- The Call to Connect program (run by Avenues to Wellness).
The goal: Help people who are feeling isolated and lonely by bringing them human connection over the phone.
The method: A CTC participant is matched with a buddy who “listen[s] in a non-judgmental way” over phone calls. People interested in receiving or giving help through CTC call the program coordinator, who conducts a “brief orientation and interview,” then “[matches] you with a CTC ‘buddy.'”
Audience & scope: The CTC program is focused on the local area of Willits and the surrounding Mendocino County.
Associations: The CTC program is run by Avenues to Wellness, which “facilitates community wellness in Willits, California, and the surrounding areas.” Avenues to Wellness is a program of the Frank R. Howard Foundation.
(Last updated 1/31/2021)
- Re:store Justice California.
The problem: The United States’ system of justice focuses on punishing criminals by isolating them from their communities. This may temporarily prevent them from doing further harm, but it doesn’t resolve or heal the damage already done to victims, communities, and offenders.
The goal: “Provide healing to survivors, restore responsible parties to their families and communities, and prevent future harms to interpersonal relationships and communities.”
The method: Restorative Dialogues, “a process in which the victim/survivor of a crime, or the surviving family members, and the person responsible for hard meet face-to face in a safe and secure setting… The primary objective is for the survivor to feel heard, and for the responsible party to fully understand the effects of what he or she has done.”
An episode of the podcast Ear Hustle features a restorative dialogue between two people who have been on opposite sides of the sex trafficking experience.
(Last updated 2/1/2021)
- Prison of Peace
The goal: “Reduce violence and promote peaceful conflict resolution among prison inmates.” Prison of Peace tries to make long-term, sustainable institutional change toward this goal.
The method: Inmates go through sequential levels of training. In the first level, inmates learn perspectives and skills of Restorative Justice, Essential Problem Solving Skills (based on the book People Skills by Robert Bolton), Peace Circles, and Moral Disengagement (presumably based on the book by Albert Bandura). Then the second level teaches mediation skills.
At the third and fourth levels, inmates are trained to be trainers who can then bring other inmates through the program. Prison of Peace believes that people with these skills can become healing parts of their community, continuously improving the experiences of everyone else in the institution, which is part of the reason why Prison of Peace prioritizes training for people serving longer sentences.
Associations: Of the team members, I’m only familiar with Doug Noll, who wrote the excellent book De-escalate.
(Last updated 2/2/2021)
- Braver Angels, “Building a House United.”
The problem: “Affective political polarization (not only disagreement on issues but personal contempt and distrust) has been growing between us for at least 25 years… today, there is evidence to suggest that we are now as polarized as we have been since the Civil War.”
The goal: Political depolarization and civic health.
The method: Braver Angels gathers groups of 12-20 people representing both sides of the political spectrum. Those who self-identify as “reds” sit across from those who self-identify as “blues.” A trained facilitator then guides the two sides through a structured discussion, giving each side a chance to talk about their values, the negative stereotypes about their own side, what they don’t understand about the other side, etc. The process is intended to help people see the humanity underneath the other side’s political identification.
The brand: I think their branding is the obvious smart move. Formerly “Better Angels,” they use all kinds of Lincoln quotes and imagery. There is perhaps no other political figure in United States history with more bipartisan admiration than Lincoln. Braver Angels uses him as a cornerstone for building a common language of values and rights.
Other resources: They also released a documentary that shows one of their group workshops, and run a podcast.
(Last updated 2/3/2021)
- Weave: The Social Fabric Project
The problem: “35% of Americans are chronically lonely and 50% say no one knows them well. Suicide is rising. Violence, hatred and political gridlock seem normal.”
The causes of the problem: The values of tribalism, individualism, and meritocracy.
The goal: “Shift our culture from one that values achievement and individual success to one that finds value in deep relationships and community success.”
The method: Their website’s content is focused on encouraging individual action. They also say they find individuals who build communities and support those individuals, but I’m not sure how they support those individuals.
Associations: Weave was founded by David Brooks, whom I admire very much. You can see his shockingly honest TED Talk about why he founded Weave here.
