Socrates Gone Mad in Southern California

Slomo at the Acropolis

‘Slomo’ at the Acropolis

Slomo is a 69 year old man who roller blades in slow motion along the boardwalk in Pacific Beach, California. He does this daily, unceasingly, and is known by nearly everyone who frequents the beach, bars or coffee shops. Many discount him as drug-addled, schizophrenic, or crazy. But he is not so easily dismissed.

For Slomo is Dr. John Kitchin, a former neurologist and psychiatrist, who abandoned his lucrative career in order to live in a studio apartment by the beach and pursue “a kind of divinity” through skating. Slomo is not crazy. He is a clear eyed, articulate, and bright man who has forsaken the lifestyle of the “typical institutionalized, educated, Western man.”

There’s a New York Times video about Slomo that’s prompted a large number of comments and where you’ll discover that he is:

“inspirational” and “an immature embarrassment,”

“amazing” and “narcissistic,”

a “great example of freedom” and “self-centered and lazy,”

and that he “represents ideals that we hold dear” and is “kind of an —hole.”

Diogenes in Ancient Athens

Diogenes at home in Athens

Slomo evokes polarized passions and so is reminiscent of Diogenes of Sinope, the philosopher who lived in purposeful poverty in a giant vase on the streets in Ancient Greece. Diogenes advocated self-sufficiency and rejected luxury; he had contempt for the opinion of others and utter disregard for societal conventions.

“I am Diogenes the Dog,” he once said. “I nuzzle the kind, bark at the greedy and bite scoundrels.” (He’d be useful today.)

Plato called him “Socrates gone mad.” But he wasn’t only mad, he was funny.

Once after seeing a bad bowman in an archery contest, Diogenes sat down in front of the target saying it was the only place he felt safe. And in a famous meeting, Alexander the Great told Diogenes that he would grant him any wish.

“Just move and get out of my sunlight,” Diogenes replied.

Slomo espouses no overriding philosophy and doesn’t reveal any desire to instruct. He merely sees himself as the “tip of a great iceberg of consciousness,” and as a person “who escaped and got to real freedom.” His choices seem to threaten the conventional, who feel that he should do something else with his life. In short, they think he should be more like them and cite, among other things, his lack of motivation.

Yet Alexander was once asked: If he was not himself, who would he choose to be?

And the answer, from arguably the most motivated man in history, was that if he were not Alexander the Great, he would choose to be Diogenes the Dog – and as such would’ve stopped casting his shadow across empires in order to bask in the unconquerable sun that shines to this day on the ruins of Ancient Greece and the boardwalk in Pacific Beach.

You can see the video at the New York Times website: ‘Slomo.’

And my debut novel, which features a character who simplifies her life by shedding her possessions, is available here: The Last Island.

The Ag-Gag Reflex: The Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act’s Impact on All of Us

Pig in a Factory Farm
On November 27, 2006, after heavy lobbying by the pharmaceutical and agricultural industries, the Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act (AETA) was signed into law. The AETA makes it a terrorist offense to engage in certain speech and activity that causes an “animal enterprise” the loss of real or personal property. (There is a dispute as to whether the term ‘loss of property’ means ‘loss of profits.’)

The authors of this designer legislation were certainly aware of its problematic reach and so included within it a ‘rule of construction.’ This ‘rule of construction’ is, in itself, a great legal construct because it means that, notwithstanding what’s actually in the law, nothing shall be construed to prohibit any conduct that is protected by the First Amendment.

That is, even if the law is written in a way that criminalizes constitutionally protected speech and advocacy, it really doesn’t, you see, because it says that it doesn’t.

Currently, this law is being challenged in a federal lawsuit filed by the Center for Constitutional Rights in the State of Massachusetts. The plaintiffs, all activists who’ve devoted their lives to advancing the compassionate and ethical treatment of animals, claim that the AETA criminalizes the free speech and political advocacy guaranteed by the First Amendment – that is, the AETA makes it a crime to peacefully attempt to change people’s minds.

The AETA is an insidious and dangerous law not only for those in the animal rights movement, but to every one of us for the following reasons:

  • Free Speech is a Defense against Violence

    Political violence usually comes in two varieties: 1) those who can’t get what they want through advocacy, yet remained so convinced of their arguments that they engage in violence and 2) those whose advocacy is silenced and so must advance their cause in other ways. Accordingly, any suppression or ‘chill’ of free speech generally leads to more, not less, violence, regardless of cause or country.

