Monday, December 6, 2010


Random memory:

When I was a kid, my father would occasionally ask me to dig a hole. He was an avid landscape gardener, and he used these holes for yard waste, weeds, leaves and other things he needed to get rid of.

Here's the thing: digging a hole was NOT punishment for me. It was simply something I was expected to do to help.

Here's the thing, parte deux: I liked digging holes.

In the morning, my dad would hand me a spade and a shovel, and we'd set off to some "back" area of the yard (in the belt of trees at the edge of the property) where he'd mark out where he wanted the hole dug. And I'd start digging.

Now, you might be thinking "yeah, but lots of kids dig holes."

True. But these were not just "holes." As a 9-year old, I put the fear of God into adult men who had made a career of ditch digging.

The holes were probably about 3-4 feet wide and 6-7 feet long. If I started on Saturday morning... I'd probably be about 6-7 feet down, by the end of Sunday... one end would be "staired" down in 2-foot increments, so I could get in and out. The big excitement for me was to get deep enough to where I was digging in the compacted golden sand that underlies much of coastal Denmark... and this was also what my dad was looking for, so he could spread it on the lawn to even out the bumps.

I have no idea why this appealed so much to me... conversations with my peers (at the time) and other people (since) points to the fact that most people would interpret spending a weekend (as a kid OR an adult) digging a large hole in the ground as a particularly heinous form of torture. For me, it never really was. There was something comforting about digging a deep hole... and being able to sit in a place where all I could see was the sky and clouds drifting by... no side view, at all. And I didn't mind being "in the Earth." And I felt none of the fear many (including my mother) shared: "Oh, but what if it collapsed in on you?"

The attendant conversations at school on Monday morning were a little bit awkward.... concerning the "what did YOU do this weekend?" issue...

Sven: "Oh, we went to the amusement park, I got a new air rifle and we hunted squirrels!"

Lars: "We went camping, and I caught 13 fish!"

Henrik: "We built a fort in the abandoned junkyard!"

Me: "I dug a hole in the ground!"

[Insert sound of needle scratching across the vinyl of a record]

"You what? What did you DO to get that kind of punishment?"

"No, I wanted to..."

"Dude... you are SO weird..."

Maybe we all have strange things we liked to do as kids... things nobody else "got" about us.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Random rambles about complaining... and growth

I talk to myself.

I have been talking to myself (especially while doing things) since I was a little kid. I suppose what I am really doing is processing thoughts outward, rather than keeping them inside my head. I just find that "thinking things through" in silence is far less conducive to "working them out" and "getting new ideas," than actually having an audible conversation with myself. Thinking inside my head feels like watching a YouTube video with "mute" on. So I talk to myself.

I'm not entirely sure whether this is a sign of insanity. Or, perhaps, a reflection of the fact that I was raised by wolves. Or maybe my honey is right-- I'm just crazy and ADD as fuck. OR... it's just perfectly normal behavior everywhere... but people are embarrassed to admit to it and label it "eccentric" rather than normal.

The point, however, is that I typically have my best ideas for articles and other writing when I am far from the computer. Or even a pen and notebook.

This is the odd paradox. When I am sitting in my office, trying to work, I don't so often talk to myself nor feel inclined to do so. On the other hand, when I am mowing the lawn, or going for a walk, or cooking, or folding laundry, I usually have a lot to say.

Which, I suppose, is just another way of saying that I do my best thinking when my brain is slack.

A while back, as a bold new experiment, I moved the laptop into the kitchen while I cooked... so I could basically write as I talked things through, in the three-minute pauses between flipping pork chops or whatever else was going on. Now, I'm well aware of the risks of grease on the screen and flour in the keyboard, but these are occupational hazards I'm willing to face... and this was-- as I said-- just an experiment.

Since the distinct possibility exists that my life may actually have assumed some semblance of normalcy (i.e. I may spend more days at home than in random motel rooms) in the foreseeable future, I have been toying with the idea of returning to writing. Ergo, I need ideas. As I talked this through with myself, I was considering some things that bug me about life might become good blog fodder, in a Dave Barry-ish sort of way, and even considered a sort of "Gripe of the Week" column.

As I looked at my various ideas, I realized that I am really incredibly intolerant... and I should probably scrap the whole "gripe" idea and just call the articles "Why I Am Not A Nice Person, part-whatever."

1. Why is it STILL a "surprise" to people that they have to pay at the grocery? Otherwise, why on earth would they not start looking for payment until the checker say "That will be $37.95?"

2. That little lever on the side of your steering column? Yeah, that one. It's called a turn signal. Especially handy at 4-way stop signs.

3. Many more, similar to the above.

I'm still considering that possibility...

After considering that my list of "things to write about" were basically a list of gripes... I got to thinking... why do we spend so much time focusing on the negative, while generally glossing over the positive? I mean, it runs the range of human experience, from the personal to the global. "War sells newspapers, peace does not."

Then I thought about what irritates me... and the why of things that irritate me. That was an interesting exercise in observation and self-inquiry.

Overwhelmingly, I get annoyed by situations where other people's lack of awareness and consciousness of their surroundings results in taking my time, and/or require my effort. I realized how this is often a big "trigger" for me, as far as getting annoyed and moody... especially when bad or no planning on someone else's behalf is the catalyst for my time/effort output.

Our irritants are often riddled with paradoxes, too. Going back to the grocery store example, above, I actually have endless patience with grocery store lines... I have little issue with being 47th in line, and if I subsequently realize that I forgot to buy butter, I have little issue with putting the groceries in the car and standing in line behind 41 people to go through a second time, with a single package of butter.

