The obituary of Tyler Durden (1)

Evidently I am an adult now.

In the past 3 years I have stumbled into a package of life assets that could, judging coarsely, make me a so-called real grown-up:

  1. Wife
  2. House + mortgage
  3. A job that I want to keep
  4. (All of the etc. that comes with the above)

This rapid windfall has meant a major change in my life and rhythms. Obviously.

I’m grateful for everything I have. And lucky. And #blessed. Or whatever tripe you want to say about it. But sincerely it’s great. But that’s not what we’re here for today.

Today is about how I am becoming a biased individual, because now I have real and vital attachments to pieces of reality outside my own skin. This makes me a partisan, for the first time in my life.

I used to be afraid of all this …

I used to want to spend my life as a permanent vagabond, somewhere midway between Thoreau, Durden, and Rand.

What was my goal with such a non-conformist bent? Mainly, deep down, I just wanted to make sure that I didn’t sell out, didn’t waste my few short years. I wanted to avoid the well-trod paths of least resistance or greatest safety. I wanted to make sure that in A.D. 2073, slowly dying in a hospital bed, I could look back and see that the sweat and tears of my decades were well-wrought, lived thoughtfully and not on autopilot. Fear the autopilot.

A good and worthwhile aim, to be sure.

But that one good aim was diluted by fear and anxiety, personal insecurity, delusion, and the unexpected dogmatism of youth. My immaturity meant that I had only one main strategy to maintain my beatnik status: I stayed away from the normal trappings of adulthood, as long as I could. Mainly, this meant delaying full-time employment.

This was helped by my earning a degree that was not at all an asset in the job market. So after school I interned and apprenticed a bit. I traveled the world for a year. I worked in a banana stand. I drove a pedicab. All of this, I told myself, would keep me out of the infectious whirlpool of Evil Corporate America. Partly, I was afraid I couldn’t handle committing to a “real” job. Moreover, I was afraid of what such a job would do to me.

Those who have already been through this will recognize quickly: this avoidance tactic was rubbish. After a few years, it turned out I just needed some real income. So nervously, I capitulated. I took an online support job, and my technology career rode forward from there.

Five and a half years later, I am a certified modern yuppie with a two-car garage an Amazon Prime membership.

That’s a nice little bildungsroman. My favorite kind of story.
But so what?

So now, I am the grown-up whom I used to condemn

Astute readers will have already noticed: a key part of my old vagabond ideology was prejudice. Specifically, I maintained an aggressive, almost fundamentalist judgment against all of those who had chosen a normal, middle-class, consumerist life for themselves. I thought to myself:

“All these people have purposefully opted into blindness and myopia. They have confined themselves to the industrial-age hamster wheel. They have exchanged bold vision and passion, for faux security and shallow comforts … and khakis.”

Howard Roark and Tyler Durden would have been proud of me. They were the authors of my bigotry. They, and the usual excesses of angry male adolescence.

But now I have seemingly become the very object of this judgment. If I were to meet Younger Me today, he would probably spit bile and disappointment at me.

“What happened to you?”

… he would say.

So I have some business to do today, with my younger self.

Unexpectedly, I do not feel blind, caged, or mastered

“Nope. Sure don’t.” I would say.

“I feel more loved, more capable, better known, and happier than I can remember.

However … expectedly, this existence has come with a complex web of new powers, and consequently, new temptations. As our means expand, so too our expectations, ambitions, and the scale of our distractions. These years of transition and empire-building have not passed without the turbulence of existential conundra, nostalgia for simpler times, or nervousness about involuntary consumptive habits. Not by any means.

But importantly, the very presence of this continued turbulence and struggle is my signal that I am still very much awake. I don’t want to one day explain away the inherent inequities or hypocrisies of middle-class American life. The ability to still notice the pain of these compromises is exactly what tells me that I have not yet been fully anesthetized.

You don’t want that kind of pain to go away. That’s when you know you’re dead.”

All this being said … what if I’m just rationalizing?

Younger Me might not accept these nuanced defenses so willingly. Perhaps he would retort with due skepticism:

“Merely *knowing* that your industrial-consumer lifestyle is compromised is not enough. In order to escape its grasp, you have to opt out of it.”

Well spoken, little shit.

We’ll have to take this up in a subsequent post, then. Enough for today.

 

People are violent. Muslims are people.

Over the last few months I’ve sparred on-and-off with some friends on FB on the question of whether Islam is an inherently violent religion. In this intermittent discussion, a friend sent me this a couple of days ago, in response to the Charlie Hebdo shooting:

Islam Is The Most Violent Religion In The World, But Let’s Keep Calling It Peaceful Anyway

You should take a moment to skim through it, if you’re curious. Matt Walsh is in typical form as a convincing communicator, but a sometimes pitiful fact-checker. There are plenty of other places on the web to find similar arguments, and basically they say this:

Dear Western World,
Islam is a particularly nasty and violent religion, and we should wake up to this reality already.

I’ve only chosen the Matt Walsh post today as Exhibit A, and want to share some ongoing, in-process thoughts on the topic.

###

Let’s start with Matt’s thesis, which is summarized in his conclusion:

“No, there’s no way around this. Islam is more violent than any religion that’s ever existed anywhere.”

To start, this statement is so hyperbolic that it’s basically un-testable. We don’t have written records of all religions that have ever existed, much less of how much violence their adherents committed, and especially not whether those adherents claimed religious motives in that violence, or other impetus. But let’s give ol’ Matt the benefit of the doubt, and round his statement to something more empirically testable:

“Islam is the most violent major religion in recorded history.”

A little better. But Islam strictly considered is just a “system” of moral attitudes and cosmological beliefs, so it can’t commit violence by itself. It needs adherents to do that. Let’s change the phrasing again, and hope Matt would still approve:

“Muslims are more violent than adherents of any other major religion in recorded history.”

Now we’re getting somewhere. This is easy to test because (afaik) the majority of all people in recorded history, until the early modern period, were confessed adherents of some belief or another. Let’s take a look at this.

If we look at all historical violence in recorded history, we should see that the largest human death tolls have been caused by Muslims, right? Maybe I’m making a logical jump here, but I think this is a fair way (one of several) to test Matt’s claim. If you disagree with this leap, then please say so in the comments.