  • The Government is Discriminating on the Basis Of Viewpoint

    The AETA targets the animal rights movement specifically, singling out activity that affects animal enterprises. The government is not acting as the referee in an ongoing and spirited public debate, but prematurely choosing the winner. If laws like the AETA are allowed to stand, important political debates will be decided before they have begun and the government will pre-emptively be deciding that which we should be deciding for ourselves.

  • State Level Ag-Gag Laws Prevent Undercover Investigations

    A number of states have used the AETA umbrella to pass so-called ag-gag laws, which make undercover investigations illegal, so there will be no method of documenting what goes on inside animal enterprises. This has grave consequences not only for the animals within those poorly regulated and often inhumane enterprises — but also for those who continue to eat the meat that comes from them.

Many people think free speech is important in case they find themselves on the wrong side of power and prestige. And that’s certainly true, for what it’s worth.

But the merit of unrestricted and expansive speech is far greater than that. Because it’s only by vigorous debate and within the protests, placards, signs and songs – only within the cacophony of our raised and numerous voices — that we, as a nation and as individuals, find out who we truly are.

The plaintiffs in this case, all animal rights activists, have long fought to give voice to the voiceless, but now their advocacy is broader: now they speak for the potentially de-voiced as well — which is every one of us.

Let’s not allow ourselves to be silenced.

More information on this case is available at The Center for Constitutional Rights.

‘The Last Island,’ with its themes of environmentalism, animal rights, and the costs of capitalism, is available here from Betimes Books.

Pope Francis and his Prodigal Gay Sons

The Embrace of Pope Francis

The Embrace of Pope Francis

“Who am I to judge?”

These words, spoken by Pope Francis in reply to a question about gay priests, may represent a change of direction for the Catholic Church and signal a move away from the censure and moralizing that have come to characterize it.  This is something for which many Catholics have long been waiting.

The condemnation of homosexuality within (and without) the Church was a case in point, because it seemed to rest on three predeterminations:

1. That homosexuality is a choice.

If there is no ‘choice,’ then the Church is condemning people for being as God made them.  Homosexuality may be a choice for some, but most of us end up staring at the boy or girl in front of us at some point in our lives and that’s that.  From that moment, the only choice to be made is one of sexual fulfillment or not.

2. That this choice is sinful.

While there may be some places in the Old Testament where homosexuality might appear to be condemned, Jesus never cared about the sexual inclinations or practices of any of the people he encountered.  He merely welcomed those who wanted to be welcomed, accepted those who asked to be accepted, and forgave those who asked to be forgiven.  It was simple really, very simple.

3. That there are those who are in a position to cast judgment.

The only people Jesus judged in his life and parables were those who stood in judgment of others.  In John 7:53-8:11, when the adulterous woman is brought before Jesus by the “scribes and Pharisees” to be stoned, it’s these men that Jesus challenges, not the woman.  And in the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15: 11-32), it’s the good son’s resentment and judgment that become his punishment.

The sexual strictures of the Church – celibacy for priests, heterosexuality for members, opposition to the use of birth control, etc. – are trivial concerns at best.  And the judgment that arises from trivial concerns is more bias than anything else.

This Pope seems to understand that.

The Catholic Church is global, sovereign, wealthy, and historic.  It has set the standards by which we measure our years and much of Western art, music, literature and architecture.   It has been simultaneously sacred and profane, both revered and despised.  Yet it stands alone as an institution on this fragile planet and amongst restless and growing populations that may desire or, indeed, require its intercession.

So we can only hope that this singular Pope and this distinctive Church have at last begun to withdraw the pointing finger, offering instead an embrace that’s wide and warm and welcoming of all God’s children – the way Jesus did.

My debut novel, THE LAST ISLAND, can be purchased here.

Sharks in Coach (Talking about my Novel with my LA Agent)

Hollywood Shark

My LA agent had been sitting on my book for a couple of months.  I’d gotten no feedback from him, only the studied silence of a poised insect.  I decided to breach the stillness and give him a call.

The Phone Call

David:  Happy New Year.  It’s David.

Agent:  Know how many Davids I know?

David:  I know my full name shows up on your phone.

Agent:  So kill me.  What’re you calling me for?

David:  Did you read my book yet?

Agent:  Sure, I loved it.  Some great s— in there.

David:  So you want to represent the dramatic rights?

Agent:  Hold on.  I’ve a phone call coming in.

Papers shuffling in the background.  The Agent cups the phone and yells at his Assistant.  A minute or two later.

Agent:  What were we talking about?

David:  You representing the dramatic rights of my novel.

Agent:  Yeah, no, well, I’m not sure just yet.

