Winter Solstice and the Doldrums

Hello, dear readers. It's December 21st, officially the longest night (or shortest day) of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. As with so many other denizens of this planet, current and past, I mark this day strongly in my personal calendar. In my head, as autumn closes and it gets harder to be motivated to do things, I keep track of how close we are to the solstice. Because it always feels to me, after Christmas has passed, that January and February seem unduly long. It's a long, dark, cold plain. But I remind myself of this: the solstice has passed. The days ARE getting longer, even if it doesn't feel like it. We turn our faces, so slowly, back to the sun.

It used to bother me a lot more, to have so much time in the darkness and cold. Now I try to embrace it; "embrace every season" is a phrase I say to myself quite a bit, and in a variety of applications. But I started saying it for winter.

No matter how positive I try to make my attitude, the lack of sunlight still does get me down at some point. But I don't mind it nearly as much as I did ten years ago. And this is what I try to do to embrace the winter.

I fully throw myself into my Christmas preparations, especially since I have two very small children. I make cookies, send out cards, make gifts, sing the songs, watch the movies, and eat all the comfort foods. After all, they are named that for a reason. We've been celebrating the solstice season the same way for thousands of years here in the northern reaches of the planet: feasts, company, wearing the little bits of green and red we can find in the grays and browns of winter.

But I don't stop there. Because I think that's a trap I used to fall into. I'd enjoy the heck out of Christmas; even as a kid. My parents were amazing at making Christmas magical for us kids, and I feel safe in saying that feeling hasn't left us as adults. But I used to get to January 2 and think, "now what?" All that society tells us we have to look forward to then is the inevitable disappointment of making and breaking New Year's resolutions. Heck, no wonder we get so sad at this point! So, I've thrown the resolutions out the window. 

But I have accepted that I'm really not going to hold myself to a high standard between Thanksgiving and New Years on many goals. I'm not going to exercise as much as normal, I'm going to indulge more than I should in delicious sugary and unhealthy treats (and more than a couple libations), and I'm going to buy some presents for myself while I buy presents for others. And I'm not going to have resolutions for the New Year. But I DO recognize that I am cyclical, just like the length of days and nights on this planet, and I embrace that. I allow myself to go into what I think of as "hibernation" mode during this time. I rest more, I'm easier on myself, and I let more of my defenses down and let a bit more gentleness out. But this is all in recognition that after the days start to get longer, so will my own personal regimen.

As the year begins, I recognize that I can't keep my own personal December soma holiday going. Slowly, I start working on myself again. I don't tie it to one day, but I know that it feels right within the first couple weeks of the year. I realize that I can't eat treats as much, I make myself move more again. And I start to work on welcoming the sun back into my life. It feels healthy to me this way. Even though the days are cold, I do keep the cozy feeling going. I've taken pages from the Norwegian book on this, and I embrace the idea of "koselig" (which basically means coziness). In the evenings I light candles and make warm teas and drinks. I invite people over to chat even though it's dark and cold. I make warm food, but less cookies. I have come to embrace the idea of "there's no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear", and so I dress my children and I warmly and we go enjoy the fact that we don't have to worry about sunstroke or mosquitoes or ticks. I even enjoy shoveling snow (for a while, at least).

So many people in the US find it so hard to shake off the doldrums in the winter months. I understand that; I've struggled with it too. But adapting my behavior to embrace the negatives and find the positives within them, has made winter something I look forward to now. And here's the thing about "the doldrums". That term is a nautical one that has become part of the common lexicon. The doldrums are areas in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans that are usually areas of low pressure. As such, for hundreds of miles, there is barely any wind. That's not a big deal now, because of course we don't depend on wind for most ship transport. But when sailing was nearly the only way to travel, hitting the doldrums was a big deal. You'd be becalmed for potentially weeks, working through rations, sitting bored in still heat. Most likely on a ship with at least one person you couldn't stand (let's be honest here). So no one looked forward to it, but eventually, they DO end. And the same is true of our winter doldrums. Make a plan, embrace the potential suck, and realize that this too shall pass. And soon enough you'll get more sunlight, so then you should embrace that, and move your body and love the breeze. But for now, embrace the warm cuddly silence of winter, let yourself relax a bit, and remember that the doldrums end.

Welfare, and the Relevant Conversation We Need to Prepare Ourselves For

I like to try to approach things with an open mind, and learn and adapt when confronted with new data. It's a human foible to want to cling steadfastly to an idea, and I try to release myself from it whenever possible. In the last few years, I've realized that I need to adapt my way of thinking for a different human scenario that we are likely to be confronted with sooner than we think. And that has to do with the welfare state, and, as so much that I talk about, technology.

