Steve McEllistrem

The Devereaux Dilemma

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Summer in the City

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

I live not in the heart of the city but rather an inner ring suburb – relatively close to the downtowns and yet with a lawn that contains a few trees beside a small lake that’s more accurately described as a pond. In the right light and with the blinds partially closed it provides the illusion of being away from the city.

This illusion of separation keeps me reasonably happy. I get to pretend that I live on a lake even as I partake of all the city has to offer. I’m close enough to the action that I don’t have to drive hours to get where I need to be. I have friends and relatives who live a good distance away and I see them only a few times a year.

The country offers its own delights, of course – primarily a slow pace that’s excellent for meditation and thoughtful analysis of complicated questions. With time, provided one is correctly motivated to study an issue, one can eventually discern most truths.

Winter may be the best time to live out in the country. Yes, you can get snowed in here in the upper Midwest, but if you plan accordingly, you needn’t worry about starving or freezing. You just sit back and enjoy the solitude. The world seems to drop away, leaving you in your own quiet world.

But in summer, with festivals, events, and friends seemingly always going somewhere or doing something, it’s better to be in close. The city feels alive, the susurration of traffic and the hum of machinery providing a background, the rhythmic rise and fall of pedestrians surging in morning and evening, the tangy bitterness of burning gasoline commingling with cooked onions and garlic, the aroma of fresh-baked bread inducing a heady euphoria.

There’s an energy to the city that you can’t find in the country, a combination of movement and potentiality, the possibility that at any moment something truly amazing might happen, for good or ill, that rural communities seem incapable of delivering.

And yet, to be trapped in the city all the time would, to me, be unsettling after a while. Living without the opportunity for respite from its constancies would fatigue me. I need time to decompress, to recharge for the next day or week or month. A house in the suburbs fulfills that need.

The city hammers you. It demands attention in a way that the country doesn’t. It pushes and pulls, sometimes rudely, insistent on inserting itself into your frame of mind. The country, on the other hand, reclines on the porch with a glass of iced tea and a magazine that does not beg to be read.

The suburbs, at least the inner suburbs, offer tantalizing glimpses of both while actually providing neither. It is more illusion than reality. But isn’t that what life is? Illusion? Do we ever truly know anything or anyone?

We think we do, certainly. We make assumptions about the world and our peers but we are all wild animals capable of lashing out at any moment given the right circumstances. So I’m going to enjoy my illusion of summer in the city. I hope you enjoy whatever illusion you’re experiencing right now too.

Disaster-FrontCover-230x335 (1)

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My Garage, My Driveway

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

When I first moved into my home, there was no garage, only a small shed for storing tools and my one-human-power reel lawnmower. The previous owners of the property made do for nearly thirty years parking on the street or the gravel driveway that ended in front of a small fence.

My shed sufficed for several years and perhaps would have served me longer but a particularly heavy snowfall one winter caused the roof to collapse, so I built a garage. I kept the gravel driveway, however, thinking it looked more rural, more unspoiled than the asphalt and concrete intrusions of my neighbors.

Over the years I let the gravel settle into the ground, leaving a topcoat of grass and dandelions and creeping Charlie. Soon I found myself mowing my driveway in the summer and clearing snow with a plastic shovel in the winter so as not to gouge out the greenery with the harshness of a metal blade.

During that time I accumulated more stuff, more things that I placed in my garage: a snowblower that I rarely used and eventually was unable to use because my disuse of it caused it not to start anymore; a spare lawnmower; my bicycle and tire pump; some fencing, a hose or two, a wheelbarrow and other gardening tools; and a couple packages of shingles from my re-roofed house; not to mention my car (in the winter).

In short, my garage eventually became somewhat cluttered. Not packed like my neighbors’ garages, where they seemingly have to scuttle in sideways to reach the doors and contort their bodies to gain access to their vehicles, but more crowded than I like.

