By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

One of our remote, night vision game cameras in our yard captured an interesting level of détente that has been going on for some time between a cat who visits our yard regularly and one of the opossums who lives in our yard.

Opossums are docile, benevolent animals especially in a suburban setting. They are well known for eating disease carrying ticks and their low body temperature means it is almost impossible for them to contract diseases like rabies or other animal-borne pathogens. Opossums help keep communities clean and disease free by eating ticks that can carry lyme disease. Having opossums in your yard means your local ecosystem is safe, clean and disease-free.

We were very excited when we found a small family of three opossums living in our yard, and have done everything we can to support them. We were also concerned that the local domestic and feral cat population, who we also support with four outdoor cat houses, might not interact well with our opossums.

Any concern about the two not getting along has been put to rest by what we’ve seen over the past few months. This video shows one of our opossums and a cat who frequents our houses eating side-by-side and getting along just fine.

The cat in this video is likely a local feral who appeared about eight weeks ago. He visits us several times a day and uses our yard as a hub for his daily patrols. As our regular feral cat, he has struck up a good friendship with our opossums.


Author Tom Demerly writes for publications around the world and really likes animals.

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

At a neighborhood meeting with our Mayor last week there were questions about finding lost pets, zoning ordinances and people having too many lights on the outside of their houses.

And then there was the question of the night, one that has since turned out to be oddly prescient. The president of a large neighborhood association asked the Mayor of Dearborn, “What is the City of Dearborn doing about the coronavirus?”

The room went silent.

Sixty days ago Dearborn’s mayor could not have known the threat that coronavirus has since become. So, back then, for just a moment, the mayor flashed a quarter of a smile across the right side of his face. He glanced down at the table top in front of him, recalibrating his response I suspect, in the way that politicians at every level must offer a substantive response to all inquiries. Then he began, “Our emergency services have been drilling on response practices in preparation for any unlikely… ”

As it turns out, the question about coronavirus from back on February 12, 2020 was a very good one. Coronavirus has since emerged to become a very real public health threat.

However, if you do a Google search on, “Things most likely to kill a person living in America”, you find that heart disease is our most prevalent lethal threat. This is followed by cancers. Not far down the list, the number 8 killer of Americans, is a broad category called “accidents”. Drill down into “accidents” and you learn that using a smartphone while driving is creating a great national cull of our highly mobile, highly connected population. While the most prolific killer of Americans is still not a highly contagious and deadly disease like COVID-19, It has now emerged that the question to our mayor about the disease was remarkably insightful. COVID-19 has grown into a serious threat that is killing Americans at an alarming rate and spreading at an even more alarming rate. This being true, it still isn’t as lethal as cancers, diabetes, obesity and accidents.

But the fact remains that almost seventy days after the meeting where a neighborhood association leader asked what was being done about an obscure Asian disease, that disease is now a very real threat not only from a medical perspective but from an economic and security perspective as well. And both mainstream and contributory media has latched onto that, almost entirely to the exclusion of the other things that are killing us at an even faster rate.

While the COVID-19 crisis has become very real, there are still 1.5 million people hospitalized every year from accidents related to smartphone use. Last year the common flu killed 10,000 Americans. So far, this year the Centers for Disease Control say that, “At least 19 million people in the U.S. have experienced flu illnesses this season”.

But still, coronavirus remains our most conspicuous, if not most prolific and lethal, threat. Why is that?

On June 1, 1980, Ted Turner launched the Cable News Network, or CNN, the first 24-hour news network. In the four decades since then, the way Americans consume news, and what is actually called “news”, has changed more than at any time in history.

Prior to 1980, the U.S. relied on predominantly 3 news networks that broadcast six hours of content each per day. Today there are at least 25 major network news media outlets in the U.S., all broadcasting across multiple outlets 24-hours, around the clock. That is a staggering 2300% increase in the amount of network news media we’re served every 24 hours in only four decades.

But it gets even more interesting. And dangerous.

