perpetual motion machine

I woke up directly from a dream. This happens more and more, lately, and almost exactly at 6am. This morning it was literally a “not getting picked for the team” dream; a post-apocalyptic community that had decided to organize into squads, and I was picked for the dufus squad. In the dream, I was grousing about it, took some (good-natured or otherwise) ribbing) and reacted with fury, then felt shame and sadness and aloneness. I woke up with the sadness.

This anger-shame-sadness cycle is pretty much my whole like right now. The shame inevitably leads to more anger which puts me back in shame, in a perpetual cycle of self-defeat. And it leaves me heavy, exhausted at the end of the day, and looking for self-soothing (currently: food, nicotine and distraction) that takes the place of alcohol.

At a given point, something has to break this cycle, or I’ll break. Can’t see what that is yet, though.


straight edge


So much has happened in the last few days. I am trying to blog/journal to keep things clear in my mind, but it’s proving a challenge. Focus and concentration are elusive. Maybe just cataloging some notes and impressions is what I can do for now.

It’s all about community.

The first step is hard.

People aren’t going to pat me on the head for not being a drunk. Change is challenging for a lot of the people I love.

It’s OK to smoke. In fact, as far as I understand it, it is pretty much a requirement.

Focusing on what I gain rather than what I’m giving up helps right now. So what I gain is a community of supportive people. I gain a whole new identity as a sober person. I can jump, years late, on the straightedge bandwagon.

Sobriety is easier on my stomach.

the power of choice

Yesterday, I came to the realization that I have a problem with alcohol.

I shy away from the whole “I am an alcoholic” mantra because I judge it to be shaming, but I am embracing it for now.

“I don’t have power over what desires I have, but I do have power over what actions I take.” – Noah Levine

I am an alcoholic. And I choose to do something about it.

Day 5: shame.

I was pretty surprised to learn last week about a U.S. Army training that advocated “total war” against Islam itself, including the bombing of Mecca and Medina. As it’s sunk in more and more, the surprise has turned into horror. I remember watching the “shock and awe” bombing of Baghdad on satellite TV and crying. In the nearly 10 years since, though, I’ve grown increasingly numb, and it takes something awful like this to reawaken my conscience. And I have a lot of shame about that.

The news wasn’t new, actually, at all. On Tuesday, April 24th, 2012, the Chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff had ordered that all training and educational materials provided by all four branches of the U.S. military be reviewed to get rid of anti-Islam references or content. What prompted this was the “discovery” that a course taught at the Joint Forces Staff College called “Perspectives on Islam and Islamic Radicalism,” advocated a “total war” against Islam in order to maintain security for America. The course has been taught five times a year since 2004, with about 20 students each time. So something like eight hundred captains, commanders, lieutenant colonels and colonels from the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps have sat through a class where they were told that “the United States is at war with Islam and we ought to ought to just recognize that we are war with Islam.”

“By conservative estimates,” according to course materials written by Lieutenant Commander Matthew A. Dooley, 10 percent of the world’s Muslims, “a staggering 140 million people … hate everything you stand for and will never coexist with you, unless you submit [to Islam].” The decorated soldier notes that “some actions offered for consideration here will be seen as not ‘politically correct’ in the eyes of many,” (using the hateful formulation that is now de rigueur on the political right) before making the suggestion of “taking war to a civilian population wherever necessary (the historical precedents of Dresden, Tokyo, Hiroshima, Nagasaki being applicable).’’ Other tactics included “Saudi Arabia threatened with starvation … Islam reduced to cult status’’ and the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina in Saudi Arabia “destroyed.’’ And that was just the main instructor’s contribution. Guest lecturers had even more to offer.

John Guandolo is a former FBI agent who was ousted for sleeping with a witness. As a freelance Islamophobe, he has traveled the country in support of people who want to block the construction of mosques, asserting that Muslims “do not have a First Amendment right to do anything.” In Guandolo’s presentation “Usual Responses from the Enemy When Presented With the Truth,” he explains his distorted view of Islam to students, and in other materials claims to show how “it is a permanent command in Islam for Muslims to hate and despise Jews and Christians.” Stephen Coughlin, a lecturer at the Naval War College and at the FBI’s Washington Field Office, blamed al-Qaeda for the overthrow of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak and Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi as part of a scheme by Islamists to conquer the world. And Serge Trifkovic featured some YouTubes that supposedly prove that President Barack Obama is a Muslim.