So I began removing items. I gave away my wheelbarrow and the old shingles. I offered a drip hose to my neighbor for his garden. I brought some wood over to my brother’s house for a bonfire and used a few bricks as a border for a planting.

Recently I installed an asphalt driveway because this past winter was difficult. I struggled with snow removal and realized I either needed to make shoveling easier on myself or hire someone to help.

I recall the early days when I first purchased the house and thought I would leave it as is – a simple rambler on a little lake that’s really more of a swamp. But at some point I added a porch to the back so I could look out at the lake without getting eaten by mosquitoes, so I could sit out there in the late fall and early spring without wearing a winter jacket.

I minimized the eco-footprint as much as I could. But I worry about how even I – an aspiring environmentalist – have contributed to the problem of climate change by my actions.

We add stuff to our lives. We build and improve, making small alterations to our habitat, only intending to make our small patch more livable, more comfortable, rarely considering the global effect of our actions. After all, what’s one garage or one porch or one driveway in the grand scheme of things?

And yet when you multiply that by 7.6 billion souls, you find that the cascading effect is much larger than you imagined.

Disaster-FrontCover-230x335 (1)

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All People Are Gray

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We’ve been fighting racism for what seems like forever. Now we’re dealing with nationalism. Those people (those others) aren’t like us. They don’t have the same values and they don’t want the same things. This attitude drives our perceptions of folks who are different, whether they be gay or atheists or black or Guatemalans or drug addicts.

But all these distinctions are superficial because underneath it all, we all pretty much want the same things. That’s what it means to be human. That’s what our bodies have evolved to desire over millions of years. We want to eat and procreate and take our ease in reasonable comfort.

The ways that we strive for those goals differ, but the results toward which we aim are generally about equal. Republicans and democrats both want an optimal society – they just disagree on how to get there, on the means that should be employed to achieve utopia. They also disagree, of course, on what a perfect society ought to be.

Christians, Muslims and Jews all believe in the same God. They just disagree on some of the tenets put forth by the other religions’ leaders. And sometimes they disagree with the teachings of their own leaders.

People with darker skin are descended from folks who lived closer to the equator while those with lighter skin have ancestors who resided farther north (or south). But we’re all essentially the same once you strip away the superficial coverings and ideologies.

Adolph Hitler was a poet in addition to a murderous dictator. Mother Teresa believed that God abandoned her, and she squirreled away millions in donations that her organization still hides from public view, possibly because she thought suffering was a necessary part of life.

Scott Pruitt wants to essentially strip away every bit of authority the EPA possesses. Does he really want us to have filthy air and water? I doubt it. More likely, he believes that over-regulation is harming companies, putting people out of work, stifling the American way of life – the free market.

The Earth Liberation Front is a loosely affiliated group of individuals who use “economic sabotage and guerrilla warfare to stop the exploitation and destruction of the environment,” according to their press office. They probably don’t consider themselves to be terrorists even though that’s how the FBI sees them.

All of us want to be good. We consider ourselves to be heroes – the heroes of our own stories. Some of us credit ourselves as successful more than others but that’s basically what we all strive for: goodness.

Yet we each define it differently. A NASCAR driver might see himself as good because he donates time and money to various charities, while an environmentalist might see him as evil because he drives around in ovals wasting fossil fuels for nothing more than money and a trophy.

I don’t have answers to a lot of questions, but I do think that when we attempt to define others as lesser creatures – as evil – we do them and ourselves a disservice.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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Love Is Not Enough

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The Beatles sang that All You Need Is Love. The Bible says to “abide faith, hope, love, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” And Virgil wrote: omnia vincit amor – love conquers all. We tend to believe that love is the most important thing we can bring to the table.

And love is a powerful force. It enables us to do more than we thought possible. A person in love can endure pain that others can’t. A lot of people think that life without love is merely surviving and not really living. And when you really love someone, you do things for them that you wouldn’t do for anyone else.

But how important is love really?

It can’t stop illness or death. It can’t prevent financial hardship. It can make those events more palatable, certainly. But however much you love someone, sometimes that’s not enough.