A theme that I harp on quite a bit is trying to live a balanced life in a world that is increasingly aslant. I've written several posts that revolve around that idea, and I'm sure I'm not done yet. Give me a topic and I'll yammer on, trust me. But essentially a few of the ideas for leading a fulfilling life in a world that is doing everything it can to distract us from that are: 

  • Try to move around every day. Depression hates a moving target. Do some pushups, do some squats, walk and run, jump rope. Any motion is better than no motion.
  • Create something physical whenever possible. You don't have to make a masterpiece, and as any artist can tell you, creation is mostly about failures. But the satisfaction of having something tangible will satisfy something in you that nothing else will. Hence my candle business for example.
  • Avoid creating an echo chamber that reinforces your own opinions. Seek conflicting information and try to learn. 
  • Read! It doesn't matter what. Read cookbooks if you want. Read science fiction (we all know I love it), find history books that engage you. Just read. It engages your mind, as does exercise, and helps fight off mental apathy.
  • Keep moving forward! Set goals and work towards them. If you don't, all of a sudden you'll realize 20 years passed without accomplishing anything. It's never to late to start making goals and growing. Make sure not to only set large ones, either. Set small ones as well so you are always seeing progress somewhere; that way you don't get frustrated and bored on the way to meeting large ones.
  • Move with kindness and compassion. Stand for your convictions, but remember everyone has arrived at different points in life due to a lot of circumstances, and be compassionate. No one ever looked good by berating someone who was in pain. Help others whenever possible, both through charity contribution and through charitable acts.
  • Surround yourself with intelligent people who motivate you and do good things. Understand that no one is perfect, but having people that inspire you to live a better life will help insure that you live a better life. I'm blessed to know some of the most inspiring people on this planet, and I'm not being hyperbolic. 

That's just a partial list, but it's a good starting place. It doesn't take a lot of reading between the lines to see that I'm someone who believes in working towards things. And as such, as you might imagine, I believe that government handouts and welfare are a two-edged sword. I absolutely understand that there are circumstances in which people are thrown off-kilter and can't get back on their feet alone. This life is not easy on any of us, but it's also harder on some. While I believe that it's essential to help others and be compassionate, I also think that large government offices established to fulfill that role are not ideal. First of all, I've been working in the government for the last decade, and can fully reinforce how much waste of funding there is when there's no capitalism involved. I've seen plenty of chairs filled for the sake of securing funding. 

The other problem with large government offices doling out....well, the the atrophy to the recipients over time. It's a truism of human nature that if we don't have to work for something, eventually, we don't appreciate it. Even if at the beginning we did. We start to see it as something that we deserve, and desire to give nothing back. That feeling is really a poisonous one, and I'm not blaming the people who fall into it. I'm not shirking the responsibility of the receiver here, but I really think it's just a symptom of depression, when we don't feel we're contributing. And it can make us selfish and petty. So I'm a big fan of welfare programs that also give the recipients a purpose. The New Deal building programs changed over time into something that I applaud less, but the initial programs that gave us dams, parks, schools, and much more, built by citizens who were crushed beneath the Great Depression, had a lot that I liked. People didn't atrophy due to lack of motivation; they could see that they were doing something for their community while they got off their feet. That was huge.

So where am I going with this? Well, I've realized something. I'm not the first or only person to think about it, but I like to talk here about things that are rattling around my brain. The last several years have had extremely heated conversations about "handouts" and welfare state behaviors. Belief that work and the feeling of contribution is essential to mental well-being obviously puts me on a certain side in the current conversation. But that conversation is about to go through a fundamental change. 

Within the next decade or so, humanity is going to go through another fundamental upheaval. The population of the earth has ballooned since the 1730s from less than 1 billion to more than 8 billion. As that change has occurred, simultaneously there has been a huge leap forward in nearly every aspect of life due to technology changes. We are quickly approaching a nexus yet again. Within the next one to two decades, most jobs are going to be able to be taken over by AI programs or robots of some kind. That's not just true of the assembly line and customer service jobs that we already see (and as we talk about raising the minimum wage, the rush is coming faster to replace lower skill jobs with cheaper robots that don't require things like healthcare). That also applies to many of the higher level jobs too. Drones will soon be in everything from package delivery, piloting aircraft, driving trains and our own cars. Even now programs are intelligent enough to write NEW programs that can outperform programs written by humans. There are programs that are intelligent enough to design and create music, too. AI is going to be able to out-human us in nearly every human endeavor. That's frightening, but quickly coming closer. Brave New World, indeed. Although a perk that I see is that the outsourcing problem America has had will most likely quickly go away. While human personnel in India and China have taken many production jobs from the US, that will become an obsolete problem. While currently paying an overseas worker much less to than an American to do a job has undoubtedly affected production stateside, the price difference between an overseas robot and a US based robot likely won't be much different (at least not for long), so perhaps we'll see a lot of production return home. I hope so anyway.

