Tuesday, November 23, 2021


"kurt-vonnegut" by Rashawerakh is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

I was psyched to see "Unstuck in Time" about Kurt Vonnegut, a new film by Robert Weide and Don Argott. I had devoured Kurt's most famous book, "Slaughterhouse-Five" when it came out in 1969, soon after I got back from serving in Vietnam. As someone who viewed my war as unnecessary, illegal, and immoral, I could identify with his anti-war stance and how he questioned authority. Later, I became intrigued with him for being a wounded warrior, as were my patients, after working in the VA treating veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD).

In  Slaughterhouse-Five, the narrator and Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut’s alter ego, both exhibit classic signs of PTSD: inability to sleep, lack of focus, nightmares, and flashbacks. In addition, Vonnegut suffers from moral guilt, a new diagnostic category validated by historical records, detailing such suffering in soldiers going back to the ancient Greeks. Moral Guilt happens when an individual’s values are betrayed, when their sense of right and wrong is violated.

Moral guilt, over time, can eat a soldier up, as it did for Vonnegut in real life. How could it be otherwise: As a Prisoner of War in Germany, he was an eyewitness to tens of thousands of civilians being incinerated as America and its allies fire-bombed Dresden, a city renowned for its culture and art.⁠1  Then, in a nightmarish sequel, Vonnegut and his fellow POWs were forced, on pain of death, to pull out the charred, reeking remains of countless bodies from the smoking wreckage.

Vonnegut's bedrock assumptions about the world being a safe place where good things happen to good people were shattered. Also typical for trauma survivors, his memories of these distressing events were fragmentary.  He labored for more than 20 years, attempting to piece them together, trying to find a language to express what had happened to him but, still, the missing pieces remained too radioactive. His solution came from entering the world of science fiction where Billy Pilgram could be his surrogate, acting out the big picture Vonnegut couldn’t.

Billy Pilgrim, Vonnegut’s alto ago, brings to mind another gangly, awkward kid, ill-suited for the military, who had been one of my patients. Like Vonnegut, who moves back and forth in time, I am going to digress and tell this story. 

As too often happens, soldiers least suited for combat, like my patient, are the ones who are thrust into the front lines. One day, out of the blue, his base camp came under an intense mortar attack. Everyone dove for cover, except my patient, who attempted to avoid the rounds exploding all around him by frantically running in circles.

Finally exhausted, he collapsed to his knees, resigned to imminent death. Strangely, at that exact moment, the deafening barrage stopped. That's when he became unstuck in time and morphed into God – at least, that's what he thought happened. He was diagnosed with a psychotic disorder and discharged. After that, he was okay most of the time, except when triggered by a sound or scent reminiscent of the mortar attack. Each time that happened, he fell down on his knees and became God again; after which, his civilian doctors remanded him back to the psych ward. So it goes…

Sorry for the digression.  Now back to the documentary, which shows how Vonnegut learned to cope after enduring so much. Learning how to cope in extreme situations is no longer is confined to wars. All of us must master this skill in the uncertain world we find ourselves in today, inundated by multiple scenarios of pending doom: terrorism, insurrection, and climate change – while, at the same time, confronting the negative aspects of our history we thought we had swept under the rug, like slavery, white supremacy, and the genocide of Native Americans.

The horrific trauma Vonnegut suffered during WWII stripped him of any semblance of his former ideals. Yet, he didn't surrender to bitter resentment but transformed himself into a humanist – albeit one with a dark sense of humor – by following a philosophy similar in many respects to Zen Buddhism.

Here, in a nutshell, is his philosophy, spliced together from comments he made in the documentary, highlighting the importance of living in the present: “I mean, this day is as real as any we are going to live…” When are we going to be able to pause for a moment and say out loud, ‘ if this isn’t nice, what is?’…Yet we miss it, looking ahead, hoping for “even better days…forgetting this is all there is.”

So it goes, Kurt Vonnegut, we miss you.



1 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bombing_of_Dresden_in_World_War_II

Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Waging War Against War and Climate Change


A rendition I made from a photograph I took of “Fireside Angel” painted by
Max Ernest. To me it personifies the menacing, destructive, chaotic nature of
both war and climate change.
(photograph taken in 2013 at Portland OR Museum)

On Veterans Day, President Joe Biden saluted the nation’s military veterans for being “the spine of America.” As a Vietnam veteran, I respectfully disagree. The real spine of America is our democratic way of life. Our Armed Forces are only a tool toward that end, much like the pistol, a family keeps locked away until needed. 

That used to be the case with our military, as John Buttrick pointed out in last Sunday's Monitor. Veterans were seen as citizen soldiers, just doing their duty, and then standing down; that is until in the aftermath of World War II, when politicians and the Pentagon began morphing every one of us into a warrior, whether we fired bazookas or peeled potatoes. 

