Friday, December 21, 2012

The Wisdom Gap

This is a piece I wrote in Mid-March, 2012. I had just called off a romance, facing the fact that I would never fit into her world. In a two-day period, I wrote my song, 'St. Patrick's Day' ... and this small essay. I opted not to post it ... and the blog soon fell silent for many months. Here it is.

Well ... it turns out that there was still a little bit of winter stuck in the chute. It rained here in Thousand Oaks today. And there was thunder and lightning and cold blustery winds as well. I have the lap-top actually sitting in my lap just for the warmth of it on the tops of my thighs. Yes ... it's come to that.

I've been a little bit off-radar lately. Work has begun to come in, and I've spent some nice uncomplicated hours just trading calories of muscle-energy for the value stored in money. I've spent enough time wrestling ideas of late, to appreciate that simple exchange. Also, the romance that had inspired me for a while has deflated; like a bright balloon snared on a radio tower, proving again that unlikely flights are fragile. The people remain, and remain friends, but reality - like gravity - won't be gladly denied. Too many interests and commitments pulling in opposite directions. We're not in charge here. That which calls us forward is.

But it's good. It's proper. And, as is always promised when disappointment leans from the shadows to slap me awake, a fine and truthful new song is here. Well truthful to be sure.

I haven't been writing much. I haven't been rewarded when I do. The reason for that is this: as I think deeper and deeper below the surface, I find that less and less of what I used to believe rings true to me. And that has been a problem for my friends. I think though, that it ought not to be. You might think that growing older should automatically produce a change in thinking, and that that result would then be accepted as the wisdom of experience. But something went wrong with my generation. We somehow locked our minds onto the strange notion that wisdom flows not downward from the experienced, but upward from the pure of heart. We have dislodged respect from those who have won knowledge the hard way, and bestowed it upon the untarnished soul. The child. The creature who knows nothing of the world beyond it's own emotional responses.

It's a leap of imagination, this idea that youth knows all it needs to know when it blooms into this harsh world. And that we all must become as children ourselves, lest we become 'set in our ways'. I think it is a youth-centeredness that occurs rarely in history, but is here now. Always, I suppose, youth has been valued for the strength and beauty it gives so fleetingly. That is lovely and ought never to change. Wisdom, though, was a decent consolation prize, to be shrugged into like an old coat as youth's sun-struck beauty faded out. Knowing what is really going on. A sharp understanding of people and their motivations. This was what we had when we no longer had young bodies and bright eyes.

But a mass abdication is underway - has been underway for a long time. We are now embarrassed to grow old. I don't mean physically; we try to prolong our youth, but even we know that the fix is in and the physical decline inevitable. What I mean is that we are ashamed to grow older in what we know. We want to remain - in our thinking - the people we once were. We want the beliefs that inspired us when we had not much experience ... to inspire us still. We demand it. It sets up an odd juxtaposition.

On the one hand we act as if change is life's ultimate sacrament. It was, remember, Mr. Obama's flower to the world. We'll change, he promised. Change will be our legacy  It's all about change. Yet, when somebody is observed to change his mind - unless he changes it into alignment with ours - he is seen only to have been corrupted. And I have been the object of much frustration from friends who cannot figure out how to keep caring about me when I agree with a group they have all agreed to hate.

Once, years ago, I was in the living room of friends in Hollywood. Everybody there was a musician or an artist of one or another stripe. The conversation turned to public funding for the arts. It was axiomatic with this group that the government ought to be pumping money into the artistic community with great gusto. I'd already been an artist long enough to know that being subsidized for the doing of art, does not necessarily produce good art.  I said something like: "I don't know why taxpayers ought to be on the hook for whatever somebody decides to call art. Seems to me that if what we make is valuable, somebody will pay us for it." A hush fell over the room. Our hostess looked at me with eyes narrowed and said, "You're getting ..." and she stopped. 

"I'm getting what?" I asked back, "conservative?" 

"No" she said, "Old." I might have been thirty-eight. But 'old' and 'conservative' were co-equal insults for this staunchly liberal woman. I still know her, and I doubt that she'd still use those words interchangeably, but I don't doubt that even now she scans the inside of her head for any stray thought that might be deemed 'conservative' and quickly destroys it like a note burned in an ashtray.

If people, as they grow older, hold rigidly to ideas they held in college, then the natural system of knowledge being accumulated and passed down is derailed. This makes for a sort of Wisdom Gap. Where will those in college now look for a deeper take on callow principals if their elders refuse to modify their thinking as time goes by? One cannot entirely rely on professors as sources of wisdom. They move from one protected environment to another, school after school, until finally achieving the ultimate protection - tenure. What challenge would they face that might cause a change in thinking? Not much, I'd say, considering that in most colleges there is eighty to ninety percent consensus in political thought. Often even more.

A few more minutes with my long-ago hostess. Her husband is a fine artist and a friend of mine. I love him dearly. But he is the sort that I have always feared in conversation. The type of liberal who holds his beliefs with none of the self-doubt that I have always figured ought to accompany ALL beliefs. He is equally sure of his contempt for opposing views. I'll listen intently to the conflicted theologian, or the scientist who admits to a few problems with his key theory. I'll take more seriously a woman whose love for me is conditional. I suppose that I have always acknowledged the transitory nature of beliefs, as I have understood them to be ideas - or bundles of ideas - that groups of people have adopted as a sort of what-we-know-so-far thing. The world is flat? Fine. But wait ... the shadow of the earth upon the moon is clearly round. So ... we were wrong about the flat earth. Okay. Makes sense to me. Scratch the old idea, and get used to the new one.

But what happens when ideas that we love for their counter-culture, anti-establishment modernism are tested and found lacking in significant ways? Does an idea have to be old to be wrong?

My friends refuse to jettison beliefs even when they are shown not to work. Instead they insist that any such failure is really sabotage from the right-wing. Ideas born in the theories of academics, that have never worked in application, are still held as truths. 

My wife and I had kids a bit before they did. But both couples were raising children around the same time, and often I would see them with theirs in tow. Politically they believed that the rich ought to provide for the poor through state agency, workers were good and bosses bad, and that the underprivileged (particularly minorities) were not to have much asked of them. But as parents, they had their children doing chores, going to religious school, accepting accountability for their mistakes, and working hard to carry their own weight. In short, these two ultra-liberals were raising their kids in an old-school manner, completely consonant with conservative values. They understood instinctively that coddling their own offspring would ultimately hurt them. Yet they never missed an opportunity to bestow victim status upon any group that organizes around a perceived slight. Provided - of course - that those accused of the slight were white Americans with money and or traditional values.

What happened to me, was that - instead of burning to change every last tradition on planet earth - I changed how I felt about a lot of the traditions and rules that I had thought needed to be changed. "Oh, that works better than this? Okay." 

This is not to say that I accept blindly these days all of what my parents believed. All beliefs, far as I can tell, are subject to adjustment as time goes by. But I am now 'Old' enough to understand that much of what we have pejoratively called 'conservative' thinking is really pragmatic thinking. What works? That is the basic question. And further, because we are a pluralistic democracy, what works for the greatest number of people? After I have looked at a problem, and seen it in its historical context, and watched versions of it solved or not in my own experience ... I claim the right to act upon it - or support those who will - regardless of how such actions might be labeled by those who make a living off political debate.

If a change to how we live as Americans will serve the greatest number of people ... terrific, show me how I can help. But if the way we have been doing it serves the greater number, I won't carry a placard just to prove that I am not growing old. And I will gladly step back if I find myself standing on nothing, So, to my liberal friends who are disappointed in me, I offer no apologies. I hope we'll still be friends, but you guys are gonna have to work that out on you own.

Dave Morrison, Mid-March, 2012

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

It's Not A Hardware Problem (on Sandy Hook)

Well here we are, the Monday after the tragic child-murders in Newtown Connecticut. The nation has been twisted into a turmoil unparalleled since the 9/11 attacks. In a way this feels even worse.  That the victims were mostly children tears at the heart in a way no other killing can. That they were massacred in the season that we set aside for particular expressions of kindness and love - especially toward children - adds a confounding layer to our grief. And that this act of evil was not perpetrated by fanatics with beliefs and traditions different than ours, but by one of our own, makes it particularly terrifying. Because we know it will happen again. And that we will not see it coming. So now, as the shocked silence gives way to angry rhetoric, I thought that I would add my voice.

I won't emote further about the incident itself. That has been done much and much-better by others. But I would like to offer my insights as to what might be the underlying causes for this lengthening string of mass murders, and what - if anything - might be done to prevent those that wait just beyond the horizon of time. The arguments this time are much the same as they've been in times past. They break down into four basic conversations, and are as follows.

1. We need more gun control.

2. We need to re-introduce moral training into our schools.

3. We need to increase school security.

4. We need to better care for the mentally ill.

The first position is the one that usually hits the airwaves first. This is the go-to for all the usual suspects on the left side of the politi-cultural spectrum. The argument is made that nobody needs guns other than ones specifically meant for game-hunting, and that if we gradually eliminate assault-weapons and even hand-guns, there will eventually be much fewer of them in homes across the country. And that when one of these angry youngsters snaps, there will likely be no light, easily concealable weapon handy. This anti-gun call to action invariably brings quick response from those who distrust big government, doubt its ability to protect us, and suspect that it might itself become that from which we need protecting. This is the argument from the 2nd Amendment. Both sides of this debate have been honed to a fine edge, and neither will vanquish the other any time soon. I see value in both positions, and problems with each.

The second conversation has to do with what we are teaching our kids. The shooters in these school and theater attacks are young people. In this debate, we hear voices from the Right calling out for 'God' to return to our schools. They point out that without the moral imperatives traditionally provided by the belief in an all-seeing God, a human will sometimes not develop a conscience. And that when twisted by stress, bullying, rejection, or failed parenting, a young person can easily slide into dark obsession centered on punishing the world which has hurt him. Without 'God', it is argued, what prevents the youngster from acting upon these urges?  The counter-arguments come mainly from the Left, and usually involve statistics showing that gun-violence is markedly less prevalent in the most secular countries. As a grace note, it will often be remarked that religion did little to halt the inquisition or the trajectories of four hi-jacked airliners eleven years ago. Again ... a debate that has produced more seasoned debaters than solutions.