"They" say, of course, that the things that irritate us about other people are the things about ourselves that we really do not like. Indeed, I tend to be hypersensitive to/about wasting other people's time... and tend to overplan almost everything I do, lest my activity could somehow cause another to waste their time.

Most likely, there will NOT be a gripe of the week column...

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Giving of Thanks

I learned about Thanksgiving when I moved to Texas in 1981.

Don't get me wrong, it's not that Europeans aren't thankful. We just don't have an official "Thanks Giving" day.

In the course of the ensuing 30-odd years, I attended a lot of Thankgiving lunches, dinners and days with a variety of people. What I learned-- as much as anything-- was that most people weren't really very thankful, and they often spent the day with people they'd just as well not spend the day with... often doing things they would just as well not have been a part of. If anything, the atmosphere felt rather ThankLESS...

This year-- perhaps for the first time-- I felt truly and deeply thankful for where I was, whom I was with, and what I had. Whether this was merely a change in my own perspective, or a true change in life circumstance I'm not sure about. Maybe it was both.

Either way, it felt to me like giving thanks was in order. And that-- in and of itself-- is something to be thankful for.

Gratitude is important. Not just on Thanksgiving Day, but on every day of the year.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Examining Deeper Meanings of Life Lessons...

A dear friend wrote, this morning:

someone ruffles our feathers, it’s because we are seeing an aspect of this person that exists in us as well. We attract people who mirror our own negative traits. That’s why these people are in our lives – to offer us an opportunity to transform ourselves, and our anger."

This is a very wise old teaching... I have run across it in spiritual settings, as well as in the course of studying traditional psychology. Indeed, it can be very useful in understanding ourselves, because we tend to be more open to experiencing our own quirks and foibles when they are illustrated in the actions of another, rather than in ourselves.

On the surface, the lesson looks fairly simple. But it is actually one that can sometimes require a lot of insight and contemplation, in order for us to understand the true how of the "negative aspect" that actually lives in us. In my own years of contemplation, a large part of my lesson has been about understanding the deeper subtleties of this teaching. And if you don't, you'll often tend to reject what appears on the surface... and, I might add, rightfully so!

As I said, sometimes it's quite simple:

Our friend Bob annoys us because he's always in a hurry. And it feels like he "herds" us, every time we go somewhere. And we feel annoyed, because we deeply identify with being "laid back." Although not pleasant (because the truth seldom is, at least up front), we can pause and recognize that whereas we may not always be in a hurry, when we do have a lot that needs taking care of we'll tend to "herd people," and annoy them.

That's easy enough, right?

Most people could look at situations in their own lives and nod, and think "Yeah, I can recognize this-and-that tendency in me, embodied by 'Bob,' or my partner, or one of my friends."

But... it's not always that straightforward. Let's say that what ruffles our feathers is that our neighbor puts puppies in the microwave and defends his right to do so-- sorry, I know that's pretty graphic, but it's needed for the example, AND to stretch people's "reality threshold." When someone holds up the teaching of how we are "reacting to a negative aspect in ourselves," we may recoil in horror and utterly reject the idea that we latently embody that particular negative trait. And OF COURSE we would be entirely RIGHT... we have no latent desires whatsoever to put puppies in the microwave.

Right! So what's the problem, here?

H.H. The Dalai Lama once explained-- about Karma and reincarnation-- that people's lifelessons don't return as "obviously" in subsequent lives as one might think. Just because you were a thief in one lifetime doesn't mean you'll necessarily be stolen from in the next lifetime. You might be born without arms. Or even live a beautiful and compassionate life, but every attempt you make for gain fails. Or you simply live a life in which you always have to "go without." All of these, of course, a reflection of the (indirect) result of having been stolen from.

So what about us getting riled up about neighbor and his treatment of the puppies? Can we just throw away the teaching when it's as graphically ugly and seemingly inappropriate as this?

It pays to consider carefully, what the teaching might be, before we dismiss it.

Indeed, there may be nothing to be learned. But what IF the lesson at hand actually IS valid... we're just rejecting it because because what's in front of us is graphically literal and wrong? Could it be, for example, that on a greater scale of life we have latent tendencies to bully and terrorize the innocent and defenseless? And THAT's what we "don't like" and what "ruffles our feathers?" Maybe we lived a horrendously rough childhood in which something gentle and innocent ("a puppy") not only would be doomed to perish, but our caring for it would be a direct liability for us, because it reflected (perceived or real) "weakness" in us... and thus it would anger us... because such weakness put us at risk.

Now, I hasten to add that our anger at our neighbor is probably absolutely righteous and justified. My point here is that just because our anger is righteous and justified doesn't mean that I couldn't contain a valuable teaching, as well.

So... what inspired me to write (apart from my friend's words) was a desire to "expand" the lesson... and to remind myself (and others) to not reject an idea because it fills us with reactionary rage, but to pause and consider that even in the darkest and most horrific acts there may be a nugget of valuable enlightenment.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Attitude and the Law of Attraction... It's All About Energy

My beloved often says "People are exactly as happy as they choose to be."

As I sip my coffee this morning and watch the sun come up, I have been sitting here, contemplating the world and the power of how our perceptions and beliefs affect our surroundings and what goes on in them.

Is the world an "evil" place? Is the world a "benevolent" place? Or is the world merely an extension of what we believe it is... how we individually perceive it? Is the true bottom line merely that the world is filled with "is-ness," and we assign (for better or for worse) value judgments to essentially neutral experiences?

I am reminded of one of my friends from a distant past-- when I was living down in Texas-- who was constantly fearful and believed there were muggers, thieves, rip-off artists, rapists and sex offenders around every corner. Keeping in mind that we lived in the same neighborhood and pretty much did the same "rounds" about town in the course our daily lives, during the brief years we knew each other, she was mugged, her car was broken into, her house burglarized (twice), her identity stolen online and she was sexually harassed at work. Meanwhile, I never saw anything "threatening" in my surroundings... and nothing "bad" happened to me.

