Pando People (jj church sermon 1.0)

Have you ever heard of Pando? Pando is a forest of birch trees in the western US. Burton V. Barnes started studying the forest in the late sixties, and noticed something peculiar: the trees in the forest all seemed to be just alike. Simply based on morphology, what the plants looked and acted like, Barnes believed that the trees in the forest made up a single unit. Future tests and techniques bore him out: Pando is a forest of genetically identical trees, trees that are connected by a single root system. Pando might very well be the largest living thing on this planet, the largest living thing humans have ever encountered. But from the outside, without digging around for miles underground, or digging into microscopic genetic code… Pando just looks like a bunch of trees.
I have come to think of human beings as resembling Pando. From the outside, we look like a bunch of individuals of a particular type… but if we look deeply enough, if we are willing to dig… we will discover that not only are we more alike that we ever imagined, we are in fact all a part of one connected entity.
Genetic science has made incredible progress and discoveries; it is now within the grasp of many humans to submit their own material and find out specifics of their background. We discover that all of us trace back to a few lineages. Something like ninety percent of all humans can be traced back to sixteen historical fathers… some known to us, some lost to history. Genetically, our family tree grows from few roots. I have no doubt that with continued improvements in testing and data mining, we will eventually narrow those roots even further. I think it is obvious that, like the trees of Pando, individual humans grow from the same genetic root.
I also believe something less obvious, something that we have not developed the tools and methods for which to dig. Humans seem to have a further connection that science has not yet understood. Linguists have noted that, based on the amount of the language human children are exposed to, there’s no explanation for how we learn to speak, how we learn to communicate. Psychologists have described the collective unconscious, that which we all seem to know innately, that which seems to be passed down through generations without our realizing it. This connection is not the only thing beyond the limits of current science… the simple question “where do we come from” ends with the mysterious and poorly named Big Bang; which, for all we can explain, happened for no reason out of nothing at all. We can’t explain how the elemental forces that affect us work together, or really, work at all. We have ideas, theories… string theory is one that could help explain the nature of these forces; but string theory requires we do our theoretical math in sixteen or twenty-five dimensions, rather than the three we can point to and touch.
The Big Bang, the beginning of everything from nothing… and the the equal but opposite mystery of what lies beyond the universe we know… are particularly difficult to wrap our minds around. We understand height, width, and depth, and even the quasi dimension of moving inexorably forward through time. But we literally have no frame of reference for what might be above height, farther out than width, behind depth… or before that time zero when everything we know and understand just simply… started.
What if it is really that simple, though? We are creatures created within that realm of time and three dimensions, our perceptions are only built to conceive of those axes. What if the outlandish prediction of string theory is correct, and there exist dimensions outside our perception, outside our reason, outside our comprehension?
Human beings are Pando, individuals sprung from the same genetic stock, appearing separate and distinct but exactly the same underneath. The Big Bang is the ground from which these apparent individuals grew, hiding the nature of our connected root system. That root system, that connection we have noticed but can’t define or explain, simply lies in dimensions beyond those which we were built to sense and comprehend.
Looking at life and lives in this framework, science and religion avoid their apparent dichotomy: science understands its limits are these three dimensions, and religion understands its implications lay beyond and aren’t always measurable or actionable in those three dimensions.
This probably sounds like a strange “sermon,” but it is an important plank in the platform I want to build, the church I want to attend. My church is intended to be an exploration of religion, a celebration of the paths and methods man has used and continues to use to find a larger sense of order, to find their place in the “Grand Scheme” of things. My church wants to deal with human information as far back as we have records… and my church isn’t trying to force those historical narratives to adhere to the three dimensions we can actually perceive. My church values the history of religion beyond its adherence to the limits of our science, and values science constantly improving the world within those limits.
I’d love to hear what you think of my church.

Discussion thread for this post in the jjewell forum.

Starting Somewhere

I have had an idea for some time. It’s a big idea, literally world changing. There have been many nights I’ve lain awake thinking that this is what I’m here for, what I’m supposed to be doing for myself and for the world. It’s a big deal… And I want to get it right. Which has led to overthinking: where to start?

I want to change the way we think about religion and politics, and how the two have to live together to get the most out of either of them. Sounds obvious and necessary, but do you start by examining what is broken, or reestablishing a religious basis, or a political movement? How do you even start a religion or a political party? I’ve felt as though I need to write at least three books just to get this thing going.

So as much to lay the starting brick for myself as for those I hope to follow, I am starting with a declaration of intent, including why I feel something must change, and the foundation upon which that change must be built.

The very first part is the why, and to get into that, we have to get into story time. My story, how I got to where I felt I had to change something. In particular, my religious and political history.

