Sunday, March 18, 2018


Jean Stimmell©2018
What will it take for our skeletal moral landscape
to bud and flower like the desert blooms after the rain,

washing away the specter of that knuckle-dragging,
chest-thumping, narcissist called  Trump?

Thursday, February 15, 2018

A walk on Hampton Beach today

Jean Stimmell©2018

Among the dunes
solitary in winter 
I feel in my element
a prehistoric person
before all the shit happened

Stories we tell ourselves

Chairs Conversing on Pleasant Pond
Jean Stimmell©2011

According to a recent NYT’s article, scientists are in a race against time, studying the last, remaining groups of hunter-gatherers before they disappear, co-opted by our modern ways.

These foragers reflect our species’ earliest successful way of life, before the invention of agriculture. Scientists are studying them closely to solve a riddle that has long puzzled evolutionary biologists: How did humans learn cooperative behavior such as food-sharing, the care of others, the coordination of tasks, and the acceptance of social norms?

In a word: what made them successful?

There’s no question: we have a world to learn from hunter-gatherers when it comes to sustainability. They have been around for 90 percent of human history without leaving any environmental footprint at all.

In addition, this study confirms other admirable traits, recorded in previous studies as typical for foraging people: “the values of gender equality, friendship and the social acceptance of difference.

The behavior of these alleged “primitives” stands in stark contrast to the polarized food fights and divisive twitter storms that plague our modern, “civilized” society.

On top of that, what gave one tribe the advantage over another, according to the scientists, is an added, magic ingredient: Individuals who lived in camps with more skilled storytellers, cooperated more with one another and, hence, were more successful in foraging.

In other words, success depended on good story telling!

“When asked to choose with whom they would most like to live, they overwhelmingly favored gifted storytellers over those who were known for their skill in hunting, fishing…or medicine. Life, most of those polled agreed, is simply better in the company of good stories.”

This makes perfect sense to me as a writer and a psychotherapist. Our stories are what give our lives meaning. As the poet Muriel Rukeyser once said, the universe is made of stories, not atoms.

David Loy. Buddhist author and teacher who has written extensively on the subject, says: “If the world is made of stories, stories are not just stories. They teach us what is real, what is valuable, and what is possible.”2

But stories can have a dark side, something we are all painfully aware of today as we struggle with our modern media, clogged, as it is, with conspiracy theories and fake news.

By comparing the stories that hunter-gatherers tell with the stories we tell in contemporary America, we can get a sense of what has gone awry.

Hunter-gatherer stories favor cooperation and compromise with each other; they are humble about themselves and their place in the world, knowing that they are only a slim, single strand within the infinite web of nature. Conversely, modern society’s stories favor the primacy of economics: cut-throat competition and survival of the fittest.

British philosopher Alan Watts sheds light on how this change took place. In tribes without formal institutions, social roles were largely undifferentiated; every one was more or less on equal ground.

However as institutions grew more formal, work became separated from family and different classes were formed. Slowly stories changed from promoting cooperation in society to promoting conflict: learning how to control society by pitting groups of us against each other.

No longer do we listen to the skilled storytellers in our midst who personify our essential humanness. Instead, we have fallen under the sway of corporate PR masters who spin webs of control and deploy technicians bearing algorithms that disempower us all.

The story we are living out today, like it or not, is the story of capitalism It is our new religion. We worship the high priests of finance who bow down to the mystical, hidden hand of the marketplace –which they claim if left unregulated by the government – will lead to perfect equilibrium between parties – a shining nirvana beyond the grasp of mere mortals.

But that isn’t the people’s story; it is a myth told by storytellers of the moneyed class to promote their self-interest. Rather than leading to perfect competition between parties, it leads inevitably to oligarchy with the preponderance of wealth in the hands of the few.

One statistic says it all: “The three richest Americans now own more wealth than the bottom half of our country combined –that’s 160 million of us.”4

But we should never give up hope because we, the people, will ultimately tell our own stories. As the late, great Ursula Le Guin said not long before she died: “The power of capitalism seems inescapable– but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any power can be resisted and changed by human beings.

2 David Loy, “The World is Made of Stories, page 3.

3 Watts, Alan. Tao of Philosophy (Alan Watts Love Of Wisdom) (Kindle Locations 83-85). Tuttle
Publishing. Kindle Edition.