In less than half the time it took for network news media to completely reinvent itself, only 16 short years ago, Mark Zuckerberg invented “participatory media”. Most people call it social media. When Zuckerberg started what was then called “The Face Book”, he did what most innovators do; he put something out there that would change the world before he invented the rules about how to use it. From edged tools to fire to printed words to nuclear weapons and instant communications, humans invent culture-changing technologies before they figure out the rules for how to best use them. We throw the new, culture-changing technologies out there and worry about figuring out how to best use them later. In the process, there is always calamity.

In the 16 years since Facebook began, the number of outlets with access to your 600 X 800 news screen went from 25 news outlets to… 1.69 billion individual users, each one vying for attention and relevance. Even more than the four-decade, 2300% proliferation of available news every 24 hours, the explosion of 1.69 billion individual broadcasters on Facebook (not to mention other social media outlets, like Twitter’s 330 million) has influenced the way we consume information, and confuse it with what is credible news.

While coronavirus is absolutely a serious health threat, the single deadliest thing about the coronavirus for those fortunate enough to not be infected with it is the media frenzy that surrounds it. Coronavirus is a serious health threat that has grown more serious as the pandemic has spread. But in the five years since it was first identified, and before this most recent outbreak, its impact on public health does still remain smaller than other health risks like cancer and distracted driving. Cancer and distracted driving just haven’t dominated social media and news media for the last seven days.

This revolution in how we consume media, and confuse it with news, is at least a part of the reason why a neighborhood association president in Dearborn, Michigan, 7,273 miles and 13 time zones away from Wuhan, China was asking about coronavirus when the things that will likely kill her go basically ignored- even 60 days into the COVID-19 crisis. And this statistically skewed perception of risk is at least as large a threat to us as the very real COVID-19 pandemic is.


Tom Demerly in the Kremlin, Moscow, Russia with delegates from North Korea.

Tom Demerly reports on Defense and Technology stories from around the world to TheAviationist.com, BusinessInsider.com and numerous other international news outlets. 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

An expedition not unlike our own, Robert Falcon Scott’s failed ordeal in Antarctica in 1912.

 

When I was a kid I had a friend named Raymond Schuckle. He lived at the end of the block, closest to the park, from me.

Winter had come and it was harsh. We were not much older than 11 or 12. Raymond and I shared an interest in model airplanes. Boredom from the long winter had set in, and there was little to do. So, we decided to launch an expedition on foot across four miles of suburban territory to Harb’s Hobby Shop on Monroe Street in Downtown Dearborn.

I had read Maurice Herzog’s book, “Annapurna”, that I bought from Mary Fera’s Dad’s shop, Little Professor Book Store, near Harb’s. The book recounted the first ascent of an 8,000-meter peak in the Himalayas by a group of bold adventurers. To my 11-year-old mind, our expedition across Dearborn to Harb’s Hobby Shop would be exactly like Maurice Herzog’s brutally difficult expedition to climb Annapurna in the Himalayas.

We prepared. I had a crude, blue, nylon anorak and a pair of mittens made of some kind of cheap shearling that came from a flea market. I also had a gray wool balaclava, that I got from K-Mart specifically after reading about them in “Annapurna”. It was $3.97. I had inexpensive vinyl “moon boots” insulated with foam. We wore blue jeans, T-shirts and sweaters as our technical base layers. I was careful to wear two pairs of sweat socks. Raymond Shuckle, my lieutenant, was better equipped. He wore an impressive snorkel jacket and snowmobile boots with special felt liners. He also had covertly reapportioned a pair of genuine skiing gloves from his older brother. He wore a bright red knit stocking cap, useful for signaling in the event we would need rescue.

We had plotted our navigation and ranging based on car trips we had made over previous months and years in the region. We knew the route, up Cherry Hill, then to Outer Drive, and eventually a long slog along Michigan Avenue to Monroe over piles of frozen, plowed snow. These massive ice and snow formations were our version of Herzog’s crevasses and sastrugi on Annapurna. There was a secondary route we could take through Ford Field, but that meant a dangerous descent of the icy sled hill and grueling climb up the steep gradient of Monroe Street toward Michigan Ave. This, however, was the most direct route, although it was significantly more rigorous and involved greater risk.

After sunset, we set out.