(Last updated 2/3/2021)
- Center for Humane Technology
The problem: “Tech platforms make billions of dollars keeping us clicking, scrolling, and sharing. Just like a tree is worth more as lumber and a whale is worth more dead than alive—in the attention extraction economy a human is worth more when we are depressed, outraged, polarized, and addicted.”
The threat: “This attention extraction economy is accelerating the mass degradation of our collective capacity to solve global threats, from pandemics to inequality to climate change. If we can’t make sense of the world while making ever more consequential choices, a growing ledger of harms will destroy the futures of our children, democracy and truth itself.”
The goal: “align technology with humanity’s best interests” – in other words, create “humane technology,” which:
• Is values-centric and designed with awareness that technology is never neutral, and is inevitably shaped by its surrounding socioeconomic environment
• Is sensitive to human nature and doesn’t exploit our innate physiological vulnerabilities
• Narrows the gap between the powerful and the marginalized instead of increasing that gap
• Reduces greed and hatred instead of perpetuating them
• Helps to build shared reality instead of dividing us with fragmenting realities
• Accounts for and minimizes the externalities that it generates in the world
The method: CHT identifies 3 “levers of change.” They are “Educating the Public” through media like The Social Dilemma and the excellent podcast Your Undivided Attention. They “Informing Policy Change” by “Briefing policymakers in confidential sessions and public testimony,” and Supporting Technologists “through training, events, conversations, and advising executives”.
(Last updated 2/11/2021)
- Asteroids Club
The problem: America faces big problems “which are hurtling toward us through space and time at an alarming rate of speed.” But the distribution of attention to those problems is politically polarized. Liberals, for example, focus on the threats of climate change and rising inequality to the exclusion of the threats conservatives see, while conservatives focus on the threats of entitlement spending and family breakdown to the exclusion of the threats liberals see. We are separated by our beliefs and would be stronger together.
The goal: Cooperative political dialogue, thought, and action (practical political depolarization).
The method: Gather as few as two people, or as many as 8 to 15 people, :who disagree politically but are willing to mutually acknowledge that the other side may see some real threats more clearly than does one’s own side.” Hold a “non-debate on America’s biggest problems.” Acknowledge that these other people may have an easier
The motto: ‘I’ll help you deflect your asteroid, if you help me deflect mine.’”
The sad: it looks like their last blog posts were in 2014. The founder, Jonathan Haidt, has gone on to do many other interesting things in the realm of social psychology and the interdependence of politically opposite parties.
My question: It looks like The Asteroids Club website is defunct. What happened? And, more broadly, how does one create a civic-renewal organization that can sustain itself while making a positive impact?
(Last updated 2/12/2021)
American society seems to be falling apart.
David Brooks published an article on The Atlantic in October 2020 summing up his thoughts on our situation and where we go from here.
I wanted to understand his argument, so I reorganized and summarized his piece below. I also wanted to make his 17-page article more accessible, and my summary is 3 pages.
I intend this to be a fair characterization of Brooks’s argument with a minimum of my own interpretations and embellishments. If I want to praise, criticize, or comment on his argument, I’ll do that later in a separate piece.
What’s happening and why
- American society is falling apart.
“By early June , after [George] Floyd’s death, the percentage of Black Americans showing clinical signs of depression and anxiety disorders had jumped from 36 to 41 percent. Depression and anxiety rates were three times those of the year before. At the end of June, one-quarter of young adults aged 18 to 24 said they had contemplated suicide during the previous 30 days.”
- American society is low in trust (or high in distrust).
- Distrust is an accurate reflection of real social problems.
- The problems that cause our distrust include:
- Physical insecurity – “school shootings, terrorist attacks, police brutality”
- Financial insecurity – “By the time the Baby Boomers hit a median age of 35, their generation owned 21 percent of the nation’s wealth. As of , Millennials—who [are an average age of 32]—owned just 3.2 percent of the nation’s wealth.”
- Emotional insecurity – “more single-parent households, more depression, and higher suicide rates.”
- Identity insecurity – the uniquely modern stress of “self-creation,” of consciously choosing “your identity, your morality, your gender, your vocation, your purpose, and the place of your belonging.”
