The Call of the Wild

And the wish never to return.

It happens every time. Once in the wild, I don’t want to return to civilization.

Civilization brings out the worst in me. Frustration, anger, stress, prejudice, the need to wear a mask, to jostle and compete. My zany, playful edges rubbed dull by work and toil. My wildness tamed.

Dullness is but another name for tameness, said Henry David Thoreau.

Nature’s allure shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, she cradled and shaped us for 99% of our time on this planet. Nature was once our home and governess; her lessons simple: harmony, quietude, zero-waste, moderation, and balanced competition. No need for therapy, Prozac, Ritalin or Xanax.

Environmental psychologists Stephen and Rachel Kaplan say it’s the visual elements in natural environments — sunsets, streams, butterflies — which reduce stress and mental fatigue. Fascinating but not too demanding, such stimuli promote a gentle, soft focus that allows our brains to wander, rest, and recover from the nervous irritation of city life. Soft fascination permits a more reflective mode and the benefit seems to carry over when we head back indoors.

Regardless, once out, I just can’t bear the thought of heading back indoors.

In the street and in society I am almost invariably cheap and dissipated, my life is unspeakably mean. No amount of gold or respectability would in the least redeem it. But alone in distant woods, I come to myself. I once more feel myself grandly related. I suppose that this value is equivalent to what others get by churchgoing and prayer. — Thoreau

City life makes me envious. Nature humbles me. City life numbs my senses. The wild awakens them.

Our sensitivities and vast compendium of knowledge gained as hunter-gatherers have been lost. We’ve retained all the fears of the savannah but none of the skills. Instead of stars, we can’t find our way now without a GPS. The world’s shrill commotion makes it impossible to listen to silence. The rugosity of tree-bark, the moss’ padding, the lichen’s scuff or the silk of a leaf have become unfamiliar. Constant exposure to the corrosive wear of artificiality has blunted our sense of smell and taste. We no longer know what to eat without consulting labels. Bleared by the glaring and flickering light of screens, our sight misses nature’s secret clues and diminishes her rich depth… diminishes us. And our entire being, jarred by a storm of histrionic images and voices that incite us 24–7 to extremes of lust, greed, envy, outrage, and fear — with increasing doses to keep us hooked — have made it impossible for us to know what exactly to do in stillness. No wonder we’re always bored, anxious, angry, or depressed. No wonder the meaning of life eludes us.

Chocon Machacas
Chocón Machacas River in Guatemala

My fascination with the wild began at an early age. Born and raised in one of the most magical spots on earth, I had ample opportunity to commune with nature.

One of my fondest childhood memories are of my solitary trips in a tiny wooden canoe through the lowland flood forest and mangrove thickets lining the narrow brown-water tributaries that fed into ‘El Golfete’ in northeast Guatemala. They ignited, I believe, my yearning for quietude and a life of vagabondage. It was a place where my senses were spellbound. Sighting turtles, spider-monkeys, toucans, macaws, parakeets; gliding on my canoe as if inside a green concert hall filled with their animated early morning chatter; dipping my hand into the tepid chocolate-colored water and feeling the growing heat of the sun rousing the dense smell of swamp, my whole body was pervious and receptive to the atavistic arousal of all those primeval and sublime sensations. Being just a boy, I wasn’t conscious of their profound effect, and that’s the crucial point. I was feeling, not thinking. It is our much-vaunted rationality that blocks our path to intimate connection.

As we grow up, we gradually lose our embodied awareness. We become brittle and live at right angles to the land. We alienate ourselves from our primal sensuousness and begin to divide the world into spirit and matter. We commodify our aliveness. No longer in seamless unity with a numinous dimension, Earth (from Latin mater or mother) becomes but a target for plunder, exploitation, and a dumpsite for human waste.

Our heedless violence against the planet might be explained by our profound and unavowed sadness for living in exile from the wild and our sensuality.

No European who has tasted savage life, can afterwards bear to live in our societies. — Benjamin Franklin

“In pre-and post-revolutionary America, Puritans loathed the natives’ simplicity, serenity, and sensuality,” suggests Barry Spector in ‘Madness at the Gates of the City,’ “for they were aspects of themselves they had banished. Because of the grief for what they had lost, or found too difficult to recover, they demonized these virtues and proceeded to remove them from view.”

When I came of age, I cut the umbilical cord tethering me to Mother Earth and sacrificed my natural sensitivities at the altar of ego, consumerism, and societal approbation. I had to lose everything twenty years later to find my way back to enchantment. Stripped of everything, I learned to succumb to nature’s wild embrace.

“The essence of the western male mind, says author and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich, “has been its ability to resist the contagious rhythm of the drums, to wall itself up in a fortress of ego and rationality against the seductive wildness of the world.”

If there’s ever a chance to save the wild, we must surrender to its seductive power and relearn nature’s wisdom. We must recover our lost scent.

I come to my solitary woodland walk as the homesick go home. — Thoreau

I answer the call of the wild and enter its hallowed space to remember where I came from and to where I must constantly return.

Everyone’s Doing It

So it must be okay

In the face of new and more damning evidence in the impeachment trial against the Trump administration, I’ve begun to hear exculpatory comments from a few of his staunch supporters, like, “Every president has used the power of the office for personal gain; what’s the big deal?” or “Democrats are a bunch of hypocrites! Once in power, they all do the same thing,” or “Don’t tell me the Clintons didn’t use the presidency to line their pockets or help them get re-elected!”

It seems character no longer matters in these United States.

Raised in a third-world country under military dictatorships for most of my adult life, I know well how corruption works. I also know how it slowly infects every sector of society until turning it into a cesspool. I just thought America was different.

“Labor to keep alive in your breast that little spark of celestial fire called conscience.” — George Washington

It appears the little voice of conscience is dead in America too.

Give a little whistle,” said Jiminy Cricket to Pinocchio.

Take the straight and narrow path

And if you start to slide

Give a little whistle

Give a little whistle

And always let your conscience be your guide.”

So here’s my whistle: Children are listening and watching what adults say and do, and they are masters at imitation.