David:  You didn’t read it, did you?

Agent:  F— no.  It’s over 200 pages.

David:  That’s short for a novel.

Agent:  The only thing I ever read over 10 pages is a lawsuit.

David:  What about screenplays, do you read those?

Agent:  I read the coverage.

Note: Coverage is the appraisal of a book or screenplay by a reader and usually includes the plot, characters and commercial potential.

David:  And you’re looking at the coverage for my novel right now, aren’t you?  That’s what your assistant just brought in.

Agent:  A dolphin, a fireman, fishermen, Greece.  Not exactly Iron Man.

David:  The female lead is very intriguing.  You could find an actress involved in environmentalism and animal rights and start from there.  Actually, I think it’s a timely and resonant story that-

Agent:  -Know what you need… a shark.  A shark on a f—ing plane.  There’s your title too.  That I could sell.  The thing starts from the back and eats only people in coach.  Write that.

David:  I’ll think about it.  In the meantime, my novel…?

Agent:  I give you a million dollar idea and you ask about your f—ing novel?  Put some orphans on the plane, and an old lady with an oxygen tank, and a cute little dog.  All sitting in coach.

David:  If you’re trying to make a statement about economic inequality with a, uh, shark thriller, maybe it should eat the people in first class instead?

Agent:  That’s the dumbest f—ing thing I’ve ever heard?  Think about it.  If the shark eats the people in first class, who will finance the f—ing film?

My novel, THE LAST ISLAND, can be purchased here.

Faith, Recklessness, and Courage (Christmas in No-Man’s Land)

Border between Greece and Bulgaria

Border between Greece and Bulgaria

There were three men against the back wall with AK-47s.  They were unshaven, unmoving, and looked as if the last time they smiled there was blood on the ground.   They glared at me and there was an even chance that I was the first American they’d ever seen.  Communism had just fallen and, since no system of law, order or enforcement had yet taken its place, these men had become all of those things.

They were guarding the ‘businessmen’ that I was meeting with in a rural village in Bulgaria, businessmen who were money changers, importers/exporters, and a rural ex-party mafia rolled into one.  I was here to sell a tractor, the first modern western tractor in the country as far as any of us knew, and though I didn’t want to be negotiating with ‘businessmen’ like these, there was no choice.  They could move large equipment; they had money; and they had protection.

I sat at a wooden table with more dollars taped to my body than most Bulgarians made in year.

On a trailer outside the restaurant was the tractor that I was hoping to sell.  I’d hired a man to guard the tractor with an AK of his own, and though he did a good job keeping kids and villagers away and preventing petty theft, he’d be no match for these guys.  But I hadn’t hired this guy just to prevent theft.  I’d also hired him specifically for this meeting, so I didn’t appear like the damn fool I probably was, bringing a load of dollars and a tractor into a remote and ungoverned part of Bulgaria.

“To meet with these men, it is the only way,” Dragomir had told me.

Dragomir was my translator and a poor honey farmer, but perhaps the most ambitious and resourceful honey farmer in all of Bulgaria.  We’d met at an agricultural fair in Thessaloniki when he approached me and asked about selling tractors in Bulgaria.  The Greek tractor market had all but collapsed and Bulgaria had just opened up, so Dragomir had not only seen the future, but a place for himself in it.

In time, that meeting had led to this one with the ‘businessmen,’ along with a mixture of faith, recklessness and courage on my part, but mostly recklessness.  For the negotiations I was conducting were a charade, because what might happen to me, my money, and my tractor if I refused any of their terms was something I wasn’t eager to discover…

Six months later, after we’d actually managed to sell a few tractors, Dragomir brought one back in the middle of a cold December.  It kept breaking down, and they didn’t have the spare parts or expertise to keep fixing it.

Dragomir and I met in the no-man’s land between the Greek and Bulgarian borders for the exchange.

I pulled the tractor onto a trailer and handed Dragomir a check for $9,000.  Then I gave him a bottle of Johnny Walker Blue with a red bow.  He handled the bottle protectively, knowing it was expensive and how much it would be worth on the other side.  I fully expected him to sell it when he returned home and enjoy the holidays in a style he might not have known before.

“Merry Christmas, Dragomir” I said.

“But I didn’t get you anything,” he replied and, before I could stop him, cracked the label on the Johnny Walker Blue, rendering it almost valueless.

“Merry Christmas to you, Mr. David.”

And there off to the side of the road in a no man’s land between Greece and Bulgaria, we drank the finest whiskey out of plastic cups, eventually joined by a Bulgarian border guard who traded part of his cheese sandwich for some whiskey of his own.