Thursday, February 8, 2018

Back to the Future with E. B. White

Published in the Concord Monitor: 2/1/18
Fred and Fave guarding our homestead
Back to the Future with E. B. White

They seemed so innocent at first: a way for us lonely human beings, adrift in a strange, new world, to break through our isolation and connect to one another. But now the truth has been sniffed out. They are wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Finally, the pundits of the world, like a pack of hound dogs snoozing by the woodstove, have been roused into action by the smell of a predator who, somehow, sauntered unchallenged into our homes.

I am talking about the algorithms used by social media behemoths like Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Google. Algorithms are mathematical models used by these companies to manage, and take advantage of, the “big data” now collected on all of us from cradle to grave.

Sure, these algorithms influence what we buy, but, beyond that, they are shaping our very future; they are at work everywhere: scoring teachers and students, sorting resumes, granting (or denying) loans, evaluating workers, targeting voters, setting parole, and monitoring our health.

We have been lulled into compliancy, thinking because algorithms are mathematically based, they must be unbiased. But that is far from the truth.

It is now coming to light that these alleged scientific equations are saturated in the moral and cultural assumptions of the power elite – mainly conservative white men.  Rather than being impartial, they reinforce the existing status quo.

These algorithms fail to take into account socio-economic and poverty-related issues, like for instance, low test scores in poor school districts, or the predictive-policing software used to allocate police resources in poor neighborhoods. They privilege large global companies that can take advantage of ‘big data’ to increase market share against local businesses who can’t – or won’t.

We are now entering a brave new world where algorithms are starting to mold the content of what we think and who we think we are.

Depressed by the dysfunctions of our modern world, I decided to re-read One Man’s Meat by E. B. White, one of my favorite authors. The first essay I came across was written in 1938. Reading it made me realize the evils of social media go back further than I had realized.

White writes about how recently he had attended an early demonstration of a new-fangled invention, still in the beginning stages of development. Though at this point, television was only a gleam in some mogul’s eye, White was amazingly prescient about where this would lead.

He predicts that together with radio, magazines and the movies (that’s without him having an inkling about emails, tweets, and Facebook) we would forget the in-the-flesh reality we embody in favor of the secondary and the remote.

Media sights and sounds, he says, will become more familiar than the original:

“A door closing, heard over the air; a face contorted, seen in a panel of light – these will emerge as the real and the true; and when we bang the door of our own cell or look into another’s face the impression will be of mere artifice. I like to dwell on this quaint time, when the solid world becomes make-believe…”[1]

White attributes his remarkable clear sightedness to the decision he had recently made to reinvent himself by radically downsizing: moving from his desk job in the heart of Manhattan to working a saltwater farm in rural Maine.

As he explains it, “once in everyone’s life there is apt to be a period when he is fully awake, instead of half asleep. I think of those five years in Maine as the time when this happened to me.”

We already have a long pedigree of people moving to NH to do just that: downsize and return to the land. The last wave was the back-to-the-land movement in the 1960s.  I say it is high time to redouble our efforts toward that end:

Ditch the digital devices for face-to-face encounters with our neighbors, dig gardens in the dirt, cut firewood, buy locally, raise barns and Cain together while we still have time.

We need to hurry before social media mammoths like Facebook and Amazon hoodwink us with beguiling algorithms, while bribing our politicians to pass laws mandating we buy everything: all our necessities, our gadgets, our love and companionship from the dancing pixels of our new internet god.

If this comes to pass, we will have sold our souls to the devil.

[1] One Man’s Meat by E. B. White. Tilbury House Publishers: Gardiner, Maine. 1938, page3

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Body Image and Glass Ceilings – no ifs, ands, or butts

Jean Stimmell©2018

Recent research[i] confirms the extent of weight bias against women, reinforcing the glass ceiling that thwarts the advancement of women.

 The most shocking finding was that “between 45 percent and 61 percent of top male CEOs are overweight (BMI between 25 and 29)” but “only 5 percent – 22 percent of top female CEOs were overweight.”

The researchers conclude: “This reflects a greater tolerance and possibly even a preference for a larger size among men but a smaller size among women.”[ii]

[i] Co-authored by Mark Roehling, Michigan State University professor, and Patricia Roehling, professor of psychology at Hope College


Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Metaphors Enable the Patriarchy

Participant in 120,000 person march for women's
rights in Washington DC on 3/9/86
Jean Stimmell © 2018

The 1960’s shined a spotlight on systematic oppression in America, including illuminating my own shadow, etching away my innocence to reveal my glaring chauvinist complicity.  Since then I have considered myself a recovering, middle-class male.