It should surprise no one that according to a recent survey on the moral attitudes of young people conducted by the Josephson Institute of Ethics, 45% of boys agreed that “a person has to lie or cheat sometimes in order to succeed,” and that twice as many boys as girls agreed, or strongly agreed, that “it’s not cheating if everyone is doing it.”

Since I agree with American statesman Frederick Douglass that it is easier to grow strong children than repair broken men, my focus is on the youth in America, particularly its boys.

In thirty years of working with children,” says Dr. Michael Gurian, author of Saving our Sons, “I have never been more worried than right now for our sons. Nearly every problem we face in our civilization intersects in some way with the state of boyhood in America.”

I share Michael’s concern, and it seems many do so as well.

As a preface to their comprehensive and brilliant handbook on character strengths and virtues, Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman say their project coincides with heightened societal concern about good character.

“After a detour through the hedonism of the 1960s, the narcissism of the 1970s, the materialism of the 1980s, and the apathy of the 1990s, most everyone today seems to believe that character is important after all and that the United States is facing a character crisis on many fronts, from the playground to the classroom to the sports arena to the Hollywood screen to business corporations to politics. According to a survey by Public Agenda, adults in the United States cited “not learning values” as the most important problem facing today’s youth.”

Strengths of character, the authors suggest, provide the the stability and generality of a life well lived.

“The good life reflects choice and will. Quality life does not simply happen because the Ten Commandments hang on a classroom wall or because children are taught a mantra about just saying no. What makes life worth living is not ephemeral. It does not result from the momentary tickling of our sensory receptors by chocolate, alcohol, or Caribbean vacations. The good life is lived over time and across situations, and an examination of the good life in terms of positive traits is [essential]. Strengths of character provide the needed explanation for the stability and generality of a life well lived.”

They also underpin democracy, the rule of law, civic discourse, and the conscience of a nation.

In ‘Forgotten Purpose: Civics Education in Public Schools,’ educator Amanda Litinov says, “one of the primary reasons our nation’s founders envisioned a vast public education system was to prepare youth to be active participants in our system of self-government. The responsibilities of each citizen were assumed to go far beyond casting a vote; protecting the common good would require developing students’ critical thinking and debate skills, along with strong civic virtues.”

“Until the 1960s,” Litinov adds, “it was common for American high school students to have three separate courses in civics and government. But civics offerings were slashed as the curriculum narrowed over the ensuing decades and lost further ground to ‘core subjects’ under the NCLB-era standardized testing regime.”

Civic knowledge and public engagement is at an all-time low, reports the Center for American Progress. A 2016 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found that only 26 percent of Americans can name all three branches of government, which was a significant decline from previous years. Not surprisingly, public trust in government is at only 18 percent and voter participation has reached its lowest point since 1996. Without an understanding of the structure of government; rights and responsibilities; and methods of public engagement, civic literacy and voter apathy will continue to plague American democracy.

While knowledge and understanding is essential to democracy, I argue that they are no substitute for virtue and strengths of character.

“A good moral character is the first essential in a man. It is therefore highly important that you should endeavor not only to be learned but virtuous.” — Letter from George Washington to George Steptoe, December 1790

Pressured regularly by Alexander Hamilton to participate in the first presidential election, and worried Americans would view him with distrust and think he simply desired power, Washington wrote this to Hamilton: “Still I hope I shall always possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles: the character of an honest man.”

In its rapid plunge into the cesspool of moral relativism, the United States seems no longer willing or interested in forging its boys into virtuous men of character, like Washington. It also doesn’t seem much bothered by the blatant disregard for decency, honesty, and decorum of its elected officials on both sides of the aisle.

So I’m giving a little whistle.

Either listen, and act, or prepare yourselves to witness your once-proudful country being taken over by villains and their legions of lily-livered and unscrupulous sycophants.

Choose Your President Like You’d Choose a Governess

America’s choice 2020

Governess: a woman employed to teach children in a private household.

President: a term deriving from the Latin prae, before, and sedere, to sit. Thus, “to sit before.” A public sitter, if you will; a head of state or symbolic embodiment of a nation. A man, or woman, who sets the moral tone for a country. By no definition a redeemer or savior, and certainly no silver-tongue demagogue who promises to single-handedly restore a nation’s power and glory. Germany once elected a guy like that. Didn’t work out too well.

So what exactly does a president do?

Although constitutionally ambiguous, the presidency of the United States is inherently dual in character. The president serves as the nation’s head of state and as its chief administrator.

Under Article II of the Constitution, the president’s administrative duties are limited to:

1. Serve as commander in chief of the armed forces.

2. Grant reprieves and pardons for federal offenses (except impeachment).

3. Ensure laws are faithfully executed.

4. With consent of the Senate, nominate and appoint ambassadors, public ministers and consuls, judges of the Supreme Court, and all other officers of the United States.

5. Make treaties, by, and with the advice and consent of the Senate.

Note these duties do not include issuing laws, creating jobs, fueling stock markets, declaring wars, or imposing immigration, monetary, industrial, and environmental policy. Having freed the colonies from the yoke of monarchy, the founding fathers made damn sure not to grant their leader overreaching powers.

The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these States. A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant is unfit to be the ruler of a free people. — Excerpt from the ‘Declaration of Independence’

The constitutional constraints on presidential power thus gave immediate rise to the practice of issuing executive orders to achieve policy goals, manage the executive branch, or outline a view intended to influence the behavior of private citizens. Bear in mind the U.S. Constitution does not define these presidential instruments nor explicitly vests the president with the authority to issue them.

One of the first executive proclamations was George Washington’s call for a Thanksgiving holiday, something I suspect most of us are grateful for.

However, there have been others who have used the ambiguous characterization of executive power to issue directives contravening the Constitution and/or Bill of Rights. Such was Roosevelt’s 1942 directive ordering the removal and internment of all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast following the attack on Pearl Harbor. Over one hundred thousand people — 70,000 of whom were American by birth — were imprisoned in a network of camps across the Southwest. The government made no charges against them nor could they appeal their incarceration. All lost personal liberties; most lost their homes and property.

The 5th Amendment states no person shall be deprived of liberty without due process of law.

Desperate times sometimes call for desperate measures, I get it. I also get that Congress and the Supreme Court backed Roosevelt’s draconian order, making it lawful.