So the "welfare" conversation is about to change. Suddenly, instead of requiring people to "find work", even those who would seek work of their own volition, are going to have a hard time finding a role. And in that scenario, we can't just allow millions of displaced workers to starve to death because they refuse to find a job. There just literally won't be enough jobs. It won't be a matter of cross training or getting a new field. Workers won't be needed. So what do we do? Humanity will fundamentally change. It will be necessary to have a basic universal wage for all the displaced people.

What I HOPE is that we will essentially end up in a "post-economy economy", of sorts. In the utopian view, it would be a situation in which people figure out how to adapt and happily live when their work isn't "necessary". My recommendation is that we all look into how the nobility of England occupied themselves in the 18th century. Learn languages, learn to draw, take exercise...maybe the waters at Bath, and write. Engage ourselves. But what I worry about is that we'll basically just stay heads down and argue on the internet even more. 

The stigma of "not having a job" is going to be much more universal before we know it. And we'd better learn how to adequately prepare ourselves for that era. Learn to be happy and make work for ourselves that doesn't result in wage, but satisfaction in other ways. Because those days are coming. Hopefully we can adapt and become more balanced, rounded, and embrace that change. The conversation will need to.


Post script for further reading: If you'd like an interesting book to read about rapid technology change and its implications for what it means to be human, I highly recommend "Future Shock" by Alvin Toffler. It was written in 1970 so it's not 100% accurate anymore (there have been even more leaps since then), but it's a good jumping off point for contemplation. "Brave New World" is a good cautionary tale about how to be the wrong sort of leisure class, but it is disconcertingly easy to think about it going that way.

Pearl Harbor 75th Anniversary: A perspective from a "millennial"

75 years ago today Pearl Harbor happened. It's been on my mind all day, although I'm just now putting pen to page. The shock of that morning has always brought me to tears, though I wasn't even born for another 41 years. I try to place myself into the shoes of people on that day, and I find myself shaken.

In a world already wrought with unrest, and America caught between two warring fronts of terrifying proportion and building terror. To be someone who was all too familiar with the horrors of war; after all just 23 years before the horrors of World War I had concluded, and many people were still scarred and maimed, spiritually, mentally, and physically, from that experience. Now the same power was raising its head in the East (and being terrifyingly successful); to the West, the atrocities and whispers of acts like the Rape of Nanking were creeping in. The Germans and the Japanese were knocking, and we were hoping to find a clear path without being frayed by warfare again so soon. The country was only just over 150 years old, and there had already been so much exhaustion.

Just crawling from beneath the wreckage of the dust bowl and the great depression, and now the storms on every horizon. Can you imagine the oppression on the hearts of the average American at that time? No wonder Americana was such a large cultural force: cling to each other, cling to our history, and think about baseball, movies, and dancing as much as possible. It was a terrifying time. And that was what it would have felt like on December 6, 1941.

Now picture the morning of December 7. A shocking attack out of nowhere (to most citizens, though the signs were there for leadership in retrospect, but the pieces put together too slowly to prevent the attack). That morning it must have felt like a lightning bolt that struck right in the stomach....but you knew the bolt would come sometime. Maybe there was a feeling of sick inevitability, in a world so topsy-turvy and so recently cruel. We knew we'd get pulled in, but not like this, not NOW. A shock attack, cowardly and early in the morning on a Sunday, perfectly calculated to maximize the carnage of those simply trying to rest. Right before Christmas, on a beautiful Sunday morning, before church. 

2,403 military men were killed that morning; many of them drowned in the hulls of the ships they slept on, in a force at peace. Men like people we know now, who surround us every day. People who had children, who wanted children. There must have been someone who died that loved reading too much, and his brothers teased him for having his nose in a book all the time. There must have been someone who died that took care of every stray animal who came his way. Another who wrote home to his little brothers and sisters every week, and sent them his pay, to help, since the farm still hadn't recovered. There must have been someone who hated to talk, but had a sweet smile if you caught it. They loved, they laughed, they hoped, and they dreamed. They knew they were in a world at war, and they would be pulled into it...but they didn't even get the chance. The horror of that morning resonates today just as strongly as it did then, because our clothes and styles change, but humans don't. They were the same as us. 

And thus they were pulled into the war, and our country was pulled into the war, and our world was never the same. And we learned once again through tribulation who we were and what mattered, and did what we needed to do to make it as right as we could. The sleeping dragon was awoken, and didn't sleep again until after Jimmy Doolittle had his raid, and bombs were dropped, and millions of lives were irrevocably changed. But things were still better than they would have been if we had turned our cheek the other way.

So now, it is 75 years later. And to many it feels as though it's ancient history, and eventually it will be. But to me it feels like it could have happened yesterday, and every year I cry on this day in remembrance of those who were lost, and thank them for their sacrifice. Because the world is still made up of people, just as it was then, and that shock feels just as real now as it did to people then. We try to do the best we can, but sometimes someone decides they need to try to take it. And then we have to fight.