So while love may be important, it’s only an emotion. It’s the actions surrounding love that really matter. If love makes me assist someone in need (if thought propels deed), then perhaps love is the greatest feeling in the world.

But I think agapé (selfless love) is a better term and a better kind of love than the love we think of in songs and poems. The love of another is generally selfish. It reflects our desire to be closer to someone, to have that person want us in the same way we want that person.

Love implies a certain narrowness, the targeting of another, while agapé suggests goodwill toward an all-encompassing set of others. Love does not necessarily demand sacrifice from the giver, but agapé impliedly does because if you want what’s best for everyone, you have to stop to consider what that might be and then do so even if it’s not in your best interest.

There is no selfishness in agapé. Whereas, particularly in romantic love, it’s really all about selfishness. It’s about me and one other – just us against the world. Even in parental or familial love, it’s about us as a group. You love your family or your tribe. And the rest of the world takes second fiddle.

Of course love can mean agapé, but most people don’t understand it that way. They may make concessions to that position if asked, but they really mean love of their group. Or they mean love of all, but at a secondary level. Primary love for mine, secondary love for others.

So the nature of the love is less intense, less encompassing. Nitpicking, you say? Perhaps, but here’s why it matters. When we assign a lesser value to some kinds of love, we diminish those secondary and tertiary loves into something that really isn’t love at all, but rather fondness or collegiality.

When things get difficult, we’re going to side with ours and let you side with yours. And then the love we profess to have won’t be love at all, but the beginning of indifference. So we need to consider all people like our family and that’s a tough thing to ask.


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Rationalizations and Potato Chips

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We rationalize our actions every day. We explain to ourselves why we acted impulsively in order to make sense of the world because we don’t want to admit that we have no idea why we just did what we did.

Neuroscientists are learning more about how we act all the time, and it seems to be the case that we do everything based on impulses hard wired into us, that few of our decisions are as well thought out as we once believed.

They’ve discovered that we will reach for a potato chip, for example, before our minds consciously decide we’re going to do that. The hidden brain behind our logical brain makes a decision that we want that potato chip and so we reach for it.

A millisecond passes and we begin to spin our action like a good press secretary, to tell ourselves the story of why we reached for it. We like potato chips. We’re hungry. It’s a long time until dinner. They’re just sitting there on the counter and if we don’t eat them, we’ll have to throw them soon we’ll have to throw them away later.

Some scientists claim that we don’t really have free will as a result (at least not as we have come to understand it). And perhaps they’re right. But it may be more complicated than that.

You see, all our actions result from the accumulation of experiences we recall from our past. We remember having eaten potato chips in the past and enjoying them. Our taste buds put potato chips in the “delicious” category of tastes because they’re salty and our bodies need salt to survive.

It doesn’t matter that we get way more salt than we need on a daily basis. When we were hunter-gatherers, we struggled to find enough salt, so our bodies default to the “we need salt” setting unless we’ve just consumed a fair amount of it.

So our bodies do what they’re wired to do and our brains put those actions into a story to make sense of the world. After all, does it make sense for us to act without knowing why we’re acting?

Actually, it does. But that scares us. So we create a narrative to put ourselves in charge, to make it seem like we intended to reach for the potato chip all along when in fact it was a deeper part of our body, a subconscious part, that assumed we needed the potato chip and directed the hand to grab one.

The same seems to hold true for most everything we do. The body detects what it perceives to be a need based on the firing of neurons in various cells and takes action to satisfy those needs. The brain wants to believe it’s in charge and therefore makes up stories to explain those actions.

That’s okay, of course. It doesn’t matter that we’re not as in control as we think we are. We just have to admit it so that we can begin to adapt our bodies to control those impulses.

By telling ourselves over and over that we don’t really need potato chips, we can slowly wean ourselves off them until we no longer feel the need to reach for them every time we see them.

But I still love a good potato chip.


