Monday, April 24, 2017

Sustain-ability: Making Things Ourselves

Andrew made a comment on my last post about handmade things being one of those nice things we can still have. I agree, but with one caveat. Buying handmade has been co-opted and to avoid that pitfall, you need to buy carefully.

Etsy is a perfect example of this trend. When it started, etsy was specifically for custom handcrafted items as well as resale of vintage items. But if you do there now, you will see something very different going on. You will find lots of items that, which technically handcrafted, aren't custom. In fact, the same items appear again and again. This is because they handmade in a factory-like setting abroad. This reduces the transparency of the items you are buying. The maker and buyer are separated by a middle-man -- the seller. This means you can't know when you are buying if the actual makers are treated well or compensated fairly. You hope they are, but you see that they are many many identical versions of the item being sold by different people on etsy, you have to wonder.

In addition, handmade has become both a virtue signal and a wealth signal. So by buying handmade you are showing to the wider society that you care about the right things... and that you can afford them. This is challenging because you want to purchase your handmade market basket through a African women's fair trade collective* because it's the right thing to do, but it's also the stylish thing to do. The honest urge to try not to exploit people gets twisted into another square for hipster bingo.

Full disclosure: my farmers market basket is, in fact, from said collective. I'm still part of the same system.

That said, there are still plenty of ways to buy handmade and have it be a nice thing. If you know the hands who make it, you are directly interacting with your community to support makers and the local economy. This is, far from being co-opted, a direct fuck you to the system. I have several hand-turned wooden items from a fellow who has a seasonal market stall at my local farmer's market and they are unique and beautiful.

But the very best way to enjoy handmade items -- and the purest way to enjoy that nice thing in your life -- is to make them yourself and share them with those you love.

Making things by hand is of zero interest to commercial society and therefore worthy of deep exploration on psychological, social, emotional, and above all magical level. By using your own hands to create, rather than consume, you are directly countering our capitalist society and cultural norms. It short-circuits the whole plan, it's a different game, it's not just "outside the box" it squashes the box flat. It's deeply subversive. So subversive, that the dominant paradigm can't even cope with it. Just look at how our language treats the act of personal creation:
  • Handmade = expensive, bespoke, custom, curated. 
  • Homemade = clumsy, cheap, class-less, unappreciated.
Yet, there are a number of benefits to making things ourselves.

First, making things by hand seems to confer a psychological benefit. Yes, the field of psychology is suffering from a major reproducibility crisis, but this particular claim does match my personal experience and the experience of others I've talked to. Our society would rather we buy everything we need and pushes much of our creative experience online, but making real objects by hand is the birthright of every person. Look around you right now. How much of what you see could be made from scratch by you? I'm in my office, so there's a lot of manufactured plastic and glass and technology. Only a few things could be made by a person, let alone by me. When we reclaim the ability to make something for ourselves, we reclaim our power as creators.

Second, making things by hand has a social benefit. When we give something we've made, it shows a deep sense of caring about the recipient. It's certainly much harder to knit pair of socks than it is to buy them. And giving gifts of homemade food is a way of sharing love directly with the people we care about. It also shows that people are worth time and effort and not just money. This is a powerful way of expressing our caring and regard. And those who appreciate receiving the results of that effort become connected to us by tight social connection. I can go online right now and have flowers delivered to my grandmother-in-law. But that's nothing compared to visiting with a handful that I plucked from my mother's garden. 

Third, making things by hand can be very emotionally satisfying. It can be soothing or challenging in turns. It can teach important lessons about effort and reward, problem solving, letting go of perfectionism, and appreciating process as well as product. It also teaches the value of working to improve our skills. It puts us in the role of creators rather than consumers. That goes for making socks and music, drawings and soup, stairs and shoes. It's the act of creation that's important. Consumerism is destruction. It's right there in the name -- consume means to eat and use up. That doesn't mean we can't buy things we need or want, it just means that by constantly consuming and never creating, we create a huge imbalance.

Finally, making things by hand is a fundamentally magical act. It's re-empowering ourselves as creators. It's the act of taking our generative energy back into our own hands. When we make something that wasn't there before, we are reenacting the original stories of creation. And when we change our environment by hand, that's a hairs breath away from changing it by word, by deed, and by our own magical intent. No wonder the powers that be would rather we become ignorant of the power of our own hands and minds to make new things. And more practically speaking, you can layer a whole world of intent into the things you create by hand. No magic object is going to be more powerful to you or the recipient you choose. 