- Social insecurity – in the words of Fredrik deBoer, “For many people, it is impossible to think without simultaneously thinking about what other people would think about what you’re thinking… you’re always at the mercy of the next person’s dim opinion of you and your whole deal.”
- Our distrust reflects these unaddressed problems. But distrust itself is also a key problem. “Unless we can find a way to rebuild trust, the nation does not function.”
- Then, perhaps more powerful than any of the other causal factors, is the positive feedback loop of escalating distrust. That is, distrustful people are more likely to neglect or damage the resources we all share, i.e. “the commons.” And when people see that the commons are damaged, they withdraw their trust and are less likely to contribute to the commons. This is a self-reinforcing cycle.
How might this play out, for example, considering just me and my vote? Well if I think that all politicians are solely motivated by lobbyist money, I’m less likely to vote. If I don’t vote, worse people may be elected to government, and I will certainly have less connection with whoever is in government. That means I’m even more likely to think they’re sinister, more likely to feel discouraged when things don’t go my way, and I’m less likely to vote next time.
- If this positive feedback loop gets out of control, you can get trapped in a “distrust doom loop.”
- We are in the distrust doom loop.
- American society is falling apart.
We’ve been here before
- American society has been through this before. In fact, Brooks and others believe that America is on a 60-year cycle of growth, stagnation, destabilization, “moral convulsion,” then revival. The past instances of “moral convulsion” looked something like this, with items below listed in vaguely chronological order:
- Society seems to be falling apart under the weight of enormous social problems.
- There is a massive decline in trust. People become alienated from traditional authorities and values.
- Cultural values shift in reaction to unaddressed social problems.
- People see the problems and feel morally energized. They take responsibility for fixing the problems themselves. They engage in civic life.
- People build new organizations to address the specific problems they’re facing. These new organizations are built on the blueprint of the new cultural values, and their actions articulate those values in society.
- After the civic revival, there is frenetic political reform.
- Trust returns.
- Society returns to health.
- Reasons to think we’re in a period of “moral convulsion”:
- It’s been ~60 years since our moral convulsion (“the social-protest movements of the 1960s and early ’70s”).
- Society seems to be falling apart under the weight of enormous social problems.
- We’re experiencing a massive decline in trust.
People distrust institutions – they’ve actually come to see institutions as evil.
“Half of all Fox News viewers believe that Bill Gates is plotting a mass-vaccination campaign so he can track people… When Trump was hospitalized for COVID-19 on October 2, many people conspiratorially concluded that the administration was lying about his positive diagnosis for political gain.”
And we’re also in a crisis of interpersonal trust.
“In 2014… only 30.3 percent of Americans agreed that “most people can be trusted,” the lowest number the survey has recorded since it started asking the question in 1972.”
- Our culture is shifting right now in response to the “prevailing sense of threat.”
“In this period of convulsion, almost every party and movement has moved from its opportunity pole to its risk pole. Republicans have gone from Reaganesque free trade and open markets to Trumpesque closed borders. Democrats have gone from the neoliberalism of Kennedy and Clinton to security-based policies like a universal basic income and the protections offered by a vastly expanded welfare state.”
- So our challenge now is to successfully navigate the moral convulsion.
“Are we living through a pivot or a decline? …America will only remain whole if we can build a new order in its place.”
“What can we do?”
- Brooks thinks we can successfully navigate this moral convulsion by taking concrete, daily actions:
- Recognize our social problems. Feel morally energized.
- Take responsibility for solving our social problems – for fixing society. Ask “What can we do?”
- Extend trust to others even when you doubt it will be reciprocated. Believe in the goodness of other people. Don’t give up.
- Build new civic organizations to address our current social problems, including “climate change, opioid addiction, and pandemics.” These organizations will help us even more if they “provide rules to live by, standards of excellence to live up to, social roles to fulfill” – that is, if they maintain a strong sense of morality and social responsibility, and if people enter them to be formed into morally mature individuals and citizens.