I still have the bible I was given from Northside Methodist Church in 1975. I don’t remember receiving it, nor any particular events at the church in those days: we were a Christmas and Easter family, at our best, and we weren’t at our best very often. By high school, I wouldn’t be able to recognize anyone from the church, and they wouldn’t have been able to recognize me. I lived much of my adult life this way. It was only after years of working through depression and ADHD that Suzy and I decided to make the church a part of our lives again. Suzy still has her bible from Northside circa 1977, and several of her family members were and are still church pillars there, so that’s where we went. We were in the choir, and the bell choir, I played guitar for outdoor summer services; Suzy became the head of children’s ministries, I became president of United Methodist Men at Northside; I took lay speaking courses, became certified, taught Sunday School classes, and even preached from the pulpit on more than one occasion (yes, that means precisely twice).

As we got more and more involved in the church, and became more a part of decision making and leadership, it became more obvious that the UMC, the organization, was operating primarily as a business. And although I can’t say I am so naive to believe that’s not going to be the case in the US, even worse, it was being run as a bad business. Large, successful churches had a lot a “small groups,” for instance… so our tiny, older congregation was tasked with creating such groups. This led to all the groups being the same people; I was over fifty when they needed Suzy and I to be a part of the “Young Adults” small group. Instead of looking at the strengths and need of the individual churches, leadership was pushing to generate what amounted to fake numbers that looked like what they themselves defined as being successful. There was also a pastor that did not get along with a significant portion of the congregation: he was directly responsible for the only couple actually younger than Suzy and I in the Young Adults group leaving the church. Even Suzy’s grandmother, who’d been with Northside since it was people knocking on doors saying “we should start a church ’round here,” had taken to pointing out “it’s not his church, it’s our church” on matters involving this pastor. When Suzy’s grandmother passed, she did not want the pastor in question to preside over the ceremony, and we contacted the previous pastor. We were told that she would not be comfortable doing it, because, and I quote “that’s his flock now.” That’s when I realized that the organized church is not working for its congregations, but rather operates believing that its congregations work for it.

Religion, as practiced by the organized church in the US, is broken.

I was brought up Republican, which is to say that I was aware of my parents and grandparents voting Republican in the seventies and eighties. In high school, I was already getting the idea that both major parties had more in common with the actors in the other party than either of them had with the citizens they supposed to be representing, and I was sporting the “withdrawal in disgust is not apathy” banner to remove myself from political conversations. As I grew older, it occurred to me that the political conversation ended up affecting me whether I took part in it or not, and I have been an advocate for third parties ever since.

Over the past couple of decades we have seen the worst gridlock and political obstruction in our history… and our government is currently shutdown, despite bipartisan congressional agreement, at the childish whim of someone who can’t get us to pay something he told us someone else would pay for.

Politics, as practiced by the major parties in the US, is broken.

When we think about who we are, what we are for, what is our greatest good… we all too often compartmentalize a vast array of moral and social values into lumps we call politics and religion. Because of the peculiar brokenness of politics and religion in the US, we largely define ourselves within structures hundreds, even thousands of years old, that we did not build and to a great extent don’t even understand.

We have to start over. The structures we have are broken. My task as I see it is to create new structures, which both acknowledge the reality of the existing structures and plan for their eventual replacement. The next step is defining exactly what they are and what they do.

I’m not looking to replace religion or politics themselves, but rather the structures we use to define them: basically, a new church and a new political  party. For now, they’re called the jj church and the jj party. Part of the foundation of these new structures is that they are not intended to completely replace existing structures: I can foresee someone meaningfully calling themselves a “jj Republican” or a “jj Methodist.” One ideal of these structures will be to focus on common ground and working together to move forward, to make sure our differences don’t stand in the way of our similarities.

The very first thing we have to agree on, that has to be similar, is what we are trying to do with these structures. We toss around terms like “politics” and “religion” as though we all know exactly what we are talking about and to what extent. But we need to know why the structures exist in the first place… we don’t seek out a religion or political party because we like the colors of the building (or at least we shouldn’t), we seek them out to fill needs within and outside ourself. At its most basic level, religion is an attempt to understand where we as individuals fit in the “grander scheme” of things. At its most basic level, politics is an attempt to understand where we as a society can move forward the “grander scheme” of things. The insistence of separating church and state has always seemed odd to me when clearly the one was little more than an outward, societal take on the other.

To summarize: with the intent of offering a better version of objectively broken modern US politics and religion, I am starting a new church and a new political party. These new structures will be intentionally built to focus on first working around, then eliminating these problems.