Now, the transition is complete; our part-time soldiers have become an ever-present warrior class, permanently manning nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries.⁠1 The cost of maintaining this gigantic force approached one trillion dollars in 2020, 39 percent of total worldwide military spending.⁠2

Such a drain on our national resources erodes the welfare of us all, particularly the most vulnerable, as General Dwight Eisenhower made crystal clear: “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”⁠3

On top of that, our bloated military has become one of the biggest culprits in accelerating climate change. In fact, the Pentagon is the single largest industrial polluter globally, causing more greenhouse gas pollution than 140 other nations combined.⁠4 As a result, the Pentagon’s gigantic budget has sucked all the cash from our national coffers desperately needed to combat climate change.

We are facing extreme danger already: The havoc already caused by climate change is the equivalent of being in a war. The latest Quincy Institute report has revealed that climate change has already wreaked more significant destruction, economic disruption, loss of life and property on Americans than anything threatened by China and Russia could do short of a major war.⁠5

Yet, while Biden mouths the words that climate change is an existential threat, the White House’s first priority, according to the Council on Foreign Relations’s Richard Haass,  continues to be “gearing up for the emerging great-power face-off with China and Russia.”⁠6 

A more urgent and fundamental problem causing growing conflict worldwide is the rising flood of refugees, fleeing the devastation wrought by extreme weather – climate refugees that are predicted to reach 200 million by 2050.⁠7

One reform suggested in the Quincy report is a "massive reorientation of federal spending toward research and development on alternative energy." As it stands now, we spend $73 billion on military research, 20 times the government's spending on energy research.

Even then, that would only be a drop in the bucket. What is needed now is to think big – really big. For instance: Why not unilaterally inform Russia and China that we are cutting our military budget by 10% this year and request that they do the same. And redirect the savings into helping not only each nation's citizens – but people all around the world –  from the mounting scourge of climate change.

It’s a gamble with little downside. The enemy we now face is relentless and will give no quarter to any nation. If this were an alien invasion from space, mightn’t we shallow our petty disagreements and come together to save the earth. And that’s exactly what’s at stake here!

But make no mistake, it will depend on the will of we, the people. That's because most of the entrenched interests in our country profit from war. Obviously, the military has a vested interest, but so do the thousands of corporations and businesses that make money producing weapons of war – and whose deep pockets reward politicians who support ever-increasing military budgets.  

Both republicans and democrats have been bought off. While blind allegiance to the military may have become the spine of most politicians, as citizens, we must insist that we put democracy first for the sake of freedom and our planet.

Nations worldwide have no choice but to come together as one to wage war against this existential threat. If we fail, there will be no victor – just a destroyed, burnt husk of a planet.



1 https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/06/us-military-bases-around-the-world-119321/

2 https://www.statista.com/statistics/262742/countries-with-the-highest-military-spending/

3 DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER, speech, Apr. 16, 1953

4 https://www.codepink.org/cop26_banner_glasgow?utm_campaign=nancy_cop26_reportback&utm_medium=email&utm_source=codepink

5 https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/11/09/why-we-need-long-telegram-about-climate-crisis-not-conflict-with-china-or-russia/

6 https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/11/09/why-we-need-long-telegram-about-climate-crisis-not-conflict-with-china-or-russia/

7 https://insideclimatenews.org/news/02112021/climate-refugees-international-law-cop26/

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Back to the Future

Taos Pueblo: 1000 years of tradition: A  living Native American Community
Jean Stimmell©2012

The world is made up of stories says scholar David Loy in his book by the same name – and I agree. Stories are the way we make sense of the world, teaching us what is real, what is valuable, and what is possible.⁠1 

The stories I heard growing up in the 1950s were about “heroic,” white men like John Wayne, who brought law and order to the Wild West,” killing as many Native Americans in the process as he could. It was the white man’s duty: that’s how progress came about. 

It was part of the broader story I was told about human evolution: that humans existed in a “wild man” state, not much different from animals until we settled down and started cultivating crops. This was a turning point in our history: It was agriculture that made specialization, urban life, and the existence of the state possible, “leading to the splendor of civilization.”⁠2

A  contrary story, languishing in the background, was best personalized by Rousseau’s celebration of the noble savage over effete civilization. It came back into vogue again in the 1960s with my generation, who, at least in  our hippy days, yearned to return to a natural way of being, hoping to cast off civilization’s corruption like dog poop off our sandals.

This new, revisionist story had legs; it gained status, at least in part, due to the efforts of two big-name public intellectuals. Jared Diamond, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, has denounced the agriculture revolution as the “Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race.”  And  Yuval Noah Harari, in his best-selling book, Sapiens, called the agricultural revolution the turning point “where Sapiens cast off its intimate symbiosis with nature and sprinted towards greed and alienation.”

Nevertheless, Diamond and Harari both sadly concluded we had no choice,  that’s the price we had to pay for progress and all the babbles that come with it: As an inevitable result of settling down in cities, we became specialized, creating different classes of people, resulting in untold riches for a lucky few above and misery for the many below. Aside from the age-old moral and ethical problems associated with this kind of progress, now we face the additional existential threat of climate change if we do not change our ways.