We've been adding security measures to schools for a long time. Many campuses that were once wide open are now fully fenced, with entrants funneled through a metal detector. Zero-tolerance laws regarding weapons on campus are not new. Attack-drills are joining fire-drills on the list of prudent precautions. Sandy Hook Elementary had all of these measures in place to little avail. What do we do? Keep layering on the security until schools resemble medium-security prisons with razor-wire encircling the ball-fields and snipers watching from guard towers? Or do we have one faculty member or several who carry handguns and are trained to use them? These are unattractive ideas for all of us ... yet we fear that without them we leave kids vulnerable. 

The discussion about mental illness is not specific to school shootings, but rears its head every time one of these attacks sends us searching for something, ANYTHING that might prevent the next one. It's seldom entirely clear that these shooters are actually mentally ill. The Tucson and Georgia Tech gunmen seem to be the clearest examples of an identifiable break with reality. The Aurora shooter and those at Columbine are harder to peg as sick in the traditional sense. The jury is out, of course, on the most recent killer. This is a tough nut to crack. Schizophrenia often waits to appear until early adulthood. Who wants to admit that his or her beloved child is coming unraveled? And at a time in life when many kids pass through dark periods to emerge as normal, can any of us be sure we would spot the onset of serious mental illness in a child we love?

So these are the ideas that most often get kicked around in the aftermath of one of these tragic attacks. I want to come at it from another angle. I'll make my case and then draw from all of the above in my suggestions for preventive action.

Those who know me well know that I am a staunch proponent of evolution. As far as I am concerned, we are Homo Sapiens. We are a particularly intelligent species of primate. This is - for me - beyond the point where it can be denied. And though I have great respect for my religious friends, and am perfectly willing to have them set God as the designer of evolution ... I always refer back to my knowledge of human origins much in the way they refer to scripture. 

As far as we know, we are the most intellectually advanced species that has ever lived on planet Earth. No other species can do what I am doing right now, or would even be able to imagine wanting to do it. That you can read this for its meaning is akin to a miracle. And it may be one. But our fantastic abilities do not come unalloyed. Our massive cerebral cortex - where all the goodies are born - is built upon an older, more primitive mammalian brain. And beneath that, closely linked to our central nervous system, an even older 'lizard' brain. And these old brains are still influencing us. It's a little bit like putting a Ferrari engine into an old Studebaker pickup truck. The marvels of the new engine are seriously limited by the capabilities of the chassis that supports it.

So when I see an aberrant behavior such as the shootings in Connecticut, and as I watch a nation grope for understanding, I ask myself different questions than others might. When many ask plaintively, "How could this happen?", it's a rhetorical question. They don't really expect an answer. They don't believe that an answer is possible. So they reach for explanations outside the confines of the human being who produced the act. It must be evil itself, they say, a power outside of us that roams the world looking for outlet. Or it's the guns themselves. If we could eliminate guns, we would eliminate the urge to shoot. Could it be that he 'snapped', and from that came an impulse foreign to the rest of us? Or if it's a form of mental sickness might we effectively treat or quarantine those similarly stricken? Aren't people basically good? And if so, what can cause such a terrible act?

First I want to disabuse you of that one assumption, if in fact you assume it. People are NOT basically good. Nor are they basically bad. People are - like all organisms - driven by the need to survive. And having accomplished that, the organism wants to replicate itself. All of the wonderful things we modern humans do are grafted onto the ancient drives - a pre-existing condition, if you will -  and therefore our sophisticated modern selves are forever embarrassed by the primitives in the baesment.

More 'enlightened' goals are suggested and promoted through culture. This is the primary role of religion and the arts. And the preference for religion-based morality co-exists nicely with the conservative's desire for less government, whereas the Left believes moral accountability is best done through law and policy. Whatever the truth, be certain that humans are not automatically moral, though empathy and compassion are also part of the survival package stowed away in our genes. We have goodness in us as potential. But it must be nurtured and strengthened. Particularly in men.

All of these shooters are male, and all are young. It is my belief that the whole of every moral system ever devised is primarily designed for the control of one sub-set of humans: the young male. Mostly it is young males who commit acts of violence. Sure there are some instances where females kill or older people kill, but by shear numbers, it is overwhelmingly young males who commit murder. If you asked me what drives them to it, I'd have to say this: 


You're thinking that I've lost my train of thought. You're thinking that I have brought you this far only to deliver an anti-climax worthy of a 'Ghost-Hunters' TV episode, or an Evil Knevel canyon-jump. But stay with me. Think for a second about why - apart from immediate need - men do anything. They want money or power or a beautiful woman or more land or an Olympic medal or to write a symphony or cure a disease, because the getting of it or doing of it is something others have failed at. The tribal urge within us bids us to best one another. That's how the organism survives and manages to reproduce. It wins at one contest or another. And the only thing that grants it a bit of peace is to be given some acknowledgment of having won.

The Alpha wins the fight, and then is mostly free of the fighting. He only has to defend once in a while. His position is semi-permanent. And that is called status.

If you look past the gilded surfaces and the self-congratulatory explanations, all male human behavior is driven by the need for status. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. A man might be driven to do tremendous good if he has become focused on others who have done good. If Gandhi is his hero, he will try to out-Gandhi Gandhi. He will work tirelessly to be as humble as the most humble. Status isn't tied to any one type of accomplishment, but it is tied to accomplishment of some type. 

And there is this too: because our atavistic instincts evolved in small groups with limited resources, status is perceived as a zero-sum game. It's not enough, in other words, to succeed - it's also necessary that my counterpart fail. If anybody thinks that being smart and educated relieves one of the need to conquer, I ask you to visit my Facebook Timeline and read some of the threads. 

Has anybody else noticed that these school shooters are not athletes? Are there any mass killers who excelled at sports? I doubt it. Because team-sports exist to channel this need for status-seeking conquest among young males into an acceptable behavior. It's here one can learn that through cooperation all members of a group can win. Of course that can only be done by defeating another team, but that's the other guys' problem. Besides, losing together teaches its own lessons.

These shooters are not successful in the social pressure-cooker of high school or college. They are the guys who would historically have been the nerds, accepting their low status as a fact of miserable life. And then, having passed through adolescence and young adulthood, would wake to find that much of what cost them socially in school serves them in later life. And since the geeks were generally meek, it was not such a concern to give them a status-boost akin to a football player's letter. They wouldn't do much damage if denied. 

Kids running in gangs are just the dark version of a sports team. Young males taking territory by force from other young males (or defending it) is exactly the thing to which the analogous rules of football refer. If you think about it, you'll see how the game of Chess is just football for weaklings. It's all about using what you have to defeat an opponent and seize some status.

So what of young people today? Society has made a great effort to deny the inherent differences between boys and girls. It is the prevailing belief among the academic elite that men and women are more-or-less interchangeable. Many young men now have no male role-model close at hand, and societal rights-of-passage are considered passe. (interestingly not among Jews who are vastly under-represented in prisons). So how does a boy who feels an inner rage to compete and win - but is not athletic - ease into a comfortable manhood? Well often they simply do not. Many turn to video games. And there - in the world made by nerds for nerds - they compete in first-person shooter games. These are the games where the action is viewed from behind the eyes of the guy doing all the killing. And the killing is bloody and realistic and the win is linked to body-count. Some young guys play these games for hours every night. How can this possibly have no effect? If people are not influenced by what they take in, then what the hell is advertising all about? Of course we are affected by what we see ... but much more so by what we do. I'm willing to bet that before the Columbine killers donned their gear and went a-murdering, each had 'virtually' killed many thousands.

Of course it is true that most young people who play these games never commit mass murder. Of course. But is it not time to ask ourselves what the net gain is to society that thousands of young men spend their spare time practicing murder simulations in the same way that a pilot might work at a flight simulator? If the pilot can become accustomed to landing a plane thusly, why would a young man not become more ready for an actual killing spree?

But how does this relate to the seeking of status? Well, monkey see, monkey do. These murderers are covered by the media for months, and never go away entirely. Do you remember the names of the Columbine victims? Even one? But though I am purposely not mentioning the shooters' names, you know them. You also know of their struggles and successes. You may have read their writings, or seen videos of them. They are - for want of a better word - celebrities. And in our world, celebrity is status. So a boy who feels weak and powerless, and soothes that with violent wish-fulfillment games, knows one sure-fire way to knock us all to our knees.

Many people are now calling for much greater restrictions on firearms. Some - like a friend of mine - are demanding the confiscation and destruction of all guns. These people are not concerned with the rights of law-abiding adults. They are understandably terrified at the thought of more children being slaughtered to give some twisted jerk a win. 

I have another idea. I think that we ought to outlaw first-person shooter video games for people under the age of 21. Is this an abridgment of rights? Damn straight. But as a society we have long believed that we are duty-bound to inhibit the behaviors of young people. Could it be done? It would be difficult. Perhaps there is a way that a small scanner could be sold by game manufacturers, and unless a player could produce a valid ID, the game would not operate. Let the free market address the problem. They'll find a way.

Next, I think that we ought to make sure that every boy has contact with male teachers in school, and that the subject of male human nature be discussed in all-male settings with honesty and a disregard for political-correctness. Boys need male role models who will be frank with them about what it is they are feeling. There are men's groups all over the country of the 'Iron John' variety. I'm sure that many of these men would volunteer to speak candidly in high schools. 

Bring back the chess club. Bring back the debate club. Let the scrawny kids get their mojo workin'. Again ... this is not a girls issue. Boys are slipping badly in many areas of society. Let's drop the unisex B.S. and let boys be boys. 

In the meantime, I would put one well-trained faculty member into every school, who is permitted and required to carry a lethal weapon. The police and the NRA would be happy to train such people. The identity of this person would be a secret, like the air-marshals. I think it would be prudent, and would pose no danger to students.

We must take another look at dealing with mental-illness. Would it be too much to have screenings in the same way that students are checked for disease? It would surely be largely ineffective, but even if we never know it, we might save lives and head off some non-violent mental illness as well.

Next, I believe that gun restrictions must be consistent from state to state. Dealers require background-checks and register every gun purchase. That's appropriate. And I think that a gun-safety exam ought to be given and trigger locks required for every gun kept in a home. All out-of-store gun purchases whether at gun shows or between private parties ought to carry a registration requirement just like the dealers have. This could be done with smart-phone apps direct to government data-bases. I don't see how any of this would negatively impact the rights of gun owners. Guns are - like cars - potentially deadly devices and should be as track-able as a car.