Party Like It’s 1996

Glory Days time, here. Back in the day, the mid-90’s day, my second job was at a comic book store. I had learned to read from Donald Duck comics digests, and when Star Wars came out (a life-altering event, for me), Marvel Comics started a Star Wars comic book. That introduced me to the rest of the Marvel Universe, and I was hooked. As an adult, working part time in the comic store was a great way to feed my habit.

A lot was going on in the comics and related fandom worlds at the time. A new thing called Magic, a game where you collected trading cards as playing pieces, was taking over the geek imagination. Although it seemed fascinating, there just wasn’t anything about it that drew me in enough to make the considerable investment in Magic cards.

Then came the Star Wars Collectible/Customizable Card Game.

For months, all my part time earnings went into packs and boxes of Star Wars cards. We played at the store, we played at each other’s houses… we played for hours at the local pizza place on Tuesday nights (thanks, Bertolo!). We played tournaments on Saturdays and at conventions.

What with being able to collect so many cards, and being in the center of a varied group of players, I got pretty good at the game. So good, in fact, I managed to win the tournament at Dragon*Con in 1996, the first year it was held. I still have the unopened box of Premiere I got for a prize.

But that wasn’t the best part of it. Dragon*Con was the first qualifier for the Star Wars CCG championship. Decipher, the company that created the game, flew me and 39 other qualifier winners from literally around the world to Vail, Colorado, where we holed up for the weekend and played cards. I ended up in the middle of the pack (I know it was two away from right at the middle, I was either 18th or 22nd, it’s lost in the fog of time, now), but the experience was amazing.

Decipher released more card sets, I kept playing. Somewhere along the line, Decipher sold out to Wizards of the Coast, the Magic makers. Between fewer players keeping up with the ever-expanding game and other happenings in my own life, I started playing less and less. Once the wife then kids arrived, the Star Wars cards were in boxes in the closet.

Not entirely unexpectedly, my own kids turned into Star Wars fans. When they were young, we watched the movies together, as they got older, we played the video games together.

One day, it became time to play Star Wars cards together.

So my kids got me to dig out my old cards and refresh my memory of Activate, Control, Deploy, Battle, Move, Draw. We had fun.

The limitation was built decks. I still had six or seven decks built from the day, and that’s what the kids and I have used. There’s just a huge amount of cards and playing styles, and with the kids just learning as they go, deck-building isn’t something they’ve shown an interest in, at least yet. To try and scratch that itch, I went back to some of my old comic haunts to see if there were any players left.

Not really, no. The market had moved on, and if you told people you were playing the Star Wars game now, it means something completely different. So online I went.

First stop was the Star Wars CCG Players Committee at https://www.starwarsccg.org, and pay dirt right away: there’s an Online Play link right in the middle of the page. That link led me to the GEMP website at http://tlbiesterfeld.servegame.com/gemp-swccg/, where you can build decks and even play online against folks around the world.

I haven’t even fully explored the GEMP site yet, much less started using all the tools. But this is the kind of thing the internet was literally built for: making the tedium of chasing 120 playing cards around a table into a click-and-drag operation, and bringing together people from far away over the same interests.

May the Force be with you.

Long Time Coming

Okay, so the bad news is I haven’t slept all night for two straight nights.

The good news is it’s because I got interested in something.

After having this goal for way too long, this weekend I finally went through the process of setting up my digital music interface and actually cutting tracks of vocals, acoustic guitar, and electric guitar, while also setting up an M-Audio keyboard controller for keyboards, bass, and drums synths. I used an actual song to test, my own Approximately, and it’s now on SoundCloud and also linked in the menu here on jjewell.com.

This is actually a pretty big one, for me. Getting over the hump on cutting some sort of “baseline” track to build on was a mental block for far too long… but once that foundation was laid, the rest of it came together a lot more quickly than I would have expected. Don’t get me wrong, this is in no way a finished song, but the fact that completed it and it exists and its out there in the world is a big deal I intend to celebrate.

Success Story Number Two

Multiple small successes rolled into one: I have an online shop for physical items, I have, again, finally, online forums, and I’m running a website primarily from iOS. The website from iOS thing was primarily the purpose of the fireapplered.com web address… not sure what I’ll do with that at the moment, since I’m now accomplishing its purpose here.

This is a particular victory for me at the moment because I’ve been working through some depression… and things haven’t seemed worth doing, recently. Making some visible changes is a good sign.

Success Story Number One

OK, so. I’ve got the tools set up to write anywhere, at any time. I’ve got a 22 year old domain name ready to host writing. I’ve been given the time. I actually have quite a few ideas, in notes, drafts, or other similarly skeletal forms of things to write about. So why don’t I write?