- Alongside those actions, we also could benefit from some navigational thinking. Without a defined destination or roadmap, we’re unlikely to arrive at a place we’d like to be.
- Where are we going? What would we like our post-convulsion society to look like? Given the shifts to our values and institutions that have already taken place, how would we like to structure our healthy future society? Brooks thinks that “our only plausible future is decentralized pluralism.”
- How are we going to get to our ideal post-convulsion society? What kinds of institutions, laws, norms, social connections, and ways of thinking do we need to get there? This in turn informs what organizations we make.
I feel enormous sadness, fear, and anger.
Black people have been choked and shot on camera for a decade. Children have been shot. Children have gone to play in a park and never come back. I wish that pain on no person.
For this decade I have silently lived in fear. I have not wanted to speak and be criticized. I do not understand what my fear given me to keep me trapped, but it is no longer enough. If I were Black, anyone could shoot me, or my friends, or my family, or place me in a chokehold for eight minutes and forty six seconds. Since I am White, I do not pay for this injustice in bodily insecurity.
I pay for it in spiritual insecurity. I expect to receive my generous portion of respect, civil rights, and legal recourse precisely because the scraps are given to the Black half of society. My family’s intergenerational wealth is grown from the bitter seeds of the GI bill and redlining. My comfort is built on exclusion, death, and the silence of generations of White people.
I will not be silent. I will stand up and be counted. I will read, listen, learn, and speak.
I give a damn.
Black lives matter.
Love to all.
This is a story. The creator knows it is a tiny world, sacred. It does not use the creator’s name but tells the whole story of the creator like one thread tells the whole sweater. Today the creator looks at it, sees it precious, plucks lightly. It is not disturbed, has not noticeably changed since the last check. The creator, comforted, tucks it into its proper place, and it nestles and naps. The creator steps onto the street, strolls toward the bagel shop, and the story rides along in a pocket. It is not seen; its nooks are not known; the story is not rudely handled, jostled, criticized. It is perfectly comfortable. The creator knows that it will become restless – soon it will uncurl, stretch its legs, announce its readiness, and the whole world will make a space for it, sing to it, cheer it forward, and the creator will be the right person in the right place and the right time for it, and it will pop from the womb fully formed, joyful and perfect. A great many people will love it for its truth and hope and the creator and story will each be loved for their part in the other. Soon. Not quite today. The creator feels in his stomach that the story, between its meticulous untuckings and retuckings, has been growing and gaining power. It has its own volition. It will be a force. But not today, because as the creator savors the taste of anticipated prodigy and crosses the street to the bagel shop, a Prius comes through. It’s too fast for much feeling. Head and back and heels against the road, the creator untucks and retucks the story again. Makes sure it is comfortable. It is safe.
The star of Dagon is its texture: dripping rain and water, damp stone carved smoother than it should be, grating mollusk shells and teeth, rotten wood and rotten skin. The CGI is a weak point; it’s a movie with flaws and foibles. And it doesn’t wink at the audience like Re:Animator, or truly transgress boundaries like From Beyond. Dagon is about something more serious, more human, something that can make people skin other people alive: worship. Just know that on the path of worship you may find gold, but you may also find your hands too changed to hold it.
From Beyond is about the skin on your face: it is thin, ready to retract, gleeful to reveal the murk underneath. You will enjoy its peeling at first. From the moist humus of the flesh below will spring your ancient glands morphed into the sense organs of the future. This is a warning. If you explore your animal nature too deeply, it will change you permanently – to be reduced to a trembling schizophrenic is a light punishment. If you’re unlucky, you will become known to the deeper hungers. And to those predatory, bottomless, gooey appetites, “Humans are such easy prey.”
Re:Animator knows its purpose: it shows the ambition of men, the thirst to pierce and twist the will of others. Everything else is along for the ride and not to be dwelt on – the everyman and the love interest are rather bland, the cast is small, the sets are few. The movie’s flavor shines out like fireflies: David Gale’s eyes, Jeffrey Comb’s necromantic fluid, the doomed cat’s bright dark fur, all popping into and out of frame, never totally forgotten when absent, often funny when present, always surprising to see appear and disappear. Two words sum it up: brilliant fun.
