Friday, November 17, 2017

Joe Omundson

My pain, my healing process

I sit down under the rock arch at the end of my hike and remove my shoes, placing them near my groin, under my ankles as padding while I sit on the downward sloping slickrock. The lowering sun shines on me and counteracts the cool air. Starting a 31 minute timer, adjusting my seat, I do my best to clear my head and settle in to my meditation practice. 

I begin by focusing all attention on my breath, trying my best to notice any encroaching thoughts and drop them. It has been a busy-minded day and this effort is not very successful. I move on to scanning my body (Vipassana), beginning at the top of my head, bringing my awareness to any sensations that are present; spreading this awareness down the sides and back of my scalp, down my forehead, the edge of my hairline, through my eyes and nose and mouth and cheeks and jaw and chin and down my neck.

The technique says not to react to any sensations, but rather to accept them impartially, equanimously. My only job is to sit still and scan my awareness through all parts of my body and notice what I find. But today I simply cannot resist the urge to squirm when I experience the constricting tension in my neck, shoulders, and upper torso. It is easier for me to explore the tightness by moving, playing, stretching, somehow addressing the problem rather than sitting still and experiencing it. I want to stretch it out until it's gone, once and for all. 

I know that this is counterproductive to the method I am using. There is a time and place for that kind of exploration in yoga and dance but it doesn't mesh well with Vipassana. My most helpful meditation sessions are the ones where I truly stop caring about whether my sensations are pleasant or not, and allow them to arise as they are. It is in these times I see myself for how I am, when I connect different aspects of my experience and accept my current state.

After a couple minutes of side bends, neck circles, heart openers, I try to remember where I left off and continue my scan down my body. Down the front and back hemispheres of my torso and through my pelvis. My legs are hard to sense in detail. There is a contraction of hips and thighs I believe I need to maintain in order to remain sitting upright; it feels as though I will fall backward if I release it, but this is not the case if I can also release the tension in my low back to allow my spine to float to vertical. My calves threaten to cramp into charlie horse if I notice and release them fully, so I move through that area quickly to avoid the pain.

My upper torso is still crying out to me and my attention jumps back up there. I stretch my arms out to my side as wide as they will go, while also trying to release my shoulders downward and shine my chest forward, like Christ on the cross. As I do this, pain and tingling shoots down my left bicep area from shoulder to elbow. The muscles, ligaments, fascia, something in this area is so accustomed to being drawn in to protect my heart that it literally doesn't know how to relax for a second. The tension tugs at my attached body parts, I feel it in my neck, my shoulderblade, my chest.

I try to return my attention to my feet, to where I'd stopped the methodical scan of my body, but ultimately I surrender to the screaming tension surrounding my heart. It is nothing new for me. It has been there for years, decades, but damn I am getting so tired of being captive to this restriction. I try to remain impartial to the pain as I attempt to release as much as I can. Maybe the pain isn't there to protect me, maybe I'm not at risk of self injury if I allow it to become excruciating, maybe I have to pass through that to let myself release.

Though I surrender to the agony I can not release.

Suddenly, the experience becomes emotional. "Why am I still so trapped by this? Why do I carry this pain? What have I done to deserve it? When will I ever be free from this? How can I get past it?" I am nearly in tears and I feel a deep sadness for myself, for the child who still lives in me who has known this pain for so long. I know that not everyone carries this burden. I see the freedom in the posture of some of the more well-adjusted souls around me. They do not have the weight of the world on their backs. Their hearts are not so fragile as to need protection from their shoulders. Their chests are proud in full acceptance of their place in the world, their value and goodness. They are strong in themselves and they have something to offer. Why can't I be like that too?

My timer ends, and I quietly put my shoes on and begin to walk the sandy trails and paint-marked slickrock back to my van.  I've left behind some of my anxiety and restlessness at the arch but take with me a new sadness and compassion for myself.

I understand some of why I carry this pain. Multiple people who deal with body therapy have noticed the same constriction in my ribcage in the heart area and pointed it out to me. I've worked with it over the years, I've reflected on why it's there and what it means for me.

A major part of it is my birth with a congenital heart defect, and the corresponding open heart surgery at age 15. My chest cavity was opened — of course this affected my body and as I healed I could never return to exactly the way I was before. I had a sense of needing to protect my wound which became ingrained in my consciousness and in my body's patterns of holding. To this day I am sensitive to being contacted where my scar is, and if it is tapped or impacted with any force (even by myself) I feel an immediate fear and pain. My mind may have been anesthetized to oblivion while the buzzsaw bisected my sternum and while my ribs were pried apart, but I wonder how much of that experience my body still remembers vividly.

But it's more than the physical trauma of my heart organ. It's an emotional thing; it's my question of self worth, my wavering sense of deservingness. It's the first two decades of my life that I spent listening to people who told me that I was inherently sinful, that I was wicked and needed saving, that all humans were this way. That my only hope of worthiness was through the replacement of my own identity with that of Jesus Christ. That nothing I could do on my own would ever be good enough without this phantom figment of a God doing it through me. It's been almost a decade since I rejected this soul crushing, abusive philosophy, but still the effects of it hide themselves away deep within me.

It's more than that, too. Because of certain dynamics in the ways I was raised, I learned to view myself and my achievements through the lens of someone else's opinions, I learned to make someone else happy regardless of how it affects my own health, goals, and individuality. I grew up thinking I must learn to match a certain worldview and style of interaction which was contrary to my own nature. I was shown that I should despise, or at least ignore, my own body and treat physical contact and sexuality with disdain. I have far more memories of intimate embraces shared with my pillow than anyone in my family. I was terrified of being seen for who I really was, though I also craved that deeply.

I'm one of the lucky ones. My parents had me on purpose and I grew up relatively secure. No one ever bullied me at school. I was never molested. I had the privilege of being male, white, financially secure, and healthy other than my heart problem. I've never really been discriminated against because of any demographic which I have not chosen. My parents taught me a lot of functional and healthy habits. I've had a good education, I have a useful degree. I don't live in fear.