I’ve heard an unexamined life is not worth living, but I am acutely aware of the dangers of over examining. When I ask myself, why don’t I write, I already know the main reasons that flummox most people… those things are already automatically out there as possibilities. So it’s really easy to pick one of those that sounds logical. I do know I have perfectionist tendencies… and that is something that holds some people back: the thought that “it’s not ready yet, I need to work on it more…” But I’m not even getting to that point. It’s not a type of feeling that I can’t do good work, I’ve done in the past, there continue to be bursts of which I am particularly proud and I can see the quality of what else is out there: I’m ready to actually post something.

 So why haven’t I been writing? Other things seem more important at the time. When I think about sitting down to write about something, a whole list of things pops into mind, passes in front of my eyes, is on the iPhone somewhere. And I keep going around in circles doing that: it seems to be the common thread is not following through on anything, hell, barely getting started on anything… because I keep feeling like something else is more important… that my time would be better spent doing something else, even if I don’t know what that is. Maybe a different way for me to think of Attention Deficit Disorder: I can’t wrangle attention enough to carry through with things. Over the past two weeks I’ve bailed out on watching Archer, It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, and playing Minecraft because it just didn’t seem like I had the attention span to make it through the next episode or the next five minute Minecraft day.

So, success story number one on the way back: this is getting written. It’s only being written because I put things in place earlier on the phone to be able to do this. I am currently driving, but dictating into my iPhone. I like Apple’s iOS voice recognition just fine, but it quits listening after a brief time. So I installed a dedicate dictation app that will listen indefinitely and send the text over to my writing workflows… I have actually written this entire piece while I was driving back home from running errands today with dictation. 

This was a manufactured success: I want to highlight to myself that getting this posted was the result of looking at what wasn’t working and establishing different patterns that do work. First brick down. 

jjewell.com X – Rock Bottom Edition

jjewell.com has been around since the summer of 1996. It has changed formats and platforms and hosts and topics, reflecting changes and realities in my own life over that time.

And here we are. This is Rock Bottom. I don’t feel like enumerating failures or negative mileposts right now, plenty of time for that as this goes along if it seems as though it will help.

This is the start of my story out of here.

Re-presenting The jjewell North American Tour 1998

I first established the jjewell.com domain in 1996.  I can’t really remember what it looked like, right at first, and neither does the Internet Wayback Machine.  But when 1998 brought the closing of the manufacturing plant where I was working and provided me with a severance package, my fledgling web empire became the home of my first weblog (although they weren’t even called that, yet… much less “‘blogs”), the story of the jjewell North American Tour 1998.

And actually, the Internet Wayback Machine doesn’t even remember what that looked like… but I do.  It was raw html coded in notepad.  At first it had a dark grey marble background image with bright text in blue, green, and yellow.  Yeah, I know: that didn’t even last the length of the tour, it ended up in more classical looking greys and navys by the time I returned home.

At any rate, those updates from a cross-country road trip contain some of what I consider to be my most entertaining writing, and I’ve wanted to repost the series somewhere.  I finally decided that jjewell.com was where they were born, jjewell.com is where they should dwell.  So I’ve retroactively posted all the NAT updates here.

Now… between these old posts and the Wayback Machine, it’ll be days before I find time to do something useful… Start here…

Asheville, NC – evening

Last update from the road, but only just barely.

So why the hell would I stop in Asheville, about 50 minutes from home?  Damned if I know, talk to Roberta Verona, it was her idea.

The last mechanical problem, that “missing,” or just not wanting to take the gas uphills, particularly after running for awhile, popped up again.  I alternated between 60mph down hills and 20mph up hills for about 20 miles into Asheville.  Luckily, if you enter North Carolina from the east on I-40, it’s pretty much straight down for an awful long way.  After getting onto I-26 and wrestling with the question of whether to just tough it out the last few miles, I remembered talking with my dad the night before (and he thought I never listened to him…).  The last thing he said was “Don’t push the RV too hard.”  So, actually, it’s my dad’s fault I’m in a Shoney’s just outside of Asheville.

It feels good to be home already.  An old girlfriend lived in Asheville for awhile when we were together, so I know the city pretty well, and the drive back to Greenville is basically a long driveway for me at this point.  I feel like home.

I can’t wait to introduce Scout and Kato to Crash.  I’m secretly hoping that the boys will kinda team up on Kato, who’s been pretty rude to Scout since she showed up.  No respect for it being his house first.  I just have a feeling Scout and Crash will get along.