Our first obstacle was crossing the open, wind-blown snow field of Levagood Park. This could have become an immediate disaster, as blowing snow limited our visibility. Luckily, being only a block from our houses, we were familiar with the terrain and able to effectively navigate to our first landmark, Sea Shore Pool. It was bitingly cold and the snow was deep, perhaps six inches, with a hard-frozen crust on top. After our successful trial-by-fire crossing of the Levagood ice fields, we pressed on.

Crossing Telegraph Road was a risk. Passing cars threw torrents of salty slush on us as we waited for our chance to dart across the lethal passage. It was our analogy of crossing deadly crevasses. We continued undaunted by the risks and managed to cross as a pair, making it to the other side. This is where we entered untraveled territory. In no uncertain terms, Telegraph Road marked the outer boundary of our neighborhood, and the entrance to the hinterlands.

We charted a course through side streets, abandoning the sidewalks as they were largely impassable and, instead, took to the streets themselves. This meant increased risk, but we were willing to accept it in exchange for greater speed. At one point, we came across a group of kids we had never seen before, dressed similarly to us in moon boots and snorkel jackets, but older. They were a rough looking bunch, standing at the edges of the street. Their plot was to wait until a car slip-slid down the street, then run behind it with the hope of grabbing the bumper. This would give them a wild, careening ride, sliding on the soles of their boots, until the speed became too great or the distance too far, at which point they would let go and tumble to a stop. We stopped to watch them for a while but judged that this unknown group of older indigenous kids could become dangerous at any moment and engage us with tightly packed ice-balls. We pressed on.

47 years later, I return to the scene of the Levagood ice field crossing from the original 1973 expedition.

Schuckle, for his part, was an excellent lieutenant. He seemed largely non-plussed by the ordeal, pressing on with neither complaint nor rancor. That is, until I looked at his face, drawn in discomfort and the agony from the biting wind. Although he said nothing, he was clearly near his limit.

We had made it to the open expanse next to the Dearborn High School athletic field. This was the gateway to the Rouge River basin. There were rescue facilities there in the form of a fire station where we could, presumably, surrender to the elements, declare our mission a failure, and turn ourselves in to the firemen at the station for what would be a humiliating defeat at the hands of mother nature and human endurance. They would offer rescue but at the cost of humiliating repatriation to our parents. Whatever sanctions accompanied that were too horrible to imagine.

So, we pressed on.

Despite our condition, we were resolved to our fate under our own destiny. Ice spicules blew from east to west, assailing our bare skin around our eyes like frozen wind-borne razors. Our endurance was waning. We had both spent the day at school and would have to return tomorrow, so it was necessary to manage our physical resources. Exhaustion from our adventure, no matter how bold and heroic, would not grant clemency from a day of school.

It was at this point, in the open ice fields just north of the fire station along Outer Drive, that I took matters into my own hands and regretfully signaled retreat. I remember, to this day, the exact moment I admitted defeat. This capitulation was at least better than surrendering to the firemen for rescue, as we could return home- if we survived- covertly manage our maladies from the ordeal, and equip ourselves for another attempt as conditions improved.

I don’t remember much from the trip back. Humiliation, the harsh elements and fatigue must have blocked my recollection as with any trauma.

I do remember getting home. My boots and socks were heavy and soaked. My rag-wool balaclava had likely meant the difference between survival and oblivion, as it was encrusted with ice around the breathing hole and covered in snow. My mittens were sodden, and my hands bright blue from cold, the skin wrinkled from immersion in the damp mitts. I stripped from my jeans and T-shirt in the bathroom, and ran a steaming bath. I remember that bath. I remember it well. Plucked from the arctic hell-storm and immersed in opulent, hot water in the safe haven of my house was such a bizarrely polarized juxtaposition of fate that I could hardly wrap my young mind around it. We had survived, our dramatic failure remained undiscovered, and we had gathered valuable information to try again. Despite our failure, there was a meager inventory of success from the ordeal. It was on this I chose to focus as I made plans to check the weather forecast and begin preparations for another attempt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Another report, another finding that NASA, NOAA and the UK Met Office have confirmed that global temperatures have been rising, continue to rise, and have resulted in a host of all-time meteorological records. The reports were published this week, and they tell us what we already know. We’re in deep trouble.