Let’s look here:

List of Wars and Anthropogenic Disasters by Death Toll – Armed Conflicts and Genocides

Not surprisingly, WWII ranks at the top of the list. Of the major belligerents in that conflict, none had Muslim civilian majorities or Muslim heads of state. Meanwhile, the principle aggressor state in the West, Nazi Germany, was overwhelmingly Christian at the start of the conflict. Don’t believe me? Look it up.

Religion in Nazi Germany

As we continue down the list we’ll find that even the presence of Islam is somewhat rare among the major wars and conflicts. The only one in the top 10 is the campaign(s) of Tamerlane, who at least made heavy use of Muslim imagery in his leadership. And out of this entire top-45 list, there might only be 5 conflicts or events that were determined strongly by Muslim belligerents, whether defensive or offensive.

So in the course of all violence recorded throughout history, it looks like Muslims have played a relatively minor role compared to adherents of other religions.

So far Matt’s thesis is not holding much water.

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“But,” you or Matt might be saying, “it’s not fair to look at ALL violence, because only SOME wars and conflicts in world history were motivated by religion.”

Okay Matt, let’s play that game. I’ll get us started. Let’s look at the bloody streak that the Christian church has left on history:

I don’t have an exhaustive list of historical wars and violence rendered by Muslims, and to my knowledge Matt hasn’t provided one. But the links above account for tens of millions of lives lost due to wars and actions that were either validated by, or explicitly authorized by, the Christian church. So Muslims throughout history have an enormous deficit to contend with here. My instinct is that, if you were to go find comparable records for violence enacted by Muslim states and peoples, the tally would not come close to balancing out. Probably even accounting on a per-capita basis.

And it’s with this imbalance that my own point begins to emerge here:

If Matt and the rest of us think we’re making a comparative statement here, aka saying that “Muslims are violent [compared to Christians et. al.]” then we would do well to take a long hard look at our own historical legacy.

In other words let’s not be idiots please. We live in the internet age, where all of history is laid out for us like a 24-hour buffet. Let’s study at least some of it for Christ’s sake.
(pun intended)

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“But,” you or Matt might say “while Christians of the past were very brutal, today we have reformed, and are peaceable and enlightened, whereas Muslims are still barbaric and twisted.”

Okay Matt, I hear you. Let’s look at that.

It’s not hard to say this, being a citizen of a modern industrialized state, living in North America or possibly western Europe. Matt (and probably you) is used to living in a society of relatively strong institutions that keep civil law and order, as well as religious freedom and pluralism. Because of all that, it’s relatively rare to find religious fundamentalists committing outright (physical) violence, because it would face immediate public censure and forceful reprisal.

So therefore, sure, Matt is right when he says:

“Can you imagine Christian radicals committing mass murder at The Onion offices because they’re upset about something they found on its website? Can you even fathom such a thing? Probably not, because it never happens.”

Matt thinks this would never happen because Christians would never do such a thing. But I disagree. I think this never happens because we live in a stable, modern, secular state, with strong institutions and legal enforcement. So he’s really not doing much, by comparing Muslim extremists to polite western Christians.

If we really want to compare apples to apples, we should look at how professed Christians behave in countries that resemble what we commonly call “the Muslim world” — countries that are poor, dominated by corruption, rife with tribalist loyalties, and lacking strong institutions. I wonder if Christians in those places would ever commit heinous violence and crimes against humanity. Humm …

  • Christianity in the Rwandan Genocide looks at how the churches of Rwanda played a key role in enabling the extermination of up to 20% of the population in 1994
  • The Second Congo War or “Great War of Africa” is the largest armed conflict in the world since WWII, and has killed more than 5 million people … all while happening in a region where more than 90% of the population identifies as Christian

My point here is that violence is mainly conditioned by societal factors, much more so than by religious doctrine taken in isolation. In fact, religious doctrine itself is highly conditioned by societal factors. Because duh.

In other words, we should expect that the kind of Islam practiced in stable and prosperous historical periods might appear just as enlightened and benevolent as (we think) we are today in the West. It turns out this isn’t hard to find:

[ … anyone know where the word algebra comes from? … ]

Meanwhile by the same reasoning, we should also expect that Christian societies have been especially brutal and militaristic during times of scarcity and conflict. Is this true? Duh it’s true. There are a billion links up above that show this.

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Finally, Matt might say: “Okay fine, even Christian civilizations will do terrible violence, but today and in recent memory, Muslims are the worst offenders for explicitly claiming religion as the motivation for their violence.”

Let’s pick up that thread. I don’t know exactly how we want to define “worst”, but what if we just went with the total number of deaths caused by explicitly-confessed religious motivations?

Start here:
George Bush: “God told me to end the tyranny in Iraq”

And end here:
Why They Hate Us

“… a reasonable upper bound for Muslim fatalities […] is well over one million, equivalent to over 100 Muslim fatalities for every American lost.”

So … yeah.

If you still insist on viewing the Christian west as a white knight, and modern Islam as a scourge that has been black from its beginning, then please help me understand why, in the comments section below. I can’t understand how this view can persist, when we have clearly rendered so much more violence as supposed Christians — whether implicitly or explicitly religious. Let us look in the mirror together, and consider our own sins before condemning our international neighbors.

###

Speaking of neighbors, my last point will focus on human relationships, rather than violence and war.

In another part of his post, Matt said:

“… we [should] stop putting Jihad into context and [we should] stop making excuses for it. These [Muslim extremists] are bloodthirsty barbarians. They don’t have a point. They don’t need to be understood. They don’t deserve any considerations at all.”

Yikes dude. Let’s spend a little time here before we finish this up.

Unless I’ve misunderstood him, Matt writes as a believing Christian as much as anything else. But his statement here is so far from my understanding of Jesus’s teachings that I don’t even find it recognizable.

If while saying this, we imagine that Matt had a big beard and was speaking Arabic, we would assume that he was an extremist himself. Interesting.

What would Jesus say to Matt, and to all of us? At very least, Jesus said we should not resist those who do evil; we should never call anyone a fool; we should care for our neighbor, even when we think our neighbor is our enemy. And above all that and more challenging than all of that,

He said we should love our enemies.

… And I admit … doing so is hard. For some reason in western Christendom we tend to gloss over such “basic” teachings of Jesus and focus on more complex topics like the nature of salvation, eschatology, and so forth. But I am humbled here by the simplicity and weight of Jesus’s words. One could easily spend a whole lifetime to learn this straightforward, challenging axiom.