But the story doesn’t end here: This week a new book came our, “The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity,” by David Graeber and David Wengrow. They demonstrate that our version of civilization is not the only game in town: there are other, better ways.

“Recent archaeological discoveries, they write, show that early humans, far from being automatons blindly moving in evolutionary lockstep in response to material pressures, self-consciously experimented with a carnival parade of political forms.”⁠3

From extensive research, the authors have unearthed countless examples over the last 4000 years of people moving happily from tribal life to civilized cities: Examples of large cities, governed without kings, queens, or all-powerful rulers, where everyone lived in spacious quarters without stratification or the massive inequality. They also provide examples of once stratified cities with all-powerful rulers reversing directions to become more equal and self-governing.

Graeber and Wengrow give us all hope by showing we are not stuck with what we’ve got. Indeed, various models exist thrughout history showing how folks have peacefully lived together in vibrant communities in a sustainable and equal manner without a coercive government. Polls show that’s what Americans want.

And, according to a recent piece in the NYT, the good news is that we may be gaining: “The technology to support less centralized and greener urban environments — appropriate to modern demographic realities — already exists.”⁠4

I’ve written before about a new day dawning around decentralized local control: Farmer’s markets, coops, CSAs, and buy-local campaigns; communities developing their own internet platforms and producing their own energy in local solar farms; conserving open land in the spirit of the old NE idea of the town commons. For a recent example, we need to look no further than concord’s ambitious plan to enlarge public trails, which, in essence, will become a new gigantic new park for the people.

These are all promising embers we need to fan into bright flames to light the pages of our exciting new story.



1 The  World is Made of Stories by David Loy, Wisdom Publishing, Boston 2010 The stories

2 https://www.livinganthropologically.com/archaeology/agriculture-worst-mistake/

3 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/31/arts/dawn-of-everything-graeber-wengrow.html?campaign_id=2&emc=edit_th_20211101&instance_id=44292&nl=todaysheadlines®i_id=30753738&segment_id=73201&user_id=273ae8c1ede4fde7d59a2b0627accb92

4 https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/04/opinion/graeber-wengrow-dawn-of-everything-history.html?campaign_id=2&emc=edit_th_20211105&instance_id=44648&nl=todaysheadlines&regi_id=30753738&segment_id=73598&user_id=273ae8c1ede4fde7d59a2b0627accb92

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Achieving Flow


CC Jean Stimmell

I noted with great sadness the passing of the man with the unpronounceable name, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of the pathbreaking book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.⁠1 He was influential in my life, along with some of my patients, particularly overly-conscientious, workaholic teachers and business executives who, after studying his book, became more effortlessly productive while rekindling  joy and happiness in their lives.

In this seminal work, written in 1990, he used the term “Flow” to describe the sense of creativity that emerges from an intense absorption in a challenging activity, whether in the arts, sports, business, or a hobby.

 We’ve  all experienced it: being wholly absorbed in the activity at hand, being so involved in it that we lose our our sense of time or even our sense of self. This state of being is what folks are describing when they say they’re in the zone or in the groove. His book was about what makes this happen and how to get more of it.

It's not rocket science, according to him: "Talking to a friend, reading to a child, playing with a pet, or mowing the lawn can each produce flow, provided you find the challenge in what you are doing and then focus on doing it as best you can." The crucial point is that Flow doesn't just randomly happen; we make it happen.

In an interview with Wired magazine, Csikszentmihalyi described flow as totally focused, "completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz.⁠2 .”

Deep focus is central to Csíkszentmihályi's notion of Flow, the opposite of that old cliche, "going with the flow," which too often is an excuse for apathy and indifference. When properly understood, Flow is a profound concept integral to spiritual and religious practice.

This notion finds its strongest voice in Taoist and Buddhist traditions. As it is for Csikszentmihalyi, the core idea is not to force or grasp our way through life but instead live life spontaneously, in harmony with the natural order. Rather than doing nothing, it is about connecting to an effortless flow by connecting deeply with what we love. Then we are not doing a task; we are becoming it.

In many ways, as a society, we are going in the wrong direction: In an interview in 1986, he blamed television for the decline in hobbies, avocations, and lifelong education that blend aspects of both work and play. According to him, such pursuits promote Flow and, as a consequence, happiness.⁠3  Unfortunately, if we were to equate the distraction of watching TV in 1986 to having a beer after work, the distraction of the internet today is like mainlining heroin 24/7.

One bright sport is how we as a society are turning on to mindful living, meditation, and paying attention to the present moment. Linda Stone asserts that paying attention is the most powerful tool of the human spirit. But it all depends on how we use it. We can enhance it with passionate practices, diffuse it  with technologies like the internet, or alter it with pharmaceuticals. But, in the end, we have no one else to blame: "we are fully responsible for how we choose to use this extraordinary tool.”⁠4  



1 Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row

2 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mihaly_Csikszentmihalyi

3 https://www.nytimes.com/1986/03/04/science/concentration-is-likened-to-euphoric-states-of-mind.html?searchResultPosition=12

4 http://www.lindastone.net