But we still deny the human impact and ability to control climate change. Why is that?

Perhaps the biggest problem with climate change is its “marketing”. It’s an idea that people are inherently resistant to. A second problem is culturally rigid thinking. And a third problem is a societal and individual resistance to new thinking.

Firstly, the crisis, which is absolutely real, absolutely man-made and absolutely controllable (but not reversible) has been poorly “marketed” or talked about.

In the social media age, image is everything, and climate change has fallen victim to some rotten media marketing. Its advocates tend to be labelled as weirdoes or academics who are prone to jargonish science-speak. Climate change also smacks of left-leaning politics. That’s a shame, because if ever there was a great cause for right-leaning robber-barons to embrace, it’s manmade climate change. There is the opportunity to recalibrate our global economy and earn trillions in profits from climate change, and that’s good. I think Elon Musk, as eccentric as he is, sees some of this. Bill Gates sees it too. I think Warren Buffett is watching it and waiting for a way to earn big profits from the marketing of climate change and its solutions.

But climate change suffers from bad marketing. Climate change started out as “global warming”, was re-branded “climate change” since that term is more literal. But this phenomenon should really be called, “Man-made, accelerated climate change”. But that doesn’t fit well in twenty-word social media posts, and people are too busy to learn anything that challenges what they already know and is longer than a Tweet or a Facebook post.

We already know that the climate is always changing. That’s normal. Even the magnetic poles migrate and change. Also, normal. What is not normal, or sustainable, is the rate of current climate change acceleration that is a direct result of mankind’s influence on the earth through overpopulation, overconsumption and pollution. Some climate change is normal, natural and unchangeable- desirable even. Our global ecosystem is built to adapt to it. Species become extinct partially from failure to adapt and partially from environmental change, and species also evolve over time to adapt to gradual change. The key word is “gradual”. What we’re seeing now is not gradual. It’s catastrophic.

The climate change I’ve seen myself, around the world in my lifetime, isn’t gradual. It is unbelievably accelerated. Glaciers I climbed on in 1999, that took thousands, or millions, of years to create, have now disappeared. In my lifetime. Animal populations I visited have been cut by 90%. Species I saw in person in my 30’s are now extinct.

Today, when I see sharks within ten miles of a populated coastline, the sharks are smaller, usually have scars from boat propellers indicating they have been feeding off scraps and trash from boats and ships, and their behavior is different. They are listless and docile. Go a few hundred miles off a coastline, drop down, wait for some sharks to come along and you see completely different animals. Larger, no scars or hooks in them, perfect fins and different behavior. They behave like alpha predators. The coastal sharks, even of the same species, behave like stray dogs waiting for the garbage to be thrown out. That is what a species looks like as it tries to adapt to a single generation of accelerated climate change, and when it enters serious decline.

When I was in Antarctica in 1999, I saw thousands of whales. This summer in the Azores, in the middle of the Atlantic in 5,000 feet of water, I saw about fifteen whales over three days, and those whales we had to look for most of the day. Whales migrate past the Azores toward Antarctica. What I saw was worrisome.

There is a strange calculus to climate change denial. Let’s say the chances that every climate change scientist is 80% wrong in their findings. That’s unlikely, but let’s assume that for the sake of discussion. That means they are also 20% right. A 20% chance that catastrophic climate change could manifest itself in our lifetimes. You pick the numbers you like; 90% chance climate change is false? 99% chance? There remains that lingering chance that it is right, and no human can afford that chance at any percentage.

America maintains a massive arsenal to defend ourselves against nuclear war, mostly from the former Soviet Union, a country that doesn’t exist anymore. Yet we continue to maintain that enormous resource for an enemy that hasn’t existed since the Soviet Union collapsed in December, 1991, almost three decades ago. Today, according to the worst statistical analysis of the probability of nuclear war, there is, on the high side, about a 2% chance of a nuclear war ever starting. The chances of one starting in our lifetime, according to a 2015 expert survey in strategic probability, is 0.24%. That’s less than a quarter of a percent. The chances that climate change will alter our lives in our lifetime is much higher, yet we maintain no strategic deterrent force against climate change, despite the fact that it is a strategic global threat.