The fact is that this is no longer fringe behavior in American society. Along with the usual assortment of racists and jingoists, many Americans on the political right have no problem with Dooley’s ideology. Casual references to nuclear bombing cities in the Middle East have been common since before September 11, and American Muslims have seen their civil rights steadily stripped away. So it seems entirely unsurprising that these attitudes have deeply penetrated the military. This year we have been treated to reports of bodies being pissed on by Marines, photos of troops under Nazi Waffen-SS banner and others posing with Afghan corpses and body parts, as well as the notorious Qur’an burnings at Bagram Air Base.

LTC Dooley no longer teaches his course at JFSC, but he is still a part of the school’s faculty. And while the colonel who complained about the course in April deserves credit – as does GEN Dempsey for insisting that presentations at any military facility “are consistent with our values” – let’s not forget that for eight years rising U.S. military officers rated the course “mostly positive, usually around the 90% range.”

This is who we are. This is what we believe.

Day 4: pride aspiring to beauty

Ugh. Had a great weekend in the country, but I’m already falling way behind with Project 366… and it’s only been four days! And next week is another out-of-towner. Sigh. Anyway: on with it.

I wanted to look at chivalry for today. I just finished Dark Tower for the second time, and I’m really captivated by the heroic ideal, especially with regard to my men’s work. Etymologically, “shivalry” was defined as the  “status or fee associated with military follower owning a war horse,” and as usage changed over the centuries it became synonymous with the code of the warrior caste.  Excellence in the use of arms, courage,  gallantry and loyalty were held as ideal traits. Cowardice and “baseness” – lack of integrity and mean-spiritedness – were detested. The medieval knight glorified ” the valor, tactics and ideals of ancient Romans.”
Johan Huizinga wrote what is apparently considered the definitive text of medieval society called The Waning of the Middle Ages. In it, he notes that “the source of the chivalrous idea, is pride aspiring to beauty, and formalized pride gives rise to a conception of honour, which is the pole of noble life.” Huizinga also asserts that “the more primitive a society is, the more the need of conforming real life to an ideal standard overflows beyond literature into the sphere of the actual.” So the pursuit of the “life beautiful,” or “true culture,” became the aristocratic ideal. In Huizinga’s formulation, “to be representative of true culture means to produce by conduct, by customs, by manners, by costume, by deportment, the illusion of a heroic being, full of dignity and honour, of wisdom, and, at all events, of courtesy.”

A chivalrous knight works in three spheres: what is due to his countrymen and fellow Christians; what is due to God; and what is due to women. The romantic tales that sprung up around the knighthood emphasized the ideal of courtly love, but the knight was supposed to be gracious towards, and protective of, all women and others who cannot protect themselves: widows, children, the elderly. Knights were disciplined, required to tell the truth at all times, always kept their faith and never turned their back on a fight. Knights persevered to the end in any thing they started. The main vow from the knights was that they shall fight for the welfare of all.

King Arthur’s knight Gawain is in many ways the avatar of chivalry in British literature. When the Green Knight rode boldly into Arthur’s great hall on New Year’s Day, it was Gawain who claimed the right to be the king’s champion, and in a classic style:

I pray you, my lord, in plain words, let this combat be mine. Bid me rise from my seat and stand by you, so that without discourtesy to my liege lady the Queen I can leave her side; and I will give you my counsel before all this noble company. In truth it is not seemly, when such a challenge is thrown out in your hall, that you yourself should be so eager to take it up, when there are sitting around you so many of your knights…. I may be the weakest of all of them, and the feeblest of wit…. But since this business is so foolish, and beneath your dignity as King, and since I have made my request first, grant it to me. Whether I have spoken fittingly or not, I leave to this company to decide.

Day 3: the anosognosia of everyday life

Bertrand Russell once said that “one of the painful things about our time is that those who feel certainty are stupid, and those with any imagination and understanding are filled with doubt and indecision.” And this seems particularly true in our time (by which I mean the 21st-century United States) where those who demonstrably know the least – devotees of supply-side economics, for example, or crank pseudo-skeptics – are the most vocal and assertive.

