05/5/15

Not Knowing

It’s been awhile since I’ve heard this, but I’ve been accused in the past of being a “know-it-all”. While it seems that my love of learning has filled my mind with fact after fact, my spiritual and philosophical growth has lead me to realize how little that I actually do know.

 

Based on this understanding, most of my conclusions are simply page markers. Mentally, my inner dialog goes something like “Based on what I currently know, this is my current, temporary understanding.” Hardly anything is fixed with surety, and to be honest, this ever shifting view of the world sometimes becomes wearying.

 

Not often, but on occasion, I look at someone who goes through life secure in their conclusions and understandings and wish that I too could see the world the same way, never having to actively seek to maintain my balance.

 

The appeal is short-lived, because this thought almost always is followed by the recognition that I am a product of my decisions, and I have actively sought out the path that I’m on. On a bad day, these thoughts will form a running loop and bother me for some small time. Fortunately, days like these are rare.

 

My sense is that many who have mapped the world to their content, and have firm and fixed opinions and understandings of matters large and small. My concern is that if I become too comfortable in my assumptions I will become mentally brittle, resisting new interpretations and new information that challenges my assumptions. It isn’t possible to avoid some level of fixation and the formation of bias, but I hope to at least recognize it when it occurs.

 

From my perspective, facts and trivia are small pieces of a larger whole. They help build a picture of the world, but they don’t constitute a universal understanding of what they represent. The more I learn, the more humble I become, for every summit reveals new realms of things to learn. Rather than feeling lost by this understanding, I’m exhilarated. My love of learning appears to have the stamina to last as long as I do. Quite simply, what I am coming to understand is myself.

04/28/15

Humanism as a Religion

One of the most significant insights that I’ve had is an understanding that Humanism is a religion. It is with this understanding that I am able to see many seemingly diverse trends coalesce into a logical narrative.

Humanism is a force that has done much to shape the world that we live in, dominating the means of expression and education in the Western world. If Humanism is a religion, then Atheism, Feminism, Environmentalism, Socialism, Marxism and the Progressive movement are denominations of the Mother Religion, perhaps the dominant religion of the entire world.

PREFACE

I will be painting with a broad brush, and it is with the knowledge that not every person driven by an “Ism” is a Humanist. I ask for your understanding that simple narratives help distil a complex world into a form that can be used as a start for further thought and discussion.

My path

From a young age my dad had instilled in me a love of learning and open-minded inquiry. Healthy skepticism was encouraged, and I was taught not to accept anything presented as fact without the application of critical thought. This laid the mental groundwork that led me to a loss of faith when I was 14. My manner of thought came into conflict with what I was being taught in the church. It also didn’t gel with my own observations and study, but critically, at an intuitive level I felt that something wasn’t right.

Not long after this break with religion I came to notice that at its extreme, Environmentalism contained many of the same broad themes of Christianity; an early period of paradise, the loss of paradise through man’s sins. Following the loss of paradise comes the acknowledgement of man’s base nature, the acceptance of personal sin, and finally, the return to paradise.

It struck as significant that many leading environmentalists are atheists, and that the reverence afforded “Mother Earth” or “Gaia” seemed to be a substitute for the older religion’s God or gods.

As time goes by

It was the Environmentalist’s desire to remake the world to fit an ideal that lead my thinking, and I realized that certain other forms of activism, expression and phrases were aligned with Environmentalism. I could sense the gravitational nature that exists between Environmentalism, Socialism, Feminism, Communism and Marxism…a dogma was emerging. Only after a great deal of thought and research was I able to put a name to it. The thread that ties these philosophies together is Humanism.

Humanism can be defined as an existential belief system. At its core, there is a belief that it is morally incumbent for humanists to influence culture in a way consistent with the Humanist ideal of reason based on scientific knowledge.

The genesis of Humanism

Historically Humanism has been embraced by many who have possessed fierce intellect, and its roots lie deep with these great minds. These ideas and ideals coalesced in the first Humanist Manifesto, published in 1933. This seminal document proclaims, in part, the following;

Religions have always been means for realizing the highest values of life (my emphasis). Their end has been accomplished through the interpretation of the total environing situation (theology or world view), the sense of values resulting therefrom (goal or ideal), and the technique (cult), established for realizing the satisfactory life. A change in any of these factors results in alteration of the outward forms of religion. This fact explains the changefulness of religions through the centuries. But through all changes religion itself remains constant in its quest for abiding values, an inseparable feature of human life.

Today man’s larger understanding of the universe, his scientific achievements, and deeper appreciation of brotherhood, have created a situation which requires a new statement of the means and purposes of religion. Such a vital, fearless, and frank religion capable of furnishing adequate social goals and personal satisfactions may appear to many people as a complete break with the past. While this age does owe a vast debt to the traditional religions, it is none the less obvious that any religion that can hope to be a synthesizing and dynamic force for today must be shaped for the needs of this age. To establish such a religion is a major necessity of the present. It is a responsibility which rests upon this generation.”

Humanism as a religion

My understanding that Humanism is a religion was initially based on intuition; “If it walks like a duck…”, but further study confirmed my initial gut feeling. The Humanist worldview is a total in its nature, and it gives meaning, purpose and direction to its member’s lives. They are morally compelled to act according to its dictates. Humanists see themselves as “enlightened”, with a shared faith in the potentiality of man.