Now, before you go off on me about the situation being "different" because she was female, or I'm "too naive," or I'm "blaming the victim" or whatever... the preceding is just there for illustrative purposes. I am perfectly well aware there are dangers in the world. That's not my point, however.

My opening thought (above) was brought to mind because I came across a heated discussion in facebook comments about whether or not the oft-discussed pop culture phenomenon "The Law of Attraction" is actually a crock of shit. On one side, people arguing fervently that "it works;" on the other, people arguing that it's patent nonsense that you'll get a mini-mansion just because you sit around and focus on it.


Aren't both sides exactly right?
Aren't both sides exactly wrong?
And isn't it most likely that both sides get exactly what they believe in?

Consider this, for a moment:

We all act in support of what we believe to be real.

Think about it.
It's true, isn't it?
It might rain today.
If you take your umbrella with you, and it rains, you pat yourself on the back and believe you have "good foresight."
If you leave your umbrella at home, and it rains, you conclude that the weather sucks.
Perceptions. Beliefs.
"It might rain today."

Then consider this:

Everything-- and I mean EVERYthing-- is energy.

The rock on your window sill is held together by energy. The coffee in your cup is held together by energy. Even the "empty" space around you is a manifestation of energy. At its most basic (physics and quantum physics) level, I'd hazard a guess this is truly what is meant by those (even if they don't really understand it, consciously) who claim that "we are all one."

We are.

But I digress.

The point is... with everything we do, we manipulate and move energy.

Now, let's return to the Law of Attraction, "intentional manifesting" and similar ideas.

What do you BELIEVE to be true?

Here's what I believe... about these "systems" and beliefs, and how the Universe works:

Energy-- in whatever form-- will tend to flow along a path of least resistance. You pour water in a funnel, it's gonna go through the hole, not through the top edge. Air in a balloon will escape where it finds an opening. Energy is pretty real... even if we can't see it. Radio waves are invisible, but we can't deny that the radio plays. The magnetic force is real, even if we can't actually look at it. Energy (including at the quantum physics level) is also real... we can't "see" it, but we can see the effects of it. Everything-- even chaos-- is "organized" and "behaves" a certain way.

Now, let me return to the two statements about acting in support of our beliefs, and everything being energy. If I wake up in the morning and put my energy (voluntarily) into the idea that "my life sucks," I am setting something in motion... however subtle. "My life sucks" is a belief. However subtle and subconscious it may be, I am now going to start scanning my environment for "supporting evidence" that my life does, indeed, suck. How (and why) do I do that? Largely through the basic human survival instinct which leads us to attempt to organize disparate information into meaningful patterns.

The irony is-- I may even be giving myself a daily "pep talk" about having a good day, while I actively believe that it's part of my sucky life that it's raining. And that I'm out of creamer for my coffee. I notice the rain (negatively) and I notice the lack of creamer (negatively). I perceive these things as fitting the pattern "my life sucks," even if I'm sure I'm not actively looking for them. This is one of the reasons (sidebar note) that "affirmations" seldom work for people.

Meanwhile, my neighbor wakes up and believes her life is beautiful. And her "attention" is on supporting evidence of that. She sees the rain and goes "Yay! I don't have to water the lawn today!" Then she considers the peaceful sound of water dripping off leaves, and how calming it feels. When the absence of creamer manifests itself... she thinks "Yay! I get to have a Starbucks today!" Her rain, and her lack of creamer, are just as real as mine.

OK. I grant you that's pretty simplistic, but I expect you see the deeper point. Moreover, I expect you'd agree with me that there was no "New Age magic" involved in the business of one person perceiving a sucky life, and the other a happy life.

But how does this apply to manifesting a mini-mansion? Or the job of your dreams? Or the perfect relationship partner?

Same game, higher stakes.

Let's look at the "job" scenario, for a moment. Let's say you have a soul-sucking job, and you want your dream job.

Person A wakes up every day and focuses on identifying, finding and getting the job that pays them well and fills their life with meaning. That is their primary directive. Their "dominant belief" is that such a job does exist. And so, their energy goes into supporting that root belief. In a sense, they are looking for the "evidence" of their dream job... clues, ideas, whatever. They read articles, take seminars, scan web sites and job listings, take aptitude tests and so forth. Do they still have a soul-sucking at the moment? Hell, yes!

Person B wakes up every day and knows that they want a dream job... but their energetic focus is primarily on how awful their current situation is. The dream job is just that... a dream; an unreachable side show in a horrid existence. Most of person B's daily energetic output goes into various forms of self-protection against their environment... and because that is their focus, they will (just like my friend in Texas) "find" lots of supporting evidence of their soul-sucking job that's destroying their sense of well-being. And-- sadly-- have very little energy left at the end of the day to pursue their dream.

Who do you think is more likely to actually get their dream job?

Perhaps you're scratching your head and going "Bah! Humbug!" That's OK, really.

The most common protest I hear is this: "Yeah, but it's just not that SIMPLE or EASY!"

Let's talk about beliefs, again.

"Life is difficult" is just another belief that can trap you in a pervasively negative pattern. Indeed, you are right. For YOU, it is "not that simple or easy" because you have a deep seated belief that things like finding your dream job is "not easy." Your approach... no matter how "positive" it may feel to you... is tainted by your subtle attachment to "not easy" as a way of life.

It IS that simple and easy.
But not for the reasons you are thinking...

Let me share something that has probably happened to you-- it's a very common piece of documented human science.