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A Meditation on Weeding

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

We all want the big score, even in small things. For example, we like to plant flowers or vegetables, and we want to harvest them for our table, but we don’t really want to do the little work – the weeding – that makes that possible.

Weeding (or washing dishes or vacuuming or sweeping the floor) is a relatively thankless job that requires patience and produces not much in the way of a spectacular result. Sure, you get to see a decrease in the number of unwanted plants in your garden, but you don’t get a big bang for your efforts.

It’s the same at work or play. Companies often focus on new products and new customers rather than improving their existing products or keeping their current customers happy. Sure, they claim to offer loyalty reward programs (and some of them are legitimate), but often they’re more flash than substance.

Likewise, when I coached soccer, my players always wanted to scrimmage. They never wanted to do the drills that might improve their skills. In a 30-minute scrimmage, they might touch the ball for a total of two or three minutes, while in that same 30 minutes, I could have them working with the ball for almost the full half hour.

And yet, most of the benefit we get from activities comes from doing the little tasks – minimizing customer complaints or opening up the garden so the tomato plants can grow unencumbered.

So how do we get ourselves to focus on the little things? By changing our mindset. By attributing value to small tasks. By learning to like these often mindless chores.

When weeding, for example, use that as an opportunity to let your mind run free, to recharge your batteries and prepare yourself for the next day or the next challenge. When focusing on keeping an existing customer happy, remind yourself that you’re increasing that person’s loyalty to your company and to you.

Tell yourself that these little jobs can bring enormous benefits when they accumulate. You may soon grow to enjoy them for their own sakes and not just for what they deliver down the road.


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Living Longer May Not Be So Great

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Bristlecone pines are the oldest trees in the world, some of them around 5,000 years old. But clonal colonies – groups of genetically identical individuals – can survive much longer than that. One such colony of quaking aspen, nicknamed Pando, covers 106 acres in Utah and is not only one of the largest living organisms in the world, it’s also one of the oldest, at approximately 80,000 years old.

There was a trapdoor spider in Australia – Gaius villosus – that lived for over 40 years. And a tarantula once held the record for the longest-lived spider at the age of 28.

A species of jellyfish – turritopsis dohrnii – seems to be immortal. In fact, it’s called the immortal jellyfish and it can revert to a sexually immature stage after having reached sexual maturity, so it can theoretically live forever.

Adwaita, an Aldabra giant tortoise, may have lived to be over 200. And many tortoises live to be over 150 years old. A cockatoo at the Brookfield Zoo lived to be 83. And 10,000-year-old glass sponges have been found in the Southern Ocean, while koi have been known to live for over 200 years.

These are amazing examples of longevity; there are many others too. The potential for an extremely long life exists in many living entities. We see these exemplars and imagine that we might someday be able to live extremely long lives too. We could, if we can harness the correct genetic code, potentially live to be 200.

But is this a good thing?

If our average life expectancy climbed by just 20 years, we’d be adding not only many millions more people, but also a huge amount of energy expenditure to the world. Last year, for example, the estimated average total energy use per person in the U.S. was 300 million Btus. Multiply that by our population: 325 million. That’s kind of a big number. Further, global CO2 levels have just risen above 400 ppm for the first time in over 3 million years.

If we all start to live much longer, the strain on our natural resources – already high – will greatly increase as well. The pressures placed upon farmland, ranches, even woodlands and other ecosystems, will expand.

The people who would benefit the most, at least in the early stages of any concerted effort, would likely be the wealthy, who would hang onto their money for many more years. They would want to make sure they have enough to support themselves when they’re 120 or 130, for example. No point in living to such a ripe old age if you’re going to do so in destitution.

Programs like Social Security and Medicare would go bankrupt that much faster, putting increasing pressure on the rich to get even richer than they were in the past – out of fear that they won’t have enough. The inequities occurring now would only worsen.

So yes, it would be nice if your grandma lived to be 140, active until the day she died, but imagine all the grandmas living that long, using up limited resources, while their great, great grandchildren toil away to support them.