… But Matt seems to have thrown it all out the window. Perhaps he doesn’t think it’s possible to love those who do harm to us. Instead, he unwittingly encourages the very same tribalism that actually motivates most of the ongoing violence in the Arab world (among other places). He draws a line in the sand labeled US and THEM; and he seems here to have decided that them Muslim extremists are insane animals who should no longer be loved, understood, or cared for.

I wish Matt would see that a huge chunk of extremist demographics (perhaps even a majority) are young poor men who face marginalization, unemployment, fear of everyday violence, and lack of any hopeful future. These are individuals who, because of myriad regional forces beyond their control, have been presumably denied exactly the love, care, and hope that Jesus teaches all humans deserve. They are instead manipulated and encouraged into militias from that state of vulnerability. And to be sure, they are responsible for their own actions as much as anyone is. But they face few other prospects that offer any hope to them.

And then, under the command of clerics and warlords who are often more motivated by power and politics than they are by the teachings of Islam as such … they are sent to kill, and to die.

In turn, they are burned in effigy by vitriolic western bloggers like Matt. And people here feel relieved when he does so, because like dominant whites in the Old South on a night of lynching, they are utterly terrified.

What Matt forgets, and what we all forget, is that all of humanity is thoroughly broken, and that Jesus had the closest fellowship with those who were most broken. If one day (like today) we look in the mirror and think that we see an image of Christian righteousness, we are likely instead seeing only the outside of the dish, masking an interior of fear, greed, and self-serving rhetoric.

Perhaps Matt thinks that by writing with such ardor, he is doing his part to preserve something worth fighting for. All too often, he is preserving nothing but the fight itself. He perpetuates this conflict to all of our detriment.

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Post scripts:

  1. Do you think there’s an important message in this post? Great, I do too. I see today’s anti-Muslim sentiment as just another manifestation of fear, bigotry, and specious groupthink. If you agree, you should re-share this post.
  2. Did you find this thought-provoking? Want to talk more? Great. Let’s do it. Light up those comments below, or message me directly via any means you can find. I’d love to continue kicking this around. All thoughts are a work in progress.
  3. Recommended further reading: The Myth of Religious Violence

My Shift to the Dark Side (pt. 2)

When I spoke up in January to my two friends, I was working from the perspective that interfaith marriage is a clear and unequivocal no-no for Christians. I wrote my message, basically, as a well-intended defense of that thesis.

After things hit the fan, I had plenty of time to review and reflect. I went back to my words many times. Eventually, I noted something curious:

I was not necessarily 100% convinced of my original thesis.

The objective doctrinal matter of interfaith marriage is, like most things drawn from the Bible, more complex than we’d sometimes like it to be. Yet, I felt that it was important to present the matter as basically uncomplicated, because I was standing up for solid and accepted wisdom. And in this, I had the assent of plenty of my believing friends.

Why had I chosen to represent a complex issue as black and white, even when I didn’t necessarily see it as such? We’ll discuss more on this later.

Meanwhile, the World Vision fiasco came up. Read up on it if you don’t recall. By this time in the spring, I was reading more widely on diverse interpretations of scripture, which are commonly regarded as straightforward in the mainstream evangelical world. So my eyes were opened a little wider, and I had an awareness of the disingenuousness mentioned above … and then I watched, as prominent voices within the evangelical sphere basically replicated my mistake, on a grand scale. They decided that a complex issue full of nuance — human sexuality — was in fact cut and dry, with only one clear moral path.

It seemed the mistake I felt I had made, was in fact a demonstrated and exemplary method within Christendom, practiced by some of the church’s most prominent teachers.

Well, this was all very interesting.

So I quietly continued my exploratory reading throughout the rest of this year. I was on a search now for some kind of balance.

Having come to faith in college, I had spent most of the past seven years within the conservative evangelical bubble, if you will. To be sure, I have not always towed the party line, due to my willful and distracted nature, and due to my epistemological roots as a Jew and a skeptic. But for most of this time I viewed conservative orthodoxy as something that I would eventually come around to, and fully embrace. The same as many probably feel within this sphere.

When you’re inside the camp, it is commonly held that “liberal” theology is a slippery slope, and it’s best not to tread there unless you want to follow in the wake of e.g Rob Bell. You don’t mess with the authority of scripture, and so on. And if you do trust scripture, then you should believe it in these particular ways.

I mean no offense … but hey, it really is like that.

Luckily, I discovered teachers like NT Wright, Greg Boyd, Frank Viola, and other bright ones. And meanwhile, Shane Blackshear’s podcast was responsible for introducing me to dozens of other diverse perspectives, held by believers who are otherwise [sic] sincere and passionate about Jesus. This whole year amounted to the first sustained season where I deliberately studied theology and exegesis from those outside my traditional camp.

What I discovered, more than anything, is that this whole gospel can be much more expansive and flexible than we commonly acknowledge within the bubble. And I’d argue, it should be.

So what now?

Well, I’m still in process. And with any luck, I will be for the rest of my life. In the meantime, I have slowly begun to reconcile with my old friends. I’m hopeful for a full recovery, one day soon.

What about all these contentious matters, over which the church is frequently in conflict with mainstream culture? Or, even with other parts of the church?

One thing I know for certain: we need to be more humble with our certainty, because these issues are always more complex than we want them to be. In this transition, the main thing from which I am recovering is my own hubris and self-assurance. How did such arrogance arise in the first place?

Well for one, I am arrogant 😀

But for two, the church passively encourages this sort of thing.

How’s that you say? Here’s a totally brilliant short piece from Greg Boyd on the idolatry of certainty, and how we practice this far too often when we live in the bubble (filmed by the totally brilliant The Work Of The People). Regardless of your personal beliefs, you will want to watch at least the first few minutes of this, because it’s incisive: The Idolatry of Certainty

As for actually addressing those specific contentious issues … for the time being, I have a deeper interest in asking the good questions, than in unlocking the monolithically-correct answers. Call that a cop-out if you will. For me it is a return to the mode of thinking that characterized my Jewish youth. And if you’re interested, I’d be happy to chat more about that.

For now, arriving in late December, I feel good about this year. I am now likely treading ground previously marked as perilous by my younger self … but that sounds like growth to me.