That’s not to say, I am still not jolted by extreme examples of the patriarchy’s continuing influence, sullying as it does, all facets of our lives.

I had one of those jolts when I read a recent piece in the NYT: “The Perils of Mixing Masculinity and Missiles” by Carol Cohn1 She has a history working as a nuclear strategist and war planner, almost exclusively among men.

For her, ideas about masculinity and femininity are not trivial but have real, life-or-death consequences. 

She challenges the idea that President Trump’s sexually oriented tweets are merely impulsive and juvenile – like his recent one about having a nuclear button bigger & more powerful than that of his North Korean adversary.

Trump’s tweets remind her of how her male, war planner associates used sexual metaphors:
The human bodies evoked were not those of the victims; instead, there were conversations about vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft lay downs, deep penetration and the comparative advantages of protracted versus spasm attacks — or what one military adviser to the National Security Council called “releasing 70 to 80 percent of our megatonnage in one orgasmic whump.”   

Cohn gives clear examples of how gender roles have the potential to determine the outcome in war strategy. When her fellow planners discussed political leaders, it was often regarding whether they had “the stones for war,” suggesting that solving conflict through peaceful means would be unmanly.

“One white male physicist told me that he and colleagues were once modeling a limited nuclear attack when he suddenly voiced dismay that they were talking so casually about “only 30 million” immediate deaths. “It was awful — I felt like a woman,” he said.”

Carol Cohn does a masterful job of describing how our military planners follow, rather than logic, our culturally embedded code for masculinity: dispassion, abstraction, risk-taking, toughness; as opposed to, what she says, is our cultural code for femininity: emotion, empathy, vulnerability, caution.

Unfortunately, the patriarchy lives not just in the metaphors of military planners and President Trump, but in all of us.  And it is these metaphors, we often unconsciously use, that help sustain the patriarchy.

George Lakoff, in his classic book, Metaphors We Live By, delves deeply into the nature of metaphors, persuasively demonstrating their fundamental importance as the essential building blocks of our language: the cognitive mechanism determining how we think and act.

If Lakoff is correct, and I believe he is, it opens our eyes as to why the patriarchy is so difficult to confront: we have built patriarchal metaphors into the cultural categories by which we think.

In Lakoff’s book, ”Don’t Think of an Elephant,” he shows how the metaphor portraying our nation is a family can either strengthen or weaken the patriarchy depending on the type of parent we identify with: the strict father model which conservatives favor or the nurturing parent model for progressives.

The strict father family has a background assumption that the world is a dangerous place that has to be subdued by force.  Children are born bad and have to be made good. Trump is a good example of the strict father model.

The nurturant parent, on the other hand, believes that children are born good and should be kept that way. The two core ideas for the nurturing parent are empathy and responsibility – which should not to be equated with weakness.

In another example, illustrating how the patriarchy has been incorporated into how we think, Lakoff shows how we structure our arguments in terms of war metaphors:

“It is important to see that we don’t just talk about arguments in terms of war. We can actually win or lose arguments. We see the person we are arguing with as an opponent. We attack his positions and we defend our own. We gain and lose ground…It is in this sense that the ARGUMENT IS WAR metaphor is one that we live by in this culture.”

Obviously, if we are going to make inroads against the patriarchy, we are going to have to make conscious choices about what metaphors to use.

For instance, Lakoff suggests trying “to imagine a culture where arguments are not viewed in terms of war, where no one wins or loses, where there is no sense of attacking or defending, gaining or losing ground. Imagine a culture where an argument is viewed as a dance,3” In other words: both/and rather than either/or.

Macho war metaphors in today’s postmodern world are dragging our country down in increasing conflict, both internally and externally, egging us on toward nuclear war, and shredding our democracy.

Our best hope is to radically revise our metaphor choices to promote equal and fair inclusion for everyone in our society – and around the world.

As Lakoff might say, we need to start a conversation and invite everyone to the dance.