Since entering adulthood I've been able to dissect a lot of the things in my past that have hurt me and I've pushed hard in the direction of healing, growth, peace, self acceptance, and understanding. I've been privileged to encounter some amazing life experiences that many people will never have the chance to know. I have even found meaning in my trauma. I've turned my ongoing heart complications into a motivation and a learning experience, I've turned my distasteful experience with religion into a way to help and love other people who have been through the same thing.

And yet, I can tell you that life feels shitty sometimes. This emotional and physical pain surrounding my heart is very tangible. It still affects me. Everyone goes through something like this whether they know it or not; for many people the pain makes their life pure misery. Many people don't know where it's coming from. Many people think it's an inevitable part of life and they conclude that death would be better. When pain is someone's whole reality I can't say they're wrong.

But I believe healing is possible for myself. I know that trauma can be worked through, I have made progress in the past, and I will continue to grow in the future. My experience under the arch that day broke me down into sadness but it also lit a fire in my heart to take better care of myself.

As I walked down to my van and drove back to town I knew that I could not hide from my pain any longer, I could not continue to numb it or cover it up.

The first step of healing from trauma is simply to know that it exists. I realized this day that I need to validate the impact of my trauma and not dismiss it. I must bring it into the light and expose it publicly.

The second step is to begin making visits into the experience of that trauma from a place of security where the pain will not be too overwhelming; slowly, carefully, briefly at first. To climb down into that murky well and scoop some of the mud from the bottom while not going so deep that you get stuck.

I decided that the best way for me to do this would be to focus intensively on yoga for a time, while also improving my diet and sleep habits. Yoga takes my body to places that I would not otherwise know. It breaks up the stagnation. It provides a safe place to test my pain, to calmly explore the topography of my limitations and break new ground as I'm ready, intentionally and in a safe place. It lets me practice strong, functional new patterns of openness rather than settling into the habit of recoiling from what is uncomfortable.

I used some of my tip money to buy a month-long unlimited yoga pass and started going to classes every day. It's been 11 days. Every single class has had at least a few poses or themes that relate to the opening of my wounds and I've been grateful for the chance to embrace that painful place. I can feel changes starting to unwind inside me already, more sensitivity in the painful area, more discrete control of movable parts, greater range of motion. More ability to let go of the tension while also allowing strength to flow through. More ability to expand my chest and fill it with breath. Less need to draw my shoulders forward and hunch my neck before I do anything else.

And as tends to be the case, emotional healing happens simultaneously with physical healing. I'm already feeling more confident and more solid as a person. I feel like my days are more full, like I'm doing better at spending my time on fulfilling things and not getting stuck in self-doubt and misery. I've had more energy for helping people and for community projects I care about. I feel less intimidated by the idea of other people seeing my good and attractive qualities for what they are. I've actually looked at my reflection and caught myself unironically thinking "damn I am sexy today". I'm laughing and smiling more and overall feeling better.

The third step of healing from trauma is to get so familiar with that trauma that it loses its power. There's a desensitization, an extinction of the trigger that turns the pain into suffering. It becomes a place you can go like any other place, nothing special, nothing to fear. It's an integration into your whole self of that hurt which you have kept isolated. You accept it as part of your shape and the pain fades away. I'm working toward this step now. There are places inside me that I am restricted from experiencing without pain and suffering, but I'm teasing them out. I may be here for a long time. 

The fourth step is to embrace the ways that this trauma has made you unique. What did the pain and the healing process teach you? Can you see others going through the same thing, can you help them along? What power does this empathy give you? Maybe someday, my recovery from self-doubt and the pain that came from struggling to embrace my own goodness will actually become my strength, like a broken bone that heals to become stronger than it was before. Maybe someday I'll know exactly what it is I have to offer and exactly how I can implement that. Maybe someday I'll know how to teach others to become strong in their own worth.

In one aspect or another, I am in all stages of healing at all times. As Moshe Feldenkrais said, "our goal is to make the impossible possible, the possible easy, and the easy elegant." Different hurts are in different stages along that process. Eventually we can learn to do impossible things elegantly. Our greatest weaknesses can become our greatest strengths.

Today I know that I am alive. I am learning to love the whole process of growth including the pain and confusion along with the triumphs. Life changes. That's fascinating. We get to watch it, to experience it. We just need to be open to experimentation, willing to learn, patient with what's hard, and hold on to the truths we have struggled so hard to find.

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Saturday, November 11, 2017

Joe Omundson stories of changing beliefs

I'm happy to announce the start of a new project that I've had in mind for some time. is a platform for people to share stories about leaving behind their previous belief systems. The focus is on ex-Christians who have adopted a relatively atheistic worldview like myself, since that is what I know best, but I accept stories from any religion of origin and any resulting belief system.

My goal with this is threefold:

1) To encourage people who have left their faith to go through the therapeutic process of writing the story down and sharing it publicly,

2) To help those who have deconverted to know that they are not alone and provide them with community resources and connections to other ex-believers,

3) To create a collection of stories for those who are interested in the experiences of former believers, the process of deconverting, or who may be questioning their own faith and want to know if other people have asked the same questions and where it led them.

I want people to know that change is possible, and though it might be scary and traumatic at first, it can be worked through and the results can be wonderful.

Those are the altruistic reasons I wanted to create this site. Selfishly, I figure that this is a topic that has quite a large base of people who are personally involved, and as society becomes less religious that group will only be growing, so there's potential for the project to receive sustained interest and growth and exposure. Since I don't have to write the content myself, but rather curate the space and collect stories, it's not as labor-intensive on my part, which should also contribute to the sustainability of the project.

Head on over to read some stories, or if this is a process that you have been through yourself, I would love it if you wrote an essay about your experience and submitted it for publication -- just check out the contact page for instructions. :) Thank you!
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Friday, November 3, 2017

Joe Omundson

An experiment with estrogen

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to explore something fascinating. The story begins on Tinder: I matched with someone and we met up for coffee after exchanging a few messages. We talked about a variety of things that day, including her transition from male to female, and I mentioned that I'd always felt I had a feminine side but hadn't explored it very much.