We are destroying this planet and accelerating climate change at unsustainable and catastrophic levels. We may survive the changes, but our lives will be less convenient, less healthy and less enjoyable. The lives of our children, even worse. And the lives of their children completely unrecognizable to us. If we continue to deny what science is telling us we may hold on to our lives, but they won’t be worth living.


Author Tom Demerly has traveled the world since 1980 including some of the most remote areas in Antarctica, Vietnam, Africa, the Middle East and South America.

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

Let’s talk strategy. Real strategy. Erwin Rommel, Sun Tzu, Ho Chi Minh, Robin Olds, James Mattis style strategy. True strategy. The subversive, sneaky, calculating, genius kind. The kind you don’t learn in your fourth year at West Point or Annapolis. This is the kind you learn in the Mekong Delta, Fallujah, Mogadishu, El Alamein, Stalingrad.

If we (collectively) are the President, what do we want? One word: Reelection. So, how do we get it? This is on page one: we need a diversion.

We need to divert the attention of our primary adversaries, in this case the Democrats, from the Presidential reelection campaign. How do we do it? We need a scandal. A good one too. And it needs to be timed to perfection. Timed so well that the accelerating rotation of the news cycle grabs this scandal, “investigates” it, reports on it, grinds it into the news everywhere we look.

The scandal is the feint, the false front. This is the “breakthrough” we want all the Democrats to pour their troops into. There is risk, as with all warfare, because this scandal could very well manifest into a real problem for the President. But risk is inherent in battle, and to prevail, we must endure risk.

So, we continue this ruse. Buy into it. Feed it. Perpetuate it. A scandal! A scandal! And it goes around and around and around.

Meanwhile, the clock ticks inexorably toward election day, now 396 days away. Recent history and hard data tells us this scandal will occupy headlines for… 7 days. Secretive think tank analyst Nieman Labs (I know, you haven’t heard of them) says that recurrent news topics like the current Ukraine scandal may have a reciprocating effect that could recycle up to… 42 days maximum. That leaves us 354 days from the election.

This dramatic feint also leaves the Democratic opposition drained of resources and credibility for failing to consolidate their impeachment plans. Almost exactly 1 year to the day before Americans go to the polls, the Democratic opposition has been drained of vigor and fight and credibility by yet another presidential scandal that was somehow diffused. The Democrats have egg on their face, the President has a smirk on his. Again.

And the Democrats remain divided and contentious at a time when they need to be united and focused on the next Presidency. Instead of talking about the policy opportunities they could promote and exploit in this next election, like the environment and equal rights, they are scope-locked on their own differences and on the many foibles of the current administration.

The Democrats are so busy pointing out what is wrong with the current administration they forget to build a better one to replace it.

And so, they lose.

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com.

Three participants died in the swim leg of two different triathlons within seven days in Wisconsin this June. It’s an ominous start to the 2019 Midwest triathlon race season, raising questions about athlete safety, fitness and medical screening prior to participation in long distance triathlons such as Ironman and even shorter distance beginner events, where one of this month’s swim fatalities occurred.

Todd Mahoney, 38, and Michael McCulloch, 61, died during the 1.2-mile open water swim of the Ironman 70.3 Wisconsin, Madison triathlon on Sunday, June 9. The race is commonly referred to as a “half-Ironman” for its total distance of 70.3 miles. The event is half the total distance of a “full-Ironman” or 140.6-mile combined swim/bike/run distance event. The week before on Sunday, June 2, 59-year old Scott Beatse died in the Lake Mills Triathlon, also in Wisconsin. The Lake Mills Triathlon was a short-distance triathlon with a 400-meter (1/4 mile) swim, 16-mile bike and 3.1 mile run. The specific cause of death for each participant has not been released.

A September, 2017 report on triathlon swim deaths published in Reuters Health News by journalist Lisa Rapaport revealed that, “A study of more than 9 million participants over three decades found that deaths and cardiac arrests struck 1.74 out of every 100,000 competitors.”