I agree that faith-based moral training is effective. But many Americans no longer believe in a god. This will not change, most likely, except to become more pronounced. But that doesn't mean that moral training does not belong in schools. We should be teaching societal morals in a formal way, basing them on which codes of behavior have produced good societies historically. Additionally, empathy training should be at least an occasional part of early education. Empathy is just the ability to vividly imagine the pain of others. If this was openly encouraged - perhaps through verbal exercises or play-acting - a child's natural ability to empathize might be brought out. Also this would be helpful in identifying children with a deficit in this area so that they might get special attention.

And it is time for Hollywood to accept their role in the culture. Any hyper-violent film ought to receive a rating that would help parents avoid it. And we, as consumers, ought to do just that.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. These are just my own opinions, based on my own perceptions. Feel free to share yours with me, or mine with others.

Dave Morrison ... December 17, 2012

Friday, March 30, 2012

Why Does Time Fly?

It is common knowledge that time seems to pass at different rates. We all know the old saw, "Time flies when you're having fun". And we also know that, as we get older, the days seem to slip by faster and faster. I'm old enough now, that I hear that complaint a lot. Every year ... shorter than the one before. Why? We know that the Earth is not really lapping the sun at a faster rate. We know that it is our perceptions that have changed. But what exactly causes this changed perception, and can anything be done to slow the calendar down a bit?

I have good news. Not only have I figured out why time goes by faster each year for most of us, but I can tell you how to slow it down. You can make your years - from now on - go by as slowly as they did back in High School. And you can enrich your life while doing it.

So why does it happen? There are a couple of theories out there. The one I hear most has to do with fractions. The idea is that, as we grow older, each passing year represents a smaller fraction of our life in total. So at fifty, a year is only a fiftieth of my total life, while at twelve, a year is a full twelfth of the whole thing. We all remember the seemingly endless weeks leading up to summer vacation. Back then, life moved like a glacier set in concrete.

The 'fraction' thing sounds like a pretty reasonable explanation. I once thought that myself. It's possible that I even made it up. I remember saying it to people, but not where I first heard it. But no matter ... because it's nonsense. Forget about the problem of why it would be that our brains would be ticking off the hours of our lives like a stop-watch and then calculating each according to it's comparative fractional value. Forget about that. In order to disprove this theory one need only find that twelve-year-old and ask him. Ask first in the late spring. Ask if the year is flying by. Then ask, in the fall, if summer seemed long or short. You know the answers you'll get. If that all takes too long, here's a Cliff's Notes version. Ask on Friday morning and again Sunday at bedtime. The week will be dragging endlessly on, while the weekend will have come and gone in the wink of an eye.

What makes that happen? The answer lies in understanding a couple of things. First we have to consider why one year might seem very long and another very short. I propose that the only way of gauging that is by looking back across it while it is still recent history. Any considerable span of time is made up of many, many days, hours, moments. The more of them that we can remember, the fuller will seem the span which contains them. And if it seems chock-full of days and moments, it will seem like a long span. If on the other hand, we don't vividly remember an awful lot of moments, it will - being sparsely populated by memories - seem to have gone by quickly.

So what would cause a year to contain so many memorable days that it seems like it must have been an extra-long year? Are you ready? Trauma! I don't mean the kind of trauma that sends you to a hospital by helicopter, or into the arms of therapy. I am talking about traumatic memory. Anything that makes you feel slightly afraid, is entered into your long-term memory. This is an evolutionary adaptation. It is, to a creature living in a dangerous world, of great value to remember when and where that creature encountered danger, so that it might avoid the danger next time round. Almost stepped off a ledge? Better etch that into the permanent record. Ate a flower that looked good but made your guts twist into knots? Don't forget what that looked like. Snakes like to dangle from trees, bears hole up in caves. All of this info needs never to be forgotten.

On the other hand, for those long days of summer where one had only to eat from nearby trees, and occasionally mate, or wrastle with the younguns? Pleasant, but uneventful. Not much point in wasting space on the hard-drive. We inherited the basic structures of those old primate brains, and that is why some time flies by and some drags. It has everything to do with how much of the time contained within any span was fraught with tension, thereby rating moments stored in the brain permanently.

For our twelve-year-old, the whole school year is tension. There are things to learn that don't seem learnable, tests always looming, the confusing mystery of girls, and likely bullies in the schoolyard and imminent failure on the ball-field. He's got a long-term memory working overtime. Summer is a lark by comparison. You see my point.

It isn't only danger that can etch a memory deep. Nor is a permanently stored memory always a bad memory. All that is required is that, whatever you are doing, it takes you far enough outside your comfort zone that your mammal brain captures it into memory just to be on the safe side.

Imagine that you are fifteen and trying out for the cheerleading squad. Imagine that you do great and go home victorious. You will never forget that, and you might think that gives the lie to my theory. But it doesn't. Even though that was a day of triumph and joy ... it was also a day wherein you risked rejection and disappointment. Chances are that you will remember in great detail, the mental processes that gripped you in the days leading up to that pivotal moment. You may remember the moment itself, and the heightened reality directly after. But probably the day after cheerleader try-outs is now lost to memory.

To keep it simple, it's like this: Whatever you do that takes you out of your comfort zone - either voluntarily and excitedly, or due to misfortune - will be remembered. The more impact that it has on you emotionally, the longer it will stay with you (excepting, of course, severe trauma that leads to some sort of self-protective blocking). You'll remember the first overwhelming joy at meeting a loved one, but not every moment that you later spent with that same loved one. One moment knocked you out of your comfort zone, however joyously, and the latter moments were within your comfort zone and didn't trigger the internal tape machine.

So, it's the number of moments per year that you can enter into long-term memory, that will determine how long that year will seem upon reflection.

And if your years are going by faster and faster, it is probably because you have worked at making your life run smoother and more predictably. That's what we mostly do. We are more confident in our jobs, more comfortable in our relationships, more repetitious in our day-to-day habits. We have engineered lives for ourselves that insure a safe and snug cocoon firmly within our most comfortable zone. That is why we turn around and the summer is gone and we don't know where it went.

You are probably way ahead of me by now. You are probably thinking of all the things that you've wanted to do but put off because to attempt them scares you a little. Those are, of course, the very things that will slow down the merry-go-round.

As we get older, we think a little bit more often of the end. I can't speak for you, but I don't want my life to have just been a rote, careful walk through a predetermined course of action. I am terrified at the thought of getting to the last day, and knowing that I let it all get away from me. I look back on vast tracts of time and barely remember what I was doing during those years. It's almost a Rip Van Winkle sort of feeling. My beard is gray. My skin is loose. What happened?

But I am pleased to say that I have gotten the clock slowed down considerably in the last few years. I did it by stepping (and by being pushed) out beyond the confines of my own predictability. And I can't see any reason why I can't stay just enough off-balance to keep the memory-camera firing away and storing.

I'm not talking about grand bucket-list gestures here. You will not see me on your way up Everest. Just a little more of what I think I might, and a little less of what I know I can. That should do the trick.

Dave Morrison March 30, 2012

An Internet Sabbath?

Hey there. It's been a little over a week since I last posted anything. The last few pieces I wrote were a lot of work. I like those things, but I didn't hear too much about 'em. Sometimes people aren't thrilled with what I have to say. I might've hit some nerves. This one shouldn't bother anybody.

Also, though I think my stuff reads quick, there is no denying that it's kinda long. People don't have a lot of spare time for reading. I get that. Never in the history of all things historical, have there been so many distractions in all of our lives.And since I am publishing only online, anybody reading anything I write has to battle the urge to just very quickly check their Facebook feed, or their Twitter feed, or their Ebay auction or inbox. Someday soonish, all the good essays will be available in book form so that they might be read in the bathroom; you know, the way civilized people do it.

Till then, as a gift to my readers - real and imagined - I am going to fire off a few short things. This is the first of them. And since I've begun with an acknowledgement of how distracted we all are by our many portals of Internet connectivity, I'd like to talk about an idea I've been thinking about since the first time I missed an appointment because I could not stop hitting the Refresh button on my old Outlook email program nearly a decade ago.

I thought then that we ought to take a page from the book of our Jewish brothers and sisters and declare one day a week as off-limits vis-a-vis all forms of web-based technology.

In recent years I have had the opportunity to share a Shabbat dinner or two with friends. I watched as they repeated millennia-old rituals, as a lead-in to a full 24 hour period in which no work would be allowed to interfere with things of importance and meaning. I'm no expert on this as I grew up in a casually Catholic home. We were made to clean-up and go to church, but nobody ever tried to stop anybody from working. But there was, in our home, the remnants of a Sunday Sabbath. Chores were mostly a Saturday thing, and on Sundays we'd often go for a drive or some other family outing, and we at least tried to have the whole crew at the dinner table.

I suppose that it isn't really work itself that the Jews are guarding against. This tradition took root during the time when families were fed by farmers and herders and artisans. Days were long and carried workers far into the field. I think the prohibition of work was really - even then - simply the prohibition of distraction from God and family. If a man could be allowed to work every day, many of them would. If they did, they would eventually have little in common with their families. And the sages of that time understood that people often need to be forced to do the very things that will benefit them the most. Particularly if the benefit is to be one that reveals itself mostly in the long term.

As I sit writing this, I cannot take a second to pull up my Facebook page. I cannot see that somebody has responded to the brilliant comment I left this morning on that controversial thread. I cannot notice the bone-head response that some knuckle-dragger left to counter that brilliance. I cannot then decide to - just very briefly - answer that comment with an argument so perfectly constructed that the opposition will fall silent in awe. Or to look up later and see that two hours have disappeared, and my momentum has dissipated into the air.

I can't do any of that. I can't because, before I sat down to write this, I went into the main house and disconnected the cord that powers the wi-fi router that sends all of that distraction winging through the air to where I sit happily typing this in the Hobo Dojo. I do that every time I sit down to write. And I do it because, if I don't, I won't sit down to write. I might sit down to watch documentaries on Netflix, or watch Noam Chomsky debate William F. Buckley on Youtube. I might even learn how to play "She Thinks I Still Care" just the way George Jones intended it. But I will not write a blog post. Or a song. Or a letter. (a letter?). I can click on my Chrome tabs all I want, but nothing will be there to engage my scatter-shot attentions.