Her response to my statement took me by surprise: "Do you want to try some of my hormone replacement pills?" I had never considered trying such a thing. She told me you can take them for a few days and notice psychological changes without any of the permanent physical changes that might begin after taking the pills for 2+ weeks. I had never known that was possible! I was intrigued but wanted to think about it more before deciding.

The next day -- I didn't have to think long -- I messaged her and said I wanted to take her up on the offer. I was simply way too curious to say no. I'd never heard of anyone doing this as a trial experiment, and now that I knew it was possible, I wondered why more people didn't try it. Nearly all of my friends have taken psychedelic substances that temporarily alter their perception of reality in order to gain insight and new perspectives. Why not try altering my hormones for a few days and see what I can learn from that? Hormones are such a basic influence on our minds and bodies, and changing their levels for a while is safer than taking drugs. These hormones already exist naturally in our bodies. This seemed like a good way to gain an understanding of some of the differences between the male/female experience and what hormone swings feel like.

My four-day experiment required me to take pills in the morning and evening. The first two days, I only took a testosterone blocker, and the last two days I continued the testosterone blocker and also took estrogen. This was done so that I could differentiate between the lack of testosterone and the addition of estrogen.

It's hard to say with certainty how much of my experience was placebo and how much was truly the effect of the hormones. It's quite possible that my preconceived ideas about gender stereotypes and the differences between women and men had a large influence on how I expected to feel, and therefore on how I felt. The experience might be different for someone else. I will simply report what I experienced; it's up to the reader to question which parts of my experience might have been placebo, because your guess is as good as mine.

The first thing I noticed from the testosterone blocker (spironolactone) was its diuretic effect. I had to pee a lot. It also lowers blood pressure, and I remember feeling unusually lightheaded one time and needed to drink some water. Mentally, I felt like I was in a slight brain fog, like my usual clarity and focus had become a bit muddy. Normally when I feel that way it's accompanied with (or caused by?) some anxiety or frustration about the way I feel, but that was absent now. I was a little bit unfocused but I also felt peaceful about that fact. It seemed as though the calculating, dominating, urgent male ego was diminished somewhat. Some of the brain fog could also have been explained by the difficulty I had falling asleep the first night.

Next I introduced the estrogen pills (estradiol). During this phase of the experiment, I seemed to have a more immediate, more vibrant experience of my emotions. I often feel relatively calm and peaceful, but now that emotional state was like a physical sensation that was coursing through my body. Normally in my interpersonal interactions I can remain patient and understanding, but it takes some energy; it's an effort I have to expend to stay in that place. Now, my patience was more natural, and there was an easy peace while waiting for something or listening to someone talk. It seemed like I had more curiosity and empathy. My libido was cut in half but overall I felt sexy. I noticed a different kind of softness looking back from the mirror one time and was fascinated by that.

I unexpectedly had the opportunity to smoke some cannabis the last night of the experiment, and I did so, and then I drove up into the mountains to camp. Where I would normally not even consider the idea of using my campstove outside on a cold night, this time it seemed like no big deal to bundle up, tediously unpack everything I'd need, and chop up and cook my vegetables and rice to create a nice meal for myself. The combination of THC and estrogen felt very warm and self-accepting. It was lovely, actually.

Going into the experiment, I was nervous that I might become so emotional that it would be difficult to focus at my job, but it was no problem and in fact I think the added patience made it easier to work efficiently and not be distracted by things. Being on estrogen did not make me unreasonably emotional. It also didn't make me feel more attracted to men or less attracted to women.

All in all, my time with estrogen was a positive experience. I felt pretty good when I was taking it. From what I read online, a lot of people who do hormone trials are strongly considering transitioning to another gender. I was never seriously considering that as something I wanted to do, but it did cause me to ask some other questions about myself and my relationship to gender.

None of the things I experienced were highly novel to me -- I had felt strongly emotional before, I had felt peaceful and patient before. But it reminded me of certain times in my life when I'd felt what I thought of as a feminine energy: gentle, graceful, sexy, loving, accepting. I realized that the hormones might take me to that place more immediately, but it's still an energy that I can access without needing to take hormones. I figured that if I give myself more permission to include those attributes in my life, I can learn to embody the "feminine" qualities that I resonate with.

In writing this report I am forced to ask the question: what is truly feminine, what is masculine, and what do those things mean? Furthermore -- what IS gender? Biological sex is one thing, but the concept of feeling like or being perceived as a man or a woman is more abstract than people like to think. Is gender just a code of behavior assigned based on how you're sorted into one of two groups? Is it like a mental/emotional/personality lens through which you view the world? It's something I still need to study more, but from the small amount of reading I've done it seems like both of these are possible descriptions of gender. I learned that gender was first distinguised from sex in 1955. (It's actually kind of amazing how much our collective understanding of gender and sexuality has evolved in 60 years.)

Opinions vary widely as to how much of our gender stereotypes are rooted in biological difference vs. socialization and culture. I have friends who heavily favor one of those perspectives or the other. Like most things in life I think it's somewhere in the middle: hormones and biology play a role in making a distinction between male and female brains and behavior patterns, but culture also imparts a lot of expectations that wouldn't be there otherwise, as can be readily observed by the fact that different cultures in different locations and time periods have had widely varying attitudes about how men and women should interact.

We might associate traits like empathy, gentleness, and nurturance with femininity, but why? What if men can naturally be just as in tune with these attributes, but our society trains them to be more dominant and stoic? How did these stereotypes arise? Why are they different here than they are in Africa or Asia?

Most importantly to me -- how do I want to define my own masculinity?

I've never felt proud to be male. As a Christian, I did my best to fulfill the masculine expectations, as the church is highly focused on gender roles and what it means to "be a man" and "be a woman", and I took that to heart along with everything else. But it always felt forced, and after I deconverted there was not as much pressure to be "manly". Maybe you've heard someone make a joke like "you're going to get your man card revoked for ordering that fruity drink!", as though manhood is a club and you can lose your membership by breaking the code of conduct. I have zero interest in belonging to that club. Most of the things popularly associated with being a man are either repulsive to me or have little relavance to my interests. At times growing up I was disgusted by certain important male influences in my life, the way they treated women, the way they used their male privilege to take what was not theirs, and the damage that these actions inflicted on me and my loved ones. Women have never hurt me or my family like men did. As a result of all this, I am generally more skeptical of men than women. I've always had a clear picture of the kind of man I don't want to be, but I've never formed a clear picture of what kind of man I do want to be.