As you can see, I’ve highlighted the first sentence of the Humanist Manifesto. It’s significant, because almost immediately following it being published, Humanists began to backpedal, attempting to deny that their worldview was a religion. I surmise that it was realized by Humanist advocates that the precept of “separation of church and state” would work as a two edged sword, limiting the influence of not only the theistic religions, but the Humanist religion as well. A great deal of emphasis was given in pointing out internal divisions within the ranks of Humanists, showing that certain Humanists embraced overtly religious aspect of Humanism, to include the establishment of churches and the gathering of congregations, while other Humanists eschewed such outward trappings of religion.

I suggest that even those who chose not to practice Humanism in an overtly religious manner can be seen as fundamentally religious based on the idea encapsulated in the highlighted sentence and the devotion of their lives to a higher common purpose.

John Dewey, one of the modern world’s most influential educators and humanists, wrote in his 1934 book A Common Faith, that the word “religion” comes from a root that means to bound, or tied by vows to a particular way of life. Certainly this would encompass the Humanist living his life according to Humanist ideals.

Other Humanists have pointed out the lack of any form of deity, and this deflects the thoughts of the casual member of western culture. What it fails to address is the fact that Buddhism, certainly a prominent religion, also lacks any form of deity. A footnote in the 1961 Supreme Court decision in Torcaso v. Watkins states “Among religions in this country which do not teach what would generally be considered a belief in the existence of God are Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism, and others. See Washington Ethical Society v. District of Columbia, 101 U.S. App. D.C. 371, 249 F.2d 127…” Even more recently, a federal district court in Oregon ruled that Secular Humanism is a religion, and is afforded 1st Amendment protections (American Humanist Association v. United States).

The ranks of Humanists are rather amorphous, lacking the structure and clear delineation of older religions, but it is possible to see some broad trends. The Global Secular Humanist Movement, which has over 307k Facebook followers, describe their group thusly “Commitment to the use of critical reason, factual evidence, and scientific methods of inquiry, rather than faith and mysticism, in seeking solutions to human problems and answers to important human questions”. They go on to define Humanism and its mission “Secular Humanism (n.) : a doctrine, attitude, or way of life centered on human interests or values especially a philosophy that usually rejects supernaturalism and stresses an individual’s dignity and worth and capacity for self-realization through reason, (a) philosophy viewed as a nontheistic religion (my emphasis) antagonistic to traditional religion. The Global Secular Humanist Movement is a social movement that aims to promote public understanding and acknowledgment of the secular humanistic worldview…”

It takes little imagination to see that individuals subscribing to that  world view who are seeking to remake the world according to the group’s ideals are truly members of a new religion.

Humanist Denominations             

If Humanism is a region, then it certainly has some diverse denominations. A few, out of many, of the denominations are highlighted below.

-New Atheism; while being an Atheist merely denotes a decision regarding a belief, New Atheism is a Humanist movement with the goal of countering traditional religion. It is overtly antagonistic to traditional religion. It is somewhat ironic that this simply mirrors the historical animosity commonly found among religions.

-Animal Rights Movement; as early as 1908, Mrs. H. Clay Preston was tying “Humane Education” to Humanistic principles. By 1975, Australian Humanist of the year Peter Singer had written “Animal Liberation” Dr. Nik Taylor said “I believe firmly that in order to secure a better future for all…we need to address broad societal attitudes towards disenfranchised others. This necessitates an analysis of the operations of power, discourse and inclusion in modern society: an analysis which has animals firmly at the centre…”

-Feminism; Feminism is going through throes right now trying to disengage itself from Humanism, it has critical historical ties to Humanism. Betty Friedan, an influential Feminist from the 1960’s was a signatory of the 2nd Humanist Manifesto. Gloria Steinem was the 2012 Humanist of the year…the ties go on and on.

-Progressive Movement; this is quite simply the expression of Humanist solutions to what they view as world problems.

Conclusion

From its founding, the United Nations was based on Humanist ideals, with several prominent Humanists serving as founding directors. Our current world and daily lives are impacted by the religion of Humanism, for example, the concept and practice of “politically correct speech” is Humanist in origin. Once one is able to see Humanism for what it is, we see that from earliest education to the highest levels of learning Humanism affects all of us. Certainly, if you look, you can find the Humanist dogma present in our public schools.

I challenge you to not accept my conclusions. Conduct your own research, consider my opinion, and form your own conclusions.

04/28/15

When Winter Comes

One of the things that I look forward to as winter approaches is photographing the northern lights. At this latitude winter solstice only sees about four hours of daylight, with the sun skimming across a few degrees of the horizon before it sets. We might see weeks with the high temperatures of -20°F, with lows of, at most, -40°F. Temperatures of more than -50°F aren’t unheard of. These short photo expeditions have become dear to me, and I’ve tried to capture a sense of it in the following poem;

 

Of Light and Cold

 

The cold is profound, ancient, a brother to the moon

In an act of love, the moon gives its light to the winter’s snow

Draped snow accepts the moon’s light and sparkles as jewels

While sharp bitter stars stare down

 

Cold, cold, cold…

Time is unable to compress, to expand, so it lies content

Another layer draped across the trees, the snow, the mountains

Languid time waits for the call of a solitary owl

 

Between the cold Earth and the colder stars,

Incredibly close, impossibly far away

The northern lights try to speak to me

In a language I just can’t quite comprehend

 

 

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03/29/15

The Accidental Advocate

I have surprised myself. This is an uncommon event for me at this stage in my life, for surly if we know anyone, it is ourselves…or do we?