My precise point is that the founding fathers could not cross all the t’s nor dot all the i’s while writing up the instructions on what a president can and cannot do. They could not foresee all the exceptional circumstances which a changing world would bring about. To wit, the assassination of foreign nationals, like the Jan 3rd drone strike that killed Qasem Soleimani.

“No person employed by or acting on behalf of the United States Government shall engage in, or conspire to engage in assassination.” — Executive Order 12333 issued by President Ronald Reagan.

“What constitutes assassination, however, is left undefined, writes Scott R. Anderson for Lawfare. “Subsequent presidential administrations have reportedly interpreted it to mean unlawful killings, which would not necessarily [include] targeting decisions during armed conflicts. Notably, while most of these interpretations are not public, we know that the Obama administration concluded that killings in self-defense are not assassinations in the context of drone strikes against al-Qaeda-affiliated targets in Yemen — a conclusion that likely bears on the decision to kill Soleimani.”

Things are certainly more complicated than they were in 1787. Leading the most powerful country on earth in an increasingly messy and complex world, is, well, messy.

Think back, for example, to the Cold War (1947–1991) between the United States and the Soviet Union. A time when the U.S. was in the grip of mass hysteria about the spread of communism across the world. Any foreign leader who dared espouse progressive ideals was labeled red and a potential enemy of U.S. interests.

In 1954, President Eisenhower directed the CIA to launch a covert operation in my country that toppled a popularly-elected, progressive president, ushering-in a civil war lasting over thirty years that cost the lives of close to two hundred thousand people and forced me into exile.

Depending on which side you were on, the event was either justified to contain the spread of communism, or an unconscionable overreach of American presidential power that left a shameful stain on the country’s moral fabric and snuffed my country’s democratic aspirations. Dig a little deeper, and you’ll discover that the true motive behind the CIA-led coup was to protect the interests and profits of corporate America.

Eisenhower made a mockery of the principles of liberty and self-determination upon which the United States was founded. A president faithful to his vow to preserve, protect, and defend those principles upon taking office would’ve never given the order to oust a democratically-elected government in a foreign country. “Do as I say and not as I do” is a sure way to sow distrust, cynicism, and anger, at home and abroad. By the same token, “profit over principle” is a slippery road to a nation’s moral bankruptcy.

Don’t misjudge me. I am not that naive to think that everything is black or white. Geopolitics is a messy affair which often forces a leader to do what’s necessary and expedient even if it forces him or her to temporarily compromise on what is right. It is precisely when a dilemma arises where the end justifies the means that a nation needs a decisive and pragmatic leader but with a steady moral compass. Experience can be hired. A moral compass, however, cannot be purchased.

Which brings me to the governess.

In Victorian England, the governess was not hired to manage a household or to cook or clean. Her primary function was to educate children.

Depending on the age of her pupils, the governess could find herself teaching ‘the three Rs’ (reading, writing and arithmetic) to the youngest, while coaching the older in French conversation, history and geography. If her pupils were teen girls, the governess was expected to instruct them in drawing, playing piano, dancing, and deportment, i.e., how to conduct oneself properly. The governess might also be in charge of small boys up to the age of eight, before they were sent away to school.

The governess was expected to look after her pupils’ moral education too. As well as reading the Bible and leading them in prayer, she was to set a good example of moral behavior. For that reason, employers put great emphasis on hiring a governess who shared their beliefs.

If you were choosing a governess for your children, what would you focus on? Her superb writing skills and knowledge of the world, or her moral character? If forced to choose, say, between a math wizard, previously convicted of child molestation, and a dunce with high moral standards, a clean record and impeccable references, whom would you entrust to guide and edify your children?

How about this guy for president of the United States?

· Four terms in a state legislature, one fairly disappointing term in the House of Representatives, and two unsuccessful attempts to win election to the United States Senate.

· No administrative experience. Never been a cabinet member, a governor, or even mayor of his hometown.

· Has filed for bankruptcy several times.

· Has never been abroad and knows no foreign languages. His education, he admits, is imperfect. The total time he spent in elementary school was less than one year. Not a great reader. Never finished a novel.

· By his own admission, the humblest of all individuals; a man without a name. Perhaps, he says, without a reason why he should even have a name.

His name was Abraham Lincoln, and while far from perfect, is considered one the great presidents by scholars and historians. Good luck trying to find the “perfect” candidate. We are all a little stained. Perfection often precludes the possible, and in my ledger, if forced to choose, values trump experience.

Of course experience is welcome, but not at the expense of virtuous and wise leadership, especially in a Republic, like the United States, with its sound system of checks and balances and judicious — albeit partly ambiguous — limitations on presidential power. Focus on experience when choosing your state’s representatives, governors, mayors, and city council members — the people charged with getting things done — but not when choosing your president.

The president is not only the leader of a party, he is the president of the whole people. He must interpret the conscience of America. He must guide his conduct by the idealism of our people. — President Herbert Hoover

Come November, Americans will choose their next head of state. The man or woman who will become the symbolic embodiment of their nation’s conscience. They will do so at a time when their country, its rule of law and the ideals for which it stands are being torn asunder amid a messy world that seems poised on the brink. Not a good time to focus on rigid ideologies or vote one’s pocketbook, in my mind. Not a good time either to allow fear, hatred, bigotry, or prejudice to mark the ballot. Default to any of these and you’ll soon end up with a tyrant.

When choosing, I suggest you check your emotions at the entrance of the polling station and walk clear-headed into the booth. Then, elect the person to whom you would entrust your children in your absence and further base that choice on the ideals which once made the United States the world’s beacon of hope and shining city upon the hill.


Read this related piece: Making America Whole Again

 

 

Guilty until Proven Innocent

Masculinity on trial.

Like hailstones on flowers, we keep pelting our boys with scorn for the mere fact of being boys.

Assailing them at every turn, mass media thunders dispiriting messages like, “The End of Men,” “The Demise of Guys,” “Are Men Necessary?”

Not yet capable of nuance or understanding context, the opprobrium poured on men with undiscriminating malevolence must sound to their fragile minds like a factual, congenital defect of their gender. Guilty before proven innocent.