What is the difference between asking "what kind of man do I want to be" and "what kind of person do I want to be"? The second question seems much easier for me to answer than the first. Why restrict what I can be to stay within the boundaries of manhood?

I think any time you ask a question like "what kind of man do you want to be" it automatically implies a division of men and women, and you're asking how you want to act in contrast with how women act; how you will act in groups of all men, and how you will interact with women (the "other"). If it is assumed that we all agree on what masculinity looks like, then "how will you be a man" is kind of a self answering question, isn't it? If "being a man" is a thing, then it must look a certain way, so it's already decided what it means to be a man and there's not much flexibility in answering the question. If being a man can look like anything, and being a woman can look like anything, then gender is not an important part of the equation and you'd just ask "what kind of person do you want to be?". Right? I mean I think that makes sense to me. I don't go around asking myself, "what kind of right-handed person do I want to become?" or "what kind of non-attached-earlobes person do I want to become?" My physical, genetic characteristics do not play that big of a role in determining how I want to treat people, what I want my lifestyle to be, how I want to impact the world, what things I enjoy, or what things I find rewarding and meaningful. The fact that I have a penis doesn't determine the way I want to live.

Maybe the real aim of the question is to ask: "Do you want to be a man?", and the implication of that question is: "Do you want to be the kind of man that society expects you to be?" Or maybe it's "how do you want to choose to apply the stereotypically masculine energy which I assume you possess?". Or, maybe there are multiple "masculine" archetypes that males are allowed to choose from, and the same for females. So the question is literally asking "which masculine role do you like?" Do you want to be strong and silent? Loud and dominating? Adventurous and wild? But if the roles of a man can vary significantly enough for the question "what kind of man" to be at all interesting, wouldn't there be a large overlap with the roles women play, making gender again irrelevant?

Perhaps the biggest takeaway from this hormone experiment was that my gender identity is really up to me to decide. It's mine to question. If being a man is really that terrible for me, if I think I'm more like a woman deep down, the option to transition is there. If I don't want to do that, I can still choose to identify as a non-binary gender or consider myself genderless. Or I can claim masculinity but choose to act however I please. I'm still not sure how I feel about it. My gender identity hasn't seemed very important to me and I don't feel strongly one way or another.

But the train of thought that I've been riding lately is: what would it look like if I embraced my own masculinity, despite the distorted cultural ideas surrounding what it means to be masculine? Can I find my own version of being a man that doesn't have any connection to the normal stereotypes but rather is defined only by what I make of it? Can I be peaceful, gentle, graceful, beautiful, empathetic, loving, fair, cooperative, nurturing, quiet, and masculine all at the same time? If so, what's the point of describing it as masculine? Can I be a man without using male privilege for personal gain at the expense of others? Does it actually help me in any way if I make peace with the idea of being masculine or should I just forget about it and pursue the qualities that I want to embody individually? If I want to help change the world so that patriarchal cultural norms lose their power and life is more fair for everyone, is it more powerful for me to identify as a man and show by example that we can act better than the stereotypes would have people believe, or is it more powerful to be someone who has the option to identify as a man but instead of accepting that privilege chooses to be distant from it? And ultimately, if both options are equally viable... which do I prefer?

When it comes down to it, I can't see the social construct of "masculine" as something that's not imaginary. So that makes it hard for me to be like YEAH I'M TOTALLY A DUDE. The trend in my life has usually been to discard systems of thought based around imaginary things, so I'm tempted to go that route again and say "I'm not a man and nobody really is because that's only a concept and not a real property of existence." Just like I don't call myself "a liberal" or "a metalhead" or "a hippie" because it doesn't make sense to constrain myself to any particular label.

As you can see, I may have come out of this trial with more questions than when I began. One certain result is that it encouraged me to embrace the attributes in myself that I have been trained to repress because they are too "feminine". And that's something helpful I can do for myself immediately, regardless of how I end up thinking about my gender. I want to be fully myself without fear of how my actions might be perceived as gendered, or what people will think if my behavior doesn't line up with what's expected of a man. I carry a lot of that subconsciously from my childhood but I want to break free and find the courage to explore my individual expression.

I can see now the utility of a word like "genderqueer". It's quite a wide umbrella term applying to anyone who doesn't identify with the gender that "matches" their biological sex: perhaps feeling like the opposite binary gender, or as a distinct non-binary gender, or as no gender, or shifting between genders, or any other non-traditional gender role. What am I exactly? I don't know, but I can say pretty confidently that I'm not comfortable playing the traditional masculine role. I don't seem to share many of the urges and inclinations of most of the males I interact with. So I could say I'm genderqueer. But what if I'm just misinterpreting the men around me, what if I'm projecting my painful impressions of masculinity onto them, what if the ugly traits of masculinity they display are actually only because they are pressured to adopt certain things and deep down they don't like it either? In that case I'm not unusual at all for a biological man, and the cultural stereotypes of masculinity are simply not well suited to the human experience.

Yeah, I think I feel comfortable enough with male pronouns, my male appearance, deepish voice, facial hair, broad shoulders etc. -- my body is pretty good, I like it well enough. I don't feel like it needs to be more female. Male is my sex, for sure, I have a penis, I have testes, I am fertile. Whatever. I might feel like female stereotypes align better with my worldview and personality and therefore wish I could be female gendered. But overall I don't want to honor the misguided constructs in any way. That's like saying, I've come to the conclusion that Christianity is wrong and religion is bullshit! Therefore I'm going to become a Hindu because I like their values better. That's a fair choice and plenty of people approach religion that way, but for me personally, it makes sense to just be an agnostic/atheist if you believe that religion is bullshit. And with gender I'm less mad about the specifics of male and female expectations, and more upset with the way that these expectations are seen as being of such fundamental importance, the way they are used to maintain power imbalances, the way they limit how people think of themselves and each other. It's the system that's the problem rather than the specific rules of the game.

