Tuesday, December 26, 2023

Waking Up in the Dark Forest

The woods across the road from my home
CC Jean Stimmell: 2014

How the world changes. I have an anxiety disorder. In the psychological stone age that existed sixty years ago, I repressed that knowledge so thoroughly I didn't even know I had it. That was the age of John Wayne,' when anxiety was –to use the lingo – found only in 'pussies,' not in 'real men.' 

The healthy choice at the time would have been to accept I had anxiety and learn positive coping mechanisms to diminish it. Because that option was unknown to me – and unacceptable if I had known – I went in the opposite direction, covering up my symptoms with bravado, risk-taking, and alcohol.

Anxiety was the antithesis of traditional masculinity, which portrayed men as strong, silent, and emotionless – except for rage and anger. Even sweating was prohibited. I remember an incident in boot camp when I was called out by my drill instructor for being a wimp because my hands were sweating.

Now, fast-forward to the present, and the pendulum has swung 180 degrees in the other direction to a point where anxiety is now hip, particularly for the young: kids share their symptoms openly in group chats, rattling off their diagnoses "with a casualness once reserved for high-school gossip.⁠1

Acknowledging that one has an anxiety disorder and seeking help for it is, of course, significant progress, but today, things may have gone overboard. Darby Saxbe, a clinical psychologist, sees evidence that anxiety has swung from being stigmatized to being a status symbol: "I worry that for some people, it's become an identity marker that makes people feel special and unique.”⁠2

But that notion that anxiety is immutable, forever able to determine who a person is, is a harmful myth. On the contrary, because anxiety is modifiable and malleable, it is highly treatable – the opposite of a fixed identity. 

As a former psychotherapist, I am pro-therapy. But I am on the same page with Saxbe when she writes “we may have overcorrected from an era when mental health was shameful to talk about to an era when some vulnerable people surround themselves with conversations and media about anxiety and depression, which makes them more vigilant about symptoms and problems, which makes them more likely to problematize normal daily stress.” 

That’s never going to work.

It’s universally acknowledged that rumination and social avoidance only make anxiety worse. Saxbe has a radical solution which she calls the principle of opposite action: “I would tell people to do what’s uncomfortable, to run toward danger,” Trust yourself: “You are not your anxiety. You’re so much more.”

Strangely, her solution sounds like my old macho stance, which, I have to say, had some good points: Forcing myself out into the world to confront what scared me was successful in many objective ways.

But the way I did it came at a high cost, numbing my feelings, empathy, and ability to relate to others. It took many years to have the courage to run toward danger, not on some macho dare but to express how I really felt and to stand up more often for what is right – in a world that has increasingly run amuck.

That's the secret to real success! To run straight into danger, not in a macho manner like John Wayne, but in the even scarier system suggested by Socrates: “Know thyself.”



1 https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2023/12/therapy-language-anxiety-mental-health/676325/

2 Ibid.

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Who is Donald Trump?

"Walking into the Unknown"
CC Jean Stimmell: 2017

I valued the time I spent as a graduate student in sociology for what I learned about society. While attending, I earned money building stone headers for a construction company. In fact, I enjoyed my time outside doing stonework in the fresh air so much that I quit my studies at UNH. 

But, even to this day, I am awed by the achievements of sociologists, like the one who, during the 1940s, uncovered the dynamics behind authoritarian leaders. He would tell us, if he were alive today, that the Trump phenomenon resulted from primal psychological urges brought to the surface by the conditions of modern society.  

I will try to transcribe his findings from his ponderous, dense academic style into contemporary language as follows:

While we may think we have made progress, moving from the Middle Ages to the Age of Reason, we remain mired in myth. And during this transition, the average person has not gained ground but lost. That’s because of the nature of modern, mass society, which keeps track of the collective through statistics and remote technology while ignoring the individual’s worth as a unique person. Instead, they become lost in a faceless crowd.  

In the Age of Reason, by definition, a strong incentive exists to become educated, which has inevitably led to the rise of a meritocracy in which the highly educated have prospered at the expense of the working class. All these conditions have resulted in an increasing resentment among a significant minority of the voters.  

These feelings of discontent and disrespect have paved the way for Trump, a charismatic master at stirring up resentment in the masses. He acknowledges the pain of those who feel spurned, shifting the blame to the deep state and educated elite. 

Who was the person who initially made such claims? It was Theodor Adorno, one of the foremost philosophers and sociologists of the 20th century. 