Remember the last time you bought a car? You probably didn't notice any one car more than any one other, until you decided that what you wanted was a dark green SUV. Then-- as if by magic-- there were dark green SUVs everywhere. Remember going camping, and being warned that bears had been sighted in the campground? Suddenly, you noticed evidence of bears everywhere. Maybe you even saw a bear. Were there actually more green SUV's? Were there actually more bears? Or was this just about where your attention (energy) went?

In a sense, that's the "de-mystified" Law of Attraction. Things happen ("appear") because we focus on them; they become forefront in our awareness and we assign more energy resources to them. For some, this is easier to understand if it is wrapped in a pretty New Age package. Some call it "creating reality." Yet others simply call it determination and hard work.

Approaches to life are learned... and can also be unlearned, if the ones you're using are not working for you. I'll end with a case in point.

As I finished up these words, a voice inside me went: "Yanno... I bet someone has already written an explanation like this... and I'm just wasting people's time with what is probably old information-- I should scrap this article." And I seriously considered it. My childhood paradigm was one of being expected to provide perfection, and shutting up unless I felt sure what I had to offer was "near brilliant," and sure to help the vast majority. Hence, my natural tendency has been to follow a strategy of voicelessness centered around fears of not living up to other people's (unrealistic) expectations.

Then another voice inside me said "Yeah, but you know what? Even if 19 people say 'HEARD IT already!' (or just plain disagree), but ONE person gets something from this, then you have added something positive to the consciousness of the planet." That is the new voice of my "unlearning" years, centered around a changed set of beliefs-- a change in my approach to life, considering first how my contributions might add (positive energy) to life, rather than focusing on how they might subtract (negative energy).

Like most things in life, the process of getting what you desire is both stunningly simple and incredibly laborious.

For the hardcore skeptics out there (because I can hear you clearing your throats...), I will add that the large chunk of my life that sucked mightily also happened during years where I deeply believed that life and the world were nasty, hard and unfair. Subsequently, I also didn't find the stunning woman of my dreams, an amazing occupation, and a place I love to live until I actively believed I could have (and deserved) those things...

Did I use the Law of Attraction? Or some "magical" method? A silver bullet? Did I wander barefoot around India for thirteen years, eating nothing but grasshoppers?


I just made a small shift in my thinking... and in where I put my energy. Every day, I "saw" these things in my life... and put my energy in getting what I wanted, rather than putting it into escaping from (or running from) what I didn't want... and I gave up my focus on what I didn't have in my life. You can, too.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Crime: Different nations, different values?

I never quite know how I end up down some of the rabbit holes I find.

Somehow I ended up considering violence and crime, following some article somewhere that led to some statistics somewhere else. It made me ponder something about my early life... and remember part of my childhood. Specifically, I didn't remember us ever being worried about violence or guns in Denmark, but we were plenty worried about theft; the house being burgled or the car being broken into. Since I've lived in the US I realize that I worry less about being stolen from, than I worry about someone violently attacking me, or shooting me.

Of course, these are just "feelings," but it made me curious.

So I ended up looking at this 1400-page UN report on crime in different countries. And came away with some reassurance that these were not "just feelings."

Indeed, there are five times more homicides (per 100,000 people) in the US, than in Denmark. If you break out homicides with a firearm, twelve times more. Then I looked at a different form of violent crime: Rape. There are about 3.5 times more rapes (per 100,000 people) in the US, than in Denmark.

But this is only half the equation. Here's the flip side. In Denmark, there are about twice the number of thefts (per 100,000 people) compared to the US. That balance also holds true for "property crimes," in general.

Now, before anyone starts to "go off" on me about gun laws or socialism or whatever... I don't care, and that's not what this exploration is about. Second, I also know that you can use statistics to tell almost any story you want. And that not all crimes are reported.

Anyway, realizing that my gut feelings had some kind of anchor in reality, I started to consider "WHY?" Why these differences?

It occurred to me that perhaps crime is a strange mirror and reflection of what a society ultimately "values."

Denmark is a very "community" oriented society. Concepts such as "us" and "society" and "common good" rank much higher than "me" and "mine" and "the individual" as core values. On the other hand, "things" and "objects" and "wealth" are part of common life, but not that important. I remember certain "messages" I heard... violence against someone was almost an unspeakable act; something only the crudest barbarian would resort to. If someone broke in your house, however, the response was less likely to be outrage than "Yeah, well, you should have had better locks, shouldn't you?"

In the US, we're spread out, and "individualism" is king, and the sense of "us" and "community" is not nearly as strong. One the other hand, there is a strong drive to "acquire" and to gain wealth, often in the form of "objects" (property). I have a vivid memory of my downstairs neighbor during my senior year in college in Texas having his car stereo stolen... and him saying to be (and he was dead serious) "If I'd caught that guy stealing my stereo, I'd have taken my gun and shot him right there!"

So I wondered this: Do we-- as a species-- avoid perpetrating crime against what we value most? Let's assume for a moment that we all have the same inner degree of "criminal intent." Danes value "people" highly, but "property" not so highly... in the US, we value "property" (relatively speaking) higher than "people."

Is there a subtle, subconscious "trigger" mechanism... that if we are driven to commit crime, we are more likely to do so against what our surrounding culture values less?

Of course, I realize there are a myriad variables-- this is NOT a "scientific" inquiry! It is merely a "pause for thought" exercise.

Monday, June 7, 2010

As Big Level Greed gives way to Individual Courage

I have been thinking a lot about the slow-motion disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. It's hard not to... it's everywhere, all the time.

At first, we watch these things like they are train wrecks. It seems "distant," like it "happened to THEM, over THERE." But then this thing happens... the train wreck never stops. And it goes from being this "event" far away, to something that affects ALL of us. It stops being "just another news story" we can shrug off as we reach for another beer...