I've always been a crafty person, but I don't subscribe to the idea that only certain people are creative. Human's have evolved to create and the capability is in each one of us. Yet people will insist on thinking they can't create. That's what the dominant society wants them to think.

It doesn't matter if what you create is beautiful or useful or even successful or good. Those are the external values placed on it. Do your best and accept the results and know that effort will result in improvement. We're making the world into what we want... we are dangerous and subversive and radical. In every hand knit pot holder or hand made pie crust is a repudiation of the brokenness of the world. In each song we sing or poem we write is the seed of strength to survive it. In each act of creation we are reflecting the universe's endless capacity to MAKE.

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Thursday, April 20, 2017

Mind War: Part Ten -- This is Why We Can't Have Nice Things

Posts have been thin on the ground. I'm in a funk. Due, no doubt, in part to Retrograde All the Things. One result is that everything I write just sounds like the most hypocritical crap. So I figure, why not leverage all this crankiness into a Mind Wars post.

I start by presenting the following for your edification. It's worth a full read.

A case study in co-option. The manipulation and appropriation of symbols for uses that aren't transparent to the audience. This is a particularly nice example because the HER fund certainly isn't evil in terms of investment opportunities. But it's a FUND, you know. One that relies on that bull to keep charging. And in all its virtue signaling, it's completely insider art and part of the system it purports to critique. The bull on the other hand celebrated that system, but from outside of it as a piece of guerrilla art -- a very expensive piece, the artist must have had a solid portfolio himself.

And the controversy and argument over these two pieces of art is equally co-opting people's legitimate concerns over a broken system. Those arguing this in the court of social media frequently don't have all the background details.

To be clear, what interests me about this isn't the debate and I don't actually have an opinion on these two chunks of metal. What I'm interested in is the symbol manipulation.

They Steal What you Love
I recently commented on a private forum that there are a couple of different initiatives going on at a subtext level within modern society. One effort is clearly geared toward re-enchanting the world while another wants to aggressively disenchant it. These aren't necessarily coordinated or controlled by a single group. In fact, as I've argued before, when an entire system evolved with certain goals in mind you don't need a conspiracy -- the system just works the way it works. Our system, with its focus on independence, science, and materialism is designed from the ground up to be disenchanting.

One of the most powerful tools leveraged for this disenchantment is symbol co-opting. And with the ubiquity of both advertising and instant media, it has reached a fever pitch. After all, what's more crushing:
  1. To have your heroes killed by society for their beliefs?
  2. To have your heroes subverted and converted by the opposition?
This is where we're at right now. To see our most cherished symbolic heroes twisted, ruined, prostituted to the highest bidder. And it's not just your heroes -- it's everyone's. Whatever you believe, someone is using it to kill innocents and to make money by selling you shit. 

If you recall from my list of personal maxims, I don't get offended. In fact, this isn't through some kind of non-offense zen training or anything. For whatever reason, I'm just naturally not easily offended. I usually skip the offended step and go right to pissed off. Frankly I'm happy to not get offended, because it's not a very useful emotion. I think that's because it's inward focused (I'm hurt, I'm frustrated, I'm offended by this) rather than outward facing (you pissed me off, you are an asshole, you are the problem).

But every so often, I'll find myself actually offended by something. It's usually really startling too, because it's an emotion I'm not used to experiencing. So, I'm sitting there like "what is this? indigestion? oh, wait, I think I'm actually offended by this." One of the most vivid times was some years ago when I was watching, wait for it, a Mountain Dew commercial. Yes, of all the things in this world that someone might find offensive, I reserve my butt-hurt for the Dew. 

And because nothing horrible dies on the Internet, here's it is (sorry):

Way worse that that Apple ad

And you know what, I'm still offended by it. (Ick. Let's move on.)

The Long Con of Authenticity
When I was a teenager, my dad had this really annoying habit. See, he was a sometime musician and music-lover with very specific tastes. When I enjoyed some music that he also liked, he would say "see, this is my good influence on you." When I enjoyed music that he didn't like (which was most of everything from 1955 onward), he would say "you don't really like this, you are just listening because you know I don't like it."