In this instance, I simply got fed up with what I saw as an incredibly poor attempt to discredit mushers competing in Alaska’s Iditarod and the Alaskan/Canadian dog sled race, the Yukon Quest. Primarily these efforts have been centered on the Sled Dog Action Coalition (SDAC), an organization central to Animal Rights activism efforts to end these races. SDAC is allied with other hard core activist organizations such as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), Sleddogma.org and Sled Dog Watchdog

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My younger undiagnosed Attention Deficit Disorder has morphed in my adult years into a form of Hyper-Attention ability, and once I decided to try to counter the false claims from Animal Rights Activists (ARA), this focus helped me direct my approach. In the Army Guard I was a logistician, and one of my best tools was Microsoft’s spreadsheet program Excel, and I picked up this tool again. Essentially, I entered each of the over 800 SDAC claims onto a multi-page Excel spreadsheet, allowing me to sort and analyze the hundreds of diverse claims. This took at most a hundred and fifty hours.

Once I was able to classify the claims (quotes from activists, quotes from mushers, quotes from books, references to medical studies, etc.) I began to track down original source material. Columns for “likely true”, “likely false”, “demonstrably false” and “overtly biased” allowed me to identify the most egregious lies and blatant propaganda.

It was this research and organization that led to my first opinion piece on ARAs and the Iditarod, which was published on this blog, the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer, the Iditarod.com website, and Joe Miller’s website. The results were quite satisfying; I riled up the ARA’s, and I found a lot of average Alaskans, mushers, and sled dog enthusiasts from around the world felt the exact same frustration that I felt about the SDAC lies and half-truths.

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Courtesy of Louise Cooke

I now seek out ARA comments on Iditarod stories, and if they contain errors, I rebut them. Due to my research I know anti-mushing dogma better than many members of the anti-mushing tribe. I’m likely to have dug into the specifics of any claim they bring to a discussion, and I’m able to engage them in debate without resorting to logical fallacies such as ad hominem (you’re stupid and your mother dresses you funny), appeals to authority (“experts say…” or “science says..”), and straw man arguments. I love language and logic, and am able to respond with fact and reason.

Recently I wrote another article that was self-published on this blog, and a shorter version was published in the Fairbanks Daily Newsminer. I was compelled to write this article when I found that the Sled Dog Action Coalition (SDAC) had excerpted blog comments from a well-regarded and highly competitive kennel and modified it through the deletion of a word, creating a malignant and false impression. Following this story being published, SDAC quietly removed the false claim without acknowledging their attempts at slander or offering apology.

I didn’t approach this debate with the intention of becoming an advocate for distance mushing, but it seems that I have come to this role inadvertently. I do know that there have been well over 3k “shares” via social media of my two stories. They have been read perhaps 10k times, and have prompted a tremendous amount of comments.

It appears that I have given a voice to a large number of people who have reason, knowledge and a passion for distance dog mushing who have long been frustrated by the campaign by ARAs to discredit the sport through half-truths, lies and innuendo. In addition to the comments, I’ve been approached through email and social media by numerous mushers and informed supporters who’ve offered their appreciation, and have provided specific information that helps build a true picture of distance dog mushing and ARA efforts.

Courtesy of Louise Cooke

Courtesy of Louise Cooke

It would seem, based only on a lack of official response, that the Iditarod has a policy, perhaps official, perhaps unofficial, to refrain from engaging ARAs in any manner. This tactic (if it is actually a considered tactic) seems to chafe many lovers of the sport, and in my opinion, cedes the battlefield of public opinion to a handful of committed activists.

When all is said and done, I’m unbelievably honored by their appreciation and by the trust that’s been shown to me. I sense a sea change in the larger debate on distance dog mushing.

03/18/15

Honestly Assessing the Iditarod

I’ve had a general interest in the Iditarod for decades, but I only began to seriously follow the Iditarod four years ago, about the time my family adopted a rescued sled dog. As my reading of online news stories began to follow my newfound interest, I found some pretty consistent comments on these stories by Margery Glickman, director of the Sled Dog Action Coalition (SDAC), ending each critical comment inviting people to visit her website for “FACTS”.

Rose, the beautiful rescued sleddog

Rose, the beautiful rescued sleddog

I took her advice and went to her site. I found a great deal of information that struck me as dubious, such as claims that ALL mushers beat their dogs, ALL mushers use seal skin whips, Iditarod mushers have eaten their dogs. Based on what appeared to be at best painfully biased information I decided to research many of their other claims.

I found copies of interviews, requested copies of letters to editors, read medical studies and found the books that were referenced. Several clear pattern developed. A major trend showed that almost every quote that came from non-activists were taken out of context, grievously distorting the original meaning. I also found extensive use of outdated material presented in such a way that someone unfamiliar with the Iditarod would be led to believe that such practices were still common. Another trend showed that accounts by people who claimed to be former dog handlers for Iditarod mushers were all unsubstantiated, and all of the whistleblowers refused to name the mushers.

