The Jade Helm 15 military exercises scheduled for July of this year sparked a huge outrage in Texas and other states of the Southwest US, with fears of “martial law” and “military takeover.” So incensed is the public that the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, called for the Texas State Guard to monitor the exercises.

This is all being pooh-poohed by the mainstream media — even Fox News — as paranoid delusion. I don’t disagree, but I think there’s some depth to this that isn’t going to come out in the mainstream media, especially Fox News.

I grew up in Wyoming, where a high-school friend handed me the 1971 screed, None Dare Call It Conspiracy, by Gary Allen, and introduced me to the frightening, delicious, wacky world of right-wing conspiracy theories.

Psychology professor David LaPorte describes paranoia as being a pathological extreme of the normal human function of “suspiciousness,” the other extreme being naiveté. There is also a “clinical paranoia,” which is a full-blown mental illness, with characteristics that go far beyond extreme suspiciousness.

I’m not as interested in the clinical form of paranoia. Like clinical depression, it’s a tragic brain malfunction that gives its victims little respite, and is simply a terrible thing to endure.

What I find more interesting is the extreme end of suspiciousness that exists within the range of normal human behavior, as exhibited (for example) by Texans over the Jade Helm 15 exercises: the kind of paranoia that gives rise to widespread right-wing conspiracy theories.

I think there is a culturally-transmitted factor that a lot of researchers don’t take into proper account when thinking about the Texas brand of paranoia: culturally-enforced loyalty to shibboleths, which in certain US subcultures takes the form of loyalty to beliefs.

A shibboleth is “a custom, principle, or belief distinguishing a particular class or group of people.” The term itself has an interesting history. During the early wars of the Hebrews as recorded in the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, the word “shibboleth” — which is merely a Hebrew name for a specific part of a plant — was used as a military password, because the people they were up against at the time had an accent that prevented them from pronouncing the word correctly: like asking an American to say the word “perro” (Spanish for “dog”) with the trilled r. Shibboleth has come to mean any distinguishing feature that insiders can use to tell who is a member of the group. Tattoos, hairstyles, clothing, use of certain words or phrases, jewelry, and the like are typical shibboleths.

A great many people in the United States hold their professed beliefs as a shibboleth, particularly in tight, religiously-observant communities. Using beliefs as a shibboleth has an upside, and a downside.

The upside is that joining the group is extremely easy: all you have to do is “profess your faith.” You don’t need to get your foreskin or clitoris cut off, you don’t need to get a tattoo, you don’t even need to cut your hair in a particular way or adopt a special diet. You just need to answer the altar call and “praise Jesus,” so to speak, and you’re in.

The downside is that you have, in certain very specific areas, lost your freedom to think independently of the group.

A classic example is the Creationist/Intelligent Design mess in places like Kansas. The idea that the theory of evolution cannot possibly be true dates back to the mid-1800’s, when Darwin’s theory was first published. The revulsion that certain individuals felt at being in any way related to a “damn, dirty ape” became a part of the Fundamentalist doctrine of the early 1900’s, which has become a shibboleth for many Fundamentalist and Evangelical groups in the US. To embrace the theory of evolution would be to repudiate (in part) the very shibboleth that allows these people to identify themselves.

Asking a member of one of these groups to allow their children to be taught the theory of evolution in school has, for them, much the same impact that asking a decorated combat veteran to allow his child to be taught how to desecrate and burn an American flag, and for pretty much the same reason.

The use of beliefs as shibboleths is so common in the United States that it has spawned a general American belief that everyone is defined by their beliefs. When I tell people that I’m a Druid, the first question they tend to ask is, “What do Druids believe?” The answer is, Druids don’t believe anything: that’s not what being a Druid is about. Conversely, changing my beliefs about anything does not threaten my identification as a Druid. This invariably causes confusion, because so many people do not understand how you can be something without having characteristic beliefs.

The pig-headedness that causes people to cling to their paranoid suspicions in the face of all evidence to the contrary, is often simply loyalty to their shibboleths, and thus their group identity.