It's scary, it's freaky... People are no longer "just watching;" they are getting angry. And that's a good thing.

I heard a very interesting perspective, the other day.

Someone said "This was a necessary disaster."

I was a little outraged, at first... but then I heard the entire line of reasoning, and it made some sense.

We ARE living in an age of change. We are increasingly moving towards a place where the old ways of greed (think the stock market, investment scandals, banks collapsing, the real estate bubble) are falling apart. But these things did not fall apart till there was a massive calamity to overturn the apple cart.

As all this continues to topple, we are entering an age of "Individual Courage." We have passed a subtle "tipping point," where the average person in the street is moving away from a centuries long era of apathy and helplessness ("What difference can *I* make? Pass me another beer") towards an era of individual empowerment. I guess many never trusted "Big Business" or "Big Government" in the first place, but we didn't feel empowered to DO anything...

That is, until things get so bad, that we're shaken out of our stupor.

Anyway, this idea I was shown... is that this long slow disaster that never ends, affecting so many and breaking even more hearts... is another tipping point. Although nobody can deny the catastrophical environmental impact, this may just be the needed event that will finally shake up the broader population enough... to realize that we really do need to develop alternative energy, and to personally take a stand in support of it. Demand it. It's no longer "good enough" to just sit in your recliner and nod, saying "yup, they really need to develop alternative energies."

The end that is at hand is not so much for Big Oil, as it is the end of Big Oil being allowed to place hurdles in the way of alternative energy... to protect their own self interest. Again, another
"brick" in the House of Greed is going to fall, as a result of this disaster.

But we needed something THIS HORRIBLE to be shaken out of our apathetic sleep... to wake up and say "NO! This will NOT stand!"

It's easy for us to point fingers and make them the villains and us the victims. But ultimately... this isn't about blame and who did this... but about examining what caused this. And we have to accept our own part in this. Because even though we can say this is "BP's fault," WE are responsible for making BP who they are.

And then we must change the paradigm that "creates" the BPs of the world.

One of my favorite... ehmm... "heroes"... is Gandhi. And one of his quotes I really like is this: "BE the change you wish for in the world."

It's a nice thing to say... not as easy to live. Looking at the mess in the Gulf, how can we live the change we need?

Personally, I don't think it's about boycotting BP... that's noble, and it makes us feel good, but it's ultimately a band-aid. We're still driving a car and putting gas into it. This is about individuals demanding access to the choices that lead to real change. It's about thousands-- millions-- of individuals writing to their local utilities and DEMANDING a "Green Power" option. And then signing up for it, even if it costs 10% more. It's about hanging onto your car for three years
longer than you'd planned so you can afford to buy the more expensive hybrid. That way the auto companies know-- because of their sales-- the direction they must take.

A couple of years ago, I got a little flyer with my electric bill from PSE (Puget Sound Energy)... announcing that I could choose to have my electricity come 100% from wind power. Yes, I realize a lot of power comes from coal, not oil... but the point here is that a change was
offered. And I agreed to pay 10% more for my electricity, in order to support a new cleaner paradigm. Meanwhile, I gain back the 10% by using those low-energy bulbs.

Our former state of apathy is built on a foundation that change "simply happens." The new paradigm of Individual Courage (and accountability) will be built on the foundation that change is something we "MAKE happen."

REAL change doesn't come from bombing some big oil company's headquarters or boycotting and picketing their gas stations. Whereas such actions make a big splash, a few wrists are slapped, and it quickly becomes yesterday's news as the status quo continues. REAL change comes as a result of making individual choices (multiplied by millions) that renders the already obsolete paradigm/product irrelevant.

It won't happen tomorrow, or next week, or next year... but it will happen because the age of greed and apathy is coming to an end. It's not going to be easy, however... that's why this is an age of COURAGE. We have to walk our talk... we have to ask the question "What can *I* do to help change this paradigm?" And realize that we are not helpless, even though we may feel "very small" in the face of the task ahead.

Demand green energy.
Plan your meals... so you grocery shop twice a week, not every day.
Don't say "I really OUGHT to carpool," instead CARPOOL.
Use a replaceable water filter, instead of buying bottled water in plastic bottles.
Buy the local brand because it didn't have to be shipped here, burning fuel.
Above all, be willing to be slightly inconvenienced in the name of change!

We don't have to give up anything much, we just have too change the "framework" we wrap around what we do.

We can make a difference... individually. Where we get trapped in apathy is when we start thinking what we do is not "big enough" and "won't make a difference." I call it the "Cure for Cancer Syndrome." People think their contributions do not matter, unless they invent the (metaphorical) cure for cancer. NOT SO! An avalanche begins because one tiny ice crystal shifts slightly... yet nobody would deny that an avalanche can wipe out an entire village.

Start... by just being really awake and "conscious" snowflake. THAT is all you need to do.

Finally, a personal note of thanks to my lovely fiancee, who inspired many of the thoughts in this article. I couldn't do any of this without you....

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Abandoned writing, finished...

I started writing at an early age.

Perhaps I have shared this story before-- my mom bought me these blank exercise books when I was maybe six or seven years old; her hope being that I would turn out to be artistic. She wanted me to draw; to learn to "color outside the lines."

For the most part, I filled the books with words, instead. I had no talent for art, and very little interest. The only exception was drawing geometric patterns, which I much later learned were actually forms of sacred geometry, even though I had NO idea what that was... I was merely fascinated by the way an iteration of straight lines could approximate a curve, or a repeating pattern could be created. Much later, I thought to myself "I did not color inside the lines OR outside the lines... I drew the lines, THEMSELVES."

As a writer, I am easily distracted.

I start something, get going full steam, and then the phone rings. Or I have to the bathroom. Or the sun comes out after a long period of rain, and I decide I'd better go mow.