Some claims are mere editorial bias, such as a headline of “Mushers abandon dogs during the Iditarod-John Baker abandons his dogs”. This claim is in reference to an incident that occurred during his 2011 winning run to Nome, when he lost the trail, anchored his team and went looking for the trail on foot.

Other claims project obsolete or non-applicable practices on current mushers. George Attla last raced in the Iditarod in 1974 (the 2nd running of the race), the same year he published a book on mushing. Mushing evolves, and George’s book would be more useful as a window to racing 40 years ago, not an indictment of current practices, but this doesn’t keep the SDAC website from referencing George’s book in over 20 bulleted comments. Even more absurd, Jim Welsh, a musher who never ran the Iditarod, wrote a book 25 years ago on speed mushing (not endurance racing), and his book is also referenced again and again.

Perhaps this sort of information skirts around clear dishonesty, but in at least one instances this can’t be said; the Sled Dog Action Coalition states that Aliy Zirkle and Allen Moore raffled off sled dogs. On a page titled “Iditarod dog kennel horrors”, it claims that “dogs raffled off like pieces of merchandise”. In this year’s race, Aliy Zirkle has received extensive press coverage, and Margery Glickman has commented on at least four stories, referencing the alleged raffling of sled dogs.

SDAC comment in the Alaska Dispatch News

SDAC comment in the Alaska Dispatch News

I decided to find the original quote from SP Kennel, and what I found stunned me a bit. The page from SP Kennel very, very clearly shows that the sled dogs that are being offered for the drawing were stuffed toy huskies; at the top of the page in bold print it says “Take Home a Toy “Iditarod Dog“, in the text of the entry it states that “…fans will have your chance to take home one of five toy “Iditarod Dogs“, and there are 3 photos showing toy sled dogs. In an act of extreme activism, the Sled Dog Action Coalition has edited out the word “toy”, deliberately creating the false impression that SP Kennels raffled off living animals.

The unadulterated information on Aliy

The unadulterated information on Aliy

Jane Heller is the founder and director of The Humane Society of Southern Maryland Inc. and York, PA., and she is quoted on the SDAC website, where she says in part, “Aliy Zirkle and her husband, Allen Moore, who are raffling off Huskies, clearly have no experience in placing a pet in a new home. No reputable shelter or rescue would ever think of raffling off any pet because serious effort must be made to insure a suitable owner.”

Factually, SP Kennel is one of the leading kennels in dog care. This is from the SP Kennel website;

“We are a “dog first” Kennel…We do not breed for dog sales or lease dog teams…We keep virtually every dog we breed for its entire competitive racing career, then either keep them at the Kennel as retired/pet dogs for the rest of their lives or place them in situations particularly suited to their personalities. Some dogs who are “ready for a couch” will be placed in carefully screened and selected pet homes. Those who still want to run — but not the number of miles involved in our racing program — we place with highly qualified “dog first” recreational mushers world wide. These retired Iditarod and Yukon Quest veterans spend the rest of their lives doing what their genetics have taught them in a relaxed, enjoyable “pet home” atmosphere.”

I have sent a letter to Ms. Heller of the Southern Maryland Humane Society asking if her comments were made with the knowledge that the “dogs” she was commenting on were not living animals, but rather stuffed toys. In light of the actual practices at SP Kennel, and the fact that no living animals were raffled, I hope that Ms. Heller will do the right thing.

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Doing the right thing is what much of this comes down to. I believe in healthy debate, but the Sled Dog Action Coalition has presented so much false information for so long honest debate is stifled. I would ask those opposed to the Iditarod very carefully look at the source of their information before they engage in debate.

I encourage you to not take me at my word. See what the SDAC has posted at http://helpsleddogs.org/iditarod-dog-kennel-horrors-extreme-neglect-and-dog-abuse/ and compare it to the source at http://spkenneldoglog.blogspot.com/2013/03/take-home-iditarod-dog.html?m=1 .

For more information, please see my post “Animal Rights Advocates and the Iditarod“,

 

 

09/17/14

Shame in the Alaska Army National Guard

I was 17 when I joined the Alaska Army National Guard, still a junior in high school. I enlisted to be an 11 Bravo, an infantryman. 24 years later I retired. In those 24 years I saw thousands of acts of sacrifice, thousands upon thousands acts of honor and professionalism. I helped the citizens of Tenakee Springs recover from a devastating storm, with unique help coming from our LCM-8 landing craft. I’ve manned a checkpoint during the Big Lake fires, helping to protect the property of evacuated homeowners from those who would take advantage of their distress. I’ve stood shoulder-to-shoulder with fellow guardsman probing to recover avalanche victims, and traveled to Haiti to help their desperate citizens, and watched our flight crews fly countless missions to help Alaskans.

Year after year, FTX after FTX I’ve watched senior soldiers at the company level make sure their troops eat before they do. I’ve seen soldiers watch each other’s backs in dangerous situations. I’ve trained in temperatures as low as 58 below zero, but I’ve never seen a guardsman with serious frostbite. Year after year, small-unit leaders would give their time to plan and resource effective training. Maj. Blaylock trusted 150 soldiers with a 36 hour pass in Hawaii – 4 were late to formation when their rental car got a flat tire. These are such good people. Although the Guard never called for me to deploy, as a Supply Sergeant I’ve helped hundreds of soldiers deploy. I was returning from the same meeting at Camp Shelby, Mississippi that SFC Dauma and SSG Brown were at, only they were killed by a trucker spaced out on amphetamine. The crew of ICY-33, CW4 Troxell, 1LT Campbell, SPC Edwards and SPC Melson were my fellow soldiers in the Aviation Battalion when they died in Iraq. I helped inventory and pack their personal effects.

