PRESIDENT TRUMP

I didn’t vote in the Presidential election. Aside from the fact that by dint of living in Missouri my vote doesn’t count, this was a deliberate and considered decision. Essentially, I view participating in the political system as tacitly endorsing it.

Before elaborating on that, I want to make it clear that I think the Donald will be an absolutely terrible President. Regardless of how his Presidency plays out, America has almost literally just elected Hitler. Because he will be President, things will be worse for almost every American, myself included, that is not a rich, straight, white male. This would not be as true had Hillary won.

But let’s take a broader perspective. As Trump is clearly a power-hungry, egomaniacal, ignorant demagogue, how could anyone – let alone almost a majority of Americans – vote for him? I mean, right?! Who even voted for him? The answer is poor people, that’s who. And, surprise, surprise, poor people now make up the bulk of America.

Now, I grew up in an upper-middle class household in the Blue State of New Jersey. Almost all of my friends grew up in similar situations. With the exception of my friends here at East Wind, my friends live a very comfortable middle-class lifestyle in or near a city on either the east or west coast. Middle America is a different story.

At East Wind, I still live a very comfortable middle-class lifestyle. We call ourselves bougie here. But East Wind is in Ozark County, MO, one of the poorest counties in the entire country. When I first got here I volunteered a number of times at the local food bank. It was my first real encounter with poverty. If I’m honest, my main impression was simply dismay. I had never seen such beaten-down, broken human beings. It was hard to witness. And there weren’t just a few.

In America we have a national mythos, a collective story if you will, that anyone can make it. We call it the American Dream. For people like me who had never really seen poverty as anything other than a statistic and the occasional homeless person, the American Dream still rings true. But for a ton of Americans – again, now almost the majority – the American Dream is dead. But for those of us lucky enough to be born into the middle or higher classes, it can be easy to subconsciously buy into the idea that people are poor because they brought it upon themselves, that it’s their own fault.

I don’t believe that. I see widespread American poverty as a symptom of our world-system. A capitalist world-economy, especially when paired with a debt-based money system, will inevitably concentrate wealth in the hands of the few. As this happens, the many unavoidably become poorer and poorer. There is no way around it in a system such as ours. How else could there be widespread systemic poverty in the wealthiest nation the world has ever seen?

What this means in everyday life is that a majority of Americans are living in constant fear of being unable to provide for even their most basic needs. When someone is fighting just to keep a roof over their head or doesn’t know where their next meal will come from, do you think they can have any empathy for people for whom a major concern in life is what pronoun that are addressed by?

A friend of mine, whom I very much admire and respect, ironically wore a “Make America Great Again” hat at Burning Man. But to the beat down poor of America that slogan is not a joke. What Trump was selling them was a chance to regain their dignity. Put yourself in their shoes. You know you’re a good person. You know you do your best. Despite all this, you can barely make ends meet. How could this be your fault? To you, Mexican immigrants are actually a very real threat to your livelihood, as they will accept less pay to do the scant work still available in your area. To you, building a wall to keep that from happening actually sounds like a great idea. You know that Hillary is a politician’s politician, and that under her nothing will be different for you. Things will only continue to get harder and harder. Trump’s not a politician, he’s an outsider. He’s never played the game and he’s promising to kick those fat-cat politicians right where it hurts (recall that Trump absolutely trounced the traditional Republican candidates as well). And he’s promising to make things go back to the way they were, when it wasn’t hard to find a job or put food on the table.

Except, of course, he’s not going to do that. But perhaps you can now see his appeal to poor people. The reason he’s not going to do that is the same reason life is so hard for so many Americans in the first place: systemic concentration of wealth creating widespread and systemic poverty.

Here and there leading up to the election I’ve broached some of these ideas in conversation, and consistently encountered the argument from my more conventionally liberal friends: “Yes, Hillary’s not perfect, but she’s infinitely better than Trump. Think of how women, minorities, and the queer community will suffer under a Trump Presidency. Clearly she is the lesser of two evils.” And they are, of course, perfectly correct. There will be pain and suffering under Trump that would not happen had Clinton been elected. It is a great sadness that this is so.

But let’s now step back even further. America is the global hegemon and even the poorest of us benefit greatly from this being so. We have cheap energy and material wealth such as no nation has ever known, nor is likely to see again. But this great wealth and power of course has come at a price. America has toppled democratic governments, supported dictators, armed warlords, assassinated heads of state, and killed countless innocent civilians in the process. We as First World citizens have also – less directly through the world market – created the economic incentive for sweatshops, the destruction of the rainforests, the spoiling of the Earth’s rivers, and have created the sixth Mass Extinction Event (called the Anthropocene – Age of Man – extinction) through our effect on the environment, losing up to 140,000 species a year. This suffering is magnitudes greater than any that Americans will face under Trump.

And do you know what the primary driver of the world-economy is? First World consumption. These atrocities happen every day so that we can make, sell, and buy $800 shoes or bottles of wine. The way we collectively choose to live our lives on this planet, what I have called our world-system, is the reason we have war, why countless species are becoming extinct, and why there exist enough disenfranchised people in America for Donald Trump to be President-Elect.

Now, as Billy Joel said, we didn’t start the fire. But if you’re not trying to put it out, you’re part of the problem. And if you live a First World lifestyle, not only are you not putting it out, your consumption is actively stoking it. Our world-system is bigger than the American Presidency. Everything I’ve just pointed out would still be true regardless of who won last night. Which is why I didn’t vote yesterday. A vote, even for a third-party candidate, is still an implicit vote of confidence for The Way Things Are.

As Audre Lorde said, the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. I instead voted in a much more meaningful way – in actually what I feel is the only meaningful way – when this past January I left Babylon and moved to community. Not that East Wind is unplugged from the system, nor are we sustainable yet, but at least we’re trying.

Had Hillary won last night I can easily imagine what my Facebook feed would be like today. Everyone bemoaning Trump’s victory would instead be slapping themselves on the back for electing the first female President. As if she wouldn’t be President of the Patriarchy. Despite the meaningful changes she might have been able to enact regarding the rights of women, minorities, and the queer community in America, she would have continued Business As Usual with all its attendant atrocities I mentioned earlier. It just would have been more palatable. And those atrocities, I feel, are the far more pressing issues of the world today.