I think gender is very fluid, gender being a very heavily loaded word representing ... your internal experience of your emotions interacting with the world and other people and how that drives you to live your life and express yourself? I guess? I'm really not sure what it represents. Maybe I'm kind of a gender atheist, it doesn't really exist as a thing that can be pointed at directly but rather we all have such widely varying attributes that trying to group personalities based on biological sex is a poor approximation of reality. In truth, everyone is genderqueer. Everyone is their own gender, because everyone has different experiences and emotions and interactions. Men don't all feel the same way about life and neither do women. Someone might happen to naturally fit the specific cultural notion of what a man or a woman should be, but that doesn't make them "normal" and everyone else "queer"; it just means that a broken clock is still right twice a day.

Maybe the solution isn't to identify myself as queer or abnormal. Maybe I'm profoundly normal in my individuality, and the point I want to make is: yeah I'm male physically but don't expect me to act "masculine" because that's such a narrow expectation, and why should I or anyone else be that way? It's a flawed construct and I don't like to imply that it is "normal" by calling myself "queer".

Someone will point out the part I said about how biological differences do have some effect. And I can agree that probably on average there is some difference in personality and action and preference between biological men and women. But I feel like it's a Venn diagram where the circles are 90% overlapping. You could take the extremes of each and say "there's the difference, there's what it means to be male and female!" but to imply that all members of a gender bear those attributes, or that an individual of one gender is significantly more likely than the other to bear those attributes, seems like a very poor prediction to the point that it's not useful or interesting anymore. To make such an assumption is to be unobservant of how complex people are, and to impose those differences on children can be harmful. Pretty much the only time it's useful is when collectively analyzing the behavior of large groups of men and women and looking for subtle differences in how they handle specific things. That's not a type of analysis that is often relevant to daily life.

OK -- I'll end this here. I have a lot of questions to think about, and I need to do some more thinking in order to unearth some of the questions which I will then need to think about more. So I don't have many answers at this point, but I thought I'd share my process. I'm very curious what other people think about this topic and what reactions you've had to my ideas, so please leave a comment or send me an email if you'd like to talk about this further.
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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Joe Omundson

Cause and effects

Sometimes a cause has multiple effects which are not obviously related to each other, yet one effect can be used to predict another.

For example, in town I tell my friends "I am going camping at the usual place, you are welcome to join me tonight." They say "OK, we're not sure but maybe we will see you there later."
So I drive to my campsite, I am relaxing, thinking about life and processing whatever comes up. Hours go by, the sun sets and I think: I could build a fire, that might be nice, but hmmm it sounds like a lot of work.

Another thought comes to mind: if I build a fire, my friends will come. If I don't, they won't.

Seems irrational. But, if I find the energy to build a fire, it might indicate a mental and emotional state of positive willingness to make things nice. If I was in that state when I invited my friends, then they probably picked up on that, and would likely be more attracted by my offer to hang out in the wilderness. Alternatively, if I've not found enough enthusiasm to build myself a fire, then maybe I was also in a low-energy state when I invited my friends, and they'll be thinking "an evening with that guy? Probably not tonight."

So it is not that my fire is a magic summoner. There's no way for them to know whether I have built a fire or not. It's just that the two decisions depend on the same variable to some extent, almost as though they were decided in the same moment, long before sundown.

I didn't build the fire. My friends didn't come.

Of course, this is a simplification, and there are other variables at play. It's possible that I had positive energy when I invited them, but in the following hours I became tired. Also, my friends' plans were influenced by personal circumstances unrelated to my invitation.

When one cause has multiple effects, the effects are related in a way that might not be obvious at first. If you can learn to see these connections in other people's lives you could seem to have psychic powers or great insight. And if you can learn to see them in your own life, you could seem to make great leaps of personal progress as you simultaneously solve multiple problems by addressing one root issue.

What if I'd meditated that morning, and it improved my mood for the day? My invitation might have been more joyous and sincere. Maybe I would have been more intentional about planning to make a fire and my friends would have felt more drawn to join me.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Joe Omundson

Good and evil, eternity and NOW

Are people good or evil?


We associate good and evil with certain qualities we have assigned to other words. Generosity; kindness; provision; pleasure; safety; health; growth; strength. Destruction; violence; negation; death; neglect; pain; suffering; terror. All of these things are contained in the natural world, simultaneously and overlapping, without distinction.

Some animals survive in good health and abundance while others starve. Some animals eat, others are eaten. There are no rules. Parasites drain life from their hosts and this is OK. Dead bodies nourish the living. Some species can only come to life after a devastating fire, or they lay their eggs inside another animal and poison that animal to death so their young may feed. Mass extinctions happen. Some animals kill their mates immediately after mating. Animals rape and fight and kill. And yet they are innocent, all of it is natural.

Nothing lasts, even the rocks crumble and turn into dust. Rivers dry out, continents are submerged, frozen, desertified. A water molecule can flow beautifully from a rain shower to a creek and a waterfall and a river and an ocean, or it can be frozen in a polar ice cap for 500,000 years. Mountaintops are eventually subducted and melted into magma once more.

Stars are born and they die. They go supernova, collapsing into neutron stars and black holes. They destroy their planets. They smash into each other, they feed off each other like parasites. Entire galaxies collide in chaos. In the end of time all will be dark.

Is all of this good, or is it evil? What an impossible question. The universe is neither tragic nor magical, and it's both. It works itself out as it can, as it must, as it will be.

And people are the same. Nothing anyone does is really surprising. It is a reaction of what they are, to what they are around. Some people demonstrate behavior that we associate with good, others with evil, but everyone is a wide enough spectrum to contain some of both. Some people think only of themselves and are rewarded with health and money. Others care immensely for others and they die in a damn fire. Some are born to loving parents, others to neglectful and fearful ones; some know only abundance, some starve to death as children. And some come to see life as good while others see it as evil. Each of us is a small piece of the mosaic, and each of us is a mosaic of our own.