My brothers in the 3rd Battalion patrolled the streets of Baghdad with honor and effectiveness. As for me, I gave the Guard my best. As the Supply Sergeant for Charlie Company, 3rd BN, 297th Infantry (Scout) I not only survived a National Guard Bureau Command Supply Inspection, but the team chief who conducted the inspection wrote that out of the 387 Supply Rooms that he had inspected, mine was the best that he had seen. As the Battalion Supply Sergeant for the Aviation Battalion I conducted logistical coordination with the military attaché’s office, the Air Force, Haitian locals and SOUTHCOM while concurrently serving as the Battalion’s Unit Movement Officer. All through my service I tried to reach out, share information and knowledge and be a mentor and an example.

It was clear at the end of my career that there was corruption in our senior leadership. As a “full-timer”, I sat in an annual ethics brief which centered on the need to absolutely, 100% use NO government assets to support non-government organizations, and the Army National Guard Association was highlighted. We weren’t to even use a government printer to make a flier. Shortly after this briefing it was announced by LTC DeHaas, the State Aviation Officer that the Adjutant’s General Association of the United States was going to host their annual meeting in Alaska, and the Alaska Guard would support this meeting without reservation. I was told in meetings that full-time staff would volunteer to provide tour guides, bus drivers and baggage handlers. Contrary to the very clear ethics brief, 100’s of full time man hours were spent, schedules printed, and busses and vans were used. Even though pressured, I refused to “volunteer”, and was one of the few people in my battalion’s office for days, and ended up fielding call after call from the soldiers we were supposed to be supporting. Clearly, if a wrong was large enough, it was no longer considered a wrong. It was sickening to watch.

I knew that there were cults of personalities and different standards for the senior leadership than the soldiers they led, but I had no idea of how corrupt and evil things were outside of my immediate experience until recently. Things such as the State Aviation Officer using Blackhawk helicopters for bear perspective gain, or the establishment of bogus units to pad the service records of colonels striving for a colonels a general‘s star. But by far, it is the shameful sexual abuse and cover-ups that rattles me to my bones. It pains me that where once Alaskans would look favorably on the Alaska Guard that I love so much, they will now associate all of us with the scum who built their little empires and treated some of Alaska‘s most honorable citizens as chattel. I would try to shame these wretched leaders, but I fear that they have no shame.

Regardless, they dishonor us in a very fundamental way. Although it is hard to see these issues come to public light, I thank those who’s sense of honor compelled them to stand up to the corruption and force change. Now I wait to see if justice will be served, but to be honest, I hold little hope that it will. To those still serving, I wish you the strength to continue to do what‘s right. To my fellow Alaskans, please know that the Alaska Guard is so much more than what you are now seeing in the news, and I ask that you demand better leadership for your citizen soldiers, and consider signing this petition requesting that the governor appoint Col. David Osborne, an honorable man and effective leader, as our state’s senior officer. Honor isn’t dead.

07/21/14

Project Me

“People tend to judge others by their actions while judging themselves by their ideals.”

Author unknown

 

As I noted in my blog entry “A different kind of birthday”, a significant portion of my adult life has been based on a fairly limited set of ideals. It’s hard to write about this and not come across some sort of missionary. Be assured, this isn’t my goal. Zeal requires a great deal of assurance, and my path feels more like a long-term limited experiment. I am my own project. The only thing I can say for sure is this; so far it is working for me.

A night or two ago I decided to list out these ideals, and as simple as they appear on the surface, they can be surprisingly deep or complex upon serious implementation. It is important for me to understand that these are Ideals, and the ideals are my goals, not a list of my behaviors. I am as far from perfect as everyone else.

Without further ado, the list;

-Honesty

This has been the cornerstone my project. Early in my sobriety I learned that stark honesty is crucial. About this time I heard someone say at an AA meeting that “People who are brutally honest often enjoy the brutality more than the honesty.” I took this as a cautionary point, and remain mindful that honesty for me must not be a whip for self-flagellation or a club to hurt others. I have also learned to watch for my biases and my personal agenda, as they are insidious in how they color perception

-Do the right thing

This is so simple in concept and often so hard to actually do. I subscribe to the concept that each and every decision is a way point, and we invent ourselves decision by decision. Most of these are simple decisions, and by actively managing them, much like muscles conditioned by repetition, making the “Right“ choice consistently on simple matters makes it easier to make the “Right” choice when it’s tougher.

-Own my actions and my words

This is an honorable path. I try to avoid weasel words, and I try to hold myself accountable for what I say and do. Like many of the ideals I am working on, honesty comes in to play here.

-Don’t allow the behavior of others to affect my behavior

I’m blessed to have a fantastic man for a father. I often have asked myself “What would Dad do?” He would never shun socially inept people, mock others, engage in gossip, or respond to rudeness with rudeness, regardless of what others say and do. In translation, I try to be like my dad. I now need to stop talking to the drivers on the road who have upset me. They can’t hear me, and I get nothing from verbally pointing out their faults…even if they don’t know how to use turn-signals.