Up until last night, I honestly thought Clinton would win. However I was hoping it would be Trump. Not because I liked him or supported him in any way, but because a Trump Presidency will make heretofore hidden faults of the system show through more openly. It will be a very scary time. We First World citizens are addicted to our affluent lifestyles. Common wisdom has it that before an addict can recover, they must first hit rock bottom. I don’t think Trump will be rock bottom for all of us, but maybe he will be for some of us.

Trump’s base, the poor people of America, have few options available to them. The same, however, is not true of Hillary’s base. So if you’re reading this in America, and you voted for Hillary, I encourage you to consider what part you play in our global system. Perhaps you could hold up a mirror to your lifestyle and #checkyourprivilege.

THREE MONTHS IN

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted, and the length of this post reflects that. I apologize for both the wait and the length. I’ve been pretty busy settling into my new life here.

April 18th marked my official three month anniversary as an East Winder, and I’m loving it more than ever. There is a vote on each provisional member’s membership at the three month mark, and I did not receive a single no-vote, which felt very nice. There will be one more vote on my membership at my one year anniversary, and should I pass that I will become a Full Member.

Spring is definitely sprung here in the Ozarks, and it is incredibly beautiful. I have never lived anywhere more gorgeous. The trees are flowering and leafing, everything is turning green, and it is all so wonderful. I have never before lived so close to nature, and find myself constantly grateful to do so now. I consider myself so lucky to no longer be trapped indoors when it’s a beautiful day out, and can instead either work outside or simply take the day off on a whim.

Being so much closer to nature has also given me the gift of looking at the natural world in ways I never have, and now wish I had been. The most notable thing is an appreciation of seasonality. Living in Babylon (what East Winders call mainstream society), seasons pretty much just meant the weather would change and the leaves would grow, change color, and then fall off. But watching winter turn to spring here has given me a completely new appreciation for the seasons, and their effect on the world around me. Working in the garden I’ve started to learn the order of planting, and for the first time became concerned about frosts. Being out in the woods first cutting down dead trees and now herding our goats, I see the land take on a very different character as some plants sprout and grow and others fade away. Strawberries, instead of being available whenever I want them, only come once a year (which is almost upon us!). I’m learning to identify the different plants that grow here, what they signify, and what they may be used for. I went mushroom hunting last week, and found my first morels, a highly valued delicacy. These too only appear for a few weeks out of the year.

Speaking of food, I need to rave about how well we eat here. It is absurd. I have never eaten so well in my life. I’m an admittedly lazy cook, and would be grateful simply to have food regularly prepared for me. But it is so much more than that here. I eat a huge variety of meals, in a large variety of styles. Every meal has at least five different dishes, and often more. And it’s all freshly made, from the best quality of ingredients I have ever heard of. Only the very, very best of restaurants could match the quality of ingredients here, and even then I would not be sure. I’m not sure it’s possible to be more local, organic, farm-to-table, than we are. There have been a large number of meat-heavy meals since I’ve been here as winter is the time to slaughter animals, which have almost all been born, raised and cared for, slaughtered, and butchered right here on our farm. I actually helped to butcher the last pig we killed this winter, and found it to be an incredible experience. Not only was I grateful to have the opportunity to learn how to carve and preserve an animal, but I also learned a lot about how bodies are built. It turns out a pig’s musculature is not all that different from ours, and I found my knowledge of human anatomy to be quite helpful in separating the different muscles of the pig. Our garden is getting into full swing and will provide us with delicious and nutritious veggies all year long.

Another form of food processing I have started to learn is the art of cheesemaking, which I am finding fascinating. Cheesemaking is important here because it allows us to preserve our excess milk, produced by our dairy cows, AND because cheese is delicious. I’ve made a couple cheeses now: simple farm cheese, ricotta, whole milk ricotta, and a passable attempt at feta. There have been some bumps, but so far I’m decently happy with what I’ve produced. We are very lucky to have an incredibly intelligent, knowledgeable, and meticulous food processing manager, Rin, from whom I consider myself very lucky to be able to learn from, as well as eat the products she presents to community. Cheesemaking is also my first venture into fermentation, which I find to be a really interesting field of study. Beermaking is next.

I’ve also:

… started to learn to use our sawmill. I think it’s so cool that some of the dead standing trees we cut down a few months ago during Forestry season are now being turned into lumber by us. The work itself is a little rote and mechanical, but I find it really rewarding to be able to produce our own lumber. I really enjoy working with and learning from Dusty, a co-manager of both Forestry and Building Maintenance. Before coming to East Wind he ran his own contracting company in LA building mega-mansions for movie stars and is incredibly knowledgeable and skilled.

… been working production shifts in our nut butter factory. “Nut Butts” is currently the lifeblood of East Wind, and allows us to do all of the other awesome stuff that we do here. I’m therefore more than happy to work in the factory and help support our lifestyle here. The shifts are usually 2-4 hours long and are pretty simple. There are a few different jobs on each shift, which one person will do for the length of the shift. Each job is straightforward and simple, and it’s actually kinda fun finding a rhythm together to bang out the job.

… worked at the local food bank a few times. East Wind grants its members labor credit for hours spent in community service, which we call Community Support. I think it’s pretty awesome. Working at the food bank was actually a pretty depressing experience for me. Ozark County (wherein East Wind is) is very poor, and until handing out food here I had never encountered poverty on this level before. To directly see and interact with their suffering made me sad for them, and angry at the system that creates that level of suffering. It also made me very grateful for the countless blessings in my life.

… worked a little bit in the garden. Nothing too special, mostly doing some planting and hoeing, but I find it’s quite enjoyable work. There are usually other people around and we chat and joke while working. When it’s a particularly nice day I usually work in the garden to be able to enjoy the weather and get hours at the same time.

… started goat herding. And it’s probably my favorite work on the farm. I get to walk around and chill on our beautiful land for three hours with our goats, which are great animals. And the mamas just kidded! Sadly it was a rough birthing season for our goats as four of the babies were stillborn, and we might lose one of our mamas, Ocean. The four kids that did survive however are ridiculously cute, friendly, and playful. Because of that they don’t like to go too far from the goat barn, but soon they’ll be going out again. I like to goat herd as I get hours to just sit in nature and do as I please: read, pet goats, practice music, or just be.

