Author: Josh Shear

A gratitude for today, and this moment

A gratitude for today, and this moment

There’s a catch-all prayer in Judaism for gratitude. I’ll use my own transliteration here (that is, I’m going to write the Hebrew words using English letters in a rough pronunciation), but the prayer is called the shehechiyanu. The full prayer roughly translates to, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this day.” It goes like this:

Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, shehechiyanu v’kiyamanu v’higiyanu lazman hazeh (hear it here).

It’s said a lot. The beginning of every holiday. When friends gather for the first time. When family gathers for the first time in a while. The first time you perform a commandment in the new year (such as giving to charity or going to synagogue). The first time eating a particular food in the new year.

It’s an eleven-word gratitude practice you can utilize any time you need one. Twenty words if you want to use the English translation I gave.

In case you want to go deeper:

• My Jewish Learning points out the shehechiyanu is a reminder to stay present.

• The Trust Center for Early Education at Temple Ohabei Shalom points out that the shehechiyanu is a good marker for observing otherwise overlooked events in our children’s lives; birthdays, sure, but also physical growth, science projects and recitals.

• Two rabbis at a Texas synagogue give a sermon on shehechiyanu, including the importance of being alive in regard to prayer.

• Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff takes a deep dive on when the oral tradition tells us to recite shehechiyanu — and when not to. Note: Bracha means “prayer” (some translate it as “blessing,” but the context is “a blessing over a meal,” not “the post-op nurse was a blessing”).

• Here’s more deep discussion from Rabbi Avi Zakutinsky.

Incidentally, the way rabbis Kaganoff and Zakutinsky discuss the question of when to say shehechiyanu — with reference to various texts, many of them conflicting — is how Jews discuss matters of faith throughout history. It can be very interesting. One example is the argument several rabbis have in regards to when you can say evening prayers. Some say they should be said after sundown but before midnight. Others say evening prayers can be said after midnight but not after first light. Still others argue that the prayers may be said at any time before someone goes to bed, even if it is before sundown or after first light.

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George Washington’s Thanksgiving proclamation

George Washington’s Thanksgiving proclamation

I’ve been watching, sporadically, the lessons on Thanksgiving they’re teaching my five-year-old niece over Zoom, since that’s how kindergarten is taught these days.

It is, of course, the child-friendly version, during which British religious refugees pilgrims spend a couple months struggling under harsh conditions to cross the Atlantic in a too-small ship called the Mayflower and land in a strange place and thankfully bump into some very friendly native peoples who welcome the settlers, show them where the fish are and which land is arable and then sit down to a nice meal at harvest time.

In 1621, if you saw an unexpected boat coming, it was probably someone who wanted to steal your stuff. This meal might have happened, but it probably didn’t happen the way it’s taught.

Last year about this time, I wrote a bit about the Thanksgiving origin myth. Really, it’s a gratitude-for-the-harvest holiday, which is something practiced in many traditions.

In 1789, George Washington, early in the first presidency in our nation’s history, declared a day of Thanksgiving for November 26, which happens to be the date the Thanksgiving holiday falls on this year.

It was declared as a day for Americans — a newly minted collective — to thank God for the gift of a new nation. Here is his proclamation, laid down October 3 of that year.

By the President of the United States of America. a Proclamation.
 
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor—and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”
 
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks—for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation—for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war—for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed—for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted—for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
 
and also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions—to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually—to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed—to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord—To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.
 
Given under my hand at the City of New-York the third day of October in the year of our Lord 1789.
 
Go: Washington

Think about your pumpkin pie a little differently this year.

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Banned

Banned

That brief, fairly-well supported (I thought) piece I wrote last week on forming a more perfect union?

Facebook didn’t want it. In fact, Facebook seems to think my blog is simply not OK for their platform. And Instagram (owned by Facebook) seems to not want me at all.

This seems like a win. I mean, yeah, Facebook is a good place to share, since everybody’s there, but I’d really checked out of Facebook for the past six months, and now, other than a couple of groups I’m involved in, I suppose there’s not really a reason to go back.

And I was already finding Instagram sucking up too much time so I’d deleted it from my phone (which made it really hard to post), so I guess that’s no longer a concern.