Sigh. At this point, this is an amusing tale about my crotchety dad (who I swear was crotchety from birth and has actually mellowed in his old age). At the time it used to just drive me fucking nuts. Because it wasn't ever about me and what I liked, it was about him and his influence (good and bad). But annoying as this was, it prepared me well for what's going on right now.

See, that's what society does. It positions symbols and encourages you to love them or rebel against them. And whether you buy-in or rebel-against, it's got an identity for you (and a whole product line to go with it). And because it can't actually create anything itself, there's a whole industry of finding those that can in order to steal their creations to feed the machine. It's so bad it's become a running joke (I liked them before they were cool, this used to be good but then sold out, they stole our space and now it's not special).

And while I get that stylistically disenfranchised hipsters seem worthy of mockery, remember that what we're really doing is mocking people who have created something for themselves and then are upset to find it stolen and twisted and auctioned off. Sure, it's better if it's something really beautiful and uplifting, but even if it doesn't go beyond the surface it's still a kind of theft.

This is what I like to call the long con of authenticity. Our society encourages, above all, everyone to be individual and authentically themselves. To find their true passion (you know how I feel about that) and express their individuality through all aspects of their lives. Sounds nice, right? Except it's really just a con designed to:
  • Sell you shit. Whatever individuality you subscribe to, there's a brand waiting. From news to fashion to entertainment. A whole world ready for you to step right in and be your true self. All you need to do is shop at the right stores, subscribe to the correct zines, attend the appropriate cons. Being true to yourself is hard work and requires endless effort. How could it be easy or natural? If you are just relaxing into yourself, you're probably being sold on some corporate advertising. Here, come with me to Hot Topic so that we can be really real.
  • Distance you from others. Individuals can really only talk to and hang out with other individuals who are just like them. There's nothing to learn from people who are different from us (ironic that my dad's love of music expanded my own musical tastes and fostered the same love in me). Society isn't something you build across differences, it's something you curate by finding other individuals who complement your individuality and don't threaten it.
  • Isolate people who really are authentic. A couple of years ago, I went to a street gallery fair in my old neighborhood. I noticed that while a lot of the crowd looked really outre', the artists for the most part looked pretty ordinary. This is when I came to the opinion that it's better to look ordinary and be interesting than the reverse (in fact, I'm going to add this to my list of personal maxims). Despite all the talk about being authentic, truly authentic people are either dismissed as uninteresting or persecuted as dangerous. It's OK to conform or to rebel -- both are part of the system -- but those who take a different route (i.e. The Forest Path) are the true eccentrics and pose the real risk.
Tools of the Resistance
So if joining and rebelling are in the end the same act, what do we do? How do we move forward with re-enchantment?

First, you have to care less about what other people think. This is not a new theme here at CircleThrice, but you really need to double down now. I'm reminded of the following quote:

"People tell me, don’t you care what they’ve done to your book? I tell them, they haven’t done anything to my book. It’s right there on the shelf.”
-- James M. Cain, York Times Book Review, March 1969

You can't care what they to do your heroes and symbols. They're still yours.

Second, you need to keep the things you cherish close to the vest. There's a reason for the admonition to keep silent. That means sure, share tech and talk about ideas, but the deep relationships and experiences are better closely held. If you have a few people you can confide in, that's enough. The urge to share everything with the world backfires frequently. So worship privately, give anonymously, act discretely. Not because anyone is necessarily out to get you -- or because you are doing something wrong -- but because privacy is necessary for inner health (there will be more on this particular topic forthcoming).

Finally, find the things that the system doesn't seem to want. Those things, in their incorruptibility, have intrinsic value in these times. And just as I was writing this (and feeling, as I said, out of sorts) this article crossed my path. Consider the following quotes:

...people are leading secretly kind lives all the time, but without a language in which to express this, or cultural support for it...

...Kindness -- not sexuality, not violence, not money -- has become our forbidden pleasure. What about our times has made kindness seem so dangerous?

-- On Kindness by Barbara Taylor and Adam Phillips

Despite the barrenness and degradation of our current cultural and social landscape, there are still nice things. Things like human connection, natural beauty, inner peace, the touch of the spirits in your life. They are more rare and precious than ever so guard them closely and defend them fearlessly. This is how we re-enchant the world so that maybe someday, one day, everyone can have nice things again.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Year of Being Agile -- Responding to change over following a plan

As part of my year of being agile, I'm going to explore each of the four values in my Agile Magic Manifesto in order to a) help create actionable items and b) define my own plan for the year (one of the secret benefits to blogging is that writing about stuff helps you get shit straight in your own head).