While Rapaport’s story makes the chances of dying in a triathlon swim seem low, the 30-year duration of the study and the method of data collection may miss some key changes in current triathlon demographics. During the last decade, triathlon events have “filled from the bottom” with most participants coming from the beginner demographic. Beginner participants may- or may not– have adequate fitness or pre-existing medical conditions that go undetected until they experience the physical and mental stress of triathlon participation.

The question of whether athletes should be required to have mandatory pre-race medical screenings has been an unpopular one in U.S. triathlon events. In general, race organizers and participants are opposed to the idea of mandatory medical screenings prior to participation. But in endurance events outside the U.S. like the 156-mile Marathon des Sables, an ultra-distance running stage race in the Sahara Desert, all citizen-participants are required to have a cardiac EKG and basic medical health check certified by a medical doctor in their home country prior to entry. In the professional Tour de France bicycle race, cyclists receive a comprehensive medical exam prior to participation not only to screen for performance enhancing drugs, but also to detect any pre-existing conditions that may pose a health risk during the race. In the long distance Raid Gauloises adventure race, pre-race medical checks were also required.

There are reasons to question the effectiveness of pre-event medical screening in reducing fatalities among recreational participants. Basic pre-race medical exams such as an electro-cardiogram, blood pressure measurement and medical history may not reveal common athlete killers such as a “Patent Foramen Ovale” or PFO. The PFO, a cardiac defect, is present in “about 25 percent in the general population” according to the American Heart Association. A PFO can result in a cryptogenic stroke, which can be fatal, especially if suffered during an open water swim where even a mild PFO-induced stroke can lead to disorientation that may contribute to drowning.

PFOs are difficult to detect in a routine medical examination. They commonly require a color flow Doppler echocardiogram or transthoracic echocardiographic (TTE) imaging test to detect. These tests are not routine in general medical examinations and usually only administered after a patient has suffered a stroke as a diagnostic tool to discover the cause of the stroke. PFOs can be treated with a small cardiac implant to prevent their return.

Other factors that could contribute to athlete mortality and medical risk include participating in triathlons while being overweight. As special categories for participants categorized by weight have been introduced in triathlons, called “Clydesdale” and “Athena” categories, there may be more overweight participants in triathlons. While there appear to be no published metrics on risk factors for overweight participants compared to non-overweight participants in triathlons, overwhelming exercise research verifies that being overweight is a general health risk. It’s unlikely, however, that any endurance event would begin excluding participants based on health-based risk factors such as weight or family medical history.

Similar, documented risk factors exist for older athletes. As the general demographic of triathlon participations is likely growing older, common age-related health risks are increasing in the general triathlon population. Although participating in triathlons at older ages presents additional risk commonly associated with general aging, older participants are often celebrated as exceptional in triathlon. In fact, regular, moderate aerobic exercise- although usually less strenuous than triathlon distances and not in a competitive setting- have been commonly cited as beneficial to reducing age-induced health risks, especially obesity, in many credible medical findings. While risks for aging endurance athletes remain and even increase, the benefits may be worth it when spread across the broader population if participation is approached with moderation and medical monitoring.

Ultimately it is difficult to make a case for any one set of common medical diagnosis to predict athlete risk factors in triathlons except for obesity and aging. It is common knowledge that overweight athletes are at greater risk than non-overweight athletes. Those risk factors themselves are part of the reasons overweight people begin to exercise- to moderate the health risks of obesity by losing weight through exercise and diet. It’s also common knowledge that older people have more health risks than younger people. It doesn’t require a medical screening to reveal any of those realities.

Perhaps the greater question is why participants who know they have risk factors would participate in triathlons when a more moderate approach to managing risk factors such as weight loss may be safer? This is especially true for long-distance triathlons. Using less strenuous exercise as managed by a health care provider over time to moderate risk factors such as obesity before participating in triathlons makes sense. This approach addresses the risks faced by participants with conspicuous pre-existing exercise risks like age and being overweight. It does nothing to predict the mortality of participants with difficult to detect medical problems like PFOs. Unfortunately, as the triathlon community has learned so far in 2019, these may be undetectable killers.