Perhaps this happens to ALL with a writing bent. I don't know. What I do know is that I tend to abandon these writings, because whatever interruption comes my way completely destroys my train of thought.

To be "A Writer" is really a practice, like meditating, or Tai-Chi. To keep up the practice, you have to do it, even on days you don't feel like it. Today, I have been looking at all those "90% done" ideas, abandoned due to distractions. Some, to be discarded. Others, to have that final little bit done, and then published. With their "original" dates... I have a silly aversion to "updating" writing, and pretending that it's new.

In a sense, it is a spring cleaning of my closet of ideas.

Stay tuned. Much "new old stuff" to come.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

No, You are NOT Powerless!

There are always lots of "voices" in my head.

Whether I'm a certified nut or not is not the issue, here-- I'll just explain this by saying I have lots of "inner conversations" with myself about things: Life, Love, People, The State of the World, and so forth. Some of my friends merely characterize it as "you just think too much!"

Maybe I do.

The past couple of weeks have been very busy, inside my head (well, outside, too... but that's not what this is about). As I've wandered through life, and through the weirdness of the WWW, I've become more and more aware of a pervasive sense of ("perceived") helplessness in the world.

As I look closer at that, I have grown increasingly aware of the fact that those who are "in power" want YOU to believe that you are powerless. And through clever marketing and strategically placed "societal messages," there is this deep (and alarming) subtext in our lives... it sounds something like "Yeah, I know this is BAD, but *I* can't make a difference; *I* don't have enough power."

The truth is that (most of the time) you DO HAVE the power... but "the man behind the curtain" has hypnotized us into believing we are powerless. I can't pinpoint the exact "how" of this trance, but I know some of it has to do with the misperception that in order to change the status quo of the world, you must be a multi-national corporation with a team of Ivy League attorneys at your side.

In other articles, I have written about how people often give up hope and lapse into apathy because they believe that "to make a difference in the world," they must (figuratively speaking) "invent a cure for cancer," or perhaps "end world hunger." I'm not blaming anyone here... it's easy to look at the sheer scale of the problems facing out world, and feel insignificant and powerless.

But there's empowerment in knowing that every positive action you take does change the world. It may not feel that way... but truth be known, most major changes in the world are the result of millions of "tiny adjustments" at a grassroots level... not the result of someone "inventing a cure for cancer." Our misperceptions about change are perhaps born out of the fact that the media will create a huge circus when the "cure for cancer" is announced, and some researcher gets his/her 15 minutes in the limelight... and we go "Wow! This person changed the world!" There is no news report that goes "A million consumers decided to buy organic lettuce today, providing a boost to local organic farmers."

See what I'm saying?

"Yeah, but I still feel powerless.... what can I actually DO?"

Gandhi once said "BE the change you wish to see in the world."

My suggestion for a "starting point," is that every time you reach a choice point where you feel in some sense "wronged," you take power over your rights... as a human, as a consumer, as a parent, or whatever... instead of "letting it slide."

This does NOT mean "being a rabidly militant asshole," either. And it can be something as little as NOT "letting it slide" when the box of cereal marked at $2.79 on the shelf scans at $2.99 at the checkout counter. Or it can be bigger things...

Last year, I had a "fight" with the company who services and fills my propane tank. Now, I get their quarterly newsletter, and they are all on about "conserving energy," economy, being green, reducing emissions and stuff. Minimizing fuel use. Great.

So then I get a statement in the mail, with a random $299 charge. WTF?

Of course, I get on the phone, wander through 47 levels of voice mail jail, get instructions in Swahili and Urdu... and eventually talk to a human being.

"I'd like to know what this $299 charge on my account is about" I say.

"Please hold."

Jeopardy music plays. Crickets chirp.

"Sir, that's an inactivity fee. You didn't order two fill-ups last year, so the company charges a low usage fee."

You... WHAT????

"Let me get this straight... there's an energy crisis, you're actively advising people to conserve energy and use less gas, we're worried about global warming... and you're charging me $299 for NOT using propane?"

"Well, it costs us money to keep the account active..."

At this point, some people would probably feel resigned to being powerless in the face of "Big Business." Others would perhaps rant and rave and get nasty with the person at the other end... who'd feel abused and respond by doing nothing. Some might demand to talk to a "manager" or a "supervisor," and probably not get very far, either.

Large part of not being powerless is not only "knowing your adversary," but knowing what motivates your adversary. On the surface, you might say "that's MONEY!" but that's only a half-truth. Bottom line is, they are typically motivated by shareholders. And shareholders "leave the building," if an investment becomes... "risky." Companies that get bad publicity are seen as risky... and "bad publicity" doesn't just mean that someone makes air filters with asbestos in them, it can also mean a company engages in business practices that run contrary to current trends in societal values.

Getting back to my conversation with the gas company, I said that I was sorry about their policy and sorry that they couldn't remove the fee, and I realized that the person I was talking to didn't make the policy. I was completely pleasant and cordial.

Then I added that the policy of an inactivity fee seemed to me to be out of touch with current market trends of efficiency and economizing fuel use... and "I think this might make an interesting story for the local Seattle TV news crew who does that 'Troubleshooters' program on the five o'clock news."

The fee was "miraculously" waived, within minutes.

I'll tell you one more, and then leave this.

A friend bought a fairly expensive laptop computer from a major computer manufacturer. Spent about $1200. Within a couple of days, a problem developed... the computer would spontaneously reboot, every twenty minutes to couple of hours. Clearly not acceptable.

On the OEM web site (OEM = Original Equipment Manufacturer), it clearly stated that a FULL REFUND was available if the machine was returned within three weeks from the invoice date.