I haven't expanded these little windows of tech-deprivation out beyond the length of a nice long writing session; eight hours at the most. But I promise you this: if I had not begun to enforce this upon myself, the thirty-some-odd-thousand words that are posted here on this blogsite would still be fluttering around in my head like a bag of moths. I have no idea if the effort I've given this project will ever bring real benefit to another, but I can say with certainty that it has been good for me.

Now, I'm a lone wolf ... living out here in the margins, largely out of sight and mind, with more freedom than most anybody I know. I could fall into the interwebs never to be seen again, and the world might not miss me much. But most of us still have husbands or wives or children or parents who are probably wondering what ever happened to us. Most of us have friends ... the real kind ... the kind that can be hugged and made to laugh and trusted with a confidence. They are very different than the hundreds of 'friends' who we know through their postings and commentings. I'm always happy to hear from that pal of mine who owns the storage facility in New Mexico, but I doubt that he and I will be there for one another when the chips are down.

What if we took one day and night a week, and re-connected with them all? Or re-kindled our religious affiliations? Or joined a bowling league or a bird-watching group? Or read the classics? What might that do for our perspective?

So, I am proposing that we all take such a weekly one-day sabbatical (hmmm interesting word) from any connection to the Internet. I don't know what, beyond that, you might want to include. Maybe video games are a profound enough time-thief to be included. Or talk-radio. Or television. For me, it's those things that are interactive that grab hold of me and won't let go. For you it may be different.

I suppose that our Jewish friends are already doing this. I haven't looked for that or asked anybody about it. If they are, good for them. Regardless, I think it's a good idea, particularly for families. We already have Saturday and Sunday marked out, each historically a Sabbath. Kids are out of school, Dad and Mom are home from work. Time to put the laptops and the smartphones in a box on a high shelf and see if we remember how to be alone with each other.

Let's talk about it.

Dave Morrison ... March 30, 2012

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

How to Make a Fundamentalist

Some years ago, I read a study looking into church attendance in America. I was, at the time engaged in regular debates with an Evangelical Christian I knew. We were both A.A.'s. His nickname around the rooms was Preacher Paul ... and mine was Dave the Atheist. (I was in a militant phase of my life-long agnosticism). I think I was hoping for evidence that religion was dying off due to the weakness of its own premise. And the study I read did show a sharp drop-off in attendance in some churches. But it also showed - much to my surprise - increases in other churches. Was it, as I might have expected, the more liberal churches that were gaining members while the more hard-line ones tailed off? Nope. It was exactly the opposite. As science and general secularism made the tenets of traditional religions harder and harder to swallow, people seemed to be gulping them down with more relish than ever.

This was baffling to me at the time. I was in my mid thirties, enjoying my first meaningful period of sobriety in years, and busily filling my mind with a lot of the evolutionary biology and anthropology that inform my world view to this day. But my thinking was engaged mostly in the question of what was real and what wasn't. I was having a ball dismantling the beliefs of my friends, not much interested yet, in how a deeper understanding of human origins might be useful in trying to make a better world. That would come later.

But the little riddle posed by the study I'd read stayed with me, and it wasn't long before I started to look for the 'why' of it. Why would people, surrounded by the increasing licentiousness of an ever more secular society, be hewing toward forms of religion that forbade their enjoyment of it all. Why would these folks - the very demographic for whom the term 'ME generation' was coined - be seeking out religious congregations that said not "do what you feel" but "do as you are told"? Why?

And it has not lessened at all since. Fundamentalism is on the rise the whole world 'round. But so is secularism. At about the same rate. How could this be? In a world increasingly united by satellite television, movies and the Internet, how was it that large numbers of people seemed to be choosing not the future, but the past? How were these people not only resisting all the new permissions society was handing out, but actually finding a counter-message powerful enough to satisfy. Were the TV evangelists really doing that good a job?

Well, it took me a while to understand. But eventually I figured out that it wasn't that messages of old-time religion were holding back the secular tide. It was, in fact, the secular tide itself upon which the new fundamentalism was rising like an ark from an old and unlikely biblical tale. In confusing times, people seek solidity and structure. Sometimes, a mounting deluge of options is not what the doctor ordered.

There is an old cliche in sports movies and books. In it we see a basketball team sitting dejectedly on wooden benches in a locker room. A coach in a rumpled sport coat is pacing. Everyone stares at the floor. Finally the coach stops and gathers his resolve. "Okay", he says, "I'm not going to lie to you. We're getting our butts kicked out there. They're bigger. They're faster. They're just plain better than us. We look like a neighborhood pick-up team playing against the NBA all-stars. Should we give up? Should we just sneak out and head for the bus? No. Why? Because we don't quit. We don't give up. What we do is reach deep inside. We find our hearts. We find our guts. And we fall back on the fundamentals. We're playing their game out there. No wonder they're mopping the floor with us. So I want you all to get up ... stand tall ... and remember everything I've drilled into you a thousand times. They can't beat us unless we beat ourselves. Now get back out there and play your game ... our game! And remember there is no 'I' in Team!"

Every time that I hear about riots breaking out just after Friday Prayers in one or another Muslim country, I think that they must all have had a similar pep-talk that afternoon.

I posted a little graphic the other day. It said this: "Here's how to make a fundamentalist ... Find a traditionalist, and then push him into a corner." What I meant was; if you undermine a person's dearly held beliefs, you are unlikely to cause him to let them go. He is much more likely to dig his heels in and fight to keep them. To fall back on the fundamentals ... and come out swinging.

In this post, I am using the term 'Fundamentalist' to include anybody who has hunkered down with their core beliefs. We are all aware of religious fundamentalists, but I see a sort of fundamentalism everywhere I look these days. And I see a common thread. I see people who hold something dear, and feel that they are faced with a real threat to keeping it. It could be a political credo, or a contested scientific theory. Animal rights groups and environmentalists can get pretty fundamental. Hell, we've all heard about Pete Seeger trying to ax the power when Dylan went electric. Folk-music fundamentalism right there.

The controversy that still swirls around the idea of evolution is just one of many battles between scientific understanding and the adherents to traditions that such new knowledge threatens to obsolete. When Copernicus proved that the earth was not circled by the sun but was itself a mere solar satellite, the issue was not only one of astronomy. That bit of celestial re-jiggering called into question the centrality of the earth, and by inference, our own importance in the eyes of God. And that, for some was a genuine crisis.

The stories of Galileo's house-arrest for heresy and of much harsher treatment for other doubt-casters during the inquisition make my point. It was not coincidence that an extremely harsh and unbending version of Christianity was ascendant at the time of the renaissance. It was to be expected.  The scientists, and the humanists, threatened to bump God from his throne. How could there not be blow-back? Is it a coincidence that the "Five Points" that define American Fundamentalism were adopted at the end of a decade that brought us Freud, Einstein, The Wright Brothers, Liberal Theology and Biblical Criticism? Or that televangelists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson exploded in popularity following the cultural excesses of the sixties and seventies? I don't think so. I think that whenever social, technological and scientific movements seem to promise limitless options while sawing away at the legs of traditional assumptions ... a re-trenching is bound to happen.

Is it really such an anachronism that a man of Rick Santorum's seemingly antiquated beliefs has found such traction in the time of Internet porn, soaring out-of-wedlock birthrates, the 'Saw' movies, and demands for gay marriage? Not in my view. I would be surprised if there was no Santorum on the scene.

For me, every widespread human behavior has its roots in the close-knit tribal units of the hunter-gatherers we once were. To explain how one is driven toward a hard-core version of his beliefs in response to societal pressure, I look to two behavioral quirks of humans. One is common to most animals and one is found only in group-oriented mammals. The Fight or Flight impulse, and In-Group, Out-Group thinking.

Everybody knows that most wild animals will run away from humans or other animals that pose a threat. They see the predator, or smell it, and in an instant muscles are charged with blood and blood with adrenaline and the animal is gone in a flash. Unless it is cornered, of course. At that point the physiological responses that ought to have propelled it out of reach are recruited for another, less optimal purpose: to fight its way clear. In a case like this a mouse will attack a cat, or a cat attack a dog.  This is as basic an animal response as we can imagine. This is Fight-or-Flight.

The other is more subtle, and less well known. Among pack animals like us humans, complex systems develop by which we all can know our places in the order of our survival group. All our bonding skills are based on this. We'll survive better if we can care about others and be cared about in return. That is crucial. And to do that effectively, we must be able to identify our fellows. That part is pretty easy when you see each other every day. But there is another piece to this. In order to respond to threat as a group, all of its members must agree as to which outside forces pose that threat.

This is a little trickier. A threat might be something familiar like common predators, or fire, or thunderstorms. At the first indication that one of these is around, the survival group can quickly gather and defend against it, pooling their strengths. But sometimes a threat can be harder to spot. This is particularly true when it comes in the form of another group of the same species. Maybe the threat is readily apparent; an outright attack by marauders, say. But another type of threat might not be at all apparent at first. Maybe this new group, upon arrival, seems friendly enough, but stays to pick the trees bare of fruit and kill all the small game. Maybe they out-hunt the local guys and carry off the best women. There are many ways to lose your tribe to interlopers.

And so, during the long journey from the jungles of Africa to the condos of the San Fernando Valley, humans took on another wired-in behavior: the tendency to identify not only the group you belong to, but the group or groups to which you do not belong. Us ... and Them. And emotions are assigned to each. Trust, affection, loyalty, love ... these are for the group you're in. Suspicion, fear,  hatred ... these are for those other bastards. That's In-Group, Out-Group. This explains prejudices of all kinds, racial, religious, regional, political etc.

It is, you see, of greater evolutionary value to run from or fight off somebody who might possibly pose a threat, than it is to leave the welcome mat out and the doors unlocked. Ultimately, the root of all behavior is the will to survive, and having done that, to reproduce. We will all die one day, but it is hoped that our people will live on. And the truth is that we don't much care if their people do.