According to the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, he contended that complex modern capitalist societies were morally wrong to “the extent to which, despite their professed individualist ideology, these societies actually frustrated and thwarted individuals’ exercise of autonomy....” And he lamented that we had become “a mass, consumer society, within which individuals were categorized, subsumed, and governed by highly restrictive social, economic, and political structures that had little interest in specific individuals.⁠1 

He correctly predicted that such conditions would attract ‘charismatic’ authoritarian leaders to seize control. In fact, Adorno’s book, “Freudian Theory and the Pattern of Fascist Propaganda,”  sounds so contemporary it sounds like it was written about Trump.

Knowledge of Adorno’s work is essential to prevent another Trump presidency. First and foremost, we must understand that attempting to defeat him through facts and logic will fail because his platform is not based on reason or facts. His power radiates from the same kind of charismatic authority in which Hitler excelled, lulling his followers to bask in his narcissistic glory as he promises vengeance on all those whom he says are their enemies.

This dynamic, according to Adorno, is irrational, bubbling up from the human subconscious whenever “economic anxiety and failure are pervasive” and “affirmative ideals, norms, and identities fail.“ What can no longer be positively affirmed is achieved negatively by fostering social hatred.

Whoever has been targeted as the out-group becomes the negative source fueling self-affirmation. Whatever out-group becomes identified “as stranger, alien, threat, and danger, that difference can be sustained through hatred–” whether that group is minority, black, Jewish, migrant, LGBTQ, – or the whole Democratic party.⁠2

What can we do to resist this rising tide? 

Our best hope would be to nominate an exciting, non-authoritarian candidate who can generate hope like FDR did during the Great Depression, the last time right-wing authoritarian leaders were on the rise around the world. 

The question is, can Joe Biden step up and become that candidate?



1 https://iep.utm.edu/adorno/#:~:text=Adorno%20coined%20the%20tern%20%27identity,uniqueness%20is%20allowed%20to%20exist.https://iep.utm.edu/adorno/

2 https://publicseminar.org/2017/10/adornos-uncanny-analysis-of-trumps-authoritarian-personality/

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Restoring Craftsmanship to Save the World


Notice the craftsmanship in this old granite arch, even though it is 
under a rail line traversing a swamp where few will ever see it

I have fond memories of 'old skinny,' a super-flexible carving knife my father cherished that had been passed down from his father. We all marveled at how this carver could effortlessly cut meat from a bone while bending like a pretzel. 

Another of my prized possessions is my father's Farmall Cub tractor, which he purchased after returning home from WWII, coincidentally the same year I was born. As a small boy, I named it "Tommy" after a tractor in a well-known children's book. Tommy is still running strong today at age 78, mowing my fields each year.

Quality purchases pay dividends for generations. The founder of Patagonia, the high-end clothing manufacturer, recently pointed out in the NYT that building quality is not only cost-efficient but critical to our survival:

“If we can embrace quality as the key to living more responsibly, choosing the carbon steel knife that lasts decades over the ones that have to be replaced each year, we may just get to keep the one thing we can’t toss out: Earth.⁠1

Building shoddy merchandise designed to be replaced has a name: planned obsolescence. “In a world where it’s often cheaper to replace goods than to repair them, we have gone from a society of caretaker owners to one of consumers.⁠2

Building junk is anathema to good workmanship. To see what we have lost, look no further than the timeless beauty and exquisite detail in our historic buildings crafted from local wood and stone by our Yankee forebears. 

Another example is our famous Concord Coaches built by local artisans. They took immense pride in what they accomplished, something lacking in modern car assemblers, performing monotonous tasks on a none-stop assembly line. 

Casting aside craftsmanship in favor of expediency and quick profits has accelerated our descent into planned obsolescence by giving manual labor a bad reputation compared to white-collar work.

It is a “symptom of a larger problem,” according to Mathew Crawford in his book “Shop Class as Soulcraft: “We have, as a people, lost our fundamental manual competence. We can no longer fix our own stuff, and we are increasingly steering our kids “toward the most ghostly kinds of work.”⁠3 

We now have another problem: the high degree of attention necessary for quality workmanship is being siphoned away by nonstop social media and smartphone interference. Studies have shown that the mere presence of a smartphone can reduce our cognitive ability by taking attention away from other tasks—even if the phone is turned off.⁠4

Despite the steamrolling pressure of big business and high-tech, we, the people, are now fighting back, just as we did against the excesses of the Industrial Revolution. 