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In the spring, I’ll be shifting focus a little bit. I’ve determined that the most valuable kind of learning for me occurs via dialogue, rather than soliloquy. And, some would argue, this can be generalized to most people. In the spring I want to somehow move toward a more conversational approach here. I want to explore some of the challenging questions I’ve discovered this year, and not jump to overly hasty conclusions in their consideration.

If you’re interested in some exploratory and civil discourse with me, I would be thrilled. Or if you have any ideas on how this blog can effectively be made more “conversant”, from a technology and format perspective, please hit me up.

For the 50 or so of you that show up here regularly, thank you for reading. Enjoy the winter break.

Torture, America, and Jesus

I’m interrupting my slow-as-molasses multipart series to bring you a very short thought — a couple of questions for you to consider, if you will. I’m presenting this here in the hope to learn more, and to inspire a civil discourse in which we can learn from each other. Note the bold and underline of “civil”. You have been warned.

Before we proceed further, you need to all take note of Exhibit A: the Senate Intelligence Committee report on CIA Torture.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Senate_Intelligence_Committee_report_on_CIA_torture

If you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past week, well, you should click that link and read up on it. We done some bad torture, and people all be shouting about it. I’m not sure what that accent is.

After you’ve digested that and come up to speed … I have not one but two questions:

  1. If you are a follower of Jesus — under what circumstances do you find the torture of “enemies” to be justified and acceptable?
  2. If you are not a follower of Jesus, but you are an American — under what circumstances do you find the torturing of “enemies” to be justified and acceptable?

Think about these carefully. I will submit some cursory answers of my own to get the conversation started. But before you scroll down, you should try to form your own opinion. Or, just plough full speed ahead, if you like.

My off-the-cuff answers:

1) As a follower of Jesus, I find torture to be unacceptable. I lean toward interpreting “turn the other cheek” (and other parables of non-resistance) as outright pacifism. If we serve and are loved by a God who has inscribed his very image into every human soul, and He tells us ultimately that He will be the judge of all men and all nations, then what right can we claim? I concede, this is a radical and probably impractical sort of foreign policy for any state to try to implement in the modern world. Fine. The powers-that-were in Jesus’s time also found Him to be fairly “impractical” if you will.

2) If I try to answer the question as a simple American citizen, and attempt to remove my personal convictions from the matter, I still find a veritable minefield. Much of our sense of peace with our own foreign policy is based on the meta-narrative we tell ourselves, that we are the good guys and we do not desire to actually build an empire of aggression, unlike the other great powers of history.

That’s a fine little story. But what happens if and when all signs start to suggest that America is not in fact the “good guys”? What if under the cover of night, we’ve begun using the same methods and tactics of every other woeful empire of history, and have now allowed ourselves to be lured into a place of xenophobic fear for our own security?

This has happened already, in my view, particularly in light of the latest report. If I try to play “the average American”, I feel we have two choices:

A) We either get okay with NOT thinking of ourselves as the good guys anymore, and then continue using whatever methods we feel are justifiable to ensure our security, or
B) We move toward a national humility, seek reconciliation abroad, confess our sins (as it were), and remove all trace of foul play from our intelligence and armed services.

If we choose option A, we’d better throw out any remaining traces of the old American Exceptionalism. If we choose option B, we’d better get used to the idea of living in a little more fear, rather than total and omnipotent security, to which we are accustomed.

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Warning: all of the above was quickly thrown together, and has not been reviewed or edited (as of 8:30pm CST on Tuesday 12/16/14). Apologies for grammar, lack of coherence, specious reasoning, and so on.

Let’s attempt to work all this out in the comments below. Please proceed. Teach me something if you like, I’d love to hear.

My Shift to the Dark Side (pt. 1)

One of my new year’s resolutions for 2014 was to listen better. My intent there was that I needed to stop treating the world, and my friends, as if they were all waiting expectantly for the arrival of my personal wisdom and judgment, on whatever matters they might be deliberating.

I am a counselor and a mentor at heart — it’s just part of my wiring. But I’ve had some success with this aspect of my nature. My peers and ment-ees have thanked me for my input many times, even when I have comically offered it without a direct invitation. But, such “success” goes to one’s head, and certainly it had by now, to my own.

So last January, aiming toward life well-lived, and pursuing true humility, I resolved to listen. I wanted to make room for the fact that I am literally surrounded by bright people, whose ability to navigate life on their own terms easily matches my own, or exceeds it. This fact, I thought, should make me more attentive to the perspectives, hopes, and hangups of other people, even if they are not my first instincts.

Thus began the Year of Listening. It would be full of lessons that were not slow in coming.

In January, I made a high-stakes venture that paid out harsh consequences. I had two dear friends who I felt were taking a risky and unorthodox move by getting married. I loved them both very much. So I felt I was acting out of such love, and in their best interest, when I spoke up that they should rethink their imminent engagement. This did not go well at all.

While my missive was driven by a sincere heart, its delivery was overwrought and ham-fisted. My choice of the written medium was a bad one. And the timing could not have been worse. As a result, I lost these two friends. In just an instant.

This whole message should not have been a message at all — it should have been a conversation, and a deep Listening time, for me and perhaps for all of us. But I was caught up in my self-assured sense of duty as the Wise Friend Who Speaks Up, and this resulted in a blind spot that was to all of our detriment.

I was excommunicated after that. In the weeks that followed, in the cognitive dissonance that results from the loss of friends who are like family … I wondered at what had happened here.

I felt that I had been speaking up for good old solid orthodox Christian wisdom — that would be “orthodox” with a lowercase ‘o’. When I spoke about all this fallout with friends who I felt shared such main-line beliefs, they were affirming that I had made the right call by speaking up. Because, the reasoning went, friends should speak up when they see friends walking into potential ruin and regret! That gave me some peace. So I offered whatever apologies I could muster to my lost friends, and tried to wait out the painful silence.

On the other hand, I was plagued by the guilt, or perhaps the regret, of knowing that such a line of reasoning had led me into a deeply self-righteous posture when I sent my message. As I said, I should have been prepared to listen, not just because of my 2014 Resolution, but because the deep gravity of the occasion clearly demanded it. But I did not really seek to listen. I had made my judgment, and was merely delivering it.

I couldn’t help but wonder: even if my intentions had been benevolent, how had I settled on an execution that was so destructive? I allowed this question to resound in my soul for a little while, hoping perhaps the Spirit would use it to search my depths.