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Life Is a River

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We float on the surface, moving inevitably to its end. Our end. And we can move with the current or against it, crossing at times to the other side, staying at moments in eddies that swirl around obstacles, but we always eventually find ourselves deposited in its delta, sediment left behind, returning to the earth.

At times we fight the flow, determined to move in a different direction, struggling to overcome the forces that exert their pull on us. For example, if we’re born into poverty, it’s an enormous battle to work our way into not just wealth but mere comfort. We have no cushion to soften the expense of a sudden illness or the loss of a job.

And if we’re born into privilege, we have things handed to us we don’t deserve. A good education, great jobs, toys and leisure. We don’t wish to believe that, of course. We’d much rather tell ourselves that we did it by hard work, that we pulled ourselves up into success by our own efforts.

That’s sometimes true. People with drive and smarts will often end up in successful positions, regardless of where they started. But generally, they had help in the form of unconscious bias. When two equally qualified candidates are up for a job – one white, one black – the white candidate will be offered the job far more often than the black one. Just like the male manager/scientist automatically receives a gravitas that females have to work to attain.

This kind of hidden discrimination is extremely hard to prove – because it’s not conscious. The people who decide that the male or the white candidate is better would insist they’re not prejudiced, that they’re making their decision on the basis of the facts.

But everything is witnessed through the prism of societal norms. When you talk about a nurse, most people assume you’re talking about a woman; when you talk about a soldier, most people assume you’re talking about a man.

We all have these implicit biases – about race, gender, age, disability, religion. And what makes those biases dangerous is that we often don’t know or admit we have them, so we’re unable to counter them. If you don’t know (or refuse to admit to yourself) that you’re unconsciously favoring men over women, for example, you can’t take action to correct for that bias.

Part of the problem is that as we age, we learn that these hidden biases are wrong and so we come to believe that we have overcome them. Our rational minds state that we are enlightened and we no longer hold those beliefs. But unless we actively work to compensate for those prejudices, we haven’t really solved the problem.

We still have the biases; it’s just that we think we don’t. So we justify our beliefs by telling ourselves there are logical reasons for why we selected the person with the preferred trait. We perpetuate discrimination because we honestly believe we’re not discriminating. Unless we engage in serious self-examination, we won’t be able to solve this problem in the future.


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Why Inequality Still Matters

Posted on by steve-mcellistrem

Despite the relative prosperity of the past few years and the steady growth of our economy since the great recession, income inequality hasn’t gotten better. Instead, it’s gotten worse.

But almost everyone is doing pretty well. Most people have smart phones, for example, an item that was once considered a luxury. Most people have computers and TVs. Yes, there’s still poverty in America, but it’s generally not as bad as it was in eras past. However, for those in poverty, it’s no better than it was 30 or 40 or 50 years ago.

Some folks say, “Even the poor have iPhones nowadays, so they’re clearly better off than they were 20 years ago.” But smart phones aren’t a luxury any longer. They’re necessary in our 24/7 connected world. Only the comfortable/wealthy and the elderly/retired can afford not to have such devices.

But if people can afford to eat and buy smart phones, what’s the big deal? Why does it matter if the rich get even richer? So what that the recent tax cuts mainly benefit the wealthy and large corporations? We’re still giving some money back to the lower and middle classes, right?

Yes. We’re giving at least a little money to almost everyone (but the vast majority to the rich) and we’re doing that by taking that money from our children and grandchildren, running up our debt to unsustainable levels. In addition, we’re spending more than we have in the past, which will only increase the speed at which that debt becomes a major problem.

Further, we’re doing this in an age when everyone can learn this. In the past, information took a while to get across the country, to trickle down to the masses. Now, because everyone is connected, information is almost instantaneously transmitted across the populace.

So we can all spot the inequality we used to be much less aware of. The spin that this was a middle class tax cut, for example, died almost immediately because the truth was able to disperse across social media just as fast as the lies.

