Author: evanleatherwood

Some Gratitudes

Before the last Thanksgiving leftovers are eaten, I want to get down a few lines about what I’m grateful for this year.

Friends and Family. There were many years when this wouldn’t have made my list, not because I didn’t value the relationships in my life, but because I didn’t know how to value them. They were simply there, like the rain in autumn or the snow in winter. Now that I’m roughly halfway through the journey of life, I know how important it is to have people with you along the way. They show you what’s possible. They define you. They give and receive love, without which it is not possible to be fully human. And to all my favorite humans, you know who you are: all love and affection to you.

Books. There isn’t a year I wouldn’t have included these magical objects on my list. They are an escape from the prison of the moment and of the present time, a solace in tough times, a celebration in the best of times, and a source of wisdom and amusement, often both at once. Without them, I would not know who I am or what anything means. They think thoughts for me that are bigger than I’d ever be able to arrive at on my own. They keep the whole picture of the world in mind, seen in understanding and compassion and fascination, so I don’t have to bear that burden.

My Body. Just about everybody who knows me knows that I used to weigh over 40% more than I do now. There isn’t a day that I don’t get up and take a moment of thanks that I’m no longer beset by the physical and emotional suffering that came with that body. I don’t want anybody to feel body shamed by this post. But for me, being heavier than I am now didn’t work out. Let’s hope I can keep up the physical recovery, one day at a time.

My Job. Just about everybody who knows me also knows how much my job rules my life. It spills over into vacation time, sleeping time, weekends, evenings, and even my dreams and the stray thoughts of the odd hours. For all the anxiety it brings, it has made me smarter, more creative, braver, and more financially secure than I’ve ever been. I’ve got a long journey before I’ll be satisfied with my progress on any of those fronts, but without the whetstone of my job, I’d be much duller than I am now. Plus, in a mean, cold world, it’s nice to have a place to go every day where my talents, such as they are, are put to use.

Dungeons & Dragons. For the past two years, I’ve been getting together with a mad crew of friends to create real, shared memories of imaginary places and people. I’ve learned more about my imagination than I have in a lifetime of writing and even some things about myself I’d never have otherwise. (How *would* I respond to the chance to sell my soul, speak with the dead, steal a treasure, or defend the innocent?). This thanks extends this to all tabletop games that you play with other people — it’s a sure path to the kind of knowledge of yourself and others you’d normally get from real life, but you get to have fun and suffer only the mildest of consequences when you find it on the game board.

That seems like a fairly basic list, but there you have it. It’s what showed up when I asked my mind for a list of what mattered.

Now, back to the grind.

What are you grateful for?

 

Meet My New Family Member, Rowdy III

He is a miniature long hair Dachshund, black and english cream, twenty two weeks old. So far, he’s a big fan of chasing his own tail, chewing on the ends of shoelaces and zipper pulls, and passing out in front of radiators.

UPDATE: I should clarify that the wonderful Rowdy III lives with my mom and step-dad in the Hudson Valley. He’s not mine. We’re just siblings.

(Photo credit: Andrew Yang)

Abraham Lincoln on Thanksgiving: Gratitude in Times of “National Perverseness”

A time to give thanks? Check.

A time of “national perverseness”? Check.

And who better than the near-mythological figure Abraham Lincoln to remind us that even when things seem to be falling apart–the Civil War gets more points on that score than our own–it’s important to make time to give it all a rest and be thankful for what the earth has provided and for all of us who are still here in good health to enjoy it together.

We are not engaged in Civil War, but it has been a year of catastrophe. Many Americans who were alive last Thanksgiving aren’t alive today, whether from natural disaster like the California fires, or manmade disaster, like the 35,000 Americans who die from gun violence every year.

So take a deep breath and savor the day.

From Abe’s proclamation of Thanksgiving as an official holiday, which appeared in The Atlantic in 1863.

It has seemed to be fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and voice by the whole American people; I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea, and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens. And I recommend to them that, while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners, or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation, and to restore it, as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes, to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union.

If you don’t pray to God, Abe’s rumbling, periodic sentence still works–give thanks to whatever forces at work in the universe remind you that you’re just a small part of things, but a small part capable of gratitude.

Have a great day, everybody!

Today, We Know Who We Are

J.G. Ballard said somewhere that travel gives us purpose, however transiently. While we travel through airport terminals, train stations, waiting rooms, while we wait in lines or in traffic, our boredom or frustration is elevated by knowing exactly who we are.

Today, many of us are people on our way home for Thanksgiving. Have a safe journey, everybody, and enjoy that precious sense of purpose.

The Creeping Loss of History

There are two great horrors in 1984, the violence done to the narrator by the thugs of the thought police, similar to the actual crimes of repressive regimes in Orwell’s time and ours, and then there is the creeping loss of history, the more subtle of the two horrors, and the one that makes the violence possible.

I would argue that Orwell’s book is preoccupied with the erosion of history more so than violence.

The main character’s experience of the loss of history takes up far more pages than his brainwashing and physical abuse. When we see him broken at the end of the story, it is the loss of memory which makes him less than human. Without memory, there can be no ward against unreality. Without memory, whatever the screens around him say is truth and always has been.

Apart from reports of violence against migrants and the U.S. prison population in Guantanamo and at home, I am not exposed to physical brutality, but I am exposed every day to the creeping loss of history.

I recently ghost wrote a book on the future of the workplace for an executive. In discussions of economics or of the future, it is commonplace to talk about history. Economics is a science without a laboratory. The only way to test out theories about how the economy might work in the future is to look at how it has worked in the past. The most important work of economics in the last decade, Tomas Piketty’s Capital, was notable for its analysis of wealth inequality in the past. Because of new methods, Piketty could be more precise than Marx.