It’s the same guilt one is made to feel when walking into a Catholic church and met by the limp and lacerated body of Christ nailed to the cross. “Because of my fault, because of my fault, because of my great fault,” worshippers chant as they tap their guilt-ridden heart with their fist.

A year ago, the American Psychological Association put out its first-ever ‘Guidelines for Practice with Boys and Men.’ “From the first sentences,” laments Dr. Michael Gurian, “the APA did what so many other organizations do: fall back on the soft science of ‘masculinity is the cause of men’s problems’ and ‘removing masculinity is the solution.’”

No wonder most men refuse therapy and are committing suicide in increasing numbers.

I suppose the scorn lashed against men is a form of payback for us having once blamed women for all the ills of the world… Lilith, Eve, Pandora, Demeter… I get it.

But I’m an adult. I can take the punches without losing my balance. Boys cannot.

So pummeled, the wings of their spirit are prematurely clipped, discouraging them to soar and actualize their innate masculine nobility. Then we wonder why they are failing to launch, lag behind at school, seek respect by joining online hate groups, or vent their confusion through mass shootings.

“As profiles of school shooters have shown us,’ adds Michael Gurian, “the most dangerous male is not one who is strong, aggressive, and successful; the most dangerous male is one who is depressed, unable to partner or raise children successfully, unable to earn a living, unable to care for his children. The most dangerous man is not one with power but one who feels powerless.”

When an educated culture routinely denigrates masculinity and manhood, women will be perpetually stuck with boys. And without strong men, women will never attain a centered and profound sense of themselves as women. — Camille Paglia

The inference, for example, that Harvey Weinstein is toxic, ergo masculinity is toxic, is as idiotic as saying: “Cleopatra was a cunning harlots, ergo all women are harlots.”

For every Weinstein, there are hundreds of men, like Aaron Feis, Jon Blunk, Matt McQuinn, and Alex Teves, who sacrificed their lives shielding the innocent from harm. Toxic you say?

For every Trump, I give you a Jefferson, a Washington and a Lincoln.

For every Hitler, I give you a Churchill and a Roosevelt.

Keep raising the toxic flag and shaming boys for being boys and you will awaken the beast. Our world has paid a heavy price at the hands of humiliated boys who sought retribution and power through bloodletting.

If you must vent, go ahead. There is a valid reason for your rightful anger. Just put away your shotgun and bring out your high-precision rifle. Boys don’t need to suffer the impact of your broad-stroked vitriol striking the guilty and innocent alike. Exceptions do not prove a rule. A radical Muslim, for instance, does not represent the entirety of the Islamic faith.

The rise of women, however long overdue, does not require the fall of men. – Christina Hoff Sommers.

Boys need to know they are needed and wanted. That the world needs their fierce, warrior energy as much as it needs women’s intuition, empathy, and nurturing power.

“Boys are such great kids,” writes Katey McPherson in ‘Why Teens Fail: What to Fix,’ “because of who they are — so direct, so compassionate, so full of energy and wonder, if we can just see it and love it. To nurture it, though, especially as one of four sisters and a mother of four girls, I had to commit consciously to seeing male nature as a strong part of this world that needs my help to be and remain strong.”

If we, as a culture, insist on rejecting their unique gifts, we will perpetuate the parable of Cain and Abel. Brothers will keep slaying brothers and our boys will be condemned to a life of wandering — adrift and disoriented.

Male character traits such as strength, stoicism, rightful anger, and transformative power are vital forces for good if they are rightly understood and channeled.

Masculinity is not the enemy. The enemy is distorted, crafty, and malevolent language.

Our boys deserve better.


Follow my book for boys on its journey to publication.

The One Life Force You Cannot Do Without

“If you never want to master a skill, or finish anything you start, nor do anything significant in your life, feel free to skip this chapter.”

So I introduce the ‘Life Force of Grit’ in The Hero in You, my book for boys.


Stars shine owing to the crushing the force of gravity. No pressure, no radiance.

Carbon crystals become exquisite diamonds under extreme temperatures and pressure deep in the Earth’s mantle.

Resistance is a fundamental force in nature.

Had the Eurasian plate not presented its fierce resistance against the colliding Indian subcontinent, the Himalayas would not be crowned with Mt. Everest.

So it is with any worthy human endeavor.

We never know how high we can soar until we are called to rise. — Emily Dickinson.

And when the call to our true purpose comes, there is no greater life force we must bring to bear than the Life Force of Grit, a word originating from the Proto-Germanic root ‘ghreu’ — to rub or grind.

Three years ago, I was called to rise and lend my life a higher purpose. Ever since, my journey has been met with great resistance. Many times have I wanted to give up and run back to my previous life cushioned by security.

In the face of adversity, Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis said there are three forms of prayer:

One: I am a bow in your hands, Lord, draw me lest I rot.

Two: Do not overdraw me, Lord, I shall break.

Three: Overdraw me, who cares if I break!

I have chosen the third.

“Man’s worth lies not in victory but in the struggle for victory.” added Kazantzakis. “His worth lies in that he live and die bravely, without condescending to accept any recompense; with the certainty that no recompense exists, and that that certainty, far from making our blood run cold, must fill us with joy, pride, and manly courage.”

“God makes us grubs, and we, by our own efforts must become butterflies. There is only one way: The Ascent! View the abyss with a defiant glance — without hope and fear, but also without insolence, as you stand proudly erect at the very brink of the precipice.”

“Deliver yourself from deliverance. Salvation is a sham. Pursue only one thing: a harsh, carnivorous, indestructible vision — the essence. Ascend, because the very act of ascending is happiness and paradise. Like the flying fish, leap out of safe secure waters and enter a more ethereal atmosphere filled with madness. Defy the First Cause to overdraw you like a bow without caring if it breaks!”

Gritty words from a man who lived their truth and had this written on his tombstone: “I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free!”

Kazantzakis epitaph with flowers

We don’t seem to be raising our children with such steely determination and ‘stick-to-itiveness’ these days. Instead, we seek to clear their path from all obstacles, paving their way through life with a frictionless road to the land of plenty.

If they quickly tire, or become bored with one activity, we rush to ease their discomfort by facilitating a new one. “Don’t like the piano, Billy? That’s okay sweetie, you’ve given it almost a full week. We’ll pay for tennis lessons instead.”