 

Author Tom Demerly has competed in well over a hundred triathlons including the Ironman Triathlon World Championship in Kona, Hawaii and five other Ironman triathlons around the world. He is a four-time state cycling champion and has participated in endurance events on all seven continents including the Marathon des Sables, the Eco-Challenge and the Raid Gauloises. He has also climbed the highest mountains on three continents and the highest mountain in the western hemisphere. Demerly is a stroke survivor who suffered a stroke while running in October, 2006 from a Patent Foramen Ovale. He had heart surgery to correct a cardiac birth defect that caused the stroke. He was also a member of an elite Army National Guard Long Range Surveillance Unit (LRSU), Co. “F”, 425th INF. (AIRBORNE), Michigan National Guard.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Tom Demerly for tomdemerly.com

 

We spend almost no time doing nothing. Our lives are perpetually filled to the breaking point with people, priorities and projects. Because of globe-shrinking, distance erasing connectivity, instant communication and universal integration, the barriers that used to exist between leisure and work are gone.  We are constantly engaged in some way. A state of circular and perpetual multi-tasking and never-ending partial distraction.

It’s difficult to say for certain if these societal and cultural changes have made us more productive. They may have. But from an innate need for emotional and mental survival there has certainly been an odd “creep” of snack-sized idleness into our longer and longer work days. We may say we “worked 12 hours”, but what we really did was spend 12 hours in our work place, with probably 70-90% of it productive (if we’re exceptionally good) and the remainder doing some compromised loafing for the purpose of trying to build some mental space between solace and servitude.

We don’t have to read far into philosophy to see a historical reverence for doing nothing, and the remarkable possibilities it presents. Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, author of the Tao de Ching, permeated his text with the infinite value of empty space. Lao Tzu observes that it is not the walls of a bowl that make it useful, but the empty space inside. He talks about the hollow space at the center of a wheel, around which all things rotate. Lao Tzu also explores the abundance that flows through an empty mind, and that when the mind is truly open, the entire universe is free to flow through it. That idea is both intoxicating, and terrifying. It offers boundless possibility, but at the cost of our deepest held beliefs. And therein lies our terror at being idle; we actually have to deal with ourselves in honesty.

Part of the reason we try to avoid the vastness of doing nothing is because, in this space we are forced to examine ourselves. In a world of decreasing depth and increasing materialism rife with conspicuous experience, this deeply intrinsic self-inventory can be frightening. What the hell are we actually doing? Why? What is it for and what is the end game? That is heavy stuff, best put off until our final days when we may be forced to confront it in discomfort, fear and declining health.

If you’ve ever seen the process of an old person dying of natural causes in America, it is a deeply, but secretly, ritualized event. The person gets bad news and performs some mental processing. They realize they are on a short, one-way timeline to the end of their lives. They conduct a hasty inventory of their life, attempting to extract some meaning from it that transcends the duration of time they were actually here. About the time they fail to achieve that meaning- when they reach the horrible realization that most of their pursuits have been hollow time-wasters calibrated to benefit a common economy, it becomes too painful to bear and the drugs come out. We quietly put that person out of their misery, and ours. We remove them from the terrifying example that will also be our experience when our time comes. But don’t worry, there are plenty of drugs to go around, and they are administered freely at our moment of final reckoning, so we don’t have deal with the fact that we wasted a huge portion of our lives in the pursuit of things and hollow status.

While this is a dreadfully dreary narrative, its reciprocal offers boundless hope. Our world is equally as vast as it has ever been, and now we experience it in greater depth and at faster speed than any time in human history. We are trying to drink life from a fire hose at full flow. While the high-pressure cascade of water can rip our lips off, if we just build some distance from it, the spray alone will keep our minds and spirits hydrated with an abundance previously unimagined. In these occasional and precious empty spaces of doing nothing, all things flow inward. Ideas, inspirations, peace, priorities, even pain- to be processed and purged in the healing process that is our perpetual psyche- flows through our mind. We get a chance to finally inhale fully and deeply, and deliver the big exhale. Therein lies the precious value of doing absolutely nothing.