “gods” are a misunderstanding of a real experience in which human beings commune with a transcendent intelligence. The concepts of the monotheistic “God” and the polytheistic “gods” are concepts that derive from different states of civilization, monotheism from an absolutist desert milieu and polytheism from a more diverse and yet still openly hierarchic milieu. But in a milieu that values (in its ideal state) equality, open dialogue, and diverse participation, the same religious experience can be felt not as a command from an Absolute God, nor as an interaction with a more powerful and yet whimsical bully, but as someone of equal value reaching out — not to conquer or cajole — but to talk and play.

The upshot is that, despite having had rich and rewarding religious experiences whose validity as objective experiences are beyond my doubt, I do not think it is necessary to catalogue these experiences within the categories of religion.

The best way I’ve come up with to describe what I am talking about is “a foreign intelligence.”

Human beings have communicated with foreign intelligences throughout our history. You might even be able to define the development of consciousness as the struggle between an inner intelligence and a foreign one, with the growth of that consciousness measured against its exposure to new (i.e., foreign) ideas (i.e., understandings of reality). As a baby begins to recognize its difference from its mother, its consciousness begins to grow, turning its experience of reality into a new and definite understanding: “I am not her” (though for many human beings this primary understanding often takes decades to work itself out, and even still, some of us never get there). This understanding changes the baby’s experience of reality, causing it to seek out new things (“What else am I not?”). This impulse eventually leads to crawling, to walking, to running, to reading, to travel, to drugs, to alcohol, to sex, to rock and roll…

What is life, after all, except a journey into the unknown of spacetime, where the future is dark and you never know what’s around the corner?

But then, why couldn’t those dark spaces open onto a foreign intelligence, perhaps in the form of a hunter from an unknown tribe, perhaps in the form of a transcendent entity who speaks a language we can somehow understand (even if not aurally)?

Can we deny that such a foreign intelligence is possible? In a universe as vast in possibilities as it is in spacetime, would we deny the potential existence of a foreign intelligence whose physical form is so different from our own that it might only be said to exist in a different dimension?

Seriously, in a universe where the quantum reality can only be defined in terms of potentialities and hyperdimensionalities, and on a planet where technologies continue to open our consciousnesses to foreign understandings and experiences, we’d deny the possibility that, even now, on this planet, we may not be the sole possessors of a transcendent consciousness?

If we’re willing to grant some of that potential, would we then limit ourselves to a foreign intelligence that walks and talks and acts (relatively) just like us? I mean, just how foreign might we imagine this foreign intelligence to be? Could it not be separated from a physical container, just as we imagine ourselves to be separated from our physical container (what, after all, is the concept of the soul if not a rationalization of the feeling that we are not our bodies)?

From just an intellectual standpoint, I’m willing to grant that possibility. And because I’m willing to grant that possibility, I don’t think we need to raise a foreign intelligence to the level of a God or god, nor is there a need to interpret it as an alien, as something foreign to our Earth.

Among Romantics, there is the concept of communing with nature. For some, this is meant in a religious way: as Catholics take communion with Christ through the ingestion of his body, so the Romantic breathes in, takes in nature. When done right — and despite its difficulty, there truly is a way (of many ways) to commune with nature — but when done right, we, as human beings, feel — i.e., experience being — at one with nature: it is in us as we are in it, and the animals of the forest are our brothers, together with us, as one family, all of us connected through the tree of life, plants as cousins, parameciums as elders, breathe it in, breathe it out…

…and now breathe it in again — what’s doing the breathing that can’t also be described in the same language as the chemicals that are being breathed; where does the oxygen in the air differ from the oxygen in our cells; which oxygen is inside and which oxygen is outside; and why do we have to think that way…

…now breathe it out, not that oxygen, but that carbon, that seed of life, that dust of death, that carbon…but where did the oxygen go, and where did it come from; it’s all on the wind. Breathe it in, that breath of life, created by the trees, shared with the wolves, stolen from the sun…

Breathe it out.

Sorry about that.

Anyway, there’s an intelligence there in nature. We are part of it as the baby is part of the mother, but it is also there, as different from us as the mother is from the baby. That’s what the transcendentalists wanted us to know. There’s a foreign intelligence in nature and its possible to experience being with and through it.

I don’t disagree. But the foreign intelligence in nature is not the foreign intelligence that spoke to me. Mine was a religious experience (well, experiences actually; it’s happened a few times), but I don’t want to confine my understanding of it to the language of religion.

This was not a god. This was something different. It didn’t want to share a message. It didn’t want to make commands. It just wanted to talk and play, and somehow, it found me.

I think I’m okay with that.