For ten years, I worked at a Waldorf-methods public charter school. By the fourth grade, every student is handed a violin, one of the most difficult instruments to play. Certain that this would turn them off music for good, I asked the teacher what the purpose was.

“Grit,” he responded, with a grin. “Embracing and overcoming discomfort is the only way they’ll achieve mastery, in music, and in life.”

“Anything you rub long enough becomes beautiful,” I tell boys in my book.

“You’ll know what I mean if you like to collect rocks…”

Excerpt from Chapter 10

To polish rocks, you need sandpaper, which comes in different degrees of grit — from really coarse to super-fine. Rocks don’t like being polished. That’s why you hear a harsh, scraping sound when you rub sandpaper on their surface. They are the same sounds as the groans, huffs, and deep sighs we make when learning something new, like riding a bike. If we give up then, we will accomplish nothing.

If you want to be a great soccer player, cook or musician, for example, you better be ready and willing to endure a lengthy period of harsh training.

Having things easy makes everything flat and dull.

Just to see what would happen if we remove this resistance, let’s pretend you and I are Masters of the Universe and rule over nature. We’ll go out on an open field to conduct an experiment with a hawk and a mouse.

Circling above us, scanning the ground below in search for his next meal, is the hawk. Natural selection has developed in the hawk a flying speed of 120 mph, reaching 180 mph when diving for its prey. Its eyesight is eight times more powerful than the sharpest human eye. Truly a magnificent and noble creature. Suddenly, he spots the mouse. Easy lunch, one would think, but nature has made mice extremely agile and elusive. An exciting chase is about to begin!

Since we are Masters of the Universe and control the levers of nature, let’s see what happens if we slow the mouse down a bit. To make it even easier for the hawk to find him, we’ll also gradually change the mouse’s color from camouflage brown, to neon pink. Naturally, the need for the hawk’s great speed and powerful eyesight will diminish step by step.

Let’s drop the mouse’s speed even further so that the hawk no longer needs to fly, but simply — like a chicken — give chase to the mouse on solid ground.

What would happen if we continue this experiment for the ‘benefit’ of the hawk? What if we slowed the mouse’s speed to a bare crawl? Care to guess?

In time, the once-majestic hawk would lose its wings, be almost blind, and simply lie on the ground waiting for the mouse to crawl into his open beak. Naturally, the unintended consequence of our experiment is that the hawk, in its weakened state, would become easy prey for a hungry coyote.

What have we done, young man!

By making it ‘easy’ for the hawk, we have turned him into something other than a hawk. We have taken away his power, his beauty and nobility, and made him dull.

Written in the software of what it is to be ‘Hawk’ is the need for the speed and stealth of ‘Mouse.’

Best not to mess with the laws of nature.

Nowadays, you hear a lot of young people saying things are hard, wishing someone would make things easier for them. They sound like hawks cursing at nature for making mice so speedy and elusive.

Now let’s suppose you were walking on a beach and stumbled upon a weatherworn and rusted oil lamp. Since you’ve probably seen the movie ‘Aladdin,’ you know what’s inside, so you pick it up and rub it hard with the palm of your hand.

Poof! A Genie appears.

Only this time, he won’t grant you three wishes, but only one; the one the Genie has already chosen for you. You can either accept his offer or not.

From that day forward, the Genie promises, you will never again feel challenged, rejected, sad, afraid, anxious, hurt, disappointed, or betrayed. What’s more, you will instantly forget all the bad things that ever happened to you. If fact, all your previous memories would be erased — both good and bad. From that moment, your days will be all sunshine and rainbows. No more storms, thunder and lightning. No more obstacles or difficult challenges.

Would you accept the Genie’s ‘gift’?

Since you’ve already read about the rule of opposites governing the Universe… the one that says that for there to be light there must be darkness — meaning joy is not possible without suffering — and since you’ve made it all the way to this point in the book, you’ve proven yourself to be smart and gritty so I’m certain you’d reject the Genie’s offer, push him back into the lamp and throw it back into the ocean never to be rubbed again.

Alladin

As I put the finishing touches on ‘The Hero in You,’ I look back at the many months of struggle, the rolls and tumbles I’ve endured, the seemingly implacable resistance that continues to push against my conquering will.

Overdraw me, I say, who cares if I break!

If I am keen and hard like the sheer tip of a wedge

Driven by invisible blows

The rock will split. — D.H. Lawrence

With indomitable keenness, I will continue rubbing and grinding until I bring to the world a worthy and exquisite piece of literary sea glass.

Our struggles define us, not our desires, wrote Zat Rana.

And in our defiant ascent, the force we can never do without is the Life Force of Grit.


Follow my book’s gritty journey to publication.

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Life is Not a Caucus Race in Wonderland

Women of the World, Please Take the Wheel!

While men figure out their shit.

Men have been driving this world for the past two hundred thousand years and from what I can see through the rearview mirror the picture ain’t pretty so I say it’s time women take the wheel.

Notice I did not say, “Throw us out of the car and make us eat your dust.” After all, you’ll need us to change a flat tire now and then.

I know you’re perfectly capable of doing it yourself. I just think women’s hands should not be soiled by axle grease. They are meant to nurture and heal. Let us do the dirty work and heavy lifting, not because we think you’re weak, but because we care.

Just imagine the world led by your nurturing power backed by our warrior fierceness.

You want to reforest the planet? We’re on it!

Australia is burning? We’ll douse it!

There’s a bully blocking your agenda? Tell us where he lives, we’ll take him out!

For the greater part of the human story, we were equals. You gathered, we hunted. This lasted for about 99% of the time modern humans have been on this planet. It wasn’t until ten thousand years ago when we began to settle and till the land that we disrupted the harmony with our macho bullshit. We came up with the notion of property and extended that notion to your bodies and personhood.

I’m sorry.

Afraid of your power, we began to blame you for the ills of the world and invented skygods after our own image to punish you.

Envious of your fecundity and your intuitive powers, we banished all female goddesses and filled the pantheon with male divinities and stoic male heroes. Reason became the supreme virtue, while the feeling body and emotions were declared vile and capricious.