The second thing I’m going to do is file the new “big books” I got in San Diego.  The big dogs get special treatment including two Mylar sleeves (one upside down inside the other, to seal without any tape.  We don’t like tape anywhere near a multi-hundred dollar comic book)  and are filed off separately.  This way I get to look at all the coolest stuff without digging around in multiple boxes for it.  Hey, so I’m a geek.  I like it.

After that, I’ll start the arduous unpacking process.  I’m not even going to try to get everything tonight, but I’ll bet all the comics and Atari stuff gets unloaded first.  After that, I may just play until I fall asleep and worry about the rest of it tomorrow.

There will be at least one more trip update, perhaps more as things like photo developing happen.  I’ve also discovered that I have something to say about this whole Clinton thing (on long trips, AM stations stay with you longer than FM, for some reason, so I’ve been listening to Rush Limbaugh take enormous glee in demanding impeachment, indictment, disbarrment, excommunication, deportation,and a good flogging for Mr. Bill.  As usual, the fat man makes some excellent points but fails to reach the appropriate conclusion…).  It doesn’t really fit into the update category, so it looks like I may start using my webspace to shoot off my big bazoo about stuff on some regular basis.  Stay tuned…

Somewhere, NE

I already mentioned the problem with long drives–plenty of time to think of great things to say, but they leave my tiny head before I get a chance to write them down.  Another problem is that I keep rolling into campsites at one, two, maybe three in the morning, and really don’t feel like doing much other than sleeping.  I tried to make this one a little better (theoretically, I should have been in a little after midnight), but another damn time zone rolled by and these stupid campsites are impossible to navigate at night.  Particularly by yourself.  I had to unhook the Tracker by myself in the dark because I couldn’t make the turn they wanted me to and you can’t back up with the Tracker attached.

Hey, only two distinct topics in that paragraph, I’m back on the road to literacy.  I technically could go back and start a new paragraph at “I tried…,” but this way it’s like a look inside my mind, a “Making of The Update” kinda deal.  My treat to you.

I’m kinda punchy after all the driving, so I’ll apologize in advance for what this update must look like.  540 miles today, 625 yesterday, and 508 the day before.  Yowza.  If I can get a decent start tomorrow, and if Roberta Verona keeps running as well as she has been, I’ll be waking up in my own bed Wednesday morning (actually, more like Wednesday afternoon, at the rate I’m going).

But again, that depends on tomorrow being another 600+ mile day.  I hope I can get to sleep, what with the adventures getting the RV parked tonight and the fact that Nebraska’s thermostat is set noticeably warmer than Wyoming’s (I miss Wyoming, I didn’t know how good I had it), and the fact that the campsite I finally got wedged into is only 20 amp electrically.  Don’t know & don’t care precisely what that means, but the practical implications are that I can’t run the AC.  Oh, well, I think it’s safe to run the fan (and by “I think it’s safe” I mean I’m doing it now, and have not yet exploded into a huge fireball that scatters debris for miles and miles), so I’m doing that, anyway.

Called Suzy on the run from somewhere in Wyoming (it’s fun just to say that… really stretch it out now:  WHY-OOOHHH-MING.  See?  Fun) and she commented that I sounded a lot better, and looking at what I’ve read I think I’m reading a lot better, too.

I think I got to the point where I didn’t _have_ a point, anymore.  Newport was fantastic (and it’s currently my choice for where-to-live-after-I-leave-SC, whenever that might be), but I really wasn’t _doing_ anything there.  I had gotten to all of the places that I’d planned to go, met the people I wanted to, took the photos I hoped for (well, I missed Grand Canyon, but there’s not a chance in hell I was driving back through Nevada just for some piddly-squit hole in the ground, I don’t care how good it’s PR department is…), and ended sentences with the prepositions I wanted to (see, the rules of grammar are yours to toy with as long as you draw attention to it before the reader notices!  Silly reader!).  Steve Winwood helped me realize that it was time I should be going, and that was all it took.  Zoom, like an RV on rails.

I am looking forward to getting home.  I miss Scout a lot, I know this probably sounds weird, but that cat is the best friend I’ve ever had.  Crash and I are getting along great, but still…  I’m also looking forward to sorting out all the stuff I’ve accumulated and stashed throughout the RV.  I’ll bet I’m going to be surprised by half the stuff I find.

And I’m looking forward to my music.  I’m still not sure what the first step is as far as getting in front of lots of people, but I’m pretty sure there will be a homebrew tape available with acoustic stuff written, recorded, or otherwise worked on while on the road.  Right now it looks to be six songs, but there may be a seventh if the stuff that’s been roaming around my head the past couple days stays there long enough for me to get a chance to extract it.

So, plan on me being home sometime Wednesday (although I’m secretly shooting for late Tuesday night).  And we’ll go from there.