… been working to improve how East Wind handles it’s domestic grey water. Currently it empties out onto a hillside, which is obviously less than ideal. Apparently there used to be a sewage pond, but then someone decided to build a new system and left it unfinished in its current state. So another East Winder, Will, and I have been working first to cover up the standing water, which is just about done. Next step is to decide on and design a permanent solution, and then implement it.

The largest project I have undertaken since getting here has been creating an Amazon.com seller’s account for East Wind and listing our nut butters on there. It was unexpectedly hard to create this account for us due to Amazon’s unclear requirements to do so. Once I was finally able to get cleared to sell on Amazon it was a good bit of work to list all of our various products with appropriate information and pictures. However it’s all done, and we’re live and have already shipped five orders. I’m pretty proud. Should you be so inclined, you can buy our healthy and delicious nut butters on Amazon and support East Wind. Who knows, I could even have been on the shift that produced what you buy.

Dusty (of the sawmill) is also involved with the Ozark Neighborly Exchange, a local organization encouraging locals to come together and create self sufficiency through the unity of their neighbors. They put on a one day congress a few weeks back and a bunch of East Winders and I attended. There were some cool presentations by some impressive people there, and I learned a good bit. It was also encouraging to see about 200 people there, and to know that there is a community of like-minded people in the greater Ozark area. Until then I was unaware of the strong self-sufficiency/back to the land sentiment here in the Ozarks.

Something else I love about East Wind is all of the crazy talented musicians here. It’s so nice to have live music around. And then we have weekly jam nights, some of which have actually sounded really good. A couple will be getting married here soon, and an East Wind band has formed to play at their wedding, I’m looking forward to hearing them play. II still haven’t started working on my music much, finding that figuring out my labor and socializing take up the bulk of my time, but I have started playing the drums a little bit. There’s at least a few other people here into EDM production, and I’m looking forward to learning from them.

While I’m in fantastic spirits now, there have been a few rough patches for me. Nothing serious, but I have found myself lonely at times. What I told myself during these times (and which has since been proven true) is that it’s normal and to give it time. I’ve started to build real connections with people here, and feel it will only get better with time. When I would get a little down I would perhaps question if this all wasn’t a big mistake, but there was always an answer: I can’t imagine a more powerful way to fight for what I believe in.

Another much less serious… let’s just call it a complaint though it hardly qualifies is that the internet can be quite slow at times. Usually it’s slow but workable, but sometimes it just does not go. This is something I’m going to be looking into to see if we can’t find a better option. However I really like that I’m not connected to the internet 24/7 anymore, which I did not expect. Now I have to take a five minute walk if I want to use it, which is no problem when I need to but is enough to stop me from defaulting to browsing Reddit or Facebook when bored. When I first got here I asked about getting Internet in the dorm buildings and learned there was a community meeting about five years ago and community decided against it. Apparently at Twin Oaks and Acorn, the other two large FEC Communities people hardly ever socialize because they’re all in their rooms on the internet and it harms community. I find that a really compelling argument and no longer wish for Internet in my room.

I’ve been playing a lot of games here, which I enjoy. There’s a bunch of chess players here, and I play more chess than I have since leaving Dallas when I lived with a chess Master. I’ve also got back into Magic, which I used to play back in highschool. I never could quite bring myself to get rid of my cards, and now I’m glad I didn’t. I’ve also played a good amount of Catan, and have started to learn Go. Oh! And also Tak, which just got invented and will only be familiar to fans of Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles.

The weather has been wonderful this April, and there have already been some days spent hanging out at the creek drinking and enjoying the sun and the water, something I’ll never grow tired of.

I’m sure there’s more I’ve done that I can’t think of at the moment, but that’s all I’ve got for now.

Cheers!

Originally published April 29, 2016

MY FIRST TWO WEEKS

Hello from East Wind! I’ve finally made it into community, and have been here for two weeks. I can’t get enough.

I’ve only been here a short while but so far it is everything I was hoping for and more. I love that I spend a big part of my day outside. I love that I see the stars at night, way more than anywhere else I’ve ever lived. I love that I’m learning a ton of new skills. I love that I essentially answer only to myself – that for the first time in my life I feel free. Being here just feels so right.

So far the majority of my energy has gone towards settling in and finding my groove here. My biggest priority has been getting my labor situation set up. Labor quota is 35 hours a week, with any additional hours worked getting “banked” to be used later. Building a nice cushion of banked hours is one of my first goals and I’m off to a good start. I banked 14 hours my first week, aided by a lowered quota for MLK Jr. day. This week I’ll bank around five hours, depending on what I do after I post this.

I’m trying to make a really good impression here and feel a strong call to make as big an impact here as I can. To that end I’m trying to figure out where I can  make the biggest difference. I’ve tried to spread my work out among many different activities to both get a better understanding of what makes East Wind run as well as figure out what I might best like to do here. One thing I’ve immediately found that I love is simply the freedom to have a diversity of labor throughout the week. I also really love that I am the only person that decides what I do and when I want to do it.

So far the biggest chunk of my labor has gone towards Forestry. We head out into our woods at 9am most mornings and fall dead standing trees. If the wood is in good shape and the tree straight we will cut it into long (10-16ft) sections and haul it to the sawmill to be made into lumber. The rest of the trees we cut into short sections (12-18in. “rounds”) and throw them in the back of a truck to be taken back to community to be chopped into firewood. I’d mostly just helped carry the rounds from a tree to the truck, but yesterday used a chainsaw for the first time. I was doing well until I poured chain oil into the gas tank by accident. It made the saw inoperable but otherwise didn’t hurt it, and I then learned how to take it apart and clean it’s engine – my first experience learning how engines work.

Last week I spent a good amount of time repairing an old greenhouse. I helped replace the main supports and reframe the end-walls. It’s almost finished, we’re just waiting for the plastic to come in so we can cover it.

I’ve also been helping out with a big project of reorganizing a big common space to make it more useful. It’s involved moving lots of file cabinets and such, organizing a massive vinyl library, moving said massive vinyl library and the shelves that hold it. Today I started breaking down a giant bench/counter that East Wind used to use to make their rope sandals.