Bewildered by your overpowering sensuality that continues to spin us like a top, we repressed it, veiled it to remove it from sight, and now seek its return in the dark and lonely theater of our minds projected through the perverted lens of pornography. Pathetic!

In our blinding arrogance, we considered your intellect inferior to ours and denied you the right to vote, robbing the world from your voice and wisdom at enormous cost.

We turned you from subjects to objects, which made it easier for us to exploit, enslave, and denigrate you.

Really sorry about all this too.

The record speaks for itself. Our seeming incapacity to develop emotional intelligence, and deal with our anger, has cost the lives of 150 million to over one billion people in warfare. Our self-imposed exile from our feeling bodies and emotions — hence from nature itself — has ushered in the sixth mass extinction and now has Earth on the brink.

The list of our blunders is exhaustive.

Recently, one of your female colleagues, a brave 16 year-old climate activist, speaking on behalf of the planet, was mocked and ridiculed by the most powerful man on Earth. Toxic, indeed.

But we’re all not like that. The rotten apples have not spoiled the entire barrel. It’s just that the bullies, loudmouths, windbags, braggarts and scumbags get most of the air time. They are the locusts of the world.

For now, it appears the locusts are winning, but listen carefully, and you’ll hear a growing buzzing of bees.

The New Zealand parliament, for example, led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern but still majority male, recently approved a landmark zero-carbon law.

2019 ended with a glimmer of hope when the Dutch Supreme Court (majority male) granted a landmark climate victory that could change the world.

And the decade ended with men and women joined in protest around the world.

“What lay underneath all this disillusionment,” writes Rebecca Solnit in The Guardian, “was a readiness to question foundations that had been portrayed as fixed, inevitable, unquestionable — whether that foundation was gender norms, heterosexuality, patriarchy, white supremacy, the age of fossil fuels or capitalism.”

The tide is turning.

So while your anger and disillusionment with men is rightful and warranted, this is not the time to further the divide. You will be perpetually stuck with boys, warns Camille Paglia, so long as you continue denigrating masculinity and manhood.

I’m asking you to give us some time to figure out our shit.

Your steady and deserved return back to equality has caught us unprepared. It will take us a while to fashion an evolved conception of manhood. Bear in mind that the male software was written by nature during hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary history. The traits in men that women often find exasperating were fashioned out on the African savannah, and, in many ways, have served their purpose.

In ‘The Hero in You,’ my book for boys, I explain the virtues and glitches of these traits:

Excerpt from Chapter 2

For example, we men don’t talk much. There’s a good reason for that. Imagine you’re out on the savannah with your hunting buddies and one of them just won’t shut up. You would never catch anything, and you, your buddies, and all the members of your clan would starve to death. Our ancestors survived and passed-on those instructions to the next generation of hunters: “Speak little, hunt more.”

Our male brains are wired to transmit our emotions more quickly to our physical bodies. As a result, we are more impulsive. We act quickly to solve immediate problems. It would have been a bad idea for us and our hunting buddies to sit down and chat about how scared or unsafe we felt when encountering a Saber-toothed Tiger. We express our emotions by moving; we hit a desk when angry or run when stressed. That’s the reason men express love with less words and more physical action.

Men have fewer nerve endings for feeling pain and fewer pain receptors in their brains. That’s why we can stand more pain, although you wouldn’t think so when watching a grown man stub his toe on a chair and collapsing on the floor screaming about how much it hurts.

Women claim men can’t find things. They’re half-right. While we might not be able to find the cereal box even though it’s right in front of our nose, we can certainly spot the big things, like Mammoths. Our software was written out in the wild, hunting on the wide expanse of the savannah. We look at the big picture. We see the forest, not the trees.

Women get frustrated with men who refuse to ask for directions when lost. There’s a good reason for that too. We like to figure things out for ourselves. We are scouts and explorers, navigators and adventurers. We like to wade across churning rivers, slash our way through steamy jungles, and climb mountains to look far and wide to map out the road ahead. We are visionaries.

We are also less empathetic; less sensitive to other people’s feelings, pain, or suffering. Think again of our past as hunters. If one of our buddies fell and got hurt, we just didn’t have the time to sit by his side to comfort him. We picked him up, brushed him off, maybe gave him a pat on the back, and we both kept running after our next meal. We had to. Those waiting for us back at camp depended on us to bring food. Men bond with their buddies by challenging them.

We don’t avoid pain and danger, but actually go out and look for it. Exposing ourselves to danger made us develop the skills we needed to survive. Adventure, with all its requisite danger and wildness, is a deeply spiritual longing written in the soul of man.

We’ve been programmed to be territorial, just like our closest primate relatives, the chimpanzees. To give you an example, in 1954, a famous social psychologist convinced twenty-two sets of parents to let him take their 12 year-old boys off their hands for three weeks and took them to a remote place. For the first five days, each group of boys thought it was alone, yet still set about marking territory and creating tribal identities by coming up with rules, songs, rituals, and flags. One boy in each group was chosen as the leader. Once they became aware of the presence of the other group, tribal behavior increased dramatically. They destroyed each other’s flags, raided and vandalized each other’s camps, called each other nasty names, and made weapons. Men are warriors because when living as hunter-gatherers we had to defend our clan.

We are also protectors. When we see someone of our clan or family in danger, we run to their rescue, even if it means we will die in the process. Writing for The Federalist, Jason Farrell says “masculinity, challenged well, is the reason assistant football coach Aaron Feis died in Parkland as he shielded students from bullets while pushing them inside a classroom. The same instinctual response occurred at the Aurora movie theatre when three young men died shielding their girlfriends.”

Sometimes, we even sacrifice ourselves for an ideal — the ideas we believe can improve human lives. There have been brave men, like Greek philosopher Socrates, Italian cosmologist Giordano Bruno, and English statesman Thomas Moore, who chose to die, rather than renounce their ideals and live. These men are some of the great Warrior Bees in the human story.

But much as there are great things about the male software, it also has its bugs and glitches like any computer program, and there is no reason why we shouldn’t constantly work on making it better. After all, we are Homo Sapiens, or wise men.

There is, for example, no reason why we can’t train ourselves to better express our emotions besides sulking, shouting, hitting desks, slamming doors, or punching people in the nose.