While I do have something planned in this space next week, you may see a bit of a dropoff. You may not, but I have a couple of other writing projects I’m excited about. Hopefully they’ll see the light of day, but the risk of moving off my own publishing platform is that maybe they won’t. Onward.

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In order to form a more perfect union

In order to form a more perfect union

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

I barely remember writing about our divided nation in the wee hours following the election last week, so we’re going to go there. And we’re not going to touch on (or link to) the Barack Obama speech that has been dubbed “A More Perfect Union.”

It comes, of course, from the preamble to the United States Constitution. It describes the very reason for writing the document that sets up the basis for our laws, and allows for amendments: in order to form a more perfect union. That’s one of the reasons America’s founders decided to establish the Constitution — importantly, it’s the first reason listed.

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union … do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”

It’s why the words we use matter: when we’re gone, we have communicated the words, but not the intent.

A union, by definition, is what you get when you combine two or more things. Unity, on the other hand, is a feeling of harmony or oneness.

We all need a regressive eduction in this topic, I think. Thankfully, the National Endowment for the Humanities offers up a pretty intense curriculum for elementary school students to practice actually forming a more perfect union.

If the genius written into the Constitution is the ability to amend it, understanding that we just can’t predict what the world will be like in the future and we don’t know what we don’t know or what we might have missed (hence the “Bill of Rights” — actually the first 10 amendments, added and ratified because the founders realized they forgot a few things), the genius of its initial creation is the compromise of all the delegates to get it done.

In a two-party system, there’s no requirement to build consensus. Whoever wins gets to make the decisions. It’s why George Washington warned us against political parties. Yes, it’s a faster process when people don’t peacock (if you watched any of the Amy Coney Barrett hearings you know what I mean: 32 hours of speeches and the vote came out exactly as predicted), but maybe when we’re writing the rules and regulations that govern over 350 million people we should spend a lot of time on ironing out the details and not so much time preaching to our respective choirs.

Let’s do better.

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United we stand, untied we fall

United we stand, untied we fall

It’s after 4 a.m. here on the east coast of the United States, the morning after the 2020 election.

Lots of local races and ballot questions were decided, most of them important to somebody. Here in Georgia, we had a ballot question about requiring the government to spend money on the things they’re supposed to spend money on. No, really. When the government collects a fee for, say, tire disposal, and the fee sheet says that $1 from the disposal fee will be used on environmental cleanup, there’s nothing actually requiring the government to use that $1 on environmental cleanup.

Our government is full of loopholes.

As of this moment, the Senate is 47-47, Democrats and Republicans. The House is nearly even, and the presidential race stands undecided with millions of uncounted ballots. Some of those are absentee ballots that will be segregated because they’ll be challenged in court. Some of those are absentee ballots that won’t be challenged in court, but it just got late and the states want fresh eyes to go back to counting.

North Carolina is accepting ballots postmarked before election day until late next week.

When all the ballots are counted — or at least when all the ballots that are going to be counted are counted — there will be about a difference of less than two percent. Joe Biden still has an outside shot at 300 electoral votes, but more than likely the difference in the electoral count will be no more than twenty or so.

Neither of the candidates is likely to be a gracious winner or loser, but they’ll express it very differently.

What this election has taught us, maybe even more than the 2016 election, is that there are no consensus candidates. We are divided. Period.

Let’s find a better way.

I’m just going to leave this here.

ArticlesOfUnity.org

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Vote

Vote

On Jan. 20, 2017, as my wife, our pup and I piled into the van to head up to celebrate my Dad’s birthday with him — at a place without a television, because he didn’t want to have to watch Donald Trump’s inauguration — my wife made a joke. I didn’t respond. I was very uneasy about a Trump presidency, what it meant for Americans, and, importantly for me, what it meant for Jewish Americans, and for American journalists.

I told her I might be uneasy for the next four years.

Donald Trump’s America has not been great for me. Before our collective quarantine, for the first time in my life, weekly services at my house of worship were strictly guarded. Armed police officer at the front door, which would open no more than 30 minutes before services, and 15 minutes after the scheduled start time, the front doors would be locked and the armed officer would move to the side door, where you need to go in.