I also helped instigate a work party to clean the community closet (“Commie Clothes”). It was overfull and really disorganized and would have been a very big and boring task for anyone person to do. So I bought a 30 pack of PBR to entice people to help. We got a ton accomplished and had a great time drinking beer, trying on weird clothes, and just being social in the beautiful weather. (Side note: the weather has been ridiculously nice this week. It’s been 60 and sunny for like the last 7 days. Simply gorgeous. I consider it a huge blessing that I can be out in it rather than stuck inside somewhere.)

I was asked to help plan a big party for Validation Day, which East Wind celebrates instead of Valentine’s Day. Everyone gets a blank card and people write nice things to each other and decorate each other’s cards. And then the party is apparently one of the bigger ones East Wind has, and I’m helping plan and organize it.

This past week I attended the weekly Nut Butters (East Wind’s main business) management meeting. While there I learned that they need people to do Sales and Marketing and so I started seeing if there was anything I could to help in that way. The reason I had been invited to the meeting is that I had expressed interest in exploring the possibility of selling our products on Amazon. We are not currently on Amazon and so I’m now spearheading seeing if that would be good for us.

I really like the people here and am starting to make friends. People have been friendly and welcoming, and there’s a cool social dynamic where there are a few “party spots” in community and on most nights there’s at least a low-key party going on in one of them. I also love the fact that at the end of the day when people are sitting around hanging out that the conversation will be a discussion of the best diet for the animals, or what’s being planned for the garden next year.

I want to give a special shout-out to the food situation here. I frickin’ love it. Twice a day (noon and 6pm) there’s a hot, delicious, and healthy meal served up for me. Big variety and always super tasty. There is always freshly baked bread sitting out with butter, jelly, and various nut butters. We have milk from our dairy cows on tap 24/7, which I take good advantage of. If I’m hungry later at night there’s always a yummy, easy meal to be made of leftovers. And the best part of it all is that a lot of that food is from our own land. We also get our water from our own well, and have a reverse osmosis filter, and it is the best water I’ve ever had. No fluorine nor chlorine, which I very much appreciate.

Other than friends and family, so far I don’t miss anything from mainstream life here. And I just love being here, it feels so right. I constantly find myself pausing at random points in my day and just appreciating life here. Somewhat relatedly, I find myself more present here and my mind clearer and quieter. This was an unforeseen but very welcome development. I feel I can be myself here more than I have anywhere else except for Burning Man.

That pretty much covers my experience so far. I’ll share more as I do more!

Originally published January 31, 2016

MY JOURNEY BEGINS!

A week from now I will be at East Wind. Pretty crazy. It came much faster than I was expecting, and right after the holidays. Caught me a little off-guard but I’m super excited and have been wrapping up my business in “the real world.”

I’m also a little nervous. There’s definitely a small part of me that wonders if I’m not making a huge mistake. It’s hard to turn one’s back on all conventional wisdom. It’s not easy knowing most people think I’m making a big mistake. Will I really like it there? Will I be happy? Will I find meaningful connections? If I’m honest with myself the answer to these questions is: I don’t know.

But I do know that these questions come from fear. And I know that this has been my dream for more than eight years. And I know that I have yet to conceive of a more powerful way to fight for our future, which I believe with all my heart desperately needs fighting for. And I know I can see no way to be truly happy living a mainstream lifestyle. And most importantly, I know the only way I can know the answer to these questions is to do it. And so I am.

I’ve already stripped my possessions down to what could fit in my car when I came to Missouri from New Jersey, so I don’t have much packing to do. Throwing clothes in boxes is most of what I have left. I work four last restaurant shifts, and at last get to say goodbye to work as it’s normally thought of. That I know I won’t miss.

I won’t be doing it right away, but I will be cancelling my cellphone service. I’ll be using the Internet and East Wind’s landline to communicate.

I’m stepping into a big unknown. Wish me well 🙂

Originally published January 10, 2016

MODELS AND ASSUMPTIONS

Wikipedia states that “a mental model is an explanation of someone’s thought process about how something works in the real world.” More accurately it is an representation of someone’s understanding of a certain piece of the world.

This representation is composed of symbols arranged in a relationship to each other. Let’s take for example a locked door. A simple model of this real world situation might include three symbols: the door, the lock, and the key. If one does not have the key then the lock keeps the door closed and it is impassable. If one does have the key then the door is no longer an obstacle and becomes passable. The way these symbols relate to each other forms the model of the locked door. And to a degree this model matches reality and thus is true to that same degree.

However reality is more nuanced than our simple model suggests. One could more perceptively understand the lock to be a physical system. And should one understand that physical system – that is to have an accurate mental model of how the lock operates – one has the ability to manipulate it in such a way as to open the door even in the absence of the key. Or perhaps one might realize that the door is composed of particle board and will cave in to a forcibly applied shoulder.

In our first, simpler model we take the lock and door to be fundamental entities. However on closer examination find that the lock is actually a physical system and the door is impassable only as long as it remains unbroken. Putting the sturdiness of the door aside, our expanded view of the situation has more than three symbols. The door and key are still only two, but the lock has revealed itself to be a constellation of symbols: pins, springs, cams, and more. We could this much further, describing the pins in terms of the metals they are composed of, and those in terms of their chemical and physical structure, and those in terms of their atomic compositions and bonds, and those in terms of quantum mechanics, and on and on. Looking at the world like this in everyday life is of course just silly and no one does so. Likewise I don’t need to know how an internal combustion engine works to know how to drive a car. Knowing that when I turn my key the engine starts and then powers my vehicle is an abstraction, but is all that matters to me functionally.

Like me and my car, none of us understands how everything in the world truly works. We instead understand the world through our symbolic representation of it. We even model each other. We might know exactly how a friend would respond to a situation. And then sometimes they surprise us – our model was off.

The basis of our models are our premises – our fundamental assumptions. Our premises are then things we take for granted in our mental models, like how I take for granted that my car will move when I press the gas pedal.

In some models, most notably mathematics and to a lesser degree science, we explicitly state our premises – our assumptions. In math we call these axioms and in science we “define our terms”. In everyday life our assumptions are much more likely to have been taught to us as children, and these we often carry throughout life without ever stopping to question if they are true or not.