It was around this time that the World Vision gay rights debacle went down. As I watched the story unfold, I couldn’t help but see it as a massive-scale replay of my same personal fumble: benign intentions, based on accepted mainstream understandings of Christian doctrine, implemented in a way that was unexpectedly cruel, unwieldy, and deeply destructive.

Yikes. A pattern was beginning to show itself here.

The story continues next time …

The Only Constant is Change

One of the best things I did on this year’s Vision Quest was to compile all my journal entries from the past 4 years, save them to my kindle, and begin reading back through them, from 2010 up toward the present.

I use Penzu to keep all these saved. What’s great is that whenever I write or receive a personally-important email or chat, I can just CC that message to Penzu, and it gets saved forever.

Consequently, I had a lot of content to read back through. And if you were ambling back through your own life, wouldn’t you want that? Yes, you would. It’s been great. I am only about halfway through 2012, right now.

In my reading, one consistent fixture has emerged: the inescapability of change.

Lots of us in Western culture are subconsciously obsessed with the idea of “arriving”, meaning one day we’ll have the XYZ which solves all our problems. This, as we know, has been force-fed into us via mainly advertising and social comparison. In recent years as we’ve gained more cognizance of this farce, it has now become more popular to poo-poo this idea, and instead run with some bromide like “it’s about the journey”. Bleh.

I say that the notion of “arriving” is much more of a human neuroticism than a Western-consumerist one. It’s just that advertisers in the West (and now everywhere) have had the time and impetus to tap into that instinct. But it was there from the start.

The last couple of decades of cognitive research have borne witness to this universality. For instance, it is now known that the brain’s opioid pathway — which makes us feel satisfied and content — is easily overpowered by the much stronger dopamine pathway — which makes us want and seek for more/new/better. Think about that for a moment.

The seeking and hungering in you is stronger than the contented and at peace in you. Not in some vague spiritual sense, but in a way that is demonstrable, neurological, empirical.

Definitely true. Gah.

When you consider that our primeval environment was composed not of cars and mortgages, but of predators and strangers and miles and miles of remoteness, it all makes a little more sense. We wouldn’t have made it this far, out of the ancient places, unless we were all tuned a few ticks past reasonable, into the neurotic. We are a race of seekers and want-ors, forever curious, acquisitive, and … basically insatiable. This puts today’s global resource crises into a more sympathetic light, perhaps. And if you were an advertising exec in the booming 1920s, wouldn’t this be the best news you’d ever heard?

… But I digress.

Where I was headed was:

In general, we tend to imagine ourselves “arriving” in a place or a lifestyle that will finally make us happy.

As I’ve read up through my memoirs, what I’ve seen is that consistent recurring sentiment. First it’s the living situation, then it’s the job, the car, the next job, the girl, the “next season”, and so on. Always rationalizing, always consoling myself with visions of what’s to come.

And it does come. In time, most of the things I’ve set my sights on have come to pass. But nothing in particular changes about my mindset. The hungers and aspirations don’t go away. They just grow to fill the new container in which they are placed.

This isn’t just about lifestyle inflation — which is where one’s expenses creep up and up to match one’s growing income. This is more about, hmm … dare I say, the inflation of dissatisfaction? Or perhaps, of hope.

My boss was asking me how I was doing a few weeks ago. I said I was pretty good. He asked me what it would take to get to me to great. I told him I didn’t know. He said ya know Ian … sometimes I wonder if maybe you’re a glass-is-three-quarters-full kind of person … where you walk around all the time and things are always pretty good, but they could still be better.

I’m sure he’s right about that.

At the bottom of all this, I’m left with a simple truth: the only constant we can be sure of is change.

As long as we hope for new things, we will never be still. This is not a bad thing, but it really depends on what you want. Advertisers have us simultaneously believing that (A) one day we can “arrive” and be finally content, in a euphoric stasis, and also (B) we will never arrive, because there is always something else to yearn for and want, something to envy or to buy. Maybe this dualism is why we’re so confused.

If we desire to truly be content where we are, if only for a season, then that contentedness will require our vigilance. The research suggests that gladness is not strong in our evolutionary heritage, so we’ll have to find ways of reinforcing that, over and against the dopamine pathway. Perhaps this is best accomplished through simple disciplines like daily gratitude. Point is, if we don’t adopt this vigilance, we will never naturally settle into a long-lasting contentment. Without proactive measures, we’ll be at the mercy of our natural insatiability. Forever.

This may be leading somewhere more concrete, but we’ll have to see later. Pun intended.

The Case for Last Year’s Model

So Apple had their product release and it was real cool. Apple Watch — cool. iPhone 6 and 6 Plus? Very cool. Bigger slimmer faster, thumbprint magic, Apple Pay, new motion coprocessor, and now with Focus Pixels. Definitely cool. In typical good form the Onion had a great little time with it.

As I’ve said before, I’m no Apple-hater. I’ve loved all the Macs I’ve ever owned. Apple is just a great case study in a larger trend:

The pushing of fantastic new technology as reasonable and necessary. Even when last year’s tech was already enough. Actually, last year’s tech was already more than most users ever knew what to do with.

LG G3, arguably the current king of the Android world. Among others.

I’m currently on the Android side myself. Last week I handled my friend’s new LG G3. It is a magic-feeling device, like a divine hand-sized tablet from the future. It even has lasers. I’m serious. Predictably I started wanting one immediately.

And then as I lazily started checking prices, I thought Hmm what do I actually intend to do with this thing again?

You may think I’m talking about whether the hardware is adequate for my needs or not. Yeah, that’s one part of my point today:

Smartphones have emerged on somewhat of a commoditization plateau.

This means all the Android flagships out there basically have equivalent performance. Or if not equivalent, you at least can’t tell the difference between them. More importantly, you probably can’t tell the difference in speed between this year’s model versus last year’s. This is probably true in both the Android and iPhone universes.

For some hard facts, compare LG’s G2 and G3, which are the 2013 and 2014 “flagship” models respectively, and were released about 8 months apart from each other. What do you see? The internals are basically the same, with some slight boosts and buffs here and there. But the horsepower hasn’t really changed much. The real differences are in the software — which is easily upgrade on either of them — and on other auxiliaries like fit and finish, ergonomics, screen resolution, and of course, those all-important lasers.