Later, as the sun was setting and we were about to return to our respective countries, Dragomir said, “Those men you met in the restaurant, Mr. David, they are dangerous men.  If this check doesn’t work and they don’t get their money, they will do bad things to me.  Very bad things.”

And as he drove away, I thought about my ever-resourceful Bulgarian friend.  His country was broken, his way of life aborted, his business associates carried AKs, and the only security he’d ever known was a cartload of honey jars.

How could he know if I could be trusted with $9,000, a small fortune in his country?  He’d seen good men sold out for less, I was sure.  And what could he know about the Greek company I worked for, or the banks I dealt with, or, as he kept calling it, “the capitalist system” overall?  So he, like me, was a mixture of faith, recklessness and courage, but mostly courage — mostly courage.

Merry Christmas once again, Dragomir, wherever you are.

My novel, published by Betimes Books in Dublin, is available here: THE LAST ISLAND

 

Blackfish: Weighing in on the Killer Whale Controversy at SeaWorld.

Where They Belong

Who are we really saving?

Blackfish is a provocative documentary that tells the story of a killer whale that has killed several people at SeaWorld.  There’s been an impassioned response to this film by many people, who are now demanding that all killer whales in captivity be freed.  The visceral nature of this response is not just because of what is happening to killer whales in captivity and what they are as a species but also, and perhaps more importantly, because it goes to the heart of who we are.

The Case for Humility

Killer whales not only have larger brains than humans, but they have a part of the brain that we don’t have, possessing an extra lobe of tissue that lies adjacent to their limbic system and neocortex. This lobe has something to do with thinking, of course, but also with the processing of emotions.

Just as dogs have a superior sense of smell than we do and chameleons can see more of the light spectrum, killer whales may have a greater capacity for emotion.  That is, they may experience the same emotions in a range and depth that are inaccessible to us.  In addition, they may experience some emotions that are unknown to us.

We, humans, have been wrong about almost everything since time began; what we once thought right is now, almost categorically, wrong.  The critical error we continue to make, the ongoing blunder, is how impressed we become with ourselves in every new era, dismissing the foolishness of the past even as we, minute by minute, slip into it.

If we’d acknowledge the limitations of our minds in understanding our world, including the more complex creatures with whom we share it, this would be evidence of our own developing emotional maturity and intelligence.

We don’t know what killer whales experience intellectually, emotionally or otherwise.  We can’t know.

The Case for Compassion

The moral progress of mankind can be viewed as an extension of compassion: from ourselves to our families, to our tribes, to our communities and nations.  Historically it was common to enslave, exploit or oppress people who fell on the other side of the various fault lines of gender, language, beliefs, or skin color.  And whatever progress we’ve made along these lines was achieved by learning to care for those who are more and more unlike ourselves.  Since our moral progress can be measured by the limits of our compassion, shouldn’t we strive to extend that compassion to other species as well?

Conclusion

Whether you believe dominion over animals was granted by God in the Bible or not, we certainly have it.  We can do with animals what we will.  Since we are the sole cause of the sixth mass extinction of plants and animals on our planet in the last half billion years, it’s clear what we have chosen to do: destroy almost every single one of them.

For an increasing number of people, it’s apparent that we need to save both our planet and our animals in order to save ourselves.  To do that, we have to change who we are, and we can start with one tree, one animal at a time.

Freeing the killer whales in captivity is, relatively speaking, a small thing to do, but it is the humble, compassionate and right thing.  It won’t save the environment, and it might not even save the whales from the dangers in the greater ocean, but it will save them from us and might, in some small way, begin to save us from ourselves.

My novel is available here: THE LAST ISLAND

Sir Edmund Hemingway

Look out below...

Don’t look down.

The call came in much the way you might imagine:

“Is this David?  I’d really like to talk to you about your novel.”

He was a literary agent in New York, who’d just left a large and famous agency to start his own.  He was aggressive, connected and smart, which was good — and he really liked my novel, which was better.

We went out for drinks.  We signed a contract.  We were partners, of sorts, sharing the same dream of getting my novel into the hands of an eager public.  At least, that’s what I thought…

I wrote about my experiences with this agent for an Irish writing site in an article called, “I am Tenzing.”  Now, you might be thinking, Sir Edmund Hemingway, Tenzing… tell me he didn’t use mountain climbing as a metaphor for getting a book published?

Well, it’s more about the Sherpas, and you can read the article here: ‘I am Tenzing

And the novel that is the snow-capped summit of that adventure is available here: THE LAST ISLAND