-Hold others with compassion                                                                                                                                                 

This is a fairly recent goal, and quite simply it requires that I withhold judgment. I understand that each life is shaped by events that I know nothing of. I must also remember to apply this ideal to myself, and allow myself to fail without recrimination as long as I adjust my efforts and learn from mistakes.

-Seek beauty

There is a world of beauty and wonder around me, I simply need to open my eyes and my heart to see and experience it.

-Maintain a beginner’s mind

This is a Zen Buddhist philosophy that I came across several years ago. When I first read of it I had a deep understanding. In the book Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, said: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” Long ago I realized that for me, mastery is an illusion; I would always have room to grow…as long as I was open to it.

-Don’t compare myself to others

My goal is to be the best “me” possible, and at the deepest levels possible, this has nothing to do with how well or poorly another person might accomplish the same task. It will either make me feel superior or inferior, and both conditions intrude on my path.

-Self Advocacy

I have found that I am a capable advocate for others, but without change, I am an extremely poor advocate for myself. Of all of my goals, this is one sometimes feels the hardest for me.

-Forgiveness

I watched someone I love dearly refuse to forgive her mother for some serious abuse and neglect that she was subjected to as a young girl. Her mother had changed, but the resentment lived on. I decided that to the best of my ability, I would purge myself of the poison of resentment. My forgiveness isn’t a gift to those who’ve wronged me, it’s a gift to myself.

-Be open to the presence of my Higher Power

As part of the 12 Steps of AA I “turned my life over to my Higher Power, as I understand him”. Over a couple of decades I have felt little need to name this presence in my life, but I certainly feel it. Many of my life-changing decisions have been based on seeking a quiet (quiet) nudge. Like beauty, I need to be open to it.

-Ongoing self-evaluation

I question everything, most of all my own actions, perceptions, and conclusions. Over the years that I’ve made this a part of my life I’ve discarded many of my conclusions, but I have become surer of the ones that survive ongoing scrutiny.

So this is my list. How hard could it be?

07/5/14

The Amazing Mr. Ethan

 

Last week I took my 20 year old daughter Maria and my 14 year old son Ethan to a Korean restaurant for lunch. It was Ethan’s 3rd trip to a Korean Restaurant, and like the first time, he insisted on using chopsticks. He was over the moon as he tried each of the 10 or so dishes of banchan (spicy Korean side dishes). When he tried the kimchi he relished it and marveled at how spicy and complex the flavor was.  If you knew Ethan’s story you would be amazed. This talkative, polite (he addresses adults as “sir” and “ma’am”) enthusiastic young man’s journey is nearly unbelievable. My wife and I have 6 children, and all of our kids are incredible, but Ethan is in a class by himself.

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Make no mistake, Ethan has many challenges and many developmental issues, but he is much more  than that. To understand his growth into the loving and humorous young man he is now, you need to know how far he has come.

14 years ago we were taking a break from foster care. Between living with, and loving the children who have been so hurt by their parents and the trauma of being taken from them, and the bureaucratic mindset of a certain percentage of workers in Alaska’s Office of Children’s Services, a break is sometimes needed and this is where we were at.

We were busy parenting our 4 kids, who ranged in age from 6 to 14, when we got a call from a social worker. She was desperate to place a medically fragile newborn and she had been told that we were one of the few homes set up for therapeutic, medical, special needs. We were also a “Native placement”, an important consideration if the foster care placement evolved into an adoption. She offered little information beyond the fact that the infant in question had a cleft lip and palette and other unspecified needs. Kim and I talked, and we both felt an unusually compelling call to help him.

I was at work when Kim made her first of many visits with Ethan at the Alaska Native Medical Center. Kim was on the elevator heading up to see Ethan when a stranger asked her if she was there to see the baby. The stranger introduced herself as the baby’s aunt, and told Kim that the family had a history of domestic violence, drugs, alcohol, child molestation and child abuse. She was afraid that if Ethan stayed with the family, he too would be abused.

Ethan was in a room by himself in pediatrics, and he was a sight to see. His mother had no prenatal care while she lived on the street. She had also used drugs and alcohol throughout her pregnancy, and all of this had affected her child. In addition to being covered in sores, he had a major cleft in his upper lip, with about a third of his lip missing and the cleft extending up into a nostril. Not as visible was a major cleft in his palette that would be prominent in his care later. He was also tiny, only weighing 3lbs 12oz at birth, and due to an eating disorder, he had lost considerable weight since.

Kim also found out from Ethan’s aunt that a couple, a doctor and nurse from ANMC, had tried to foster Ethan, but found his needs so demanding that they couldn’t meet them and he was returned to the hospital. Make no mistake, Ethan was a handful. He was still detoxing from drugs, and due to physical and sensory issues, he was nearly unable to keep food down. He would spit-up about 4/5th of every bottle drank. The hospital didn’t have the staff to devote someone to feed him, and he was getting weaker and weaker.

Kim began to spend long hours at the hospital holding and feeding him, and slowly he began to grow. As time went by a CT scan found that Ethan was missing almost all of his corpus callosum, the structure that connects the two halves of the brain. Alarmingly, a significant portion of his frontal lobe had never developed. He also possesses a highly unusual chromosomal deletion, has Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, and is Autistic. These are a few of the 27 medical diagnoses that he has received. We were cautioned that he may never walk, talk or be able to express emotion. We decided to adopt him.