Some religious groups, for instance, believe that Democrats are evil incarnate, and that Obama is the Antichrist. It’s part of their identity to believe this. If you try to “educate” them, you are only attacking their identity, and their religion. When Obama fails to sprout horns and wag his forked tail, then retires to the public speaking circuit and vanishes into the ineffable mist of irrelevance surrounding past presidents, Hillary will become the Antichrist. After Hillary, it will be the next high-profile Democrat.

It sounds like mental illness. But it’s really just Crips and Bloods, Dodgers and Yankees, goths and jocks. And that delicious frisson that comes of knowing the inner secret of what is going on.

So there’s a whole subculture out there which holds, as a shibboleth, that the US government wants to take away our guns and enslave us under martial law, because the government has been taken over by Zionists through the United Nations. Members of this subculture are the True Americans who have seen through the lies propagated by the Lame-Stream Media; the rest of us are brainwashed “sheeple” (sheep-people). That this all makes as much sense as a Hobbit basketball team is entirely irrelevant. It doesn’t have to make sense. This is their shibboleth, their pink mohawk haircut and dragon tattoo.

A lot of the true terror they exhibit over something like Jade Helm comes of suddenly confronting what might be an external validation of their professed belief — and they’re invariably caught with their pants down, because they are not actually prepared for what they’ve been claiming (loudly) they are prepared for. In reality, their ammo is old, and far too little for a full-scale war. They only have three months of food in their bunker, not a year, and half of that is past its expiration date. They never got the mold smell out from that last rainstorm, and the short-wave receiver doesn’t work. They aren’t psychologically prepared to lose everything they’ve ever had and become war refugees. Now, the storm is upon them, or at least might be, and they aren’t ready for it.

They aren’t ready because, deep down, they are sensible folk who know perfectly well their belief is just a shibboleth, a thing they buy into to get along with their friends and neighbors. Yes, yes, the apocalypse could come at any moment, but surely not today? I’ve got a deadline to meet, and the boss is in one of his moods. I’ll check the dates on the antibiotics tomorrow. Well, maybe next week, this week Jane has her dance recital. We can’t afford to replace them, anyway, because of the car repairs last month. Maybe next month, when finances aren’t so tight.

Another interesting thing is that their “preparations” are also shibboleths, not practical preparations for the invasion they believe is coming.

Think this through: you believe (really believe) a hostile force is coming to assault your community, and the institutions that are supposed to protect you aren’t going to do so. Furthermore, you believe this hostile force wants something you have — guns, food, conscripts, gasoline, your local limestone quarry, your strategic location, hostages. They aren’t going to burn down your town and move on: they’re going to go door-to-door, round everyone up, and put you all in camps.

Hiding in a bunker and waiting for it to blow over isn’t a reasonable plan. You’re going to have to abandon your ground: perhaps to join some guerilla militia that keeps moving to avoid capture, or perhaps to run to Minnesota to live with your in-laws. Or maybe you’ll give yourself up and hide cigarettes so you can bribe your captors from time to time. You are not going to attend an open town meeting of outraged citizens to demand that the invading army justify its constitutional right to make war on you. That makes no sense at all.

It makes perfect sense, however, if you’re merely trying to determine that they aren’t going to invade this time; that you’ll still have time to inventory those antibiotics and get that short-wave radio working; that your beliefs can remain safely hypothetical, and normal life can go on.

Because people treat their beliefs as shibboleths, they really can’t change their beliefs without abandoning their identity and their community. This makes them appear pig-headed and beyond reasoning, perhaps even clinically paranoid; but in reality, they are merely being loyal to their group.

None of this is to say that these paranoid subcultures aren’t dangerous.

Using fixed beliefs as a shibboleth leads to a huge amount of what is called “cognitive dissonance,” which is a painful mental state that results from trying to embrace two incompatible beliefs at the same time, or to embrace a belief that is in clear conflict with everyday observed reality. Extreme cognitive dissonance is a breeding ground for all kinds of paranoid thinking; it can make you crazy. You don’t need to wade too far into right-wing conspiracy theories to find the crazy.