However, all calls to customer service were fielded with the statement that they would REPAIR the defective computer. And that there would be a "restocking fee" of 15% if the computer was returned.

I took on this challenge, because clearly the company had a policy of trying to buffalo consumers out of seeking a refund.

Now, many people would argue (a) that individuals have no power in the face of a giant corporation and (b) that their time is "worth more" than being on the phone for hours with some recalcitrant customer service rep whose "script" revolves around making it all but impossible for the consumer to get a REFUND.

But... again, it pays to examine the "chain of logic" and the motivation of the OEM, or any other large company. And it will show you that *I* actually have the upper hand in the equation, NOT the giant corporation.

My "investment" in the situation is $1200 I want back, as a refund. If I spend six hours engaged in jumping through hoops, getting the return to happen, I'm saying that my time is "worth" $200/hr.

The OEM? They have my $1200, sure... but on a "net" basis, the sale of that computer is probably worth $100 to them in profits, IF that. I worked with the computer industry, and it is VERY competitive, and margins are razor thin. I also worked with some of the people who "took calls" (this was before they were outsourced), and I know that these CSRs were trained to "resist," but they also had internal "timers" that would alert them when their time spent with a customer was getting to the point of "costing too much for the company." At some point, they start losing more money through me tying up their phone line than it's "worth" to them to balk at the return.

Diligence pays off. So does "paying attention." In the above case, I also ended up catching the company trying to "get around" the problem by creating "duplicate tickets" (work orders) for my problem... and then insisting that certain things had NOT been discussed. There was always an "uncomfortable silence" when I'd say (perfectly patiently and pleasantly) "well, try looking at ticket number 4562354X instead."

Eventually, the "timer" ran out, and the return authorization for a FULL refund was issued.

Still... had the compnay continued to hold out, my next step would have been a screen shot of the web page stating the return policy, send to the Attorney General of that state, with a transcript of the phone conversations contradicting it.

Now, there are still those who'd state that they "couldn't be bothered." I'm not going to argue for or against... but I WILL ask... "Why are you agreeing to let yourself be fleeced?"

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Cultural Commentary: Growing up in the Shadow of the Jante Law

I am a Danish national.

I was born in Denmark, and I lived there (on and off) till I came to the US in late 1980, to go to college. Whereas my formative years were spent in many different locales in different countries, my family background is very definitely Danish, and it seems that my strongest social and cultural influences are Danish-- especially if we take the assertions that we "learn" most of our core values before age 14 seriously.

My first experiences with the US (notwithstanding previous short visits to New York, Boston and Virginia) were in the great state of Texas. To say that Denmark and Texas are cultural polar opposites would be an understatement... that's simply a fact, not a judgment. I have since lived in other parts of the US-- Arizona, Oregon, and now Washington-- and have a greater appreciation for the regional variation in core values within the US. That said, I do think all nations have "socio-cultural identities," and if you were raised with those identities they will likely shape some part of your value system and choices for the rest of your life.

I have never thought of myself as "particularly Danish." At the same time, even though I have lived in the US for almost 30 years, I don't think of myself as "particularly American." I guess I think of myself more as a "citizen of the world," than anything. As such, I feel neither particularly insulted or hurt when a US citizen points out to me (for whatever reason) that I seem "very foreign" or "very UN-American." Similarly, I also want to make clear that I don't regard such feedback as "negative" comments, merely "factual" ones.

However, whenever such a comment does come up, I am always curious. To some degree, I am curious about "what" seemed foreign... but mostly I'm curious to track whatever "it" was back to its cultural roots.

Yesterday and today I have been taking somewhat "light days," as I am trying not to completely give into some flu/virus that has been poking at my body for the past 5-6 days. Mostly I've managed to keep it at bay... however, the downtime has given me a little time to contemplate. This afternoon, I was thinking about the movie "Avatar" and how my sense of "rightness" about the Universe was bolstered and given hope by the subplot ("nature defeats machinery" rather than "man conquers nature") of the movie. This made me drill deeper into my general feelings of "disregard" for people who believe they are "something" because they have money, power, equipment or whatever.

Then I thought about the places, over the years, where I'd been "called on" my foreign-ness, while trying to fit into US culture. A series of words/concepts started to line up (non-competitive, non-combative, egalitarian, soft, invisible, unmotivated, unassuming, self-effacing, passive, cold, dispassionate) and suddenly a penny dropped.

The sound of said coin hitting the floor made me go do a little research on an old piece of Danish (and Scandinavian) socio-cultural heritage; something I never really considered to be much more than a piece of "cultural mythology:" The Jante Law.

I won't go into great details about what it is. It has its basis in a 1930s literary work that somehow became deeply infused into the subtext of the Scandinavian value system. The odd thing about it is that even though its influence is often dismissed and disregarded by cultural anthropologists and the populace at large, it nonetheless casts a very long "shadow" across the Danish social and cultural landscape. As Danes, we may not like it, and we may laugh at it, and ridicule it, and we may claim it doesn't affect us... but in very subtle ways, it has a significant impact on the way we form our values and how we "present ourselves" in the world.

The core principle of the "law" goes something like this: "Don't think you're anyone special or that you're better than us."

In the original book, the "law" was laid out as a sort of "Ten Commandments" by which people were supposed to live. HOW it got from being "a book" to being a central part (however subtle) of several national identities, I do not know. I'm sure I could research and find out, but I don't have the inclination. The truth, however, is that it did become infused in the culture-- to such a degree that cultural anthropologists around the world study and write about its effects, even while they disagree that it has much influence. Few guides to Denmark (and Scandinavia) fail to mention the Jante Law somewhere. It's NOT "imaginary," in other words.

