Podcast - Episode 7: Lynne Bundesen on feminism, politics, and spirituality (with anecdotes from a storied life)

  
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On this episode I talk with Lynne Bundesen. She is the author of several books on women and spirituality, including the memoir So the Woman Went Her Way and most recently The Feminine Spirit at the Heart of the Bible. Across her storied, extraordinary life, she, among other things: unknowingly married into the Chicago mafia; became a correspondent for Time, the Wall Street Journal, and numerous other newspapers; wrote speeches for the Congressional Black Caucus in California; was a staff member on the judiciary committee during the impeachment of Richard Nixon; traveled the world, and much more.

Lynne is also, incidentally, my grandmother. It was a pleasure to interview her, and I even learned some new things about her I didn’t know. We talk feminism, spirituality, her first marriage, and her legacy as a journalist, mother and grandparent. As I say: we should all spend much, more more time interviewing our grandparents.

Show notes include:

My authentic self

The last time I was actually in touch with my authentic self, as opposed to searching around for it, or insisting that I was showing it, or resolving within myself to show it, was probably some twelve years ago. I was living alone in a studio apartment on Columbia Street in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington D.C. The apartment had a bay window that let light in on three sides, and shortly after moving in I went to find a lazy boy recliner on Craigslist to put there so I could sit and read by the window with the nice light. I was twenty-six at the time, which is to say I hadn’t yet reached the age where one begins to have strong opinions about furniture.

Anyway, the lazy boy suited me just fine. It was the living alone that mattered. I did so for six months, in the aftermath of a tragic relationship which perhaps could have worked for the long haul had I been a little more mature. We laughed a lot together and the sex was excellent and we thought the same way about money and about living a frugal, simple life. In short, there was relatively little to argue about, which is a good first step in a long-lasting partnership.

On our one-year anniversary I took her to the Kennedy Center to the cheapest show playing at the time (I was after the perception of fanciness, after all, and cheap tickets to the Kennedy Center did the trick perfectly). We listened to a gifted young Asian pianist play the entirety of Pictures at an Exhibition, which is one those pieces of classical music which today might have been a score to an epic dramatic HBO series, which is to say it is an eminently accessible piece of music. I later learned during one the three big fights we had, that she had expected me to propose that night, and I missed the opportunity. Some years later I heard from a mutual friend that she was dating a woman, and very much in love and also supposedly happy. So perhaps I hadn’t known as much about the relationship, or myself, as I had thought.

After that, I was living alone in this studio in Adams Morgan and recovering from the sudden evaporation of one potential path in life, the one I could have had with her. I was working at a nonprofit focused on climate issues, doing good work, as every young person who moves to D.C. wishes to do, or thinks they have come to do, and eventually convinces themselves that they are doing. In fact, it was unclear whether I was doing good work. The job consisted of taking people’s donations and then giving the money to renewable energy and reforestation projects, only the sales pitch was that the projects were going to “offset” a particular amount of carbon dioxide, and we were promising that their donation was in practice a paid indulgence for their climate sins. These “carbon offset” organizations are having a resurgence now that more and more people are feeling more and more guilty about their carbon footprint, so perhaps I should have stayed in the business. Another path not lived.

It was during this time of working on offsetting carbon and living alone in a studio that I started drinking every night. A glass of whiskey as I recall, because as I said many of my opinions were still forming back then, and a glass of whiskey is what I presumed adult men such as myself drank in the evening when they were on their own and about to settle into their reading chair for a night with a book. Back then I did as many do at restaurants when they order the second least expensive bottle of wine, so as not to seem cheap, except that I was searching for the second least expensive bottle of whiskey. Jim Beam is very good at owning that space. Now, as I’ve matured some in my purchasing, I simply buy the cheapest.

Some other nights, for example weekend nights, I went out with work colleagues and drank much more. I began sleeping with one of my work colleagues, but only when we got drunk enough, which was once a month or so. I was trying to sleep with most of the attractive girls I saw on a regular basis. I’m not going to say it was because I was trying to get over the aforementioned tragic relationship, although one might look at it from the outside and say that. More likely the truer explanation is that I was 26 and had very little by way of commitments.