Models are a abstract representation of reality, and therefore a unavoidably partial representation. Just like the written transcript of MLK Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech cannot capture his voice the way an audio recording could, and neither could hearing the recording compare to actually being there for his march on Washington, a representation will always miss out on some aspect of reality, and to that same degree will be inaccurate.

To make sense of the sheer infinity of reality, we use models, which essentially look at reality and say: this part of reality is important, and the rest doesn’t matter. This is of course quite useful, and many models we use are quite accurate, but all models fall short of perfectly capturing that which they model. The key to building a good model is deducing which aspects of reality matter, and it is important to note that this decision happens outside the model itself. Choosing what parts of reality to include in one’s model is where assumption enters the process. The person creating the model to a degree arbitrarily determines what part of reality does and does not matter.

The arbitrariness can be tempered by comparison of the model to reality. If the model fails to predict reality at all, one can safely conclude that the inherent assumptions of the model are untrue. Counter-intuitively, models are the most dangerous to truth when they are most accurate – accurate models can lull one into a false sense of security, a false belief that the model completely represents reality as it is. When this happens the assumptions that lie at the base of the model are no longer noticed. A very huge and tragic example of this is the assumption that underlay the formula that spurred the housing market bubble and crash of 2008.

Using models is unavoidable, nor should they be avoided. However we should strive to be aware of the assumptions that underlie our models, as our starting premises will inevitably color the understanding our model produces. When we understand our models and their assumptions, they are a powerful tool for us. When we accept a model blindly without questioning its underlying assumptions, the model controls us.

I write this post to provide a base for my further ideas. I will be as diligent as possible to declare what assumptions I make in my thinking, this post itself being part of that diligence. All ideas I put forth on this blog are of course models, and thus are not perfect representations of how things are and should be examined critically. This post, along with that on critical thinking, are my boilerplate entreaties that you examine my ideas on their own merit and not just take my word for them. That being said, I believe what I have to say has value and truth, or I would not waste my time writing it nor your time reading it.

SYMBOLS AND TRUTH

Language is a system of symbols that we call words. Words (and all symbols) are abstractions. The word “dog” is not a dog. But hearing (or reading) it activates the symbol interpreting system in your brain and brings to mind your personal understanding of what a dog is. Because this happens, if I tell you “I have a dog.” you understand that I have a four legged canine animal companion.

But the symbol “dog” can never capture the reality of an actual dog- it’s loyalty, friendship, playfulness, warmth, etc. Likewise any word is not the thing itself. This becomes obvious if we think about a dictionary. A dictionary defines each word, but it does so in terms of other words. Each definition is ultimately circular in nature. Wikipedia has a list of extreme examples of this.

This is because of another aspect of the symbolic nature of words: they are arbitrary. There is nothing in particular about the word “dog” that suggests an actual dog. Hence different languages each having different words that all mean dog. (There are some words that do appear to be less arbitrary than most. For example, the words for Mother and Father are eerily similar in most languages.) Words gain their meaning through association with personal experience. When you hold, pet, smell, and play with a dog and someone tells you this is a dog you associate the experience you are having with the word “dog”. As you encounter more dogs you learn to associate the word “dog” to a general class of animal. It is through association with personal, subjective, experience that arbitrary sounds gain their meaning.

Because symbols are abstractions they can be manipulated in ways that are independent of reality. Thus if I write “flying dog”, despite no such animal existing you can still understand my meaning and imagine a dog that can fly.

Now philosophers have always debated the nature of truth and probably always will. I suspect that turning words back onto themselves – using words to establish criteria to evaluate other words – will never be completely satisfactory due to the nature of symbols themselves. Because symbols are abstractions they cannot encompass even the tiniest piece of reality wholly. As George E. P. Box said “All models are wrong, but some are useful.” As you can see, relating this phrase to the concept of truthfulness itself results in a recursive unresolvable pattern.

Putting that aside, I am going to put forth a definition of truth that is probably not novel, but that at least I have not heard of elsewhere. Truth might most usefully be defined as the degree to which a given symbolic representation matches one’s personal, subjective experience of reality. If I tell you “That black bear is eating those berries.” and you see that I am pointing to a bear that is black and is eating berries then my sentence – my symbolic representation – matches your subjective experience fully and thus is wholly true.

Let’s digress for a moment. An aspect of symbols that can introduce confusion into communication is that the same symbol can represent more than one thing, or conversely that various symbols can represent one and the same thing. Perhaps the bear that is eating the berries is a Sloth Bear, which is in fact black. But you could absolutely interpret my same sentence to mean that the bear in question is an American Black Bear – incredibly common in North America. Without some outside consideration, it is not possible to know from my words alone whether I mean a bear of the color black or a member of the species Ursus americanus. Likewise a sugary, carbonated, non-alcoholic beverage may be referred to as soda, pop, a soft drink, sodapop, or even coke (meaning any brand, not just Coke), all different and yet equally valid. To resolve either of these confusions one must either seek additional information (ask a clarifying question), utilize another medium of communication such as body language or tone of voice, or make an assumption as to their meaning.

Returning to the concept of truth, there are some interesting consequences of the definition I have put forth. Most notably that all truth expressed in symbols is necessarily subjective. This is currently a very radical statement, which I will give its own full treatment in a later post. Another is that a person can only understand a system of symbols – a theory or model – if it maps to experiences they have had. One can read about being in space, but it is an empty understanding until one actually experiences weightlessness for themselves.

I write this post to establish a foundation to the ideas I will later espouse. One most certainly can go much further that this, and explore how symbol relates to the senses, emotion, and even our physiology, but I think that unnecessary for the scope of this blog. I will go no further than the symbol and think it sufficient to explain the foundation for higher levels of understanding.

MY VISIT TO EAST WIND

I recently completed my three week visitor period – part of the membership process – at East Wind. I absolutely loved it and want to share what it was like to be there. If you are curious as to what made me interested in community living, I’ve outlined my reasons in this post.