I’d only ever seen that for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — the Jewish equivalent, from an importance standpoint, of Christmas and Easter for people of Christian, Catholic and adjacent faiths — when a large portion of the community might be at worship at the same time.

Meanwhile, while the world is getting safer for journalists, the U.S. isn’t even among the top 40 nations for press freedoms, despite that freedom being expressly designated in the Constitution. Hundreds of journalists have been attacked, arrested and had equipment damaged this year. Reporters Without Borders blames the Trump administration for this:

Much of that ire has come from President Trump and his associates in the federal government, who have demonstrated the United States is no longer a champion of press freedom at home or abroad. This dangerous anti-press sentiment has trickled down to local governments, institutions and the American public.

People ask, what about the tax break? Our accountant predicted the tax legislation would save us $200. We don’t have a good assessment, though, since we had a child and bought a house the same years the legislation kicked in.

We do know the gutting of the Affordable Care Act cost us a bunch of money; our family went from two people to three, and our health insurance costs tripled while our deductible doubled (which means not only were we spending three times as much for our insurance, we had to pay twice as much out of pocket before insurance started to pick up a significant portion of the bill).

I can unequivocally say that, in the few ways government can affect my everyday life, I’m worse off during Trump’s presidency than I was before it.


Before I sat down to write this post, I went back and read some of the stuff I wrote before and after the 2016 election.

I wrote about the two major party candidates being in the same America of the “Two Americas.” While Joe Biden is certainly not in the same category of wealthy as Donald Trump — and not even in the ballpark with Hillary Clinton, it’s still true that both major party candidates are not in the America that is worried about paying its bills.

I wrote that I was concerned about civility. In our speech, on social media, and, importantly, in our streets, it’s become much worse. It’s clear we still understand nothing about context. I wrote a long post about nuance and facts and culture and a bunch of other stuff we can just toss out the window, since we’re ignoring them, outside of a few communities that actually value conversation.

I made some predictions in the days after the election. Some of them were correct — there’s no border wall of the sort promised and Mexico did not pay for whats there; he still doesn’t seem to enjoy the work; Apple’s not making iPhones in the U.S.

I didn’t see many traditions being broken. Trump didn’t place his assets in a blind trust, and luckily for him, the courts didn’t have the balls to cause a constitutional crisis by letting emoluments lawsuits get very far. He sent federal law enforcement in to bolster local law enforcement agencies, and the “small government” Republicans looked the other way, just as they did as the national debt skyrocketed (also surprising to me, though I didn’t make a prediction on it).


Normally when I post about voting, whether it’s on the blog, Twitter, Instagram, wherever, I tell you I don’t care which candidate you vote for, so long as you vote.

But this time I care.

I asked early for my absentee ballot, and sent it in early.

I’ve been tired of our two-party system for a long time. George Washington warned us of the problems of such a system.

I’m mostly behind what Unity has been up to, and while things got started too late to make much of a difference this election cycle (they asked supporters to vote their consciences instead of the Unity ticket this time around), I hope they keep up their efforts, which include:

• Drafting a center-right and a center-left candidate to run for executive office, flipping the ticket every four years. For example, let’s say in 2024 their members want to see Andrew Yang and Jocko Willink run. They randomize the ticket (let’s say, flip a coin) and, let’s say Yang would be the presidential candidate and Willink the vice presidential candidate. In 2028, the ticket flips, even if they win in 2024.

• Rank-choice voting. Instead of tossing all your vote power in, say, the Trump basket and getting stuck with Biden if Trump loses, you rank order your vote, expressing your second, third, fourth, etc., preference. Maybe you’d really like Trump but would prefer to have the Libertarian Party candidate or the Conservative Party candidate in office ahead of Biden. If you’re in a swing state, you have the opportunity to really make a difference with rank-choice.

• Electronic voting. This isn’t in Unity’s stated goals, but they had only a small tech hiccup on their primary day, which caused them to extend voting by a few hours, with over 8,000 votes coming in across time zones and the rank-choice winners announced the next day. Obviously there are some shortcomings, but if we were to start building systems now for 2022 or 2024, we could go beyond only being able to vote via iPhone or Android. And obviously for those without internet access we’d have to come up with an in-person voting space, like a library.