This is a dream I had during the night of March 15, 2016. It inspired me to begin writing a novel. I still have the plans for it sitting around somewhere…
The dream felt like a movie. It was set in some 80’s world, kind of visually similarly shot to The Warriors. There was a clear protagonist, a young white male who was forming a band with his friends. They were starting to make it big (as per That Thing You Do, which I watched a little of last night) and got a gig at a concert house venue. They played there but a fire interrupted the gig, and for some reason the building was sealed to cut off the fire, but one of their band members was still inside. I remember in the dream it was 5AM and I was sitting in my car in a parking lot. I was, under the orange light on my dew-beaded windshield, waiting for something. I turned on the car and drove it. I got to the venue. I went inside with other people, maybe other members of the band.
The interior was dark, and then blue and a little smoky with the light coming in from the opening of the two big, metal doors. There was sort of a ring of wood around the interior. The ring was maybe ten feet wide with various things on it. In the middle there was a drop, and I came to see that in the hole there was water a few feet down. The band member that had been left inside had somehow been transformed into a pink rat, or maybe he had been that the whole time; but he was swimming around in this water and sort of clinging to objects that were floating in it, trying to stay up off the surface and trying to avoid something big and unseen that was swimming there. The fire had opened a portal to somewhere else; the water was lit from below with yellow light. The dream kind of ended there, but damn, it had a cool feeling of real art to it.
The brown of the wrinkled earth and the brown of the man’s clothes were close but not the same color. The boy saw this as he walked toward the man. The log on which the man sat was closely brown, too, and so was the tree trunk behind him. They were all of such dry and flat colors that the boy couldn’t know how big the man was until he walked under the shade of the tree. The man was of a normal size, it seemed. Here under the dark green leaves the boy stood and looked down at the man and the man looked down too, under the brim of a hat. The world felt empty without the crunch of the boy’s boots and the man and the boy kept looking down in some sort of shared witness to the emptiness. A tape played in the boy’s mind of the miles he’d walked across the ground’s small regular cracks and veins, and steps he’d taken while looking at this dark green tree shading its brown tenant, and the tape ended and the boy breathed and was in the moment again and saw the man still looking down.
“Hot today, isn’t it?” said the boy.
The man grunted.
“And bright,” said the boy.
The man grunted again. These were sounds of no ill-will, no agreement or disagreement. The boy thought that perhaps he was doing something wrong by talking to the man.
“That’s a nice hat,” he said, though he could only see the top side of it.
There was another grunt but the hat did not move. The bright emptiness surrounded the three of them – boy, man, and tree – and the boy felt for some sound to remind him that he was alive. There were no sounds. The sun in all its steady downward screaming made no noise; the distant hills were silhouettes without animation; the man didn’t move. The boy didn’t move either. Inhalation heated his nostrils and he held to that.
“Where did you get that hat?” the boy asked.
The man was silent.
He knows that’s not what I’m here for, the boy thought. He felt sorry for bothering the man. The man looked up. The man had a normal face under the hat, though it was dirty and unshaven. The bones cut out against his face to make sharp ridges and taut valleys. Blue eyes in their caves looked at the boy as an answer.
“I was just in that town yonder,” the boy’s arm swung back to point over the thin straight track of dusty bootprints cutting the desert, “and didn’t see no hattery. Did you get that hat from the town? I need a new hat. Where’d you get that hat?”
“I haven’t been in town in three years,” said the man in a rusted voice.
“You got that hat three years ago?”
The man didn’t answer but didn’t look down.
“It’s a nice hat.” The silence was all around them. The boy looked into the man’s eyes and saw a depth. The ground was level and unyielding but something in the world seemed to sink as the boy looked into that depth. And then he blinked and came to himself and tried again.
“I need new boots,” said the boy, “I like your boots. Where did you get them boots?”
The man stood up from the log and his boots’ soles separated from their leather tops along the seam where they’d been sewed, tiny mouths opening in dark greeting.
“What are you talking about?” asked the man.