Perhaps what made the largest impression on me was how intentional this “intentional community” is. For a lot of people commune has a bit of a negative connotation to it and so Intentional Community is the current PC and umbrella term that covers any “planned residential community designed from the start to have a high degree of social cohesion and teamwork. The members of an intentional community typically hold a common social, political, religious, or spiritual vision and often follow an alternative lifestyle.” (Wikipedia) Before visiting East Wind I understood this in principle but seeing it in action really impressed me.

The very first thing I did upon arriving there was be directed to find Autumn, one of East Wind’s Membership team, who gave Para (another visitor) and I our introductory Orientation to the community. The point of this “Oreo” was to introduce us to East Wind culture. We were told how the norms there differ from the outside world (commonly referred to as Babylon by most East Winders). Some examples are lack of a nudity taboo and zero tolerance for violence. However this would be far from the last time I would hear the word “norm”. Almost anytime I would learn how something was done at East Wind I would be informed of the relevant norm. For example, the big meals are prepared and served at Rock Bottom (RB), and it is also a popular hang out spot, so there are often people around and thus it houses one of the few phones outside of the offices at the top of the property. Whenever someone from the outside world would call looking for someone the receptionist would transfer them to the RB phone which would of course ring. From observation I gathered most people found picking up the phone to be annoying and often times it would go unanswered for a good bit, even with a number of people around (perhaps an example of the Bystander Effect?). One member expressed frustration with this one time and informed me that the norm is whomever is closest to the phone should answer it. Despite this norm not always being followed, I was impressed that through agreement at some point in the past the community had intentionally decided how to handle the minor problem of no one wanting to pick up the phone. Though this is just one small example, life at East Wind is shaped by countless similar norms and many possible sources of contention are rendered harmless by past agreement on what constitutes best practice for the community.

On a bigger scale the very foundation of East Wind is intentional as set forth in its Charter, Legislation, Bylaws, and Policies (Legispol). These are intentional agreements made by the community at large that determine how things work at East Wind (you can check out their webpage on Government for more info). In sum total the norms and bylaws do a incredible job of manifesting a culture and lifestyle that matches the stated intent of a nonviolent, egalitarian, income-sharing community. This results in a general sense of freedom and mutual respect that I found to be simply wonderful. The sensation of chains being lifted from one’s spirit was so real it was almost physical – there was definitely a lightness of being there.

Another aspect of East Wind in which my anticipation was exceeded by the reality thereof was the impact of everything being held in common. Members have personal property which they keep in their rooms, but everything else in community is open for anyone to make use of. As an income-sharing community the profits of East Wind’s businesses go towards the benefit of the community in common, and over the years East Wind has accumulated some cool stuff. There are canoes – both for the creek on the property and also separate ones to take on float trips, a fitness room, a music studio, hammocks hanging all over, and many other facilities open to all. Each of the members is a part “owner” in the whole of community and this generates a spirit of cooperation rather than the competition that is endemic in Babylon. I was really impressed with how open everyone was with everything there, while I was a visitor I was treated as if I had just as much right to community resources as anyone else. I felt like I had received this great gift, the fruit of the work of all those who had come before me, and was inspired to add to it, to leave it greater than I had found it.

Likewise the fact that the fruit of each member’s labor directly benefits the community as a whole – and thus also that member – inculcates mutual appreciation of each other. Because no one is forced to do anything, all labor done is therefore a gift to the community in whole. Work has a distinctly different subjective feel to it in East Wind. One of the biggest difference is the complete lack of coercion. Other than the small amount (3-8 hours depending on the week) required at the Nut Butters factory and 2 hours of kitchen clean-up, East Wind gives members total freedom in how they do their 35 hours of labor benefiting the community each week. Each member is free to do what they want, when they want. Is the sun getting too hot and you don’t feel like digging up potatoes anymore? Then just stop and maybe go chill at the creek and cool off. Each member is their own boss, and yet everything still manages to get done. There are an immense number of different activities going on at East Wind at any given moment, and yet it all works out somehow.

In addition to labor hardly feeling like work, there is so much more leisure time at East Wind than out in the “real world”. Because everything that needs to be done gets taken care of through the labor system, other than your personal laundry there are no “chores” (and you don’t even have to do that if you live out of the shared closet of Commie Clothes like some members do). The time you are not laboring is completely free, and it is wonderful. As mentioned to me by a member, East Wind is a fantastic place to practice. This free time is often spent in play and socializing.

While I truly only caught a glimpse of it, I really appreciated another benefit of living in community that I witnessed: There are no strangers there. Even if two members might not be super close, everyone knows everyone else’s story. And everyone seems to accept each other, even if they don’t necessarily agree with everything they think or do.

There are also a multitude of incredibly talented people at East Wind. Musicians, gardeners, herbalists, ranchers, artists, construction contractors – the list goes on. Should one be so inclined there is a plethora of knowledge to be had for the asking. Everyone was really open and happy to share what they know and I look forward to the vast learning opportunities waiting for me there.

This is just a guess, but I have a feeling that a lot of the magic I have tried to convey above arises out of the egalitarian nature of East Wind. Each member has the same amount of “power” -each member has one equal vote- as any other member, and there is no tolerance for violence. Short of an egregious offense, once a person becomes a Full Member it is almost impossible to force them to leave. Since every member is on equal footing there is no one to tell you what to do and consensus is built through agreement and consent rather than intimidation and command.

It was also just wonderful to be “on the farm”. The property is gorgeous – over 1000 acres in the hills of the Ozarks – and has a “creek” (Missourian for river) run through the bottom of the property. Everything was a short walk away on foot paths through the trees. Nature comes right up to most of the buildings on the property and it’s really nice to be so much closer to it than I’ve been in any other living situation. At East Wind the air is fresh and the stars are many and bright. They have many beautiful gardens and the grounds in general are well maintained.

East Wind is also a real human community, like any other in some ways. As great as it is, it is not Utopia. People were quick to point out that East Wind is definitely still reliant on the outside world and needs the money generated by the Nut Butters business. Like in any community there are disagreements and “drama” between members. Having 1000 acres of land comes at the cost of being a bit of a drive from any decent sized town. Being close to nature meant being close to mosquitoes, chiggers, and seed ticks on my visit and being itchy most of the time. A downside of everything being held in common is that people sometimes take community property for granted and perhaps not give it the care they might if it were their own. I was told that over the winter cabin fever definitely sets in a little bit.