Sure ... we deny this. We are smart enough to have figured out that behaviors that were state-of-the-art for roving bands of proto-humans don't work so well for giant mega-tribes that have to find enough commonality within to form nations, and enough tolerance for the foreign, to have some decent trading partners and military allies. We have built structures to help us do that: The U.N., NATO, The Hague. And even with all of these, we barely contain our largely arbitrary disgust for the ways of other groups. Which is all the proof you need to be convinced that warring among ourselves is as natural to us as living peacefully. After all, why would we need treaty organizations and international courts if we tended naturally to accept one another?

So it is these two basic impulses that give us so much trouble. Fight or Flight, and In-Group, Out-Group. And both are wired deep into our humanness, and are not going away any time soon. They can not be 'taught' out of children by well-meaning educators, or 'shamed' out of adults by the insult-words 'bigot' or 'xenophobe'. They are with us forever, as far as we are concerned, and travel often as a pair.

Additionally, because these are not urges born in our logic centers, they don't incline us toward careful parsing of evidence. We look for shorthand definitions both of the group we identify with, and the ones we fear. So we might be patriotic or open-minded or virtuous or compassionate, while they are sexist or Marxist, or fanatical or degenerate. These labeling words always miss as many as they hit, but we don't ever seem to tire of using them. Because when a threat appears, accuracy takes a powder.

It's easy to see why the traditionalism of Muslims is hardening more and more into fundamentalism and radical strains even of that. They are positively besieged by a modern secular world view that gives the lie to nearly everything they believe in. Their children will not, unless swift action is taken, hold to the same values that they believe are absolutely critical to the longevity of their faith, and way of life. How could they? Our western-secular seduction is everywhere. We have not only pushed them into a corner, but the corner is broken off from the house and surrounded on all sides. What would you do? I think I'd fight back. But do we back off? Give 'em a little time to adjust? Never. Not when there is profit to be had. We won't be running out of terrorists any time soon.

In less violent terms, the same thing is going on among our own religious conservatives. They are, frankly, appalled at what has been done to the Judeo-Christian America that they believe is their providentially designed homeland. They think that a liberal court has legalized the mass murder of a million innocent babies a year. They believe Hollywood is doing everything in its power to shatter the nuclear family, and turn this place into a modern-day Gomorrah. And gay marriage? Lord have mercy. Is it any wonder that they back Santorum? Not to me, it's not.

And how do their opponents on the secular far-left respond? By ridiculing them, and treating their beliefs with as casual a disregard as one might express toward the idea of a flat earth or one that sits at the center of the planetary system. In other words, nothing to calm them, and everything to further inflame them.

This, friends, is how you make a fundamentalist.

And it works in reverse too. When social conservatives do manage to mount a counter-attack, say by making abortion or contraception a bit more difficult to get, the activist-left goes into their own Fight-or-Flight paroxysms, striking back with all the vitriol they can muster toward the 'Women Haters' of the right-wing out-group. Or the 'homophobes' if it's a gay-rights push-back. Or the 'xenophobes' and 'racists' if it's about immigration or affirmative action.

They might shoot me for saying it, but some of my left-wing friends have become positively fundamentalist in their thinking. They hold to their progressive doctrine with a fervor that can only be described as religious. Exemplars of tolerance? Only selectively.

In these starkly polarized times, both sides of this American coin, are largely defined by their extreme edges, (the moderates mostly not threatened enough to either fight or flee). Both sides call each other extremists. And on any given day, when either has felt sufficiently threatened ... both are quite correct. And as they tie more and more of their identities to the struggled-over values and counter-values, they all put more and more investment toward embracing the in-group, and defeating the out-group.

Does this all sound like bad news to you? I hope not. Because it's really very good news. If what I'm saying here is even mostly true - which I assure you it is - then the take-away is that much of what divides us is the result of mismanaging human traits that every last one of us has in common. And if the trouble comes from doing it badly, the solution must exist in doing it well.

The human brain is a system of the body. It produces thought in much the same way that the pancreas produces adrenalin. It will think and believe whatever it perceives as being best for that body. When stressed into fearfulness, the brain will think from fearfulness, and the result is often hostility. But when the stress is allowed to die down, that very same brain becomes, not only less vicious, but downright agreeable. We've all seen this happen. We've all been in arguments that ratchet up and up till everybody is pretty dug-in. And then somebody will concede a point. And suddenly both parties feel terrible about fighting, and can't wait to do something nice for each other. I have, in fact, formed some very good friendships in just that way.

What I am suggesting is that we all try hard to understand the motivations of those we have consigned to the out-group. If we can do that - and imagine ourselves in their proverbial shoes - we might find that we like them a lot more than we think we do. At least enough to respect them. Maybe they will like us better too. How can that be bad?

I truly never thought, twenty years ago when I was going hammer and tongs with Preacher Paul, that I would someday spend much more time advocating for religious people, then I do poking holes in religion. But I do ... as confounding as that may be to some. I may never understand why they believe what they do, but once they know I accept them, their need to either convince me or escape from me evaporates into the air.

Now if I can just stop fighting with the folks who vote the way I do ...

Dave Morrison ... March, 20, 2012

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Three-Tribe Theory ... Part 3

Hi All ... if you haven't read parts 1 and 2 of this, please go back and do that. Thanks.

Okay ... I'm back. I never wrote an essay in three parts before. I don't want to write Part 3. I want to have written it; a very different thing. This is where discipline drags laziness off the couch and slaps some sense into him. And to make it worse, I lost six or eight paragraphs last night when I shut the computer down without saving. It feels like punishment to start over. Groan.

So, let's gut it out together, okay? And maybe whatever it is in me that likes to write, and can ... will wake up and decide to pitch in.

In my first two segments, I tried to persuade you that, in spite of all our modern trappings and intricate cultural slights of hand, we are still group-oriented primates. If I have failed to do that you are probably not reading this. So I guess I can stop worrying about you and get on with talking about how the 2nd Tribe can contribute to a better, happier society for all of us.

I hurried through the last of Part Deux last week, because the clock told me I had to finish up and head down to North Hollywood and my hosting duties at Kulak's Woodshed. The crowd that hangs out there is, for me, a 2nd Tribe. And I don't like to miss my weekly connection to them. So I finished up, hit the shower and was pulling on some clean clothes as the phone rang. It was a friend calling; the only other Kulakian who lives in Thousand Oaks. She had a car problem and needed a ride. Now she and I have had some Facebook arguments recently, and I wasn't sure where we stood in our friendship. But, after spending six hours writing about the joys of community and the pull-together spirit - I was sure as hell not gonna say no. I grabbed her up and we drove down and back together, talking amiably. After writing all day about the 2nd Tribe, an hour hadn't passed before I had the opportunity to see it in action.

You see, in spite of our ongoing political disagreements (she is a staunchly liberal feminist and I am, well ... me), our commitment to the funky little community we both love is stronger than our need to either vanquish or be rid of one another. This is a lot of what is so good about belonging to a smallish purpose-driven group. Much is lost when we select our friends based only upon how closely their thinking resembles our own.

I mentioned Facebook. If there is another phenomenon extant in our culture with greater potential to teach us who we are - I am not aware of it. On any day my news-feed shows me what interests my 'friends' enough that they are compelled to state it publicly. I have just about a thousand Facebook Friends. Probably two-thirds have come to me through the world of folk music and those are about 85% off-the-rack liberals. I know what they are going to say before they say it. They're outraged at the Republicans and blah, blah, blah. And there are also the virulent right-wingers who post twenty and thirty times a day, sending along some out-of-context snippet of Obama video that has them in a pantie-wad about the onrushing socialist nightmare. Others never venture into the political, preferring instead to send pictures of meals, kids, reunions and adorable animals sleeping entwined. There are still others who seem determined to prove to the world how grateful they are for their lives, and how full of inner peace they are. Often they post a Rumi quote, or a snatch of poetry written in a curly-cue font across a purple sunset.

It occurs to me that, without this very strange interface - this two-way mirror through which we encounter strangers and 'real' friends with an identical amount of both intimacy and remove - most of the active Facebookers would spend very little time on the thoughts that now seem to obsess them. It's as if this little portal has opened upon a larger world, and we are all casting ourselves into it like messages in bottles, waiting to be picked up and read on a distant shore. Somewhere out there, we think to ourselves, are 'my people'. And when we receive messages back - Likes, Shares, Comments - we have proof of our existence. And we become, a bit more confidently, the person that drew the response.

Years ago I wrote a song about 'taggers', the graffiti vandals who mark up the city with spray cans. In it, I admitted that I'd never clung one-handed to a freeway overpass mere yards above speeding metallic death, but that I sure did know how it felt to want to leave my mark. I've wondered about that often. What is it in us that so needs to be acknowledged? The poet in me lapses into reverie at the poignancy of it all. But I think that I do understand. Our lives are imperiled, in our atavistic brains, if we are not seen as important to our tribe. And whatever that tribe is - however noble, silly, hysterical or violent is the group that accepts us - we will do what it takes to prove ourselves members in good standing.

Remember Patty Hearst. The 'Stockholm Syndrome' is what they called it when Patty switched allegiances and joined her captors in a bank robbery. So powerful is the human need for acceptance by the group, that even being locked in a closet by terrifying strangers won't shut it off. When stripped of its tribe, the poor human grieves a while and then latches on to a new one.

And the freeway tagger? Who pulls him in? Who gives his life meaning? Well unless he is scooped up by Father Boyle's Homeboys or one of the other fine groups working to loosen the grip of gangs, he'll likely end up a 38th Streeter or join the Mexican Mafia. Gangs are tribes. They would say their purpose is money, turf, honor ... whatever half-baked thing their alphas have come up with. And the police provide the outside threat. It's hard to break their hold, because there is nothing as compelling with which to combat them. There are about 500 violent gangs in Los Angeles county, with upwards of forty thousand members. That tells us a lot.

It seems to me that Facebook too, is evidence that we are, as a people, painfully unaffiliated. Hundreds of millions of us ... looking for our gang. The cute kitten videos are the 'tags' of the cute kitten gang. The old clips of, say, David Bowie on the Mike Douglas show, are the tags of the old rockers signaling to find their bros. The most obvious, of course, are the political bomb-throwers. They are soldiers in a cyber army, passing weapons around, calling out strategies, and covering each other as they storm the machine-gun positions of the enemy. This is no game to them, especially here in an election year. They have found a tribe and attached with every fiber. And no reasonable entreaty toward cooperation is of interest to them. They piss me off, but I have to admit ... at least they have beaten back the numbing effects of our consumerist society. They are at least interacting.