Another photo I took that day in 1986,
this one of the NH contingent at the rally


1 NYT Opinion: 1/5/18
2 Lakoff, George & Johnson, Mark, Metaphors We Live By. The University  of Chicago Press: Chicago, 1980. P. 4

Fear versus Faith on the Solstice

This essay was published in the Concord Monitor, 12/31/17
Photographing the solstice transition
from dark to light behind my house

These dark days of winter solstice pull me down, causing me to ruminate more than usual about the future of our country. I reflect on how, since 9/11, we have become consumed by fear: Fear of terrorists, immigrants, people who don’t look or vote like us; fear of nuclear war, climate change, epidemics, vaccinations, gluten; fear of almost everything. Given this fertile ground upon which to work, fear mongers and demagogues have weakened our democratic way of life, tilting us toward autocratic rule.
I ponder what gives my own life meaning and reason for hope. It dawns on me in the light of the approaching new year that what sustains me is my faith which continues to grow, the older I get. And, indeed, it is this faith that empowers me to confront my fears.
Choosing faith over fear is a remedy proven over the ages. As Alexander MacLaren has written, “Faith, which is trust, and fear are opposite poles.” If you have the one, you can’t have the other. Yes, it is the people with faith who dare to overcome their fears and make positive change by standing up to injustice.
Therefore, the essential question becomes, how do I strengthen my faith, how do I reestablish my trust in order banish resignation and fear?
 By way of example, I will share my circuitous journey toward faith, even though many may find it, at the very least, unconventional.
 Without doubt, I started my adult journey through life as a confirmed agnostic, dedicated to rational thought. Or, like the TV detective Joe Friday used to say, “Just the facts, ma’am.“
 Since starting out with unseeing eyes many decades ago, my faith has grown to the point where I can now glimpse the outline of what’s always been there, but I couldn’t see: What William Blake so superbly expresses with poetry:
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.”
 I think the most significant influence leading me toward faith has been my mentors; some known to me personally and others through books or the media. They have been shining lights in my life, modeling compassion, wisdom, and unbreakable faith, often forged through unspeakable tragedy and hardship.  I have especially learned, over the years, from my remarkable patients.
 Another positive influence is my meditation practice which I began while a graduate student at Antioch; it continues to this day although, I admit, on a haphazard basis. To me, meditation is an act of faith, like going to church. When I sit, after quieting my breath and cascading thoughts, a certain peace and calm envelopes me. Often, an unbidden smile lights up both my face – and my very being – coming from I know not where.  Except that I do know: I am in the presence of a greater whole, bigger than I am, that puts me in synch with the universe.
 A third influence is my Big Dreams. While I admit to having only a few in my long life, they have been quintessentially spiritual and sacred. In one such dream, I watching a little nun cross a raging river, beckoning for me to follow her to the other side.
 In another, I am wandering in a dark cave without beginning or end and stumble upon a Buddhist nun, tears streaming down her face, cradling her dead baby– which might, in fact, be me. In her grief, she is magnificent: fiercer than any warrior, more authentic than the Buddha. I sense that She is my guide, sent to lead me to the gate of real faith.
 Marion Woodman, well-respected Jungian analyst, tells us that in dreams, the Goddess often leads the dreamer into a deep cave: “Out of the darkness will come treasures and hidden riches… the possibility of something new.”1
 Many other influences have deepened my faith. Nature is a big one. Sometimes I can effortlessly merge with Her sacredness. Other times, it requires work like a long hike up a big mountain to achieve the effect. Hiking, hiking, …yet my mind will not stop distracting me with endless thoughts. Eventually, however, when fatigued enough, my mind gives up and stops: Then, gloriously, I find myself totally immersed in the wonder of the present. Like being wholly focused on chopping wood or carrying water, all I hear is the sound of my feet as they hit the ground. Free at last.
From all the things I have ever heard or read, there is only one passage that perfectly resonates with my experience. It’s in a wonderful book, Bright Abyss, by Christian Wiman:
When I assented to the faith that was latent within me— and I phrase it carefully, deliberately, for there was no white light, no ministering or avenging angel that tore my life in two; rather it seemed as if the tiniest seed of belief had finally flowered in me, or, more accurately, as if I had happened upon some rare flower deep in the desert and had known, though I was just then discovering it, that it had been blooming impossibly year after parched year in me, surviving all the seasons of my unbelief.2
 To fight the fire of fear raging all around us – and through us – we must, of course, as good citizens, rise up and take positive action.  But first, I think, we should try to quell our fears with the faith that comes from nourishing that rare flower that lives, lonely and neglected, in too many of us.
Marion Woodman, Dancing in the Flames: Shambhala: Boston, 1997
Wiman, Christian (2013-04-02). My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (p. 10). Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.