What does any of this mean? Who knows. But it seems wiser to acknowledge and accept the full contradictory complexity of our situation, rather than cling desperately to one selective interpretation or another. We can comfortably blind ourselves to the parts we don't like but it only leads to pain and confusion when our illusions are shattered. The only guarantee is change and impermanence, uncertainty and lack of control. The way to find true peace as a part of this system is to develop a healthy, practical, accepting relationship with the transient nature itself of life and the universe. To give up on illusions of control and importance, superiority and morality, eternal life and knowledge beyond human limitations. To instead experience the eternity that is contained in each passing moment.

THIS IS IT. Life is now! This moment is what you have. Can you accept it? Can you appreciate the fact that you are sitting here aware of yourself right now? You, made out of all the same kinds of things as everything else in the universe. Do you know that someday THIS MOMENT that you are in will be your last? When you are in that last moment, will you think back to this moment? To yesterday, tomorrow? What will you wish that you could tell yourself now? If your deathbed self could go back to who you are right now, what would you do? How would you cherish the fact that this is not your last day and not your last breath? Would you go outside and look at the sky and breathe deeply and be still? Would you hug someone and say that you love them? Would you value your curiosity and explore everything you ever wished you could? Would you forgive, love, encourage? Would you laugh outrageously?

Think about it! Your life is nothing but a collection of NOW moments. If you never learn to embrace the craziness of NOW, how will the overall picture of your life ever add up to something you want to experience? The past is worth remembering, and the future is worth preparing for, but these cannot replace the importance of what is happening NOW. Sit with now. Accept now. Enjoy now. Value now. Everything else in life is secondary.

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Thursday, August 3, 2017

Joe Omundson

A new decade

The rational part of me knows that the division of a lifespan into numbered years is an arbitrary human idea, but I still get hung up on things like birthdays and new years sometimes because they make me think about the past and compare it to my ideas for the future. It's Thursday night, and on Saturday I turn 30. Technically, it's not a big deal. I've been alive for almost 11,000 days and if I'm lucky I'll get 22,000 more. But something about it does feel significant.

Growing up, you start as an infant; you're a toddler, a child, a middle schooler, an adolescent, a teenager, a high schooler. Your life stage classification progresses rapidly. Then you're stuck as a "twenty-something" for 10 long years. It's the decade where you're expected to find yourself and become an established adult, to learn about yourself and the world, and you have some leeway in how you do that. In your thirties, you're still likely to have good health and energy, but you're also expected to have some established base, some sense of direction, a greater maturity. It's the time when many important life questions must be answered, and serious work begun. It seems that your 30s is about finding an ease that comes with knowing how to meet your own needs, and a relaxed confidence in how you're choosing to spend your life.

So, what have I learned in my twenties? Did I figure anything out? Did I grow as a person?
I know the expectations are artificial, and nothing will magically change when I turn 30, but the mere existence of these ideas leads me to introspection about how I've lived my life and what I want to do next.

It's interesting to think back to where I was 10 years ago, when I turned 20. My life has changed since then in so many ways that I'd never have expected. A lot happened -- marriage, divorce, leaving religion, heart cathetizations and infections, engineering degree and career, leaving that career, and a new lifestyle of minimalism, mobility, and frugality. Learning from yoga, meditation, backpacking, and sometimes psychedelics.

By a lot of people's standards it might seem like I failed. I'm 30, divorced, sleeping in a minivan, and I don't have a job. I went through some hard times in my 20s, but I have to say I'm happy with the way things have gone, overall. My heart problem has always taught me about the significance of experiencing the moments we find ourselves in every day; someday, my dying day will be today, my last breath will be this moment. I can't see anything in life being more important than the way we spend our time experiencing life and because of this I have prioritized exploring my curiosities rather than following expectations. I'm happy I don't feel the need to live up to anyone's ideas about my life, how I should interact with money, where I should sleep and live, what my relationships should look like, or what I should do with my time. It is nice to have somewhat found my niche and customized my lifestyle to my individual needs.

I know I've grown a lot in the last decade, but I'm not sure where this is all leading. I've learned how to learn, how to grow and overcome and accomplish my goals. And I'm still at a very flexible point where I have a lot of freedom to do whatever I choose. So I am prepared to start on a great journey, but I have to choose a direction, and it's hard because there are a lot of different things I'm interested in working on. But I think that's a great problem to have.

If I'm still alive in another 10 years, and I write a similar essay looking back on my 30s, I have no idea what it will say. My life could still go anywhere at this point. But there are a few things I hope I will learn. I hope that when I know the best choice for my own well being, I will choose it even when I'm tempted not to. I hope I will learn to love people selflessly and lavishly, always staying aware of the finite moments we share and how trivial the differences we perceive between us are. And I hope I will gain more control over my obsessive, overthinking mind, and finally learn how to get off the internet and go to bed on time.
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Monday, July 10, 2017

Joe Omundson

July adventure, part 1: Portland to Moab

My 6 week IV antibiotic treatment concluded on May 21, and other than one day with a fever, I felt well in the month that followed. It seemed like the medicine had done the job. I made plans for a month of traveling: July 1st I would hitchhike to the Rainbow Gathering near John Day, OR to meet up with 3 of my best nomad friends, then I would continue on to Moab, where I would hang out for a few weeks, pick up my car and sort out other loose ends, spend time with friends who live in the area, and head back to Portland by July 25th when my car's trip permit expires.

As the time to leave drew closer, anticipation built. I spent time working for my friend to earn money for my trip and I grew impatient to gain the freedom of the road, to see something new. Then, two or three days before I had planned to leave, I started feeling sick. For a solid two days I was measuring a fever between 100.8 - 102.8 °F and having night sweats. These were the same symptoms that got me admitted to the hospital in Minnesota. I talked to my infectious disease doctor and went in to get blood cultures drawn.

For me the timing couldn't have been worse. I was extremely disappointed at the prospect of canceling my trip, which I was so eagerly looking forward to, yet I knew that if my infection had indeed returned this would likely mean that I had failed antibiotic therapy and would need to prepare for an open heart surgery. Having had a few months to adjust to the idea of another major operation, the most upsetting part was that it would ruin my trip.