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We Live In A Gossip Column From Which There Is No Escape

This quotation from Marshall McLuhan, more than “global village” or “the medium is the message,” exemplifies what a prophet he was. He wrote these words in the 1960s, several decades before the Internet. All he needed was the wired world of phones, radios, and above all television to foresee not only how all other thought would be drowned out by gossip, but how much it would oppress us. For him, redemption was a physical as much as psychic necessity–such thinking was built into his orthodox Catholicism. In baptism or reconciliation, sins are truly washed away, their imprint removed from the universe, an act which is impossible if they are squirreled away in a database somewhere with Luciferian avarice, always ready to be brandished in accusation or sold for gain.

Zero Hour for Generation X?

Normally, I say that the idea of generations in American life is a refuge for lazy journalists who want to trade off nostalgia or fear of the future. Think how often you’ve read the clickbait headline “Why Millennials Have Ruined [insert beloved concept here]” and you’ll know what I mean.

But when the concept of generations crops up as a way to help us grapple with the impact of new technology, I’m all for it.

Based on this review, I’m likely to pick up Zero Hour for Generation X, a new book by Michael Hennessey, which calls on the cohort born between the mid 1960s and the early 1980s (I’m at the tail end) to remind the world how sane things were before digital technology turned the world into a voluntary panopticon, hostile to democracy, privacy, and enchantment. Americans are always fond of dismissing any skepticism about technology as merely a hatred of change, which, according to our national mythology is always for the good. All forward motion is progress, and the faster forward the better.

Throughout my career, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to make Americans listen to the sensible alternative to this argument. There are bad forms of change and good forms, and new technology has the power to change us in ways we don’t always understand or control.

As thinkers from Thoreau to  C. S. Lewis to George Orwell have reminded us, it is to direct experience and to personal memory that we can always turn to in order to stay sane. But what happens when our information technology renders both direct experience and personal memory doubtful? What then?

Gen X may be the last generation to have a sure answer. I’m curious to see what Hennessey comes up with.

What is The Long-Term Price of Tolerating Corruption?

Matthew Whittaker, Trump’s acting attorney general, made a hefty six-figure sum from a non-profit supposedly devoted to public oversight of government, but which spent most of its efforts making partisan attacks on Democrats. He sat on the board of a company that the Federal Trade Commission has labelled a scam. He has also made statements that he doesn’t believe in the full independence of the judiciary branch, something which has been settled in America since the 18th Century, and which we all learn in school to be an unshakable foundation of our democracy. Because of his partisanship and questionable character, past attorneys general have gone so far as to sign a letter asking Mr. Whittaker not to politicize his office.

Is this a person we want running the United States Dept. of Justice? Mr. Trump, who has made no secret of his use of public office for personal gain, seems to think so. It could be tempting to see Mr. Whittaker as just another scandal of the last few years, to be despised but also tossed on the heap with all the others. But that’s an error. To let this pass would be to cross a line and let public confidence in yet another brand of government erode.

What’s the long-term cost when corruption is assumed? We need only look to Brazil, which has recently elected a far right-wing candidate to the presidency who has made public statements in support of dictatorship, rape jokes about his colleagues in government, and who has credibly threatened to put his political opponents in jail. He doesn’t believe in gay rights, and openly supports torture.

Yet it’s not because they agree with him that Brazilians elected Bolsonaro. It was a wave of mistrust in an openly corrupt government that propelled him to the presidency. Most Brazilians don’t even think he’s qualified, but they fear and mistrust the old ruling party so much that they are willing to tolerate his rhetoric. As conditions in Brazil have worsened, with the murder rate hitting 157 homicides per day, and the economy collapsing, trust in government has collapsed in turn. Bolsonaro won trust by making speeches in praise of the only institutions that Brazilians still trust, the army and the church.

We’re not there yet in the U.S. But every time we look the other way at contempt shown for the rule of law or the use of public trust for personal gain, we take a little step in that direction. The public institutions that Americans trust are not so different from the ones Brazilians trust most. We trust our news media more, at least for now.

It won’t be confidence in a demagogue that ends democracy in the U.S., but a long simmering mistrust in all our public institutions, kept going by the constant addition of new scandals.

From the Commonplace Book: Aristotle on the Purpose of a Paycheck

I plucked this from the endnotes of Byung-Chul Han’s The Burnout Societyan analysis of life in an age of continuous connection and unchecked positivity. I’ll be reviewing it later this month, but want to share this gem that Han pulls from Aristotle’s Politics:

“So some people believe that this is the task of household management, and go on thinking that they should maintain their store of money or increase it without limit. The reason they are so disposed, however, is that they are preoccupied with living, not with living well. And since their appetite for life is unlimited, they also want an unlimited amount of what sustains it.”

It’s Aristotle, but it could be one of the Sutras, and it is as relevant today as it was in the 4th Century B.C.

The choice is the same as it has always been. We can either spend our lives in the pursuit of perfect security, which is an illusion, or we can seek out the daily moments of spontaneous connection with the good and bad of life, which force us to spend  some of our time and vitality, and to know in our hearts that both will give out some day.

Even on those days when I wake with a clear mind and a sound body, feeling my best, I feel a moment’s unease, because I am confronted with the question of what’s really worth the use of my energy.

Pleasure? Service to others? Drudgery? Solitary reading? The pursuit of love? And that’s on days when I am fortunate enough to have the choice.

What’s worth it to you today?