Their eyes were now very close together. The man was shorter than he’d looked, shorter than the boy. The man’s face was very dark under the shade of the tree and the shade of his hat. It was a nice hat, the boy thought.
The man stepped forward. “What is this about?”
The boy stepped back and the man stepped forward again. They kept stepping until the boy’s boots crunched out of the shade and the sun heated his back. The man stood behind the line of dark and with his dark face looked at the boy. The boy looked at the ground to his left and found no answers; he looked to the right and found no answers. He considered several ways they could arrive, in this conversation, on the substance he wished to discuss. He saw only one way forward and looked up, turning his head away from the strange power of the man’s eyes to instead view the small silhouettes of the distant hills. It didn’t look directly walkable, not from here. No water.
“I’m looking for the man who killed my brother,” said the boy.
“You want to take my boots?” asked the man. He had not looked away. His face had not changed at all and now the boy was looking at his eyes again and could not stop looking at his eyes. “You think these boots will fit you?”
The boy looked down and saw that the boots were enormous.
“No,” said the boy.
“Are you going to kill me?” asked the man.
“No,” said the boy, “It’s not-“
“Why are you really here?” asked the man, and stepped forward. The boy stepped back. The man stepped forward again and, impossibly, remained in the shade. The boy stepped back again to not feel surrounded by the width of the man, who seemed too broad at the shoulders to fit through a door.
“I’m looking for a man,” said the boy. He swallowed and lifted his hands palm up as if to give the phrase as a peace offering. “I’m looking a man.”
“What?” asked the man, and the boy had no answer. The question rang inside his head and he didn’t have an answer for what he wanted or why he was there or what the man’s boots or hat might have meant or if he did want to take them and perhaps was willing to commit murder to do so. The boy looked at everywhere but the man’s deep eyes. He had no answer for what it was – the thing that brought him here – or why he was an inhabitant of this desert or the larger place this desert was set in or even why there was any inhabiting to do at all.
As the man stood and looked up at the boy there was the slightest stirring of the hot air. It crossed his ear in a small breeze. He looked up at the man and into those eyes and did not fear them. He knew –
“You’re the man who killed my brother,” the boy said.
The man didn’t move from the shade in which he was wrapped and the two looked at each other.
“I’ve been looking for you,” he said, and in the aftersilence he did not flinch. “I’ve been looking for you for three years. Why did you kill him?”
“I’ve killed a lot of people,” smiled the man. “Always nice to meet one of my children.”
The boy did not look away. “Why did you kill him? What did he do?”
The man laughed. “What are you talking about?” He held out his left hand and tapped the sausage-thick fingers with a wooden thumb, counting points on the scraping-together of worn and beat nails, letting ring a voice that died in the dry air. “I’ve killed plenty. Who was your brother? And why would you think I would remember his special face, unique hair, particular scream among the thousands I’ve known? Have you ever asked yourself, boy, if he was exception or just exceptional to you? How would you even know? I took these boots and hat from men I killed and I wear them to guarantee the nightly visitations of their former owners’ faces. I have fatherly taken them out of the world just as their mothers brought them into it. The empty vessels of their bodies are in the desert beyond, collapsing into the dust onto which you and I stand, but their souls are wrapped in my personhood and thus bound to each other in a numerical and narrative greatness they could not have imagined in life. I have taken them as sustenance and inheritors.
“So you will kill me? Do you think you can wear these boots, boy?”
At this last word he leaned forward and the boots gaped open to give a peek of their dark warm interior and the enormous blood-flushed toes within.
The boy saw in the man’s eyes that his brother had been known. The man and his brother had been close.
“Why did you kill him?”
“My child,” the man said, “what is it to kill? What is it to maim?” With ring finger and wooden thumb he encircled his hat and dipped it off. He turned his head to show a pink soft wrinkled gash at the side of his head. “He took my ear,” said the man, “and ate it. And my skin-“ pointing at a square bald patch amidst the hair around his widow’s peak – “and other things.” The man smiled wetly. His face opened like a door, all its lines turning upward. Cooing: “what did he mean to you?”
“He raised me,” murmured the boy. “You’re lying. He didn’t do those things.”