I was torn. Should I play it safe and cancel my trip, go to the hospital and get the treatment I need? Should I risk it and travel for at least a week to cover the most important parts of my trip and hope I didn't get too sick? In the past I had had symptoms for at least a week or two before getting treatment... couldn't I do that again, especially when I have something I want to do so badly first? What if this is a weird placebo / stress response or something unrelated to my heart? I know it's not worth risking my health just to have a fun time -- but isn't the whole point of good health to enable us to have good experiences and live our lives? And if I cancel my trip, am I not completely giving up on the possibility of that great experience, trading it for some semblance of security?

The night before I had planned to leave, I spent a couple hours awake in the middle of the night, feeling terrible, sweating and nearly in tears. I couldn't decide what to do so I slept until morning, had breakfast, meditated for 15 minutes, and then my body decided for me. I just started packing my bag. It was possible to pack it up, so I did, I got all ready, and my friend drove me to Troutdale for my first hitch. Apparently I'd decided to risk it. I think I couldn't handle the idea of missing my plans based on a fear for my personal health. Besides, I hadn't heard anything back from the blood cultures which were 2 days pending, so I didn't know for sure that anything was wrong.

My first ride stopped for me as soon as I stepped onto I-84 eastbound, and he drove me to Multnomah Falls. This was the first time I had been picked up by a gay man who thought I was cute and openly expressed interest. He was disappointed that I was into women but was very kind to me anyway.

Ride two was a guy who lived in Stevenson, WA. Part native, he had fishing rights on the Columbia and that's how he was making money this summer. In years past, he'd hitched the same route many times in order to go into Portland to support his heroin habit. He was very open and accepting, and I enjoyed his company. He dropped me off at the Cascade Locks exit.

Ride three was from a computer scientist, a kiteboarder headed to Hood River. I told him about my history as an engineer and he gave me some thoughts on how I could still work in that field while making it fit with my passions. We talked about artificial intelligence until he dropped me off.

The next ride took me as far as the previous 3 combined, all the way to Biggs Junction where I needed to head south away from the Columbia to get to Central Oregon. When he stopped to pick me up, he pulled over and then drove to a safe spot off the shoulder to wait for me, and got out of his car to meet me as I approached. From these actions I could tell he was a responsible and cautious person, and he turned out to be an engaging conversationalist and we compared perspectives on life topics ranging from career to family to society and religion. He was an engineer who worked for HP. I really enjoyed getting to know him.

The junction had a travel stop where I used the restroom and then headed back out to the road with my cardboard sign reading "JOHN DAY". I sat on a curb by a wide shoulder and waited. A semi truck passed me, apparently turned around somewhere down the road, then honked and gestured at me as he pulled in to the travel stop from the other direction. Clearly he was signalling me... but why? If he wanted to give me a ride, why was he parking his rig instead of turning it around to pick me up? I thought maybe his gestures were only meant to say hi, but I watched his legs walk from the cab around to the back of the truck where he could see me, and he lifted his arms in a shrugging gesture like "dude, what are you waiting for?" so I grabbed my pack and walked over to him. The first thing he asked was "hey man, you smoke weed?". After a millisecond analysis of the situation -- the guy seemed a little sketchy, but nothing sinister about him -- I replied "uh, yeah!" and he told me to hop into the cab. The passenger seat was falling apart, there was junk everywhere. He asked if I knew how to roll a blunt (I didn't) then asked if I had a pipe (I did). So we packed a bowl and started smoking. Then, a woman appeared in the passenger window of the truck next to us, grinning and holding up her own pipe. He invited her over and the three of us passed around two bowls, chatting about our travels and the truck driving life. She went back to her truck and the guy decided not to give me a ride after all, because my route was turning off in just 9 miles and for him it wasn't worth the hassle. But he did give me a good sized bud for the road, and I went back to my curb with a nice buzz and laughing to myself. "WTF just happened?!" Getting stoned with random truckers in the middle of nowhere.

Soon a nice guy from Yakima picked me up, and I actually ended up going the same route with him that I could have gone with the trucker, realizing that it was smarter to at least make progress in the general direction even if it's not on the most direct route possible. He drove me to Madras, and we mostly just listened to music and silently watched the scenery pass by, sharing another bowl.

I should have asked him if he could drive me south a few more miles to where Hwy 26 leaves Hwy 97, but I didn't think of it. I ended up walking those miles, which was challenging as I felt sick and it was quite hot outside, but I didn't despair and it was never outside of my capability. Finally, at the turnoff, a 2-car caravan pulled over for me. Lion-mane dreadlocks filled the windshield of the second vehicle and I knew I'd found my ride to the Rainbow Gathering. The guy in the passenger seat of the first car jumped out and carved out a space for me in the back seat, piling suitcases and sleeping bags on the other side. I got in and sat with my pack on my lap, the displaced luggage halfway falling back onto me, and prepared for a cramped 3 hour ride. "Dude, you're lucky you got the ride with the best music", as he proceeded to blast some harsh dubstep music. The subwoofer must have been very expensive and very close to my head, as the precision bass was painfully and unbearably loud. Fortunately I had earplugs in the top pouch of my backpack, which kept the volume below the pain threshold, but also blocked out more high frequencies than lows, so then all I could hear was the booming 20-80 Hz range. If you've ever had an MRI you might have some idea what this ride felt like. No problem, I was going straight where I needed to go. I have learned to accept many discomforts as a meditative state.

We parked after sunset and I had about another 2-mile walk into this crazy organism of a gathering. I knew my friends were camped just past the Home Shalom kitchen, and I made haste, eager to find them before setting up camp for the night. As I got closer, the directions I received got more specific and I found them without much of an issue, set up my tent, and crashed. It had been 10 hours of traveling -- about what was expected for hitching a 5 hour drive.

Dennis and Mathieu had already been there for 10 days. They helped a lot of people set up their camps and kitchens, and now the crowd was pouring in for the event. I came along the next morning as they helped a nearby kitchen prepare breakfast, which turned into a pretty hilarious ordeal as this guy had taken over the kitchen against the will of the other camp members, which we didn't know at the time, and nothing was running smoothly at all. The guy was on some crazy drugs, hadn't slept in two days, and was making no sense. In true Rainbow style, nobody wanted to confront him so everyone just suffered instead.