David Dunning, a psych professor at Cornell, along with grad student Justin Kruger, decided to look into this dynamic for a 1999 paper “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties in Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments.” They had some undergrads self-assess their logical reasoning skills, grammatical skills, and humor, then tested them (for the “humor” test, they were asked to rate a series of jokes, and their results were compared with those of a group of professional comedians). The participants were then shown their test scores, and again asked to rate themselves. The less-competent students still thought of themselves as more competent than the tests showed them to be, while, interestingly, the more competent people tended to underestimate their competence. The competent people who found some problems easy assumed that they were easy for everybodt, whether or not that was actually the case.

Dunning and Kruger’s finding was not merely that ignorance of standards of performance is behind a great deal of incompetence, but also that incompetent people:

  1. tend to overestimate their own level of skill;
  2. fail to recognize genuine skill in others;
  3. fail to recognize the extremity of their inadequacy;
  4. recognize and acknowledge their own previous lack of skill, if they can be trained to substantially improve.

Dunning calls this dynamic “the anosognosia of everyday life,” by analogy to the neuroological disorder in which a person who suffers from a disability seems unaware of, or denies the existence of, that disability. “An anosognosic patient who is paralyzed,” explained Kruger, “simply does not know that he is paralyzed. If you put a pencil in front of them and ask them to pick up the pencil in front of their left hand they won’t do it. And you ask them why, and they’ll say, “Well, I’m tired,” or “I don’t need a pencil.”’

It also appears to be the case that this is not a universal trait. Studies of East Asian students appear to show that competent and less-competent people alike are more likely to underestimate their competence.

Day 2: Reclaiming The Book of Revelation

I’m still in the process of exploring what it means to me to be a “cultural Catholic” in the way that some of my friends are “cultural Jews:” I like the art, dig (some of) the traditions, but don’t have any love for the outright insanity and bigotry of Mother Church. Rational materialism is too sterile and bland for me, and while I have a lot of appreciation for neo-Paganism, it feels contrived and precious sometimes.

So I’ve been messing around with reclaiming my Catholicism; or, rather, those parts of it which seem relevant and inspiring. The art, as I’ve said,and the architecture: a lot of cathedrals are AWESOME. The spooky mystery of the Tridentine Mass appeals to my love of ritual, the rosary and crucifix are powerful symbols to me, and the Calendar of Saints conveniently includes a lot of the pagan deities I venerated as a young hippie.

And let me just put it out there: the scary, eschatological Christianity of  The Book of Revelation speaks to something within me… especially when given voice by someone like Johnny Cash.

Fortunately, a lot of work has been done by the exponents of teología de la liberación (liberation theology), the radical, outlaw movement started in Latin America in the 50s and 60s.They stress the “social gospel” in Jesus’ teachings, and were informed by Marxist thought in those bad old days of strongmen and United Fruit. Liberation theologians like Gustavo Gutiérrez, Leonardo Boff and others developed an exegesis (interpretation) of Revelation as a liberatory text.

Think of the context in which “John the Revelator” wrote. Jerusalem had been destroyed and Judea was a Roman province. Jews (and Judeo-Christians like the Revelator) were dispersed, living as refugees in a Greco-Roman empire which held values that were alien to their way of life. Rather than a description of the end of the world, then, the fantastic imagery of the Apocalypse can be seen as God’s promise that the empire will fall. The liberation theology exegesis shows how the world of mid 20th-Century Latin America parallels Judea of the 1st: their way of life destroyed, a greedy empire (the Beast) ruling over all. In the words of the Chilean priest Pablo Richard Guzmán, “Revelation is not an isolated book, one belonging to a sectarian or desperate tiny group, but rather a universal book that pushes for radical reform in the church and a new way of being Christian in the world.”

The Beast of today? Rapacious, predatory capitalism, in all its guises: a profit-before-everything ethos which puts money ahead of people; the destruction of the living environment and the denial of the evidence of global climate change; the commoditization of food and of water. “And they worshipped the beast, saying, Who is like unto the beast? who is able to make war with him?” (Rev. 13:4) “There is no alternative.” (Margaret Thatcher)

Lutheran pastor Barbara Rossing sees the great struggle not as the end of times, but as the beginning. “Instead of people going up,” she says of the Rapture, “it is God who descends.” This utopian dream is at the heart of the apocalyptic vision (from apokálypsis; “lifting of the veil”) of Revelation as liberation.