The distrust of government, building for some time, increases with the transfer of wealth from our future selves to our current oligarchs. Take from everybody tomorrow to give more to the wealthy today!

The swamp gets swampier, and the ability to distract from that truth gets harder. The game continues to be rigged and we’re supposed to be too stupid to see it. For a long time, that seemed to be true. It wasn’t, of course. But the gap between lies and truth was larger back then.

So the attempt to sell medicinal spirits and get out of Dodge before anyone notices it’s just sugar water doesn’t work the way it did in the past. We know now that when our politicians tell us something is great for us, we need to look beyond their words to find the truth. And it’s a lot easier to search for that truth now than it used to be.

We ignore the swirl of the magician’s wand. You can’t fool us forever. It doesn’t matter if you tell us we’re going to be so much better off because we notice the deception. “Here’s a peanut for you while I take 7 chocolate cakes for me.” Even monkeys scream in outrage when their fellow creatures are rewarded more than they are. The outrage against unfairness is wired into us.

So inequality is a bigger problem today than it was yesterday because we’re more aware of it. The oligarchs can no longer hide what they’re doing to enrich themselves at our expense.

Disaster-FrontCover-230x335 (1)

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Another Climate Change Screed

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Very few people deny anymore that our climate is changing, even though a few years ago many still insisted it wasn’t. Now they say: “Of course it’s changing. It changes all the time, but we can’t know how much of an effect human actions have on it.” They also say we should slow down, study how much climate instability matters before taking severe action.

We don’t want to push ourselves into a recession, they say, harming our economy just for the sake of using renewable fuels, which are far more expensive than cheap coal, which we can clean up by using gasification and other methodologies. Look at all the jobs that have already been lost, and all the others that will be, if we abandon coal and oil. Ignore the new jobs created by renewable fuels.

Anyway, does it really matter if polar bears die out? If they can’t adapt to a warming arctic, then maybe they don’t deserve to survive. What about survival of the fittest?

However, it’s not just about polar bears or moose or the northern spotted owl. It’s not just about dying oaks or pines or ash trees. It’s about people. It’s about the increasing threat to our survival due to incremental global changes.

The mountain pine beetle, for example, has moved north for years, now devastating forests in all 19 western states and Canada. Partly this is due to warmer winters. The temperature rarely falls below –40ºF (–40ºC) anymore, the temperature at which the beetles begin dying in large numbers.

And although temperatures in the Rocky Mountain West have gone up only two degrees in the past half-century (still a lot), winter minimum temperatures have soared 15-20 degrees.

This could potentially result in more forest fires, but it certainly results in fewer trees to absorb water, which means more potential for flooding as well as more likelihood of long-term drought – because denuded coastal forests can result in desertification of interior lands. Trees are really good at recycling water. Without that efficiency, water runs off more rapidly and evaporates quicker, drying out the land.

Or consider the blacklegged tick (deer tick), which is increasing its range throughout the U.S., carrying Lyme disease to vast segments of the population. Lyme disease can be difficult to detect in its early stages, and yet if left untreated, it can spread to the heart and the nervous system. Although these ticks prefer warm temperatures, they’ve even spread into Canada.

How about the mosquito? It transmits dengue, yellow fever, Zika, malaria and encephalitis, among others. We think of many of these diseases as Third World maladies, and yet they persist and have begun to make inroads into the developed world. With warming temperatures, they threaten more northerly climes than ever before.

So climate change is presenting challenges beyond the rise of the oceans, beyond the increasing intensity of hurricanes and droughts. It’s affecting our health. It’s allowing more diseases to spread, more pests to encroach on our territory, forcing us to devise ever more clever solutions.

And someday, we might not find a solution in time. So we need to decrease our consumerism, find ways to recycle and reuse items, convert to renewable energy (which creates new high-tech jobs) and stop population growth. Or else the pressures we’re putting on the planet will burst, like steam out of a kettle, burning a sizable chunk of the populace.

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

book 1 in the Susquehanna Virus series

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