I also have to wonder how much of the leadership of some of these groups is based in foreign intelligence services, and US counter-intelligence services; or even vice-versa. I’ve read, and find it easy to believe, that a lot of the trolls that appear on various websites are paid (probably not very well-paid) CIA, NSA, MI5, MI6, MOSSAD, whatever-used-to-be-KGB, Chinese, and other intelligence agency contractors, mixed with various big-money corporate contractors, who seed the feeds with “opinions” intended to sway other readers’ opinions. It’s a well-established fact that the FBI infiltrates all kinds of “groups of interest.” It wouldn’t take a lot to start up groups led by foreign intelligence operatives who want to create dangerous groups on US soil, or by domestic counter-intelligence operatives who want to draw out and identify potential malcontents.

The world of conspiracies and those who believe in them is a dark and tangled wood, and once you step inside, it’s easy to get lost. Best to sample them lightly, and as pure fiction. Because if they’re real, you’ll never really know, anyway….

House of Glass

We have arrived safely at our two-week way-station outside Ukiah.

download (1)The last two days were difficult, particularly in the afternoons. Rain. Not torrential rain, but utterly miserable rain for driving. Dark. Gusty. Cold and sloppy. The roads didn’t seem especially slick, but then we’d go past flashing patrol lights where someone had taken out a road sign, or where two cars had assumed a pose from the Kama Sutra. The drive sucked.

Let’s back up a bit.

Despite our “no-stress” mantra, Thursday and Friday in Fort Collins grew increasingly stressful. Thursday was actual moving day, where the big, strong guys showed up to move boxes onto a big, strong truck, and Friday involved coordinating cleaners, final inspection, and closing. Heavy rain dumped on us Friday afternoon: combined with multiple trains running through town, and the beginnings of spring construction season, traffic was thoroughly snarled — the one day we truly needed to cross town multiple times. By Friday evening, we were all grouchy and mentally exhausted.

20150513_195203Our nephew, Jonathan, arrived Thursday morning to help with the driving, and he and I were agitating for celebratory pizza on Friday while Marta inexplicably dragged her feet. Then our friends, Mark and Deborah, showed up with steaks, potatoes, salad, and wine. Marta had known, of course: she and Deborah had arranged matters a week before. My son, Stephen, was in town and joined us. Deborah grilled the steaks over an open fire, and we all told stories and drank wine until it ran out.

We got moving by about 9:30 on Saturday morning, after breakfast at the Ever-Open Cafe on North College. It’s the first time I’d ever tried the restaurant — for some reason, I’d always feared it was a terrible little greasy spoon. It was not; I can happily recommend the food and the service.

The drive across Wyoming on Interstate 80 was uneventful; a bit windy in spots, which, if that surprises you, means you’ve never heard anything true about Wyoming. Toward late afternoon, the clouds started to mass over the western range that drops into Utah.

downloadFor those of you who have never been to Salt Lake, the eastern mountains rise like a wall, and portions of the city have built out onto some of the mountain spurs, making the descent into Salt Lake a decidedly three-dimensional experience. The sky was not blue as it appears in this stock photo, but black, filled with great boluses of darkness interspersed with sheets of pale rain and tides of steaming fog. You could see everything surge and boil, driven about by the winds. We raced along the highway, surrounded by trucks that threw up a blinding, greasy mist from the road. It was like descending into a playground of the gods on a night where they’ve had a bit much to drink and are growing belligerent.

20150516_192800-1We finally started to see light as we drove across the salt flats to the west of Salt Lake City, and by the time we reached Wendover, it was cold and windy, but clear. We actually felt the last few fingers of direct sunlight on our faces as we drove into the KOA and ran for the rest room.

I have not much good to say about Wendover: it’s someplace wedged between nowhere and nothing. It’s a casino town, the first (or the last) in Nevada along Interstate 80, a kind of run-down mini-Vegas like most gambling towns that aren’t Vegas. There is really only The Strip: a long stretch of garish lights each promising “better odds” than the next place along the strip. There seem to be no restaurants as such: only casinos, and the food is definitely an afterthought. I commented to Jonathan that our dining choice, which reeked of stale cigarette smoke and cheap perfume, sounded and smelled like a cross between a strip-joint and Chuck E. Cheese’s, and he thought I’d pretty well nailed it.

20150515_165916Still, we had our indomitable adventurers’ spirits, and our clown noses. We made a fine evening of it.

The KOA itself is a little patch of parking spots on rocky gravel, stuck behind one of the more garish casinos with rocky desert at its back. I went to sleep to the sound of wind rattling the canvas walls of the Casita, and the skeletal dance of tree-branch shadows cast by the ten billion watts of light from the nearest casino.