The last two Democrats to win Georgia were Bill Clinton in 1992, with a big boost from Ross Perot, and Jimmy Carter in 1976, a Georgia native. We’re not exactly a swing state. But I really feel the safety of my family could be on the line with another Trump presidency. If we can’t worship safely and my profession becomes more perilous, it’s increasingly clear that this isn’t the America the founders intended, and it’s time to find a way to fix the system.

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Fake it ’til you make it? Don’t

Fake it ’til you make it? Don’t

One of the things we talk about when dealing with impostor syndrome and in building confidence is faking it until you make it — that is, if you appear to be something you’re not long enough, you might become that thing.

The trick here is to fool yourself, but be careful when trying to fool others.

In the early days of the web, when creating a website was magic, some site builders used to go to client meetings and either inflate their skillset or inflate their team size. They could overcharge, and if they ran into something they couldn’t do, they could always contract out to someone else. This is faking it.

If you build up your skill set while you’re faking it, eventually you’re actually making it.

But if you spend too long trying to trick others into thinking you’re big enough, you risk running into something disastrous, like those “War Dogs” kids.


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about excellence. One of the elements of faking it is a sense of entitlement. But people actually are good at things, and the good stuff rises to the top.

We spoke to Nick Velasquez about mastery a few months ago, and one of the things he pointed out was that we actually enjoy things more when we’re good at them.

Cal Ripken, Jr. tells Michael Gervais that most of the success in his storied Major League Baseball career came about because he was always as prepared as possible.

Gervais’ podcast, by the way, is called Finding Mastery, and, among other things, he’s the mindset coach for the Seattle Seahawks. He tells Steven Kotler that faking it ’til you make it means you’re faking it, and you can’t be truly you or authentic if you’re faking it.

Ripken said in that same interview that he holds himself to a standard. He didn’t miss a game in 16 seasons — no aches, no sickness, no funerals, no nothing. 162 games in a six-month season, every year, for 16 seasons (some of those seasons were strike-shortened, some were 161 games because of a rainout not made up, but he played all the games available). He never pressured his managers (and he played for nine of them in his 21 seasons with the Baltimore Orioles) to play him — if he was the best player at his position that day, put him in; if he wasn’t, slot someone else.

He voluntarily sat out that first game, by the way, and it was the only game he missed that season.


Do you have an honest assessment of your skills? Are you actually doing people a service by continuing on your path, or are you trying to trick them? If it turns out you’re trying to trick them, does that align with your moral code?

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Game B

Game B

In a lot of ways, 2020 has felt like a giant shift in the world. It’s not just our COVID-19 quarantine and masking, during which a a lot of (mostly small) businesses closed, more (often large) businesses declared bankruptcy and suicide rates rose.

Sports schedules changed, with the NBA and NHL taking off months between not-quite-finishing their regular seasons and coming up with a modified ployoff. MLB shortened its season and modified its travel schedule.

Riots and demonstrations took place all over the U.S. for months in many cities in the wake of the killing of George Floyd and later the shooting of Jacob Blake.

California burned. Oregon burned. So did New Mexico. Louisiana flooded (again).

The world learned about a bat with an almost human-sized wingspan.

And about the murder hornet, which invades beehives and cuts the heads off a bunch of bees.

And about mutant ticks that took over Siberia.

A dust storm from the Sahara crossed the Atlantic and affected U.S. skies.

For those who didn’t want to leave their houses, they could just sit on Twitter and battle like unreasonable people fighting wars not worth fighting.


I’ve always known there’s hope, but I’ve never quite been sure where to look. So many “solutions” seem like they’re meant to move individuals or very small groups of people off the grid entirely, rather than create a blueprint for society.

Even what I consider realistic blueprints cover only pieces of what needs to change. I wrote a little while ago about Bret Weinstein’s Articles of Unity, which is a sound enough plan to appeal to the mainstream, though they hit some hiccups when Twitter decided disrupting the status quo was bad.

But then I heard Jim Rutt talk about Game B on Douglas Rushkoff’s Team Human podcast. Rutt describes himself as something like a prepper, not for himself and family, but for a community.

He figures if it comes down to something like a zombie apocalypse, you don’t need a bunch of people hunkering down in their own bunkers with enough food and toilet paper for themselves, you need a community that can farm and build and trade.