But are they making the world any better? No, I don't think they are. They are, rather, falling for the well-marketed myth that humans break down into the 'good' and the 'bad'. They're not greatly different really, from the thousands who went on crusades to kill others that they'd been told were not worthy of life. Not so different from Rwandan Hutus sharpening their machetes. Except in degree, of course.They aren't yet killing the enemy, but they are dehumanizing him, which is the warm-up step. They are susceptible, as are we all, to in-group, out-group thinking, and responsive to the promise of a better life. If the enemy of goodness can be located, and you can help to defeat him, your life will be better. Simple as that. This week it's a boycott against Rush Limbaugh for dissing a woman over her demands for free birth-control. Next week it will be something Obama said indicating weakness in the face of Iran's nuclear threat. If my tribal identification is as a left-winger, I'll be getting a pound of Limbaugh-flesh. If my identification is as a right-winger, I'll be lining up to beat up on the President one more time.

The most devoted of the Facebook brigade, probably feels an awful lot of the enlivening effects of a good group affiliation. But Facebook is a lousy substitute for a 2nd Tribe. Too big. Too full of strangers. Too little accountability.

Human beings do not break down into 'good' and 'bad'. There are no neat lines of demarcation dividing them into such broad categories. People are all mixed bags of traits, talents, tendencies. We can be moved in any number of directions by anyone canny enough to find our buttons and push them. Before this week is out, I will do or say something that, later, upon reflection, will just baffle me. But when I do look back, I will see how the doing of that dumb thing was in some way an attempt to be accepted. It's always that. And how often I do it, and how stupid it is, has everything to do with how solidly affiliated I am with a tribe that asks for my better aspects and pushes back against my worst.

And how willing a 'people' is to war against another, or just to vilify another has everything to do with how unhappy and bereft of purpose they are.

Of course, it isn't only the largely-written dysfunctions like war that make our lives less wonderful. Loneliness. Depression. Addictive behaviors of all stripes. Verbal and physical abuse that goes largely unnoticed. All of these micro things drain away the pleasure of life just as surely as the macro ones do.

Perhaps the greatest example of the intentionally constructed 2nd Tribe has arisen in response to the soul-killing problem of addiction. The 12-step movement illustrates a lot of what I've been talking about. The steps have been adapted to fight numerous addictions, but for simplicity, let's just use A.A. as our example. It might be said that there are millions of people in Alcoholics Anonymous. That might seem to disqualify it as a 2nd Tribe. But the fact is that the program is practiced in small groups. A group, or meeting, usually has thirty to fifty in attendance at any one time. There is a lot of overlap too; people can be semi-regulars at several meetings. These people all get to know each other over time. So if you are an A.A. regular, you will probably know a hundred or so people more-or-less well.

The purpose of A.A. is a good and simple one for bonding a group's members. Everybody in the tribe knows that alcoholism is dangerous, and the A.A. literature does much to make it even more fearsome. The compulsion to drink is variously identified as a fatal disease or anthropomorphized into a demon who wants you dead. The central ritual involves the telling of harrowing tales - the 'drunkalogue' - always ending with the nick-of-time rescue by A.A.. It's compelling stuff. A formidable foe, this alcoholism. A constant threat. Members are strongly urged never to be confident about having beaten it. It is believed that A.A.'s, as they call themselves, have only a daily reprieve, contingent upon a constant maintenance of their spiritual condition. This is gained by reading and re-reading the books, passing along the principles to others, and returning again and again to the meetings. The last thing you hear at the meeting is this couplet, spoken loudly by all in unison: "Keep coming back. It works, if you work it!"

I have a long history with A.A.. I think that I have been to about 3 thousand meetings. Our relationship was always stormy. I'm not great with adopting doctrine unquestioningly, and ultimately I found a path to sobriety outside those rooms. I found it lacking as a treatment for addiction (A.A. itself claims less than 10% as a success rate), but I was and remain impressed by how well A.A. provides an on-going small-tribe structure within which people are drawn toward their best selves. Admitting one's failings before the group is part of the program. That brings a large helping of accountability to the table. If you admit how you screw up, and want the people you've befriended to admire you, you will eventually replace those negative behaviors with positive ones. And about the time that that happens, a newcomer or two will start asking you for guidance. Then, on days when your own salvation is not enough to inspire you ... the salvation of those looking up to you usually is.

Ironically, A.A. has no interest in discussing tribal dynamics. They place the power of the program squarely on an individual's personal contact with God. That such a contact is not effective outside the context of a group, seems not to cause them any cognitive dissonance. I'll write later about how I think A.A. could double or triple its success rate by embracing evolutionary psychology. But let's move on.

Church congregations once provided excellent 2nd tribes. This was particularly true in rural areas where people lived spread-out. A once weekly reminder that you were accountable to forces greater than yourself lent much-needed perspective to a life. The church also served as a center for social activities, and led the charge when a charitable effort brought the community together. Add to this it's role in sanctioning the life-passage ceremonies: Christening, Marriage, Funeral, and it's not surprising that as church attendance has dwindled, societal malaise has spread like kudzu.

It's unfortunate that, as science has eroded the belief in God that once gave cohesion to society, it has done precious little to encourage bonding around non-god-based ideas. I'm as agnostic as they come, but I'm not blind to the profound loss secularism has fostered.

A problem with the formation of purpose-driven groups is the problem of leadership. People follow people, and a group can quickly become a cult of personality. This is almost always problematic. Most humans are too erratic to provide consistent leadership. The few who are steady enough to lead steadily, usually have no need for followers. Successful religious groups posit an ultimate authority outside any of their number, including the priests or ministers. A.A. has a nice take on this. No one person, however charismatic, is seen to be more important than any other, or as important as the group. There is no hierarchy as such. And at the beginning of the meeting, the readings often end with a statement as to the importance of anonymity. "Anonymity is the foundation of all our traditions, ever reminding us to place Principles Before Personalities." That's good stuff there.

In the best of cases, sports teams can provide a lot of the character-building that takes place in a 2nd Tribe. I read yesterday about the great UCLA basketball coach, John Wooden. Wooden is well-known to have had an effect on his players that lasted beyond their four years under his tutelage. I was curious about how he did that. I found a copy of his famed "Pyramid of Success" and twelve other principles he was fond of imparting to his players. Not surprisingly, most of these had little or nothing to do with basketball. I'll attach a link. Suffice it to say that most of his wisdom had to do with hard work, care for one another, faith in God, and a steadfast belief in team-over-individual. If all coaches were like John Wooden, we would have a better society. The inherent weaknesses of teams as 2nd Tribes are obvious though. They are made up of people selected on the basis of physical talent, for one thing. Also one's membership ends at some point, usually only a few years in at best. And there is not necessarily an acknowledged purpose greater than winning the game. That can be pretty limited.

People do attempt to form identity groups around the watching of sports teams, but I think that sort of thing has little potential for bringing out the best in people. I don't think I need to go into a litany of sports hooliganism to make the point.

I've been mulling over these ideas for many years, and one thing I return to again and again is the military. It's obvious that a sense of purpose and that of a looming threat are not hard to find within the culture of soldiers. In combat, a 'company' made up of several 'platoons' tends to operate best at around 150 in number. Not surprising. But the bit I particularly like is the opportunity to both boss and be bossed.

Last week, when I was hosting at Kulak's Woodshed, one of the volunteers came out of the back and said to me, "Paul wants to see you". Paul is Paul Kulak, owner and creator of the Woodshed. He's the boss. It's usually not good news when he calls me into the back where he is directing the camera-shoot for the live web-stream we do there. Now keep in mind that I had, to this point, been rockin' along, keeping people laughing, making decisions, and generally being 'the man'. Now I have to go see what Paul wants. Sure enough, he hasn't called me back to compliment me. He's seen me doing something sloppily that he'd rather I did well. He let's me know about it. And I, not being in my humblest mode, snap back a little. No big drama, just a guy legitimately bossing another guy who doesn't really want to hear it. But, because I know that I get more from the experience than I give, I stuffed my indignation down, went out front, and did as I was asked.

I have this little Beetle Bailey cartoon in my mind whenever I talk about the tribal structure of the military. A fighting force, in contrast to A.A., is richly hierarchical. I see a string of offices connected by doors. In the one on the far end, The general is shouting at a captain. The captain says yes sir and walks through the door. There he yells at the waiting lieutenant, who says yes sir and walks out the door, where he barks an order at a sergeant who goes and does the same to a corporal. In this scenario, everybody gets to be both a honcho and a lackey. Everybody, that is, except the private on the bottom. Even the general has to answer to civilian bosses ultimately. I know from my own life experience that being both the boss and the bossed has much to recommend it. Knowing where to find your inner-leader is always handy, and humility really is one of the indispensable traits of a decent human being. And there's nothing like being reminded of your failings to keep a little humility alive in a person. It keeps a man reasonable as he can never get too sure that he is right on anything. It also makes him more forgiving of others. After all, wasn't he doing his best the last time he came up short?

Aside from all that unfortunate business with killing people, there is a lot to like about the military for bringing out discipline, courage, humility, decisiveness, and a lot of other good things. I'm guessing more than one combat vet misses his platoon for reasons he can't quite articulate. As for the poor grunt with nobody to boss? A little bit of effort and self-control ought to get him a promotion.

Service organizations offer a lot of opportunity for those looking to layer a little sense of purpose into their lives, while keeping their people-skills in shape. I'd guess that these outfits, Optimist Clubs, Kiwanis Clubs, etc. attract their share of annoying busybodies, but most are probably good-hearted. The Salvation Army is interesting. They actually use a military structure of sorts. And they do genuinely roll up their sleeves and help the needy. You could do worse for a 2nd Tribe.

Cultural organizations are easy to find and join too. Our friend Bonnie Wallace helped to run a theatre company on Bainbridge Island Washington, and found that a lot of the pro-community dynamics I talk about developed in that group. She is now writing a book teaching others how to do the same wherever they live.