A word about sleeping arrangements: we had three adults, a dog, and two cats in our little 8′ pop-up camper. I’m not going to say it was comfortable, but it worked.

Nevada was an exercise in negatives. No one fell asleep at the wheel. We didn’t run out of gas. We weren’t stopped and robbed by any county sheriffs under the guise of “civil asset forfeiture.” We spotted no federal prisoners trying to hitchhike. No space aliens abducted us, no giant praying mantises devoured the semi-trailer in front of us, and The Mob stayed safely distant to the south, in Vegas.

20150517_140158The weather remained semi-overcast and cool through an uneventful day of driving, until we reached Reno and started to descend into California. Once again, clouds gathered and rain dumped, giant trucks threw greasy spray, and we once more despaired of ever seeing sunlight. Jonathan told me that he wondered if we, like those unfortunates passing through the self-same Donner Pass in 1846, would end up having to eat each other.

This, too, did not happen.

Just before reaching Sacramento, where the sun had begun to shine weakly through the clouds, we took a detour northward at the direction of Google Navigator. It probably added an hour to the trip, but it took us through very light traffic on rural highways. Our route took us up highway 20, through the mountains and around Clear Lake and Mendocino Lake, to drive into Ukiah from the north. Although we are only 2-1/2 hours north of San Francisco straight up highway 101, coming around the back way felt like we were in the opening scenes of The Shining, driving to a remote, remote, remote place far from civilization of any sort.

We arrived, again, right at sunset, which set the sky on fire in glorious oranges, reds, and magentas. I missed the photo-op. We fell into bed, too exhausted from the long drive to do anything else.

This morning afforded us the opportunity to finally look at the place we will call home until June 1.

It appears to be a house constructed to make it seem you are living outdoors, without the disadvantages of actually living outdoors. To which end, most of the walls are floor-to-ceiling windows. The living room. The bedrooms. The bathrooms.

20150518_104617It is a House of Glass.

I am surprised to find that I like it.

It does mean early-rising, because when the sun rises, it fills the house with light. There are no curtains or other blinds. You can pull the covers over your head, but nothing keeps the room around you dark. Nothing protects you from the steady gaze of the deer and the house wrens that stare at you from the outside, like you were the odd creature in a zoo. But there are no people up here, no neighbors within line-of-sight.

Today, after running some unavoidable errands in Ukiah, we visited the Montgomery Woods State National Reserve, just up one of the twisty roads into the mountains about a half-hour from here. It’s one of the few remaining Old Growth Sequoia forests, and the ancient trees are spectacular. These look like more-or-less ordinary mountain forests until you spot something — like a human body — that gives you a sense of the scale of these trees. These forests are silent, and dim, and cool, and full of living energy.




And now, sleep calls. It has been a busy day, and tomorrow, we have to supervise the unloading of the moving truck into local storage units, where everything will sit until June 1.


The packers finished today, and I watched the piano go.

We sold the piano to a CSU music professor, a clarinetist. His wife plays piano, and they want to teach their children. So it goes to a good home, and the kids will grow up never appreciating what an unusual experience they’ve had, learning on a grand piano. It’s best that way — children, in my opinion, should never be burdened with the obligation of gratitude for things they don’t understand.

I learned on a little spinet — a horrid little piece of noisy furniture. My parents bought it for us kids, and we dutifully practiced (though usually under duress), and even developed some skill. But the so-called “action” — the mechanism, and the feel — of a spinet is totally different from that of a grand, for a top-end spinet, and ours was not top-end. It was almost impossible to tease any nuance out of that box. It was literally a forte-piano — a loud-quiet. Like a Volkswagen bug, it had only two speeds: on or off. If you weren’t ciphering half the notes, you were banging on it.

Not that I fault my parents. They bought us a piano, and on my Dad’s salary, that was a Big Deal. A spinet was what they could afford, and it was the only thing that would fit in the house. Grateful though I am, however, it was a nasty little instrument.