However even with these downsides, I found East Wind to be absolutely amazing and can’t wait to go back. Evidently a number of people feel the same because I’m currently on a waiting list to get a room there – which could take about a year perhaps. I plan on visiting from time to time until I get a spot “on the system” and can move there for good.

CRITICAL THINKING

The unexamined life is not worth living. -Socrates

I am writing a post about something as mundane as critical thinking – which already has entire websites and foundations devoted to spreading its gospel – because it is what has led me to my current understanding of the world. I hold many ideas that are not widely held, ideas which have lead me to choosing an unconventional lifestyle and are the basis of this blog. It is critical thinking – particularly challenging assumptions – that gives me the courage to go against conventional wisdom and forgo pursuing a career and the traditional trappings of success.

Likewise I think it is only through others thinking critically that they might come to see what I believe to be the grave problems facing our world. Looking only at the surface one is led to believe that while things aren’t perfect they’re getting better and the problems we do have will eventually be solved. This does not inspire action or change, it enables complacency and invites more of the same of what has led us into an increasingly untenable position as a species. To see beyond what is presented to us by the powers that be takes effort and the desire to do so. And thinking critically.

Critical thinking is the mental process of evaluating or analyzing information. This process is crucial because there is so much information in the world and much of it is partial or just plain untrue. Information we accept as true becomes a belief, and our beliefs shape our actions. In order to be able to be responsible for our actions we must be responsible for our beliefs. Taking personal responsibility for one’s beliefs is a huge part of being a mature human being and doing so requires critical thinking. As Socrates says, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

This is why reading is so valuable. It exposes you to new ideas and new points of view and encourages you to evaluate them on their own merits as well as how they relate to beliefs you currently hold. It is for this very reason that books get banned and burned. New ideas can be disruptive to, and cause one to question, the status quo. This is not appreciated by those who have a vested interest in the Way Things Are. But the truth is not scared of the lie, nor of the smaller truth, and is happily incorporated into the bigger one, and hide it though we may always seems to out. As we grow in our understanding, so do we grow in our being.

From criticalthinking.org:

“Critical thinking can be seen as having two components: 1) a set of information and belief generating processing skills, and 2) the habit, based on intellectual commitment, of using those skills to guide behavior”

The extremely difficult part of it is #2 – the application of intellectual belief toward behavior. It is one thing to believe in human-caused global warming, it is an entirely different thing to give up a car while living in Suburbia. I should know because I found it impossible. Despite having roughly the same understanding of the world for many years, until now I have been able to make only superficial changes in my lifestyle to align it with my beliefs.

Take again for example climate change. Despite 97% of scientists whose entire careers have been devoted to studying the phenomenon saying that human-caused climate change is real, somehow we collectively act as if this is a point up for debate. We have U.S. Senators bringing snowballs into Congress to prove global warming is untrue. This is because to accept human-caused climate as real, and more importantly to act as if it is real, would require monumental changes in the way the world is run – the global equivalent of me giving up my car in suburbia. Those in power don’t want the ways things are done to be changed and so there is a vested interest in keeping it an open question, from being accepted as fact. Which is why Exxon knew of climate change in 1981 but funded deniers for 27 more years afterwards, to protect their bottom line at the expense of us all.

In a more general sense, I am convinced that those in power lack the motivation to make the changes necessary to save our world from coming hardship. It is up to the each of us. So I encourage you to question what you are told, and what you currently believe. I also encourage you to send me a message if you disagree with anything you find on this blog. While I, like most everyone, like to be “right”, I like most to be Right. Thus I am thankful to be shown when I hold an incorrect belief and happily admit when I am mistaken.

I leave you with the Kalama sutta:

Do not believe anything on mere hearsay.
Do not believe in traditions merely because they are old and have been handed down for many generations and in many places.
Do not believe anything because you are shown the written testimony of some ancient sage.
Do not believe in what you have fancied, thinking that, because it is extraordinary, it must have been inspired by a god or other wonderful being.
Do not believe anything merely because presumption is in its favor, or because the custom of many years inclines you to take it as true.
Do not believe anything merely on the authority of your teachers and priests.

But, whatever, after thorough investigation and reflection, you find to agree with reason and experience, as conducive to the good and benefit of one and all and of the world at large, accept only that as true, and shape your life in accordance with it.


-Buddha

Originally published July 11, 2015

THE MORE BEAUTIFUL WORLD OUR HEARTS KNOW IS POSSIBLE

This post (and the sub-title of this blog) shares a title with the book of the same name by Charles Eisenstein. I first encountered these words in another book of his, The Ascent of Humanity, and immediately loved them. If you are at all interested in the themes of this blog, I cannot recommend these books, and Eisenstein in general, enough.

This term, The More Beautiful World Our Hearts Know is Possible, is his. And I am unabashedly hopping on its bandwagon. He has written quite a bit about what it means to him, and I have found his doing so to be inspiring, enlightening, and affirming. So much so that I want to share what it means to me.

At its simplest level, it is my knowledge that the world could be a so much better place than it is. If we were so motivated, we have the capability to completely reinvent the human condition as it is now as well as heal the biosphere. Almost all of the problems facing the world today are human caused. Can we even begin to imagine what the world might be like if we stopped causing them? Or began to instead seek to make life as amazing as possible for each other? I have a hint of an intuition, but I know the realization of this possibility is so incredible that I cannot begin to grasp what it might look like.

The world is the way it now for very good reasons, and in no way am I suggesting that we abandon our hard won gifts of hand and mind. What I am saying is that if we take an honest look around us we find that there are many large problems facing us that are only getting worse. What has worked for us ever since the advent of agriculture is no longer helping us, it is hurting us and our planet.

For me at least, whenever I witness injustice or hear about some avoidable tragedy, I can’t help but think there could be another way. A better way. A more beautiful way. That is what Eisenstein’s phrase means to me: there is a better way than what we are currently collectively doing. And I want to do everything I can to help bring this more beautiful world into being.

This is not just about feeding the hungry and saving the rainforest, it is also about restoring our happiness. I think we all feel it, a nagging sense that life is supposed to be more than what is offered to us. We all have those rare moments when the humdrumness of life stops for a bit and we experience a pure joy just for being alive. But for me at least, those moments don’t come that often. But I think they could.