The man smiled again. This time sadly.
While the boy stared at his mouth, he said, “Long ago they had something called a chimera. You ever heard of that?” The boy shook his head. “Well, for your brother it was that pink lump behind his ear. That was the part you could see. But you know there were parts you couldn’t see.”
The boy was silent.
“The lump was there upon his birth. It wasn’t him. He had encased it there. It grew roots into his head with time. I can see that he took things from you, though you’d have trouble pointing to them, and I must tell you that while I destroyed the body of your brother, I did not destroy who he was. I only consumed him in the same manner as he was consumed, controlled, and created by that lump.”
The boy’s lips were dry. He didn’t know whether to be angry or not. He did know, somehow, that the man had no gun. The boy shifted from foot to foot.
The man continued, “The truth is your brother took the lump and his taking constituted a preemption of the laws of primogeniture. Do you know how many slices of it he gave away? Do you understand what we have all suffered?”
The boy shook his head and snorted like a bull. “He raised me. He fed me. His work helped people and he kept me from dying. I had typhoid when I was seven and he was off on some doctoring and I had no other doctor for two weeks. He came and fixed me and they say I woulda died the next day if he didn’t. I saw him put mothers to sleep while birthing and they woke up to the happiest babies in the world. I saw him take off three arms at the elbow from three different carpenters in three minutes flat so clean that not one of them got gangrene. They tell stories about him and end ‘em by saying ‘that’s a man worth remembering.’ If he took your ear in a scuffle, I believe it.”
But the boy licked his lips and the man laughed coolly.
“Oh, my child,” he said, “when was the last time you saw him?”
“Three years ago December 28. He went out to pull a tooth and didn’t come back.”
“You can shoot me anytime you like.”
The boy started. The man laughed again. “Your brother needed you. He put a piece of that lump in you and I know you can feel that you’re more than one person now. Going on three years, that piece must be big. He didn’t care that it would grow, he just needed to give it out. It made him need that. He needed you and all the others for that. He needed me to kill him. Nobody needed him as he was, not except the lump. And so we’ve all played our parts up to today. The question is, do you need me or do I need you?’
The boy brushed his forearm across stinging eyes. His back felt afire under the sun. From the man’s gashed boot came a trickle and then a stream of water. The boy blinked against the pain of vision while the dirt around the boot darkened and sank softly into itself.
The boy didn’t know what to say. The man’s shoulders were so wide they seemed to wrap around and grasp the boy’s back. The boy put his hand on his gun, half just to have something to hold onto. His head lurched forward and then jerked up in unsteadiness to settle his gaze just above the man’s head. The man stood in the sun. His mouth and ear glistened and he put a hand on the boy’s, pressing it into the butt of the gun.
“You can shoot me if you want,” whispered the man, “I won’t hold it against you.”
The man’s other hand rested thumb-on-larynx and fingers-on-pulse. “Go ahead. It’s okay.”
It seems to me that no action stands on its own.
For example, with the rains’ return to Sebastopol over the last week I’ve been continually struck with an urge to smoke tobacco. I quit a month ago and am thoroughly committed to avoiding the stuff, but the niggling voice of temptation reminds me that the cool moist air would nicely complement a cigarette’s warm earthy taste. So why not have just one?
Because it wouldn’t be just one.
I currently have a mental barrier preventing me from smoking: I’d be breaking a month-long streak of abstinence! After I smoked the one, I would no longer have the streak to dissuade me from another. Also, I can’t buy just one cigarette. Acquiring the materials for one cigarette (papers, filters, tobacco) would leave me with the materials for a few dozen cigarettes. I could roll the second cigarette inside, without walking to the store through the rain. Finally, smoking a cigarette would refresh the craving pathway in my mind, making it just as difficult to resist another cigarette as it was on the day I decided to quit.
In other words, there are several types of barriers between the first cigarette and I. I can only overcome them by eroding them, and once I do, the habit can run wild.
I believe that the future is a landscape of probabilities and every present action shapes that landscape. Smoking doesn’t guarantee that I’ll get cancer – but it does increase the likelihood.