The bottom line there is: unless you’re totally addicted to the latest and fastest technology, last year’s best phone is 90% likely to knock your socks off. If you pay for this year’s phone, you’re likely mostly paying for markup. The other improvements you’re buying will deliver diminishing returns to you.

So that’s one point for today — year-over-year technology improvements likely won’t make much difference to you, unless you’re a total junkie for this stuff. And if you’re a junkie, maybe you’re compensating for something deeper in your life; I don’t know, figure it out.

The other point for today is a little more global. Actually it applies to all consumer goods, not just smartphones.

Otterbox Defender case, perfect for the neurotic hoarder in your life.

When I asked myself Hmm what am I going to do with this hypothetical G3?, what I really meant was … Do I think I’m going to keep it in one of those hyper-protective cases like an Otterbox?

The answer is no. I hate those things. The whole point of buying a slim phone is to enjoy using a slim phone. Why buy a svelte little device, only to wrap a castle around it? I don’t want to carry around a castle in my pocket. If I wanted that, why not just pay less for a larger more rugged device? Am I right?

This creates a certain dissonance though. If I refuse to add a thick protective layer to my phone, it will eventually get worn and damaged, at least in small ways. It will start to look and feel used, regardless of how careful I am with it. Because you touch this thing with your hands all day long, every day. And sometimes hands are dirty. Fact of life.

Bow down to the chamfered edge.

But Apple doesn’t want you to consider this. I mean, no manufacturer really wants you to think about this, but I think Apple is a foremost offender … albeit among a crowd of offenders. Remember Jony Ive’s diamond-cut chamfered edge on the iPhone 5? Watch the video again if you’ve forgotten. It’s fun and engrossing. Jony’s British. He’ll lull you into wanting to buy one again.

But there are only two things that can happen to those gorgeous chamfered edges, once the iPhone rides around in your pocket for a few months:

  1. They get nicked and oiled, lose their uniformity and sheen, or
  2. They get covered immediately by a plastic case, never to be seen again.

In either case, they are of no real benefit to you over the long haul. The main benefit they convey is to Apple themselves, because they motivate you to part with your money and buy the damn thing.

This here is the kernel of the other point. Smartphone industrial design has gotten so sophisticated that you’d think you’re buying a new BMW roadster, or else a piece of fancy Euro living room furniture. Indeed, Apple amps up this feeling to an extreme degree, and the Android contenders are following suit. Look at this G3 commercial. God that’s hot. Now you can finally memorialize the exploding tomatoes in your life. But seriously.

Again, the primary benefit of this slick design is to the vendors, because they alone are the ones that can show off a brand new, pristine device in their stores. This is what gets the units moving into your hands. And once they’re in your hands, they lose that pristine finish. This is the exact same reason that a new car loses value so quickly after you drive it off the lot. A good chunk of what you were paying for is not anything at all except the newness of it.

And also, the depreciation ramp for smartphones is 10x worse than cars. Last year’s G2 had about the same MSRP of this year’s G3 — about $600 unlocked. But the G2 is already about a year old. Today, you can get an excellent-condition used G2 for about $180 on Craigslist, even though it is still awesome for most people that will use it.

That is crazy, people. 70% of the phone’s value dropped off in about 1 year. For a device that is ~90% as good as this year’s model.

My well-worn companion, the now-humble Nexus 4.

To wrap this up, let’s look at where I’m at. I have a little old Google Nexus 4, released almost 2 years ago. It was a powerful, affordable phone when it came out. But even though the tech specs were just barely top of the line in 2012, to this day in late 2014 I have never really done anything with it that stresses the hardware. And my wife knows, I use this thing all.the.time.

So if I were to upgrade, here are the reasons why:

  1. Bigger screen. The Nexus 4 is a fairly good size, but when I use it for long periods it would be nice to get a little more real estate. This is just a quibble though really.
  2. More storage. My Nexus 4 is the 8GB variety, which means I can’t keep much on it in the way of podcasts, music, photos, or saved Pocket articles. This is more than just a quibble.
  3. Better camera. The Nexus 4 camera was never much fun to use. Auto-focus is super slow and unreliable. This produces lame pictures 50% of the time or more. If I had a phone with a better camera, I would take a lot more pictures, and I think I would be thankful to have more of a record of my happy memories in life, and so on. This is probably the #1 reason I might consider upgrading.

Even after all that, it would still take a lot to get me to move on this. I am considering last year’s G2 for that bargain price of $180 … but only lazily.

Why is this?

Because right now I have a good thing going in my relationship with my Nexus 4: it does not own me.

The other day I took a muddy run through the greenbelt to Sculpture Falls. Decided to bring my phone and bluetooth headphones. Enjoyed it. Was able to use the phone to snap a mediocre picture of the falls, and share to Facebook #subtlebrag. To do this, I stuffed my Nexus 4 into the back zipper pocket of my stretchy trail shorts. These became sweaty with the run. And eventually, soaked from jumping in the falls. No problem. I put the Nexus 4 back in the same (damp) pocket for the return jog.

My point is, this phone is by now so well-used that I don’t have any huge concern for its well-being. I am its owner. It is not my owner. I rather like this arrangement. You should too.

When electronics producers convince you to buy consumer goods because they appear to be works of art, you end up losing. You pay a huge premium* for the new pristine state of that device, but you don’t get to enjoy it. It loses the sheen and the sparkle after a few weeks or months. In the meantime, depending on your temperament, you might fuss and worry over protecting your new toy. Until you accept the aging of your device, you are not its true owner.

Or to put it more simply: the great joy of owning things is not in having them, but in using them. So buy a device that you’ll be happy to use. Not one that’s impressive to look at.

 

*Addendum: some of you will succeed regularly in acquiring the latest and greatest devices without paying a premium, using clever combinations of trade-in values, switching carriers, contract pricing, and so on. To you I say, kudos. You have dodged the cruel blade of the mouse trap, and still get to enjoy the finest of artisan cheese. Or at very least, you have convinced yourself that you’ve dodged the blade, by amortizing the expense of it, and so on. So my blanket pronouncement doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone.
 
But I still privately think you’re a sucker. Because no matter what kind of deal you got, last year’s generation would still be cheaper, and would still be wowzers.

Wages of the Wilderness

My first and only solo high-mountain backpacking trip comprised about 25 miles, and just over 48 hours. And, in many ways it kind of sucked.