Although we are less empathetic, I don’t see why we can’t develop rational compassion, using our brains to understand someone else’s suffering, and then lending our warrior skills, strength, and courage to help out.

Knowing we are territorial, the next time we come across another group of people who look different and speak a different language, instead of destroying their flags, raiding and vandalizing their camp, and calling them nasty names, we can choose to see them as part of the human family, learn from one another, and work together to make the world a better place.

Photo by Aino Tuominen from Pixabay

The human enterprise thrived for hundreds of thousands of years because men and women cooperated, side by side, as equals, bringing their unique traits, strengths and powers to bear on a shared adventure. We’d do well by remembering that the Greek goddess Harmonia was born from the union of Ares, the god of war, and Aphrodite, goddess of love.

Realizing we lost our way ten thousand years ago, we must now ‘hark back’ — a phrase used in hunting to describe the act of returning along a path to recover a lost scent.

While men get the hang of it, it’s best the world let women take the wheel. Just don’t leave us by the side of the road. You might need us to replace a flat tire now and then, or act as your human shield in case we come across armed bandits along the way.


Follow my book’s heroic journey to publication.

Raising Children in the Land of Fear

A lesson on perspective.

In the first episode of ‘Journeys to the Ends of the Earth,’ photojournalist David Adams travels across the shimmering heat of the Sahara desert with a Tuareg caravan. These fierce nomads have crisscrossed this forbidding landscape for thousands of years calling it ‘The Land of Fear.’

While Adams’ account of the Tuareg life is altogether fascinating, there was one scene which made me pause. It’s when Adams says the Tuareg set their makeshift camps at least five miles away from the nearest water source.

That’s crazy! I thought to myself. Why would anyone do that in such an inhospitable climate?

They do so, Adams explains, so that their children don’t take water for granted.

Stunned, I had to stop watching. I couldn’t help but contrast the Tuareg perspective with that of the industrialized West and wondered if living in close proximity to abundance explains why it’s so hard for us to count our blessings. In this part of the world, I thought, the Tuareg practice would likely get them sued for child abuse.

When young, my go-to response when I broke something at home was, “We can always buy a new one.” Born into wealth, I grew up thinking money grew on trees and took everything for granted. It drove my dad insane, yet, instead of straightening me out, he gave me a free pass tinctured with a brief sermon. Later in life, I would pay dearly for such disregard.

Now that I can barely sustain myself, I wish I would’ve been raised like a Tuareg child or shared the life of the boys who shined shoes at the park in front of my childhood home in Guatemala.

lustrador

Across our front street, the park had curved pathways shaded by tall, broad-leaf trees, where these boys, as young as seven, shined shoes for men in hats during their lunch break or after work. These kids did not attend school. Their meager earnings were mostly handed over to their fathers to buy alcohol. Looking down at them from the roof of my house, I envied their freedom, the ruggedness stamped on their brown, sinewy bodies, the dexterity with which they propelled discarded bicycle rims with long sticks held with their stained hands, and the way they laughed as they raced behind them. Meanwhile, surrounded by abundance, I was bored and unhappy.

Norman Douglas, author of ‘South Wind,’ noticed that the children who have the most fun, the children who are most inventive, are those who have absolutely nothing to play with.

William Kamkwamba was such a boy… a boy who harnessed the wind and saved his family and village from starvation.

In my book, ‘The Hero in You,’ I use William’s story as an example to boys of how poverty and hardship are often catalysts for ingenuity.

Excerpt from Chapter 5

William was born in Malawi, Africa. He lived in a village of about ten mudbrick houses, painted white, with roofs made from long grasses collected from nearby swamps. For most of William’s life, his village didn’t have electricity, just oil lamps that spewed smoke and coated their lungs with soot. His family, like others in the village, were poor farmers who grew mostly corn.

Unlike most kids in rich countries, William had no toys to play with. He and his friends scavenged for empty cardboard boxes which they would wash and then use to build toy trucks. They built larger wagons, like go-carts, using thick tree branches to build the frame and giant sweet potatoes for wheels. The wheel axles were made of poles carved from a blue-gum tree. They also loved to play soccer but had no money to buy real soccer balls, so made their own with plastic shopping bags which they wadded together and tied with rope.

I think kids are better off without flashy, fancy, noisy toys. If I were still young and was writing a letter to Santa Claus, I’d ask him for just five things: A stick, some string, a cardboard box plus a cardboard tube and dirt!

The year William turned 13, he became aware things in him were changing — not only his body, but also his interests. Like you, William was growing up.

He and his best friend Gilbert began to take apart old radios to see what was inside and figure out how they worked. For a long time, William had been fascinated by the sounds coming out of a radio and wanted to know how they got there.

“Why are these wires different colors?” “Where do they all go?” The boys had many questions but no answers, so William set out to find them himself. Before long, people were bringing their broken radios and asking William and Gilbert to fix them.

At that point, William didn’t know much about science, or that doing science could be a job. But he was becoming more and more curious about how things worked. For example, he wanted to know how gasoline makes car engines work, so he began stopping truck drivers to ask them: “What makes this truck move? How does it work?” But no one could tell him. It seemed to William that people in his village were happy enjoying their cars and radios without knowing how they work, but not him. “I was filled with the desire to understand,” he says, “and the questions never stopped coming. If finding these answers was the job of a scientist, then I wanted to become one.”

Albert Einstein, the most famous scientist of all times, once said he had no special talent but was only passionately curious, like William.

I don’t know what makes people stop using the Life Force of Curiosity as they grow older. They stop asking questions like ‘What if?’ or ‘I wonder…’ or ‘If only…’ Most of our world’s greatest inventions have come about precisely because someone asked these questions. Sometimes these discoveries can even save lives as William was about to prove.

When William was 14, his country experienced a terrible drought. Within five months, Malawians were starving to death. William’s family ate only one meal a day. Unable to feed his dog, Khamba, William took him out to the field one day, tied him to a tree, and left him there to die. There was nothing else he could do. With little money, his father could no longer pay for his education so he had to drop out of school.

“It was a future I could not accept,” William says.