But more than that, he figures there’s no reason to wait for an apocalypse. The system we’re living — which he calls “Game A” — isn’t sustainable. Even if you believe consumption rates, fossil fuels, climate change, etc. aren’t existential problems, isolation, tribal behavior, zero-sum lives and the effects of busyness certainly are, whether it comes to chronic individual illness or growth into full-fledged war.

Rutt has a long piece on Medium outlining the path to Game B. It’s a very detailed read, so I won’t try to either summarize it or pull out the dozen or so big points, but note that Rutt considers Game B a “civilization-level operating system,” which will require people to have skills and a bias toward action, and it will require many small groups transitioning from Game A to Game B in parallel, independently of each other, with or without each other’s knowledge.

More: Facebook group | Library (including a glossary of terms) | Wiki


There are, of course, other groups doing Game B work, whether they call it that or not. The Liminal Learning Portal is attempting to bring together many of the writings and much of the content and personalities in one place for easy discovery.

Articles of Unity is working on helping the U.S. exit the two-party system.

Steward Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog was an early aid for the urban permaculture movement and really targeted people who wanted to take responsibility for much of their lives, including growing their own food and building their own homes. He more recently started the Long Now Foundation, a group aiming to make sure we’re still here for thousands of years. If the name doesn’t mean anything to you, consider that their publications mark the date with a five-digit year — currently 02020 — so that the digit jumps in almost 98,000 years instead of only 8,000.

There are lots of local groups — and this seems right on with Rutt’s vision — like Central New York’s Alchemical Nursery, which has a focus on urban farming, but also gives workshops in things like rehabbing homes and that sort of thing.


Personal responsibility is an important takeaway here. While I believe I have the work ethic and community ethos it takes to make it in a Game B world, my skill set is sadly lacking. I take instruction well, which, combined with work ethic, may make me a desirable member of a Game B society, but the bias toward action Rutt values takes a back seat when you’re waiting for people to show you what to do.

I suppose I should develop a better understanding of how things work, and how to actually do things.

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Replication and interpretation

Replication and interpretation

In his manifesto Team Human (serialized on Medium), Douglas Rushkoff discusses, among many other things, musical notation.

Musical notation, he writes, is meant to let other people play an approximation of the written work, not to replicate it.

To hear what he means, listen to these four pros play the same Bach piece.

All four learned from replicated — mass printed — versions of the same written work, but each put his or her own touch on the piece.

Interpretations. Approximations.

Digital platforms, he writes, don’t interpret the written work. They replicate it. There’s actually software that puts human error into the perfect replications. When something’s too perfect, it seems fake to us.

Humans are good at pattern recognition. It’s why we know that a person we’ve never met before is a person, and a dog whose breed we’ve never seen before is a dog.

We’re also very good at figuring out when something’s not quite natural. The too-perfect beat of early drum machines, before they had error built in. Some facial augmentations. Wax fruit.

We’re not here to replicate other peoples’ work. We’re here to interpret, to put our own spin on things, to own what we do. To be perfectly imperfect. To be original.

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Where’s your edge?

Where’s your edge?

If you’re not listening, Brian Koppelman — the creator of Showtime’s “Billions” and writer, among others, of the films Rounders and Ocean’s Thirteen — has an excellent podcast called The Moment. He interviews creators (he has a fondness for musicians but also talks to authors, filmmakers and other) about The Moment they were called to create.

He recently spoke with Suzanne Vega. It’s a great discussion, but a little bit immediately stood out to me. I even remember what segment of road I was running when I heard it.

Early in her recording career, before she had the words to describe the sound she was looking for, she told her producer, “I need more edge.”

Her producer responded, “It’s edgy; don’t you hear it?”

“If I heard it, I wouldn’t have said anything,” she replied.

And Koppelman points out the thing: The songs are so clean, the edge is in the lyrics.

Listening back — I was only 10 when her seminal album Solitude Standing was released — her music shares a direct lineage with Patti Smith and Lou Reed and much of the New York punk scene, and yes, the sounds are clear, but the words bite hard.

Where’s your edge? It doesn’t have to be creative, but what sets you apart?

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