If there's one thing you take away from CircleThrice, take this: Planning is necessary, but it's not sufficient. Obviously I believe that planning is a good thing. Check out this whole post on why. But in order to be successful you need to a) get started and keep going and b) adjust your plan as you go. The latter is what we're covering here.

Responding to change is absolutely necessary in order to reach your goal. Because everything changes -- all the time. It's the nature of reality. And in our current reality things not only change, but they change rapidly, unexpectedly, and abruptly. You have to be on top of change because if you aren't, your plan will rapidly become useless.
If change is coming fast and frequently, then you need to also respond fast and frequently. That means checking your observations against your plan regularly and adjusting course immediately. Because if you take too long to respond to change, by the time you do things will have changed again.

Personal anecdote. When I was a baby technical writer -- all of 19 years old -- I interned at a company ($5 per hour) that had the worst micro-manager owner ever. He insisted on reviewing every single change to the user documentation personally. Not just my changes, but the changes of my highly experienced and well-educated boss. We were required to print the page with and without the change, highlight the change, staple the two pages together, and place them on his desk for review and approval. Seriously, add a comma, submit a change.

Now apart from being just bat-shit crazy, this was about the least sustainable idea ever. Because of course he didn't have time to review all the changes (shoot, with all the micro-managing he did he barely had time to, you know, run his own company). So by the time he'd review a change, that change had already been superseded by another change. Eventually we just stopped bothering to submit the changes to the teetering pile on his desk.

Trust me, you don't have time for all this bullshit and "New Status Quo" is NOT your goal

In order to adjust to change, you have to accept the idea of change. And I mean really accept it, emotionally, intellectually, and practically. Because you can't waste time mourning what might have been. I've had jobs go from "job charming" (note, not the job described above) to total shit in a matter of months. I have a kid who's been in seven educational settings in nine years. And our family has dealt with the kind of catastrophe that changes all the things.

Now some plans aren't easy to change. Like the Titanic they turn slowly (if at all). Also like the Titanic they can fail rapidly (three years to build, 160 minutes to sink). For a high change environment, this is the not the kind of plan you need. So start by assuming that every environment is a high change environment. You need a plan for that.

That's where agile comes in. You plan, yes. But your plan is constructed with change in mind. The small incremental chunks of work, the regular cycle of status checking, the ongoing evaluation and adjustment. All designed to handle change. But if you don't face the change head on, none of it will matter.

Ignore the change and you risk finding your goals are the wrong goals after you've reached them -- or that you can't succeed at all. Fight against the change and you bring on failure even more rapidly. Embrace the change, react to it, own it, embrace it -- that's where success lies. And above all, as a magician, adjust to MAKE the change you want and adjust to what the universe delivers.

So open your mind and heart to change. Because it's coming and you just can't change that.

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Monday, April 3, 2017

On Age and Time

Time for another week in the desert. This is something of an annual tradition at this point -- though this is a spring trip and not a height of summer one (maybe we are finally wising up). It's also become a tradition because CircleThrice is two years old this month. Which surprises me greatly.

The theme of this year's visit home seems to be the passage of time. As you see those who came before aging, and you think about the changes in your own life, it brings home the gift that is a lifespan. I'm personally a big believer in reincarnation. I think there's some very good evidence of it (more than for most metaphysical concepts) and it just has always made sense to me on a visceral level. But moreover, as I look at my life with additional experience (age may not confer wisdom, but it does seem to provide perspective) it gives me a great deal of comfort to think that after this life is another opportunity. Not because my life is bad, but because the experiences of life and living it are so precious.

Another week in my hometown. Teaching the budding psychonaut how to drive on the calm and empty streets. Enjoying the smell of the desert after a spring rain. Sneaking in magic in my parent's house (it gives it a great renewed sense of forbidden-ness). Just generally trying to experience things as I go.

Of course the food and water still suck.

Side note: I just changed up the blog format. Mainly because the layout was giving me grief with comments. If anything seems broken, please let me know.