England recently advised schools to impose a complete cellphone ban, something also starting to happen in this country. A new trend has begun, led by GenZ teenagers, where folks are trading in their smartphones for old-fashioned flip phones. And vacationers are flocking to vacation rentals that offer "off-the-grid" properties without internet service.⁠5

Rebecca Solnit alerted us about this coming revolution almost 15 years ago. She wrote then that we don’t have a single plan; instead we have:

"We have thousands of them being carried out quite spectacularly over the past few decades, for gardens and childcare co-ops and bicycle lanes and farmers' markets and countless ways of doing things differently and better. The underlying vision is neither state socialist nor corporate capitalist, but something human, local and accountable–as in direct democracy. The revolution exists in little bits everywhere...and is succeeding in bits and pieces.”⁠6

In his recent book, "Why We Make Things and Why it Matters, " Peter Corn writes about this rapidly spreading revolution." A reviewer of his book waxed poetically about what's happening: "almost everyone I know…would rather be making or baking, sewing or shaping, farming, tending, growing or hoeing" then being tied to a desk, computer, and  smartphone.⁠7

When we look around, our renewed passion for food and cooking is evident, but “Ceramics and carpentry, embroidery, knitting and dress-making are all also making a comeback. Home-made or hand-made is what we all aspire to buy and eat and own and admire.⁠8

Let’s pray this revolution reaches a crucial mass and vanquishes the alleged virtues of our throw-a-way, high-tech society before we exhaust our planet’s capacity to support us.



1 ttps://www.nytimes.com/2023/11/23/opinion/patagonia-environnment-fast-fashion.html

2 ttps://www.nytimes.com/2023/11/23/opinion/patagonia-environnment-fast-fashion.html

3 https://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/29/books/29book.html

4 https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2023/11/home-internet-landline-amazon-smartphone/676070/?utm_campaign=atlantic-daily-newsletter&utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_content=20231127&utm_term=The+Atlantic+Daily

5 Ibid.

6 http://jeanstimmell.blogspot.com/2009/04/do-we-have-plan-for-revolution.html

7 Book Review: The Hand-made Tale in The London Times

8 Ibid.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Are Stones and Stories Alive?

I was a hardscape stonemason for twenty years, building walkways, terraces, and dry-laid stonewalls. My favorite task was building natural-looking ledges to integrate a new home perched awkwardly on a bulldozed dirt mound, back down into the natural rhythms of nature. I would first conceive what I wanted to build, gather likely-looking stones with my backhoe, and load them in my dump truck. Inevitably, however, the stones rebelled on the trip back to the job site, shapeshifting into forms that stymied my original plan of action. 

I had to start all over again. What is it with those rocks? I agree with Mark Peter Keane, who worked with stone masters in Kyoto, Japan, for two decades. He always claimed that rocks had a mind of their own. We also understand that setting the first stone is the most important because it determines the path of all who follow.

That's where the rubber meets the road. 

After the first stone is set, Keane explains,“From here on, the placement of the other stones will follow the precedent of the first one. The ancient nobles wrote … ‘follow the request of the stone.’ … because for them the stone was animate. It had desires, natural dispositions, requests, the fulfillment of which was essential.⁠1

Indeed, I discovered by trial and error, I had no choice but to honor Keane’s ancient mentors. If I tried to think through which piece of ledge should go next, it would stand out like a sore thumb. If I tried to measure which rock should go in the next in a wall, it would refuse to fit. 

Inevitably, whenever I tried to think myself through the day, things went haywire. Conversely, when I wasn't thinking, I often had magical days when rocks fit perfectly and looked fabulous.   

We've all experienced it: being wholly absorbed in the activity at hand, being so involved that we lose our sense of time or even our sense of self. This state of being is what folks describe when they say they're in the zone or groove.

In his ground-breaking work on creativity, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi⁠2 called this state of being "flow," describing it as being 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."

We’ve all felt it: "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."⁠3 

It's not a conscious process; it's more akin to Eastern spiritual practices, where the core idea is not to force or grasp our way through life but to live spontaneously in harmony with the natural order of the cosmos. 

Finding flow is my secret sauce, not just in stonework but in writing. In both pursuits, setting the first piece determines what will follow. Words like rocks don’t dutifully report for duty just because they have been asked; instead, they volunteer when summoned by their comrades who came before.

In closing, I want to poise a larger question, so far left unsaid: Where does our ability to think come from? For most of our existence on earth, humans have believed our thoughts originate from a greater reality outside of ourselves, not from our tiny, three-pound brain.

Maybe it's time to revisit this question because some facts speak for themselves: while cultures rise and fall, stones and stories persist.



1 Keane, Marc; Keane, Marc Peter. The Art of Setting Stones (p. 105). Stone Bridge Press.

2 1 Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper and Row

3 http://jeanstimmell.blogspot.com/2021/11/achieving-flow.html