Early this year, I finally got around to reading Malcolm Gladwell's first book, The Tipping Point. He writes about the Rule of 150. He mentions the Hutterites, a religious sect not too different from the Amish or the Mennonites. The Hutterites have been keeping their communities limited to about 150 for centuries. They find that a strong social fabric depends on the ability to know everybody you depend on. That when groups get much bigger, rivalries happen and a split is coming anyway ... so they prefer to get out ahead of it.

I was also interested in Gladwell's profile of Gore Associates, the Delaware-based manufacturing firm responsible for Gore-Tex fabrics and a lot of other high tech products. Often cited as one of the best employers in the U.S., they also adhere to the Dunbar Number, establishing new plants whenever existing ones swell past 150 employees. They eschew the traditional 'corporate ladder' and call all employees, 'associates'. Nobody gets a corner office. Everybody has access to everybody else and ideas can move horizontally with ease. All are aware of the strengths and weaknesses of their fellows. Because of this, there is tremendous positive peer pressure. They have none of the us-against-them mentality that has often hobbled American business, and created a fertile environment for labor disputes. Neither is there much goofing off. When asked how they keep the numbers down, an executive said, " ... That's easy. We put a hundred and fifty parking spaces in the lot, and when people start parking on the grass, we know it's time to build a new plant".

Personally, I think that small businesses have terrific potential to become life-long 2nd Tribes. All of the elements are there. Earning a living is the most direct post-industrial analogue to hunting and gathering for survival. Likewise, competition from other businesses in the same niche will sometimes pose a threat to the tribe's very existence. If people are properly valued and much is expected of them, they will face such challenges with relish. As a lifelong tradesman, I know well the deep sense of satisfaction that comes from making something well that is then useful to whomever buys it. If your work can bring such satisfaction, and keeping it coming is dependant upon all working smoothly in shared purpose; and if, because of these bonds, all are assured a good living and good working conditions ... well then you will have a pretty fine life in a free capitalist society.

We are never going back to subsistence farming. We're not going back to join roving bands of nomadic hunter-gatherers. A tipped hat to all the folks who are going off-grid, and living a simpler life. But my concern is for those who don't want to live in yurts and teepees, but do want to feel alive and engaged. The money-economy is here to stay, how well it works is up to us. There is no good reason for us to be polarized as deeply as we have become. There is no good reason for our children to slip through the cracks while their parents flounder.

At some point we have to fully recognize what sort of creature the human being is, and begin to notice which societal structures make us more or less happy and good. Religions mostly accept evolution now as one of God's elegant tools, for change if not for creation. That's good enough for me. Let's set aside the first-cause debate and even the speciation debate, and work on how we can give these flawed and spectacular humans - as they strive to be better - every opportunity to succeed.

Dave Morrison ... March 5, 2012

John Wooden's Pyramid of Success
Kulak's Woodshed Live Feed (I host the 4th Monday of each month, 7:30pm)

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Three-Tribe Theory ... Part 2

Hi all. If you have not read part 1 of this, please go back and do that. Thanks.

Seventeen years or so ago, I had a lovely moment. It was a moment that I think all of us ought to look forward to, but most probably do not. It was the first time my son Glen ever directly defied me.

He was five years old at the time, and had been, till then and mostly since, an even-tempered boy, easy to get along with, and not the least bit spoiled or demanding. So it came as a shock to me when he suddenly showed another side of himself. I'd asked him to do something; put his toys away, or get his shoes on or something, and instead of running off compliantly to do as directed, he stood his ground. He tilted his head down a little and set his jaw and said, "NO". It stopped me in my tracks. I might easily have reacted with anger, but it was so out-of-keeping with what I knew of him that I just stopped. And then I felt the sudden need to smile expansively. So I left him there, ducked into the kitchen and did just that. I was filled with a sense of pride and well-being. I was in love with him and myself too.

Then I pulled it together, faked a scowl, and went back out and made him do what I'd asked.

What had happened? Well, I had been reading books on evolution, anthropology, brain science, the emergence of human consciousness, and anything I could lay my hands on to explain humans to me. I'd reached a dead-end in my quest for WHO I was, and decided to look instead at WHAT I was. So I had all this running through me when little Glen dug in and challenged me. And I had just enough good will in me that morning, and hesitated just long enough, for the real nature of the encounter to be revealed.

My five-year-old had, in fact, profoundly complimented me in two distinct, if related, ways. First, he had challenged my authority, which I was now able to see as an acknowledgement of my authority. He was feeling a need to challenge the Alpha, and the Alpha was me. Secondly, he proved with his outburst, that I had somehow instilled in him not only a clear perception of my leadership, but enough courage (and confidence in my fairness) to risk the encounter. So in one well-placed word, my son had let me know that I was fulfilling both my leadership role, and my role in preparing him for the leadership role he would one day fill. That was a very good morning.

I don't think that I have had a single troublesome interaction with another human since, where I was not able eventually to tease out the tribal dynamics at work. I still fight with people, and win or lose or accept a stalemate, but I don't take any of it personally really. I understand that we are smart primates first and foremost. Our identities as Democrats, or Republicans, or Christians, or Vegans or Yankees Fans or whatever we use as a flag to fly ... all have been grafted onto the framework of the intelligent mammals that we are.

And in the same way that a mechanic would know that a Dodge Caravan and a Chrysler 300 have exactly the same engine and drive-train, I know that however different we look to each other, we are all basically the same under the hood. When you come at me with open-ness, or dismissal, or some seemingly inappropriate air of competition, you are really trying to figure out whether I am an ally or a threat.  And when I react, however I do, I ought to be giving you that information, so that you can get about your business in the most streamlined way you can. This stuff can freak people out, but is the perfectly normal jostling for position that all group mammals do.

All of that is subliminal most of the time, of course. And, because we have invested thousands of years of culture into denying our animal natures, we mostly miss it entirely. Instead we feel rejected and angry. We carry resentments for years. We lie awake at night re-running conversations, combing through our memories to find what went wrong - what we might have done differently. Some of that is okay, as some of that is part of the organic jostling that will always be there; but there's no reason we should make ourselves sick over the bickerings of clever apes trying to form survival units in a hostile world.

Because that is what we are doing. We are attempting to build survival units. Let's go back to Africa for a quick recap of human history.

A couple of million years ago, our little globe was up to a lot of the  same climate-change tricks that have us in a tizzy right now. The rain forests of central Africa were shrinking back drastically leaving savannas and grasslands in their wake. Some of the fruit-eating primates who lived in the forests got squeezed and began to venture out into the open spaces. There were a lot of animals out there to eat, but also fierce predators with savage teeth and claws and explosive speed. The apes spent more and more time standing upright, the better to see things coming, and gradually their skeletons adjusted for that. Also, having inferior equipment for hunting, they learned to adapt their social-group behaviors of the forest to hunting-group behaviors. They developed ways of signaling. They learned to present as a group and scare off much more formidable creatures. They were learning language and strategy and inter-dependence. Their brains grew larger, adding mass and redundancy and the demands of their new world found use for the new grey matter. Soon they were making tools and weapons and building shelters. It wasn't long - in evolutionary time at least - till they began to follow their migratory prey onto other continents.

These were, of course, our ancestors. Most of the time we've been on this planet - the overwhelming majority of our time here, we were hunter-gatherers. If you lay a standard 12 inch ruler in front of you and imagine that to be the time-line starting at the arrival of the first bi-pedal proto-humans and ending last Thursday around lunch-time ... nearly all of the ruler is inhabited by nomadic hunter-gatherers. The entirety of our march to law-based societies that began with agriculture's demand for a stationary life, is contained in the last eighth-inch of your ruler. That's how much longer we lived in tight mobile units, than we have lived in large trading-based societies.

And just as the mini-van is built on the sedan's chassis, our large, logical brains were built on those older, simpler brains. And in the same way, our elaborate cultures, our political systems, our economies, and even that group of friends we meet at Starbucks one Saturday a month, are all built upon the bones of tight-knit human survival pods.

Have you ever watched a drastic home re-modeling? There are tax reasons to remodel rather than building new, so the house is torn down mostly, but a little is left to stand. So now a beautiful high-tech house rises, and looking at it you'd never know that somewhere deep inside are a couple of old walls. Our brains are like that. The old mammalian brain is still there, and worse, the old lizard brain too.

These old grandfathered-in brains are not great at conceptual thought. They are not calm weighers of subtlety, prone to careful observation and long-term testing of options. They are reactor-brains. If a new thing appears, these brains are likely to be afraid of it - just in case - and take off running, or at least send that signal to the rest of our bigger more thought-filled brains. If blocked from running as they are by our social conventions and commitments to things like work-days, they will send the signal to agress. Fight or Flight.

I saw a documentary the other day where a British comedian visited Ted Turner at his monstrous Montana ranch. They drove out to see a buffalo herd. After parking the jeep, they walked up the hill, Turner leading confidently. There were a couple hundred huge bison watching their approach. It looked terrifying and must have been for the visitor. At some point one buffalo turned and ran and they all went with him. Turner might think this a reflection of his own uber-alpha vibes, but if a couple of ten-year-old girls had driven up and done the same, the bison would also have done the same. Not sure what that is ... why risk it?

So we live in these modern societies. And we are very much different outwardly from our distant ancestors. We have technology and transportation, hospitals, armies, clothing to sustain us in the arctic if necessary. We have philosophy and psychology and religion, art and music and literature. We have come a long way baby. It is very tempting to believe that we are no longer primates, but rational, clear-thinking PEOPLE.

But we aren't. At least not reliably. We are what the enormous preponderance of our history has made us. And whatever we set out to do, our approach - when examined - reveals these old behaviors. We're stuck with ourselves. Maybe not forever. Maybe just for another half-million years of so. Until then, it would behoove us to let go of our false reckonings, and learn to operate these vehicles we ride around in.

I've been watching Americans for a while now. Pretty good eggs, by and large, but they are having some real problems. Politically we are so locked into opposing groups that compromise is virtually impossible. We are dependant for the fuel that fires our economy on foreign peoples we can't understand. Our schools are mired in wrong ideas and owned by unions more interested in steady employment than education. Most of us can't afford to be either healthy or sick. We run before the promptings of Madison Avenue like cattle before the electric prod. We either doubt God, or are nearly crazy in our devotions. Millions of American adults are on anti-depressants. Millions of American children are on Ritalin. We're eating and drinking ourselves to death. We over-load our lives with accomplishments and possessions and still wake up in the night terrified that we'll be caught up short..