When I got to high school, I would sometimes sneak into the auditorium during lunch and play their 8′ Steinway Concert Grand. In those days, our high school had the newest and best auditorium in town; the local symphony would rehearse in the orchestra rehearsal room in the evenings, and would perform in the high school auditorium. Why I never got kicked out, I’ll never know, though perhaps no one ever heard me: it was a typical high school, and during lunch break, it would take an air-raid siren to cut through the general din. Of course, I was also very active in the school music program, and I actually played in the civic symphony, so maybe they thought my presence was legitimate.

In college, I got to use the pianos in the practice rooms. It was a new music building, and the pianos were new baby grands — Yamahas, if I remember correctly. Yamaha was just becoming known as a piano manufacturer, and their instruments were bold, bright, and wonderfully responsive. And relatively cheap, for the quality, which is why they ended up in practice rooms.

I started looking for a piano of my own in 1983, shortly after taking my first job, and it was amazing some of the crap people wanted to pawn off for an exorbitant price. Most buyers were, of course, looking for furniture, so things like the condition of the finish and (gag) color were of utmost importance to them. I only cared about the touch, and the sound.

I fell in love with an Ibach at Pianos Unlimited in Denver, but the $10,000 price tag — remember, these are 1983 dollars, and I was making only $27,000 a year with a new family — was entirely out of reach. I’d never heard of the brand: it’s one of the oldest piano manufacturers in the world, dating back to 1794. Beethoven could very well have performed on an Ibach at some point in his career. This piano was a little weak in the high register, but the bass was round and full and smooth as chocolate with wine; it had the most magical sound and feel I’ve ever experienced. I could tell that the salesman wanted to let me have it, but he couldn’t lower the price, and I couldn’t meet it. So I would come back from time to time to see if it was still there and play it a little, and he’d look at me sadly and listen. They never had any rush business that late in the day. I imagine the salesman, also, had too many buyers looking for a piece of furniture at furniture warehouse prices; the Ibach was always there. Like any first love, I’ve sometimes wondered where that piano ended up, and hope it found a good home.

I kept driving around town, answering newspaper ads — remember, this was before the Internet — and finally answered the ad of a little old woman who needed to get rid of her piano because she was moving. I seem to recall she had been a piano teacher, and she was very reluctant to part with the instrument, a 5-1/2′ Wurlitzer baby grand manufactured in 1926. She made me play for her before she would agree to sell it. Apparently, I passed muster — she sold it to me for $2000, more like $10,000 in devalued modern dollars. We had to take out a loan to buy it, and the bank was reluctant, since the only collateral we could put up was the piano itself, which was the last thing they wanted to repossess should we fail to make payments — but in the end, they relented.

We moved it into the basement of our home in Westminster, the haunted room. The first notes of the third movement of my Piano Concerto in f-minor popped out of my fingers there, and I worked out the rest of the concerto on that keyboard.

Over the years, I pounded out Rachmaninoff’s C#-minor Prelude when I was angry, Chopin Preludes and Nocturnes when I was pensive or sad, a little Schubert or Beethoven or Mozart when I was feeling happy. I took insincere flying leaps at a number of piano concerti, fell on my face, and moved on to simpler things. I wooed women with song, and then celebrated their departure with more song. I annoyed and charmed the neighbors by turns, though I was (mostly) religious about shutting down by 10:00 at night.

That piano was a fine little instrument, with plenty of subtlety in the action. It could use a little refurbishing — new felts on the hammers, new friction pads for the posts. But it plays very nicely.

Yes, I’m terribly sad to see it go.

But I don’t play any more. Playing piano is a physical skill, and when you don’t play, you lose the edge. You can bring it back — but like trying to lose weight and give yourself a set of six-pack abdominals after being a middle-aged schlub, it’s very hard work and requires dedication, not wishful thinking.

I’d rather be writing new music.

Themon Joins the Cell-Phone Age

You’ll note some changes to the page format.

I’m working from a laptop right now with crappy software on it, and I can’t upgrade. So I can’t really customize this properly.

But the new format shows up on tablets and cell phones. Yay!

The Journey Begins

Saturday we had a final farewell party in the house that has been such a wonderful place to entertain. Old friends dropped by, and we tried to drink up the liquor cabinet, and failed. I opened some bottles of mead that have been sitting around for fifteen years, including the Mystery Mead, labeled 2000. Only one person guessed the flavor: garlic. Yes, a garlic mead. I don’t think it was anyone’s favorite, but it wasn’t bad, and by the end of the party the bottle was empty.