It turns out that I am an extrovert. What I mean is, I get energy and encouragement from other people. On all my dozens of prior backpacking trips, I’ve had the companionship of at least one trail mate, if not several. I get a lot of life from their company and camaraderie, which turns an otherwise taxing experience into a bonding of worthwhile memories.

But I had never taken a solo trip of this size before, so I didn’t know any of that. And I didn’t have trail mates on this trip.

This meant that every worry about weather, camp chores, pace, hydration, and so on, was mine alone to carry. Along with all the gear. And the whole plan. Nobody to bounce ideas off. Nobody to laugh with, when exhaustion and altitude hit hard on the first night. Nobody to cook for. Nobody to encourage. Just me, for some reason sojourning alone, amid a vast mountain host, who was entirely indifferent to my malaise.

If this sounds dramatic, it’s because I was. When you combine an extrovert’s social deprivation with the general sensory punishment of lightweight alpine backpacking, he tends to wig out a little bit from the strain. The first 24 hours were especially tough.

I stuck it out, but only begrudgingly. I decided to shorten the trip by a day. But before I came home, I would stumble upon some more important insights.

The Inner Monologue

Having realized that I don’t much like solo backpacking, I next asked why I had driven myself there.

The easy answer was: I wanted to see if I could do it. And with relief, I discovered on this trip that indeed I can. Not altogether happily, but I managed.

The more complete answer was: I felt like I should. Ah, now we are getting somewhere.

Why should I solo backpack? To keep my mind and body sharp of course. To oppose the complacence of the everyday.

Why do I need to keep my mind and body sharp? Because I don’t want to go to sleep. Because I don’t want to acquiesce to the limited horizons of the middle class American dream.

Why don’t I want to acquiesce to a middle class existence? Because then I’ll end up with a totally average life, indistinguishable from the great sea of human experience.

Why don’t I want to be average? Because then I’ll die average, having left an average legacy. In a word, I will be forgettable.

And why don’t I want to be forgettable? Hm. Interesting.

Because I don’t want to end.

At that moment, meditating atop an unnamed prominence near Pecos Baldy Lake, I laughed and cried at once, as I realized that I am terrified of my own finitude.

It’s not that I’m afraid of the physical sensation of death. My anxiety is instead that my story will one day have a conclusion at all.

So for years, this fear has lurked around in my unconscious, motivating me toward curious acts of asceticism and radicality — like solo backpacking on pure principle alone. My hidden ego has whispered that if I can just become superhuman, I will stand out from the tide of history, my name will be remembered, and my legacy will never die.

Bahaha … right.

Everyone freaking dies, dude — even the truly great ones. Do Plato or Pythagoras take comfort that their ideas are still in regular use more than 2000 years later? Is Temujin happy with his 16 million living direct descendants? I have no idea. They are long dead … either floating in some ethereal plane of bliss / torture / limbo, or lacking existence entirely — gone in the truest sense.

So what exactly do I hope to accomplish that could quench this deepest fear? More than these ancient ones? How many generations do I need to be remembered, in order to “never die”?

Yes, this is all ludicrous. I thought so too. All this iconoclasm I’ve wrestled with over the years … basically it is a bid to reach toward the eternal.

And the dumbest thing about all this is … I already have access to the eternal.

There is a man who called himself the Gate. He doesn’t have need for my willful iconoclasm. He just wants me to find his footsteps, and walk in them.

More on this soon.

Why Bother With the Wilderness?

A little more than 2 years ago, I took a solo trip to the mountains. I hiked and camped a couple of days, and ended up spending the rest of the week at a monastery in Albuquerque. I called it my Vision Quest.

Then …

At the time, I was transitioning from a highly communal, experimental, vagabond lifestyle into a settled, individuated, married, working existence. And, that transition had me scared. What would happen to my values and habits as part of this change? Would I be corrupted by the middle-class hamster wheel dream?

On that trip in 2012, I discovered Mustachianism, and it became my armor and arsenal as I journeyed into a more normal-looking, materially-rich existence. So in that sense, the trip was a bullseye. Even if the rest of it didn’t go as planned.

And Now.

Today I’m writing from Glorieta Camp, at the base of the Pecos Wilderness in New Mexico. I’m back for another Vision Quest — 2014 edition.

Yet again, life is changing. When I return to Austin I will step into a new role at work. I’ll have a huge spike in responsibility, but a corresponding jump in autonomy, decision-making power, and potential reward. It’s got me psyched, but also scared. It’s going to require a new level of dedication, which will be costly. I am preparing myself mentally for that jump.

Before I do that though … time to get into the wilderness again.

There are a lot of ways to be a successful human, and to live a life unto God. There are very few wrong ways on that path, and lots of right ones, and zero guarantees for success or failure.

The new path opening up ahead of me will require a kind of excellence that is highly specialized, as compared to the domain of all-humans-ever. What I mean is, I will have to drill further into the depths of entrepreneurship and business acumen, modern web technologies, electronic communication, user experience, and growth hacking.

These are all skills that apply almost exclusively to educated, affluent urbanites, living in the internet age of western civilization. As such, they are a specialized toolkit, and certainly not the kind of thing that would get you through, say, a zombie apocalypse. I once heard a friend say he wanted to try out carpentry because he’d like to know how to build stuff that will last when the lights go out. Yeah, I get that. I can connect with that sentiment. But the path I’m on, it’s not that. I am journeying into the land of specialization.

So if I want to avoid becoming a privileged asshole who can’t relate to anyone that isn’t also an educated affluent urbanite born of the internet age, I need to find a way to unplug and zoom out once in a while.

For me, that is this wilderness. And there are other reasons to be out here too, but that is a big one.

As I said, there are many ways to be a successful human. I am visiting some old friends who live and work out here, and they are veritably successful in their particular niche. And their niche is not mine. And that’s fine. Neither of us should feel sad or proud about that. I am here to remember that there are other ways to live life rightly. There are other ways to exist that don’t involve Pinterest or Engadget or Fast Company.

And it’s good. Because if I ever forgot about those other ways, and became convinced that I was nearing the pinnacle of human achievement (for my age group or my demographic or wtf you want), then I would have lost sight of something important.