Here's a rough translation of the ten "commandments:"
  • Don't think you are somebody
  • Don’t believe that you are as good as us
  • Don't believe that you are smarter than us
  • Don't believe that you are better than us
  • Don't believe that you know more than us
  • Don't believe that you are more than us
  • Don't believe that you are good at anything
  • Don't laugh at us
  • Don't think that anybody cares for you
  • Don't believe that you can teach us anything
From where I sit today, it sounds pretty dismal. I can also see why the cultural impact of such a thought pattern would lead to the sort of "brain drain" (a substantial exodus of independent thinkers and innovators to pastures greener and more welcoming) the Scandinavian countries experienced in the 1970's and early 80's.

I left that part of the world during that period.
Things that make you go "hmmmm...."

In the interest of brevity, I'll only paraphrase and summarize a few salient comments from cultural anthropologist Åke Daun's writings on the topic:

"There is a strong tendency among Nordic people to strive for socio-cultural homogeneity. Another typical Nordic feature contributes to this tendency: the wish for conflict free encounters in the private life.

Scandinavians are particularly prone to achieve consensus in attitudes and opinions, and generally avoid socializing with others than like-minded people.
Confrontations are regarded as particularly unpleasant. Nordic people generally do not believe themselves to be interesting enough to awaken the curiousness of others, and to compensate for this there must be food and beverages, and maybe certain activities, when meeting others.

Another feature worth noting is a "cultural shyness;" people feel inhibited around others they don't know well, and tend to be very (overly) observant of their own behavior since it is regarded as very important to control what kind of impression others are left with.

There tends to be very strict borders between private life and work life, which manifests as a general resistance to small talk about private matters with strangers (a characteristic which has periodically been reported to be a great hindrance to forming in business contacts in foreign countries).

The lack of passion a stranger might perceive in Nordic people is likely a reflection of both a genuine trait and the fact that rational reasoning has a strong precedent (preference) over for emotional reasoning. Not to be misunderstood, emotions are NOT at all disapproved of in most contexts, but they are regarded as "pure" emotions of no further value than to signal one's general sentiment with life or fate.

Quietness is regarded as the commonly accepted norm, and "noisy fellows" are strongly disapproved of. Vociferous stubbornness is deemed as very ill-mannered, as is interrupting and talking over the voices of others.

The Nordic ideal is to think twice before one speaks, and to utter only one's most firm beliefs, and then only when there is a considered and deliberate intention. The assumption is that what one says is going to be remembered for ages, and if one says something stupid or "wrong" it will be proof of one's stupidness and
general incompetence... and can be used against one in encounters for ages afterward...

To be kind and good-natured is important. It is generally seen as preferable to be quiet or agreeable rather than uttering a strongly opposing opinion, unless one really aims at hurting."


I have been sitting here for some time, contemplating this... and what it means.

Like the truth of most situations, there are two sides to this coin. In some ways, I feel a little more enlightened about myself, from a cultural history perspective. I'm still glad to be Danish, and I'm still glad I live in the US, not Denmark. Although I didn't start writing this because I was looking for an outlet to "pass the buck" to as explanation for being who I am-- I was just curious-- I find myself looking at me through slightly different eyes.

Ultimately, life is about balance. I look at the above and realize that American culture could "learn a thing or two" from Danes, and Danish culture could "learn a thing or two" from Americans. Both approaches to living have their merits. Neither is perfect.

So, I think I will leave this little anecdote and cultural history lesson with an old memory that just popped into my head.

I was five years old, and my Godfather (a powerful insurance executive from New York) was visiting us in Denmark. "Uncle Victor" spent quite a lot of time with me and was (as family lore would have it) "quite worried" about my seeming timidity. And he tried (although I don't remember it ALL that well) to teach me how to "Stand tall, look 'em in the eye, and tell 'em what you know!" Having been taught that the proper way to greet someone (per Danish culture) was "quick eye contact, followed by a slight bow of the head in deference and a handshake" made Uncle Victor's way seem strange to me. Or, as my mother once said I told her "He's nice, but quite rude."

Sunday, January 3, 2010

At the Turning of the Year

For many blogger-type people, it is de-rigeur to end the old year with reflections on what was, and to begin the new year with some sort of statement about what might lie ahead.

I am not actually writing this post, as it posts. Call it an "absentee post," if you will.

You see, I'm not actually home, at the moment.

Well, I am. Because I am sitting here, writing this... and it's the 27th of December. But I am not at home, as this actually posts and makes its way out into the www blogosphere.

What makes that particularly important (to me) and worthy of a old year/new year "comment," is that I have something more important to do, somewhere more important to be, someone more important to be with... more important than sitting around, writing bloggy reflections about what a year had/has to offer.

So what?

As I write these words, I am about to leave town and head to Ohio to spend the New Year with the Love of my life. And that's what's comment worthy, in this context. Whereas she is always "comment worthy," what I'm specifically looking at as comment worthy is that for the first time in my 49 years on this planet... I am going to be doing something that does not feel like a "duty call" for some major holiday.

Don't get me wrong. I have been to many New Year's parties (and other holiday celebrations)... but this marks the first time that some small part of me will not be wishing that I were somewhere else. I will be exactly where I want to be.

I suppose it "should" make me feel sad that I have not previously been where I felt like being, when I think about it... but hey, I'm not big into "shoulding" on myself.

Some journeys are very long. Life is, perhaps, the longest journey we have. Within the journey of life, there are stations along the way. And I feel like I am about to pull into a really BIG station, after a decades-long journey, ready to pause and then change trains and board on a completely new journey... many, many years in the planning.

This time, however, I will not be traveling alone.

May your journeys take you where you wish to go, during 2010!

[Edited to add: Rats! The future posting thingie didn't work. Ain't technology grand?]