Sunday and Monday were final clean-up and pack days, and it was a bit overbooked, but we got most everything finished. I still have to finish mowing: the rain last week kept me from getting ahead of it, and it looks terrible. Marta is intent on leaving the new owners with a clean move-in: one of the many things I love about her.

20150512_080747Monday — yesterday — ended with us packing the cars and hitching our little Conestoga — maybe we should rename her the Conistogita — as our temporary home while the Packer Ants descend on the house.

We decided to move out early, to save stress on the animals. When we moved to the house in 2012, it was just a cross-town move, and we put the cats in the new place and locked them in the upstairs bathrooms with litter boxes and food. All the thumping and bumping in the new environment left them decidedly unhappy; there was a lot of fur on the carpet when we finally let them out to explore their new home.

When we had the roof replaced after the huge hailstorm last summer and the entire house became the inside of a djembe with a thousand insane drummers on the roof, Marta packed up and left with the animals in our Casita. That’s when she found the KOA camground north of Fort Collins. Surprisingly, after a round of largely symbolic growling, both cats settled down and rather liked it.

That’s what we’re doing this time, too.

20150511_204126We left the house to the sight of a gorgeous orange sky behind the foothills, and arrived at the KOA just as the stars were coming out in an indigo sky. As usual, the propane furnace didn’t work, but we were toasty under our comforter, and the animals had their own little warm nests.

Today promises to be a lazy day for me. We need at least one person at the house to supervise the packing (required by the moving company), and one person here to supervise the animals. If we took the cats out a lot, we could probably leave them in the Casita for extended periods. But our mantra for this move has been “NO STRESS,” and that includes feeling stressed about whether the animals are stressed.

Though supervising the packing is a lot more work than pet-sitting, Marta said she’d feel better if she was on top of the movers. Frankly, so would I.

It’s about ten in the morning, the animals are all catching a morning nap, and I’m blogging away. Birds are chirping outside, and the chill is finally just starting to leave the air.

This is, by far, the nicest KOA I’ve ever encountered. Aside from the spacious and well-kept grounds, they have things like this:


Or this:


I can’t help thinking about travelers in other times and places. At no time in the past — and perhaps no time in the future — has a move like this been so easy, and painless.

We’re moving 1200 miles, give or take. Horse-drawn wagons could make about twenty miles a day under ideal circumstances, and only ten (or less) otherwise. At ten miles a day, this trip would take 120 days, or four months. Heading out today, we could reasonably hope to arrive by mid-September, “God willing and the creek don’t rise,” as they say. But ordinary little things like broken wagon wheels, lame horses, local flooding, brush fires, or just good, old-fashioned rain-soaked mud could easily push that out a month, to mid-October, and now we’re flirting with winter. A bit of truly bad luck, or a bad (or misread) map, and we could find ourselves holed up for the winter, far from our destination, in some truly inhospitable place.

We’d have left most of our belongings behind. We would have only necessities with us, or perhaps some inconveniently large heirloom we absolutely refused to part with, for which we would have to sacrifice other comforts in order to accommodate. We’d be traveling in company: we’d need spotters, trackers, and a gunman or two in case we encountered bandits. We’d have some kind of constitution or compact for the traveling group, which would spell out rights and responsibilities, and tensions on the road could turn deadly.

Our stresses seem trival to non-existent in comparison. Other people are packing virtually all of our belongings, down to the paper clips, and it will all arrive, almost magically, within days of our arrival. Our own journey will take two not-very-long days: we plan to leave early Saturday morning, and arrive late Sunday evening, those 1200 miles vanishing under our wheels like a swift bird’s dream. We will eat well on the road, relax in the evenings, sleep soundly during our one night on the road, and will be surrounded on our trip by an enormous infrastructure that is designed to facilitate rapid, safe, convenient travel.

In addition, Marta and I are in constant communication though we are several miles apart at the moment, and she can ask whether I want my regular shoes packed, or with us in the car. I’m blogging on a laptop, through a local hotspot built into an Android pad that uses the cell phone network to get to the Internet.

It’s really quite astonishing.