The tapestry is beginning to unravel. Why? I believe that a partial answer is this: we cannot feel contented and safe unless we are connected to other actual humans through on-going tribal interactions. And I say that, for all the crowds available to us, most of us are gripped by a sense of isolation.

A tiny bit more foundation work, and I'll get to my solution.

Our bodies, using the oldest parts of our nervous system, produce feelings of pleasure and pain. More recent are brain-centers that produce feelings of safety and well-being, or conversely, feelings of fear, and anxiety. These nerve-responses, and our feelings about them are there to drive us toward things that are good for our survival and away from things that threaten it. Once it was easy. Hmmm, I like how it feels to eat and have sex, and I don't like how it feels to freeze or be clawed by a bear. So ... my days will be spent trying to get the good stuff and defending against the bad stuff. I see something edible, I eat it. Something threatens me, I kill it or run away. And when the area is depleted, I strike the camp and move on.

And because the demands of competing against the real predators had taught us to depend upon one another, our brains had gradually learned to produce good feelings when we cooperated. After all, I would need to know you had my back on the hunt, so sharing my food with you and helping you thatch your roof was pro-survival. We developed strong group-bonds driven by the good feelings these cooperations gave us, and we learned to hate those outside our group as part of the fear-mechanism that kept us safe from them. Just in case. Simple and direct. And that was us for a long, long time.

But once we switched from hunting-gathering to agriculture we had to stay put. Now we were faced with turning the daily gamble into predictability. We had to stay in one place long enough to get a crop in, and further, we had to trade what our land would grow for what we needed that it would not. We had to develop long-term discipline and some way to guarantee our safety when we hauled our load of flax down to the river to trade for fish. So we came up with a one-god theory and started to hang some moral imperatives on it. And this morphed into towns and cities and countries and armies and courts, and along came shipping and empires and machines and manufacturing and eventually us.

Suddenly there was concrete and nice square-cut lumber and big foundries and factories and mills. And we worked in the mills and the factories and made homes from the lumber and concrete, and as we standardized and mass produced all our needs, we did the same to ourselves. We began to define individually, what once we'd defined in groups. The market that once served us, was now driving us to serve it. It was more profitable to persuade each family to own furnishings and stoves and washing machines and cars, rather than share them. Village gave way to suburb, and all that natural need for cooperation was buried under structured task-work often making things we had no use for or clear understanding of. And our intentional energies were slowly  pried loose from their origins. It was gradual, but inexorable. Now a couple hundred years into the industrial revolution, we appear to be a species that prefers to live in small blood-related groups of one or two adults and two or three kids, and often we split even that tiny unit among two homes. And it is possible to live separated by just a wall from a neighbor we might never meet.

So that is where we are.

Now, the Three Tribes. My notion is that, in spite of belonging to any number of groups, as I mentioned in my last piece, there are just three that are essential. I'll start with the first, skip ahead to the third and then drop back to the second.

The first, and smallest is the Immediate Family. This is the Ward and June and Wally and Beaver unit. It's fine as far as it goes. It is thought, particularly among religious conservatives, that this is the basic building-block of society. They think that we must, above all else, preserve this first tribe in its most basic Dad-Mom-Kids form. Maybe, maybe not. But it is deeply rooted culturally for sure. This is The First Tribe.

The third and largest is Society At Large. Quantify this as you'd like, but as an American, I see this as The United States. It is apparently central enough for us to bicker about endlessly, so this is, for my purposes here, The Third Tribe.

The Second Tribe is like a hole in our society. It's mostly not there when you go looking for it. Mostly, in fact, nobody is even looking. It has been forgotten. But what is it? This is - or should be - the modern analogue of the small tribal village. It is a community of perhaps 75 to 150 people in a range of ages, not necessarily related by blood but all known to one another. This is key. You need to know everybody in the Second Tribe. You do not, however have to like them all. In fact, the Second Tribe works a lot better if you don't like some of them.

In order to be a happy and productive person, one needs to learn some basic things. One needs to learn that he or she is not the center of the universe. One needs to learn how to defer gratification, and spend some energy working on things that benefit others more immediately than one's self. One also needs to know what sort of talents he possesses, and where his weaknesses lie. Does she have great leadership potential, or negotiating skills? Is she particularly good at seeing a problem in a new light and finding solutions where no one else sees them? One needs to know one's attributes and liabilities. And only interactions with other humans will bring these out and develop them.

Additionally, people need ways to calm and comfort themselves, and to experience joy. If these things can be done without resorting to drugs or alcohol, and in communion with others, strong pro-society habits can be formed. We know that the opposite is true.

So how is the First Tribe at these function? Well we all know families who are very sensitive to their childrens' talents and weaknesses. In the best-case scenario, a child can grow up pretty well with just the influence of the parents. But there are pitfalls. Because of the blood-bond and the fact of so much familiarity from birth, a kid might be perfectly acculturated in the First Tribe and be awkward as hell outside. School and playground help a lot with this, but last only through childhood, and don't offer much cross-generational experience. We also know families that are just incredibly toxic. It's hard to leave when things start turning dark. They share a house and own things together. Dependency weakens resolve. It is possible for the most horrible abuse to go on for decades in the sealed environment of a nuclear family. And where not horrible, it's still likely to not be optimal. A kid can be spoiled rotten or destroyed spiritually and there's often not much we can do about it.

So the First Tribe can be weak for building citizens. How about the Third Tribe? Well, the Third Tribe is a mega-tribe. It, as an entity, has no idea that you are even there. Sure we vote for or against its leaders and abide by or break its laws. We pay into its coffers and fight its battles. But it is mostly opaque to us. And we are invisible to it. If I walk off into the wilderness today, the Third Tribe won't miss me at all. Pretty much the only way to get its attention is to break its laws. I sometimes think that Columbine and the Kennedy assassination were simply cries to be noticed by the Third Tribe. A drive toward fame is that as well. The proliferation of reality shows. Celebrities with no talent beyond self promotion. The Jerry Springer Show. "Cops". Jack-Ass. Youtube videos with no other purpose to the poster than to be known by strangers even if it means being known for your own stupidity. None of it works for long. None of it patches the hole. The Third Tribe does not love us. It doesn't even bother to hate us.

No it is the Second Tribe where human beings are polished up into the extraordinary creatures that they can be. I mentioned that all members of the 2nd Tribe must know each other. Why do I say this? Accountability. If you don't know me, I can run a number on you. If, in my daily life, I encounter mostly strangers, then I can get by on charm or intimidation. I can lie and cheat. And by the time the note comes due, I'm on to the next victim. But not in a 2nd Tribe. Word is passed around too easily. Exposure is quick and scrutiny follows. If I correct my behavior, it is noticed and encouraged. If I don't, my grace-period will not last long. Hustlers don't do well in the 2nd Tribe.

This is the crux of it. Only in a group small enough to be directly affected by my misbehavior, will I get the kind of blow-back I need to decide that being an A-hole is more trouble than it's worth. And only in a small group will I, if I get on the good foot, get the kind of acceptance that will make me want to be even more of a contributor. And all of this happens organically. If left to its own devices, a purpose-driven group will naturally move its members toward their most cooperative selves. And while doing this it will draw from each his talents and creativity and wear away his insecurities.

You notice that I said 'purpose-driven'. That's an important distinction. Without a common and compelling purpose, the 2nd tribe is nothing special. Unless everybody feels a strong need for what the group provides them, or is passionate about what the group provides for others, then they will just go their separate ways when they hit a rough patch. It's the staying on that does the magic. I mentioned that it's best if we don't particularly like everybody in the group. Working with people we like is easy. But finding ways to work with those we'd not select as friends, is a real workout for the mind. It not only makes us more confident of our own people skills, but erodes our tendency toward prejudice as we learn how to bridge those personality gaps.

I need to add also, that a group like this should have some sort of on-going challenge to its existence. It is, after all, the old survival urge that underpins human bonding in the first place. It doesn't have to be anything drastic, but some slight threat that the group could be dispersed or its mission thwarted, adds dynamism, and makes accomplishments sweeter and team-mates more valued.

I am running out of time for writing here, because I will be leaving soon to drive to Kulak's Woodshed in North Hollywood. Kulak's is where I meet with my own 2nd tribe. It's a little listening room and community hub, geared to singer-songwriters of all skill levels. I've been going in there for the open mic every Monday night for almost 5 years. When I first arrived, I knew nobody, and though I was an experienced performer, nobody made a fuss over me. I kept to myself at first. But I made a few friends, and on instinct, decided to keep coming back. Gradually I dealt with a lot of what had been bothering me my whole life. While rubbing up against a lot of performers - some of whom I did not like - and by wrestling my own ego down (or just as often, up), to a level at which I could feel like an equal to all, I began to genuinely enjoy people for who they were.

Our purpose is to provide a safe, friendly environment wherein people of all ages may express themselves though performance. Our challenge comes, in calm times, from raising rent, paying bills and lots of technical and volunteer issues. There have been times when outside forces have actually tried to shut us down. So far we've pulled together and survived, but the wolf is always nearby.

I'm not in charge of Kulak's Woodshed. There is a boss, and he's not me. I do host sometimes, like tonight, and I have a little authority on those nights, but I serve at the pleasure of the chief. That is so good for me. One of the great things about a functioning 2nd tribe is that a person gets to be the boss one minute and be bossed the next. That is a balance found in nature, and is terrific for the balancing out of the ego. After five years of Mondays, I hardly know myself. Or maybe I finally do know myself. Whatever the case, I am different. I'm more confident, less bitter, a better performer, and I have not felt the need to drink alcohol in 21 months. Without trying really. I'm certain these things are connected.

So, I have to run. In my next installment, I will talk about how some groups function as Second-Tribe units. I will also talk about how a 2nd Tribe can go bad. I'll tell a couple Kulak's stories. I'll look at the 2nd Tribe potential of 12-step groups, small business, sports teams, church, and maybe others, and hopefully get you thinking about how you might get tribed up.

In closing I'll give you my 2nd Tribe equation:

A 2nd Tribe must be small enough to feel your impact, either positive or negative.
And it must be large enough that, should you opt out or be tossed out, it will go on without you.

Dave Morrison ... February 27, 2012