Ethan before his first cleft lip surgery

Ethan before his first cleft lip surgery

Ethan came home, and my wonderful wife showed a capacity for his care that still amazes me. Our daughter Jennifer, who was 8 at the time, has Downs Syndrome, and many of the techniques for her care such as infant massage came into play with Ethan. But more than knowledge or technique was needed. He needed someone who wouldn’t give up on him, and Kim is the most stubborn person I know. By far. I followed Kim’s lead, and learned as I went. Our other children became playmates and their love and play proved critical to Ethan’s growth.

Over time, progress was made. One unexpected effect of an upper GI endoscopy was that the intrusive study seemed to desensitize his stomach, and feeding became much more productive. Even with this advance, it required monumental efforts to feed him. Sensory disorders seemed to cause any touch to be perceived as pain, causing Ethan to screamed shrilly. Early surgeries made temporary repairs on his cleft lip and palette, but he remained a drool machine. My memories of that time are of Ethan wearing a pressure shirt (the pressure helped him relax), bib after bib, with wrist bands on that he used to help control his drool.

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Of course he experienced delays. He was slow to crawl and finally walked at 20 month. At 3 years old he was calling the TV “mamma” and was wearing braces to his knees. Language was a huge struggle. But we had our team; our family pulled together, and we had an awesome medical team.  The 20 medical doctors on Ethan’s team were the tip of the iceberg; there have been a myriad of nurses, dentists, anesthesiologists, image specialists, occupational therapists, physical therapists. We found great help from Darlene Batchelder and Cherry  Byrd from Anchorage’s Arctic Speech Therapy. Our friendship with Darlene and her husband Phil continues to this day.

At some point, Ethan, the person, emerged from his disabilities and diagnoses. He has faced  nine major and minor surgeries with a great deal of courage. He has endured procedures such as palate expanders, bone grafts,  and Orthodontic care for his entire life, but a sparkle was emerging.

Kim has homeschooled Ethan, and she can track his intellectual growth with great accuracy. He now reads for pleasure, has made huge strides in his math skills, and writes  rather creatively. Homeschooling has allowed Kim to tailor his curriculum to his interests as they develop. She manages his Individualized Evaluation Plan (IEP) with such skill that it is used by our school district as an example to other parents. Ethan is in good hands academically, but he has to manage his frustration daily.

Once afraid to ride on a four-wheeler, he overcame his fear and loved to ride with me on my (now gone) street bike. He loves Japanese monster movies, fast cars, and video games. One day he wishes to meet Mark Wahlberg, who he thinks must be an interesting and nice guy. He routinely destroys me when we play Call of Duty, a combat video game, in spite of my years as an Infantryman. Oh, the shame! I should have never taught to smack talk!

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At one point he was totally insensitive to our pets, not an uncommon situation for someone on the Autism spectrum. What is unusual is that he decided to change, and he has worked with incredible diligence to learn the language of our cats and dogs. When our skittish rescued sled dog came to him to be petted we knew that he had made a profound breakthrough.

As to the caution that “he may never show affection”, I hear at least 10 times a day that he loves me, and I hear “You’re awesome!” at least 4 times a day. If you are in his circle, you are loved, hugged, and praised to no end. Sometime he forgets how long a hug is “supposed” to last, but that’s a small issue.

It’s awe inspiring to see the work he has put into crafting himself into the person he is today. He still has challenges, but he meets them head on. His growth is only matched by his enthusiasm and subtle humor. He is curious, thoughtful and inquisitive. We never know where his interests will take him. This all would make for very satisfactory progress, but he continues to push his boundaries, like challenging his fear of heights or experimenting with new foods. Somehow he has ignited a desire in himself to continue to improve.

We have several new foster kids in care right now, and Ethan was feeding the youngest, a 3 months old. The baby was babbling to Ethan, who was initially oblivious to the baby’s attempts to form a bond. Kim told him to watch the baby’s eyes while he fed him. Ethan tried it, to exclaim later “Wow! He really says a lot with his eyes!” An amazing insight from someone who struggles with non-verbal cues.

Ethan making eye contact

Ethan making eye contact

Time will tell how far the Amazing Mr. Ethan progresses, but I expect that more surprises lie ahead, and look forward to seeing his story continue to unfold. An amazing young man indeed. Now to introduce him to Mexican food!

05/2/14

A different kind of birthday

It’s my 21st birthday today. Not my “belly-button” birthday, it’s my sobriety birthday. 21 years and 3 months ago I sat in a room, the first of many, and said for the 1st time “My name is Mike, and I’m an alcoholic.”

The room was nondescript, mostly notable for a circle of folding chairs and the smell of strong coffee. I’ve always been a “people watcher”, but the group of people sitting in the chairs puzzled me. In a social sense, they were clearly a group, but there were none of the socio-economic threads that you will usually find running through groups that bond them together;  race, gender, age etc. They were all over the place as far as these sorts of distinctions go, but they were so at ease with each other.