Tom joined us in camp that morning, and 3 of us decided to take psychedelics. I took a double dose of LSD, and the other two split some mushrooms, which didn't end up doing much for them. Due to some combination of chemical potency and the intensity of my life in recent days, it was quite a powerful experience for me. If I had been out of touch with the fact that I was de-prioritizing my heart health it might have been a "bad trip" experience thinking about that, but I wasn't hiding anything from myself and I experienced the discomfort with full awareness and acceptance of my choice. It was a little like looking death in the face. I decided to hike up the hill alone, past all the camps, up to where I could get a view from a ridge, and sat there resting as my heart pounded away. An hour later I headed back down and again had to rest my displeased heart at my camp. I took it easy the rest of the day, only venturing out for a short visit to the central meadow to watch the hippies, drum circle-ing and dancing naked around three bonfires.

It was wonderful to catch up with my friends again, and to hear about their travels since the last time I'd seen them. Dennis and Mathieu seem to have formed a very close partnership and at times it was like watching a couple banter, which was quite entertaining. I decided to leave the morning after my 2nd night, and Dennis offered to drive me to John Day to start off my hitch. As he, Mathieu, and I were walking to his van, we stopped by Tom's camp (he had stayed camped in his SUV in the parking lot). He happened to be about to leave, too, to drive to Chico, and he offered to take me with him as far as I wanted. So I left the gathering with Tom, and we drove down through southern Oregon to a campsite on the OR/CA state line near Lakeview. Tom generously paid for the campsite and made us a dinner of salmon and spinach. The campsite came with free showers so we left feeling refreshed in the morning.

Lake Abert, a large but shallow alkaline lake in Southern Oregon

Tom decided he was willing to take a detour in to Reno to drop me off and check out an AA meeting. He let me out near an onramp and we said goodbye. I didn't have much luck at that onramp, so I walked about a mile to the next one, where I got a ride 15 miles out of town with a guy who works in a big industrial complex. He had some strong political views which I didn't agree with entirely, but it was cool to hear where he was coming from. From there, a young guy gave me a ride another 15 miles east to the town of Fernley, where he had recently moved from his home town in California.

I waited at least an hour for the next ride, in 100 degree sun, the wind blowing asphalt-heated air over my body. I felt weak and not very many cars were getting on the freeway in my direction, and I struggled to stay positive. Finally, I got my lucky break: a guy stopped for me who was driving all the way to Wyoming. I rode with him to Salt Lake City. He had traveled to California to buy a truck (to be used for servicing semi trucks on the side of the highway) only to have it break down near Fernley, where he spent a night or two getting it fixed. He was a nice guy who will be turning 30 in August  -- 11 days after I do. We had several hours together. He told me about his life in Wyoming and we talked a lot about diesel engines and mechanical-related stuff, which was fun for me because my car is a diesel and it was interesting to know the similarities and differences between my engine and much bigger ones.

He dropped me off at the offramp of my choosing a bit west of Salt Lake City. My hope was that it would be an exit where my "MOAB" sign would attract someone who had gotten off for a quick stop and would then be passing all the way through SLC in my direction; I'd previously had a lot of trouble getting through SLC and was not keen to repeat that experience. It was dark, I walked down the side of the offramp and found a fairly level spot in the grass where I slept until the sun reached me in the morning.

Getting through SLC was once again a frustrating experience. My onramp was a poor choice. It was all truck drivers and local commuters who had little more to offer than a bewildered stare. One cop drove by and shouted through his loudspeaker, "Hey, get off the onramp for me." Working on it bud. After 2 1/2 hours, a nice guy picked me up and took me 10-15 miles down the freeway, leaving me at a decently busy onramp where I would ultimately not catch a ride for 5 full hours. It was 102 degrees. I got sunburned. The only good thing was that I took a break for an hour and got lunch at a pretty decent Asian buffet, so I was really only waiting for 4 hours. It started to feel like nobody in SLC knew what the thumb-out hand signal meant and that I would be stuck there for days. Finally someone pulled over, a sales manager at a solar company, and took me another 15 miles. From here it got easier, and I got 2 quick rides to get south of Provo off the freeway and onto the highway that goes through Price. An army network engineer (and ex-coal miner) gave me a ride down the highway to where his turn took him a different direction, 50 miles outside of Price, and from here I got lucky again when a high school biology teacher who was driving to Colorado picked me up. He was a really cool guy and we shared our fascination with science as we drove. He told me about the interesting dynamics of teaching science in a small town.

He dropped me off at the Moab exit on I-70. 30 miles to Moab. It was dusk, light was fading fast, and I was nervous that I wouldn't get a ride before dark, and I'd have to wait til morning to get into town (I don't hitch at night). Fortunately I got lucky again. He dropped me off, I stuck out my thumb, and the next truck stopped for me before the biology teacher had time to get back on the freeway. This guy was from Moab but hadn't lived there in over 30 years; back for a family function. He seemed like he was kind of a big shot, having been a news reporter for ABC who covered the Sydney Olympics and being personally asked by Mitt Romney to do public relations for the SLC Olympics, among other things. He was good to me, gave me a Starbucks Frappuccino drink and $20 before I got out of the truck. I was in Moab at last! 9:30 PM, and probably 98 degrees. Must have been a hot day.

I contacted the guy who had been storing my car in his backyard, walked to his house, paid him for his services, and tried to start my car -- the battery was dead. He gave me a jump and the car roared to life. I drove it for a while to charge the battery, then parked it near the courthouse and went to sleep.

At some point on this day, I received a new message from my doctor. "Blood cultures are negative. We should get CT as planned and get more blood cultures when you come back." I was stunned, and very glad that I'd chosen to leave even though I felt bad. My other option would have been to sit around in Portland waiting for a negative test result. I can't imagine how frustrated I would have been for missing out on my trip when they couldn't find anything wrong anyway.

Time to shift gears: I finished hitchhiking, and now I had my car again to make travel easy. I spent the next three days with a new friend and lover who lives in Grand Junction, but this is a topic for the next chapter.
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