What I have found is the structure of our socioeconomic systems actively works against my more noble aspirations. It makes me more self-centered, and more afraid that I won’t be able to get by or be happy.

When we submit to lesser lives, we cannot avoid a sense of self betrayal: that we are complicit in the plunder of our most precious possession. The roles society offers do not befit the divine beings that we are. It is not merely that a career as a retail clerk is beneath my dignity; it is beneath anyone’s dignity.

-Charles Eisenstein, The Ascent of Humanity

While I have no idea what shape it will take, I KNOW, to the core of my being, that there exists a world in which no one has to wash dishes for 8 hours a day, or cut down rainforest to provide for their family, or have children starving to death daily.

There exists a world that recognizes the inherent worth and dignity of all people, rooted in the knowledge that we are connected to all things, and what we do to others and the planet we also do unto ourselves. That humans – all of us – are meant for so much more than just to get by and survive.

So I ask you: what do you think would make the world a more beautiful place? And what are you doing to make that a reality?

WHY I AM JOINING AN INTENTIONAL COMMUNITY

Whenever I tell someone of my intentions of joining a “commune” I invariably get asked “Why?” I do my best to answer them but there are many reasons- more than I ever really have time to explain. So henceforth I will be referring them to this post, in which I have the space to fully explain the many aspects of what motivates me to make this change in lifestyle.

My motivations can be summed up into two big umbrella reasons: I believe living in an intentional community will allow me to align my lifestyle with my personal values and at the same time grant me a higher quality of life.

In all cultures there are things that are simply taken for granted. Each person in a culture is taught what is and is not normal and how to behave and how not to behave. In the west we call this enculturation and/or socialization. As I have grown as a person and have looked around me at the world I find myself in, I have realized that the lifestyle I have been raised in has repercussions that I am no longer comfortable with.

I believe that we humans as a species are living in a way that is out of balance and is leading us towards some incredibly difficult crises on a global scale. We are running out of fresh water. We are facing human-caused climate change that is already causing real damage to both human and all other life. We have severely drained the oceans of fish and yet continue to fish in record numbers. Our inexhaustible thirst for oil has led to fracking and mining the tar sands of Alaska with severe ecological consequences already, and more sure to come. Our global political system and global money system have led to massive inequality, leaving billions of us with a terrible quality of life. We have already cut down half of the Earth’s tropical forests and destroy 18 million acres of forest (an area the size of Panama) each year. Species of life are going extinct at 1,000 to 10,000 times the normal rate due to human causes. It is so severe that scientists have termed it the Anthropocene (Age of Man) extinction event, the first in 66 million years. Our rivers, fields, oceans, and skies have all been polluted with toxic chemicals which have been implicated in our many new health crises. We regularly kill each other on a massive level. This is not an exhaustive list.

Up until now my lifestyle has contributed to these problems. I drive a car and eat food from California, adding to demand for oil and creating pollution. I’m sure I have bought clothes made in sweatshops, contributing to human misery. I have eaten fish, helping create the demand that has led to overfishing. My tax dollars have gone to a government that kills civilians in the Middle East and all over the world. I have created what I am sure is an obscene amount of trash, adding to landfills. I have eaten factory farmed meat, which is produced under horrifying conditions. And I am no longer okay with these things.

Living in an intentional community such as East Wind will allow my lifestyle to align with my values. I will no longer need a car, and my carbon footprint in general will be massively reduced. I will be able to eat healthy, local, food produced without hormones, chemicals, or antibiotics. As I will no longer have money I will not participate in a system that breeds inequality, and also will not pay taxes that fund the death of others. In general by living a sustainable lifestyle I hope to no longer contribute to the destruction of the planet.

I also believe that by living in this manner I will have a higher quality of life and simply be happier! Like most people, work is currently a necessary evil in my life. I do the same thing for 40-50 hours a week so that I can have a somewhat decent standard of living. And then I have to get gas, and do laundry, and cook, and clean, and get an oil change, and discharge all of the various chores outside of work. Between these two things, work and chores, I end up with very little time that is actually free. And what free time I do end up with I usually just want to use to rest and recover from the work and the chores that I have been doing. And then the cycle repeats…

East Wind requires 35 hours of labor per week (and only 27/week on holiday weeks which occur once a month!). In exchange one gets a private room, food, clothing, and medical care and $150 a month for personal spending. Not only will I work less actual hours than I do currently, all those aforementioned chores are taken care of communally through the labor system. And no chores means that my free time is actually free. And as if that wasn’t enough, other than two hours a week of kitchen clean up (which is mandated), I will be free to chose how to allot my labor! I will be able to follow my interests and passions to contribute to the community as best I can. Furthermore, the works of my hands will be completely directed towards benefiting those in community with me (and myself!) rather than just making the owner of my company more money.

I am also very excited to live in community, despite not even really knowing what that means. We humans are very social creatures, and the modern world is very lonely. To quote The Ascent of Humanity:

“Simply observe that the financially independent individual, among other equally independent individuals, has no basis for community except for the effort to “be nice” and “make friends”. Underneath even the most well-motivated social gathering is the knowledge: We don’t really need each other.”

And we are not really needed. We could easily be replaced. While I can only guess at it now, I have a feeling that living in community will meet needs I never knew I wasn’t having met, and I will be a much happier person for it.

And I will be in a community with those who hopefully share most- if not all- of my values, and have also chosen to live a more harmonious life. East Wind is very open minded, and I will be so much more free to express my individualism than I am in modern society. As East Wind’s property is 1000 acres in the Ozarks, I will also be living much closer to Nature, which has always soothed my soul. And when the time comes to have children, I will be able to actually spend time with them and help them grow and develop as a father should, instead of disappearing off to this mysterious place called Work for the majority of their waking lives. All of these things are priceless to me. I am also excited to have a simpler style of living. To live in a culture that doesn’t emphasize material possessions and doesn’t constantly assault my attention with advertisements.

In short I believe that making this change in lifestyle will allow me to follow Gandhi’s injunction and be the change I want to see in the world. I will be able to live my beliefs and be an example to others.

Originally published May 19, 2015