Like every one of these people, I had crashed pretty bad. I had earned good will from my NCO’s and Officers, but had spent it down to the last penny. A couple of brave leaders had given me my very last chance, even as I was demoted from Sergeant to Specialist. My wife had made an ultimatum as well. That was external, but inside I knew I had failed many people, and I had failed myself.

If I wasn’t desperate I wouldn’t have made it past the AA reliance on “A Higher Power”. I had been very active in the church until I was 14, when I reached a level of discord between what I had been taught, and what I had observed. I won’t detail my crisis of faith, but it would be fair to say that I’ve kept organized religion at arm’s length since then. It’s also fair to say that my spiritual beliefs have grown greatly in the couple of decades since I opened my mind to this possibility.

Three months after my first meeting I was walking past a bar, and seemingly without thought, I cut a hard right, walked up to the bar and proceeded to drink. The ease of this relapse scared me profoundly, and I went to a meeting the next day and started to work the program’s steps with a renewed vigor and these efforts have brought me to today.

It is clear to me now that an understanding of what profound personal honesty is, learning how my mind reacts and what my biases are has been the critical to my emotional, intellectual and spiritual growth.

A sober and focused life has brought me many gifts. One is a sense of ease that came once I no longer had to try to maintain  a duel life. At the time I didn’t know how much effort it took to try to build mental compartments and keep all of my stories straight. I can clearly remember when it struck me, how free it made me feel when I could live one simple existence.

Perhaps the largest gift is that out of our six children, four have never seen their father intoxicated. I’m also a worthy partner for my incredible wife, and this has allowed us to face a great deal of adversity and thrive as a family. We’ve “made” three of our kids, adopted three more.

We’ve done formal foster care for 16 children, and done informal foster care (no government involvement) for 3 more. Tonight, as I write this, my wife is attending a 8 week old infant at the hospital, a recent foster child placed with us. It’s his 4th day in the hospital, and he’s recovering, but he was a very sick little boy. She can focus on him because she can trust me to be here and do right with the other children in our home.

I still struggle to bring my actions into line with my ideals, and am far from perfect, but I wake up each day knowing that I’m living a blessed life. I find a great deal of satisfaction in my work, and look forward to going home to my family every night where I find incredible love and support.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that I feel like the luckiest man in the world. If you are reading these words and are trapped by addiction I send you my very best wishes, and I hope that you too can find your way out of the darkness. There are many paths, but they all begin with commitment.  With that said, please understand that I only have compassion for you, not judgment. I’ve heard over and over again in AA rooms “There but for the grace of God go I”, and for me, this rings true.

04/24/14

Beauty

I’ve been drawing as long as I can remember and photography has been one of my hobbies since I was 15 years old. It is through these interests that the concepts of texture, light and composition have come to occupy a very active part of my existence.

Decades ago I heard a Navajo prayer, and one small part of it has become deeply embedded within me;With beauty all around me, may I walk”. This passage has combined with my inner-photographer and caused me truly look at something, to actually see it as it is, and it leaves me open to wonder.

Some might say “Well you live in Alaska. Of course you are surrounded by beauty!” I’ve been out watching exuberant Northern Lights dancing around sharp bitter stars at 40 below, footsteps squeaking the snow in a way that unique to the extreme cold, moonlight turning the frosted snow into fields of subtly sparkling jewels… pausing in the amazing quiet…to be joined by the hoot of an owl. I’ve stood on a pier looking down on a mother orca and her calf swim past in crystal clear water at sunrise. These moments are rare, but beauty is not.

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I’ve traveled outside of this state, and on rare occasion, outside of this country, and I’ve never traveled away from beauty. I’ve spent an hour watching a spider building its web in Mississippi, marveled at vines climbing telephone poles in Hawaii, become entranced by the texture of sand in the Caribbean, from a helicopter I’ve seen a flock of a million flamingos turn at the same millisecond and flash from pink to white. In Detroit a single giant brick smoke stack stands among the ruins of a long defunct factory, a seeming sentry.

Everywhere I’ve gone, I’ve seen a mother and baby lost in each other’s gaze.

Recently someone commented on an amazingly beautiful video of the earth shot from and orbiting spaceship. He noted that the earth is beautiful from far away, but the closer you get the more uglier it becomes, and then he expressed sadness. I can only guess, but my assumption is that my distant friend had encountered pain and grief, and began to focus on it. He looks for the ugly aspect of life and finds it. I look for beauty and I find it.

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Like so many things in life, balance is critical. It is possible for me to look only for beauty and not experience the fullness of life; much like others can walk past sublime beauty as they look for the next bit of pain or ugliness. From a perspective measured in years and decades instead of days and weeks however, even some of the moments of pain are elements of a beautiful story.

While I was at lunch recently I saw what surely must have been a grandfather, grizzled and bearded sitting with his granddaughter and her two young kids. Her hair was died an improbable color of red, piercings and tattoos visible. You could tell they loved each other’s company, and both worked to feed and entertain the boys. It was a table tinted with love, extending into the past and projecting into the future.

Seeing beauty or pain reminds me very much of something that is taught in motorcycle safety classes; “You go where you look.” This is true on a motorcycle, and practically speaking, it is true with life in general. I look for beauty and find that I’m surrounded by it.

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Dear reader, I wish you a sense of wonder, the ability to see old things with new eyes, to see the essence of what is rather than tinted through a filter of pre-judgment and your past pains and disappointments.

May you walk in beauty.