To top this off, tomorrow I will get on trail alone for three days, among the peaks and rivers of the Pecos. If anyone has good reason to be prideful in his own element, he can count on an unsympathetic mountain thunderstorm to reduce him back down to where his ego belongs. I get on trail alone so that I can be reduced, and to be put in my rightful place. If I don’t do this every so often, I will probably lose track of what’s true. My only firm footing is with the One who brought me here.

Information Toxicosis (part 2)

For context, you’ll want to read part 1 if you haven’t already.

So the question is … Why???

Why am I constantly seeking out new information when I have a backlog that would already take me the better part of a year to consume?
Do I think my life is enriched by this constant consumption and seeking of new stimulus?

Still at work on these questions, but I think they’re the right questions to ask.

I have at least one good answer today: I think my search and consumption patterns point to my insecurities about life.

… and I daresay the same might be true for you. Let’s take a look at what I mean. What I’ve done below is summarized the most consistent topics in my consumption habits. These are the subjects that I continually return to, subscribe to, share with friends, and share on Facebook:

  1. Essays on Jesus, faith, or culture, typically counter-conservative or altogether counter-cultural, written by Christians who are either progressive or apolitical.
  2. Essays from a cultural or sociological perspective that look at various traits of western life — loneliness, disconnection, rugged individualism, etc. — and compare / contrast them with traits we recognize in other cultures, or with our purported hunter-gatherer past.
  3. Blogs on reducing or rejecting busyness; on minimalist life tendencies; on reducing consumption; reducing waste; reducing possessions; reducing footprint.
  4. Blogs on personal money management; on creative ways to solve the most common household or budget challenges; on how to utilize friends, free services, and community in order to avoid wasting resources; on how to invest well and put money to work wisely.
  5. Articles on business leadership, entrepreneurship, innovation, and tech startups.
  6. Articles on body and particularly joint health, ergonomics and posture, improving mobility and range of motion, and building strength and flexibility in places that are usually lacking in middle class western life.
  7. Blogs on quick, innovative food preparation; on how to cook once a week or once a month using freezer meals; on how to construct healthy, tasty, affordable meals that can be prepared in only one or two vessels, one crock pot, etc. etc.

 

I have to admit I’m a little shocked, after compiling this lineup, by how little breadth there is in my typical reading habits. The list above probably accounts for 80-90% of what I consume on the web. And these topics are mirrored in the books that I read. Right now I am reading The Myth of a Christian Nation and Becoming a Supple Leopard and The World Until Yesterday. Yep. Like clockwork.

But the more interesting thing is what these trends mean

As soon as I saw my list, I knew that these topics are a perfect reflection of my insecurities about life, as it is right now. Note that I am not saying that the only reason I consume this stuff is because I am insecure. Certainly there is worthwhile content here by any standard, and my reading is as much motivated by interest as it is by fear. But, the incisiveness remains. These topics clearly point to areas where I am afraid of how my life is going.

Let’s take a look at my list again and I’ll show you what I mean:

  1. Counter-conservative Jesus: Reading these convinces me that I am not stagnant in my faith journey, that I am still discovering more of God and growing; sharing these on Facebook makes me feel like I am not one of those crazy fundamentalist bubble Christians, and by the way you should hang out with me and think I’m cool, because I’m progressive and relevant.
  2. Society and western culture: Reading these draws my attention to the ways that my own heart has been changing in the last ~5 years, as I have transitioned out of a transient, unbounded, communal lifestyle, into a 9-to-5, individuated, married, settled lifestyle; sharing these articles on Facebook makes me feel like I am not doomed to just grow up and be a normal middle class American who substitutes connection for entertainment and toys.
  3. Reducing busyness, and minimalism: Reading these reminds me to feel satisfied with all the things I already have that I don’t need, all the things that I do on a daily basis which are not necessary to life or even to happiness, and challenge me to throttle back on consumption of material goods; sharing these on Facebook make me feel like I am a minimalist, and that I am not being sucked into the American Buy-Now Vortex of Despair, and that I am challenging my friends to do the same and not give into the alluring hamster-wheel dream that we all know so well.
  4. Money management and budget: Reading these does something similar as described above, but focuses more tightly on this very quantifiable resource with which I’ve been entrusted — money; reading these remind me of how insanely rich I am compared to the majority of all humans both alive and dead, and this awareness makes me feel like I am more alive and awake than the average middle class American; sharing these on Facebook makes me feel like I am winning the battle against never-ending consumption, and that we are containing our desires and spending habits and preventing our lifestyle from gradually inflating along with our income — which I think is negligent, if not patently evil.
  5. Business leadership and entrepreneurship: Reading these reminds me of what’s possible in the startup world, and gives me hope that I could work for myself and chase my own dream one day; sharing these on Facebook makes me feel like this hope is still possible and attainable, and maybe someone will want to help me chase a dream someday.
  6. Joint health and mobility: Reading these gives me tools to avoid the inevitable degradation of my body that comes through simple aging and more dramatically through working a desk job everyday; consuming these makes me feel like I might manage to avoid the biggest or most common degradations due to the same, which gives me hope that I could still arrive in my mid-40s one day and be mobile enough to run and jump and play with my children, even though I’ve been chained to a desk for 2 decades; generally I don’t share these on Facebook, but if I did it would probably be kind of odd, and you’d think I was one of those CrossFit nuts who shares their workouts with everyone, as though we are subscribed to and care deeply about your AMRAP or 1RM or PRs. Love you.
  7. Food preparation: Reading these gives me tools to battle the silly #1stworldproblem that we face almost daily — that our lives don’t include much margin for the time, energy, research, and expense required to eat calmly and well; we are frequently too tired to cook enthusiastically at the end of our weeks or our workdays, and so we struggle with this, and at the same time have concerns that we are getting the nutrition we need as we get older, and at the same time we are surprised that our grocery expenses are so high each month; reading these gives me hope that we might gain some leverage here, and more generally that we might gain some leverage everywhere, because meal prep is like a little case study about our entire lifestyle right now; generally I don’t share these on Facebook, because I am not a mommy blogger, and evidently I am also sexist or something.

 

Yeah. Interesting, no?

I’ll explore this a little more in a follow-up post. Meanwhile, here is my challenge to you:

Do The Same

Tally up your most common topics, then list them out, and make your own conjectures about how those topics mitigate your fears, insecurities, hangups, and cognitive dissonance. How are you compensating? Post your replies in the comments below, or on FB. If you want to open that can of worms, that is 🙂