Now imagine yourself in a similar situation: living in a cramped, mudbrick hut with your parents and six sisters, no electricity, only able to eat once a day; you’re hungry all the time and can’t go to school anymore because your parents can’t afford it. Imagine further that you’ve never used a computer, know nothing about the Internet, and barely speak English. This is what William was up against when he was fourteen years old.

But rather than whining about it or complaining that the world was unfair and owed him a better life, or looking for an easy way out, William imagined a better future for himself, his family, and his people, and decided to do something about it.

Because he couldn’t go to class, William spent his time playing board games with his other friends whose parents could not afford sending them to school anymore. “But these games weren’t enough to keep my mind stimulated,” William says. “I needed a better hobby. Perhaps reading would keep my brain from going mushy.”

William decided to go to the library.

I could talk all day long about why you should read and learn instead of playing video games, but I’ll let William’s story convince you of why it’s such a good idea.

“Come to borrow some books?” the librarian asked William as he entered the small, musty room. It was the first time he had set foot inside a library.

He nodded, then asked, “How do I do it?”

William spent that first morning sitting on the floor, flipping through pages and marveling at the pictures. He says that for the first time in his life, he experienced what it felt like to escape without going anywhere.

Wanting to keep up, he checked out the same books his friends were studying at school. Back home, he fashioned a hammock from empty flour sacks and strung it between two trees. From then on, he spent his mornings at the library and the hot afternoons reading in his hammock under shade.

One Saturday, Gilbert met him at the library just to look at books for fun. The first book William spotted was the ‘Integrated Science’ textbook used by his older, former schoolmates. Turning the pages, he saw a photo of a large waterfall located in southern Malawi where the country’s electrical company operated a hydro plant. This is basically a machine that produces electricity using falling or flowing water to turn the blades of a turbine which spins a generator.

“Well,” he told Gilbert, “this sounds exactly like a bicycle dynamo. It lights a bulb by turning a wheel.”

Dynamos are like small metal bottles with a grooved spinning cap that attach to the wheel of a bicycle. William had seen them around the village before but didn’t know what they were for until he saw his father’s friend riding-up to their house on a bicycle with its headlamp shining. As soon as he stopped, the light turned off. It was the dynamo that created electricity to power the lamp.

The photo in the book made William think about the swamps behind his house which also created a waterfall during the rainy season.

“What if I put a dynamo underneath it?” William asked Gilbert. “The falling water could do the spinning and produce electricity. We could listen to the radio whenever we wanted.”

Putting a dynamo under the waterfall would be easy. The problem was running wires all the way to his house to power the lights and radio. That would cost a fortune. And what about during the dry season when there is no waterfall?

“I guess I’ll have to research this a little more,” he thought.

William kept reading, but because his English was so poor, he struggled with many words, so went to look for the dictionary on a bottom shelf of the library. When he squatted to grab it, he noticed a book he’d never seen before. It was pushed deep into the shelf so hidden from view. It was a textbook called ‘Using Energy.’

William says this book changed his life.

Textbook Using Energy

The cover of the book showed a long row of windmills. William had no idea what a windmill was. All he saw were tall white towers with three blades spinning like a fan.

He called Gilbert over and pointed at the picture. “Don’t these look like the pinwheels we used to make?”

“Yeah,” Gilbert said, “but these things are giant. What are they for?”

“Let’s find out,” William said, and began to read:

‘Energy is all around you every day. Sometimes energy needs to be converted to another form before it is useful to us. How can we convert forms of energy? Imagine hostile forces have invaded your town. If you needed a hero to save the day, it’s unlikely you would go to the nearest university and drag a scientist to the battlefront. Yet, according to legend, it was not a general who saved the Greek city of Syracuse when the Roman fleet attacked it in 214 B.C… it was a scientist.’

The book went on to explain how a Greek inventor, named Archimedes, used his ‘Death Ray’ — basically a bunch of mirrors — to reflect the sun onto the enemy ships until, one by one, they caught fire and sank. It was an example of how you can use the sun to produce energy. Just like with the sun, windmills could also be used to generate power.

It all snapped together for William.

“If the wind spins the blades of a windmill,” he thought, “and the dynamo works by turning the pedals of a bike, these two things could work together! If I can somehow get the wind to spin the blade on a windmill and rotate the magnets in a dynamo, I can create electricity and power a lightbulb. All I need is a windmill and I could have lights! No more smoky lanterns in my house. I could stay awake and read instead of going to bed at seven.” But most important, a windmill could also pump water. With his village and the rest of the country starving to death, a water pump could save lives by irrigating crops.

“Gilbert!” William exclaimed. “I’m going to build a windmill!”

William had never tried anything like it, but he decided to step out of his comfort zone and embark on a hero’s quest.

Gilbert smiled. “When do we start?”

“We start today.”

For the next month, William woke up early each day and went to a scrapyard to find pieces for his windmill. Now that he had a purpose and a plan, he began to find exactly what he needed. “Where others see garbage, I see opportunity,” he says. When he wasn’t at the scrapyard, he hung out at the library or sat in his hammock and read. His imagination was constantly at work.

People in his village thought he was crazy. His room was full of junk from the scrapyard. “What’s wrong with you?” his mother asked one day. “Your friends don’t behave this way. Look at this room! It looks like a madman’s room. Only madmen collect garbage.”

William proved them wrong.

Despite the many things that went wrong, he persisted, and brought his windmill to life.

Tuareg camp

In the ‘Land of Fear,’ the Tuareg camp five miles away from the nearest water source so their children learn to not take it for granted.

The shoeshine boys in my country were happier and more inventive than a privileged child looking down on them with envy.

A poor boy in Malawi used hardship as a catalyst for ingenuity.

Meanwhile, children in the West grow up in abundance, plied with the latest gadgets, toys, electronics, and myriad distractions, which partly explains the growing epidemic of anxiety, ADHD, and depression plaguing American children.

In Kenya and Tanzania, the Maasai warriors greet each other with the phrase “Kasserian Ingera?” — “Are the children well?”

“Not well at all,” would be my answer should one of them greet me at a shopping mall in an industrialized city, especially on a Black Friday.

Parents in this part of the world might want to consider removing their children from their world of plentitude to spark their inventiveness and teach them to not take everything for granted.