This was all before the recent onslaught of social media and algorithmically driven feeds at an arm’s reach on our phones, and thus it was before the technologists had all but perfected their domination of our attention spans during all down moments, which is another way of saying it was before the technologists had figured out how to steal the one thing that is most precious to all of us: our time. It’s what I chose to do with that time in this period of aloneness that began to define me, as it does for all of us. I was, in a sense, my authentic self in that studio apartment. I was what I chose to do when alone for long stretches at a time, not just alone in space, but alone with my thoughts.

There is not much to say about my self-discovery in those six months - I wasn’t interested in doing too much self-discovery back then. I contemplated some business ideas, all of which went nowhere, and I was continually astonished that each month more than a thousand extra dollars in earnings went into my bank account for which I had absolutely no use. The apartment as I remember cost me $1,250 each month and I was sharing internet with a neighbor who had graciously named his wifi network “call - and then his phone number - to share.”

One thing about that time is that I didn’t realize that having a drink every night was a habit I was forming, but formed it was, and continues more or less unabated to today (my periodic alcohol fasts over the intervening years have never had any noticeable impact on my sleep, health, or any other aspect of my life which I regard as important). That is the thing about our youth. We don’t think too hard about what may come next. In those times it was perhaps the last time that it could be said that a generation had a path laid out for it. For mine, it was privilege and comfort, a world generally at peace and an economy that generally worked. Now, I’m not sure what the generations are supposed to think. There really is no path. The technologists have made sure of that.

During that time I also read a lot, mostly big philosophical works (I re-read Brothers Karamazov just to make extra sure I didn’t want to be religious) as well as some books on business. I also discovered Tim Ferris and his 4-Hour Work Week during that time, and thus began a process realizing that certain conventions embedded in the modern workplace are patently ridiculous. And of course I occasionally watched movies and some TV shows - it was the time when The Wire became popular. For a few weeks I decided to take up watercolor. It was a suggestion from my grandmother, as many things in my life have been, and so in addition to reading in the lazy boy I also sat some afternoons with a canvas and paints and looked out the window and brushed onto the canvas the three- and four-story apartment buildings across the street. They weren’t good paintings though, and I didn’t stick with it long enough to become a better painter, and I thought it best to not switch to acrylics or sketching or anything like that, lest I fail in two mediums in such close succession.

Left on my own, I always start trying new things, like the watercolor. I stick with some of them but give up many others, which must appear flighty to some, but in the end I always manage to follow through on one thing or another, and perhaps I have more self-knowledge than most for all those failures and aborted attempts and past lives lived.

That part of my self that is interested in learning and above all in new experiences has remained no matter where I am, or with whom I’m living, so you might say it is doubly “authentic” (authentic in the sense that social media influencers write it in posts, usually with quotation marks to denote that they are self-aware, as if they are commenting on the game when really they are still playing the game).

All of which is to simply to say: authentic life, whatever we suppose that to be, is likely bullshit, because we are never alone with our thoughts for months on end any more. Today I would have to go spend six months on a deserted island (preferably one without access to wifi or a device with a Netflix series on it downloaded for offline viewing) or book passage across the Pacific on a Chinese container ship, and perhaps then, with sufficient introspection, I might begin to approach something like an authentic self.

But as such, the word authentic no longer has any meaning per se, and since the conditions in which it can arise are no longer available to us in the modern world, perhaps we ought to discard the term all together, relegated to the dustbin of cultural constructions we no longer have use for, or which no longer apply in any meaningful sense. Today, we are largely who we surround ourselves with, or more accurately who we have found ourselves surrounded by. We are that, and our genes.

The authentic self is not truly here in my writing, either - I show many things, but I assure you, you still do not know me from having read my writing in your email inbox. I know this because my writing here has an audience, and anything with an audience is not, in the final analysis, truly authentic. You might say, “oh, but art reveals truth!” and that is a true statement in a sense, but you could hardly say that the art itself is anything other than something contrived to elicit a reaction or tell a story or make a point. So it is with any published material, just as it is with an Instagram post, or a Tweet, or a TikTok, as the kids today would do (but the kids would probably say, “Duh, I’m not trying to be authentic; everyone knows it’s a show, obviously it’s not the real me.”)

In any case, I will continue to write online, but also in a notebook, as I used to before the time when we all took our Mac laptops everywhere. There is a picture of me in India from years ago at a temple in Delhi. I am sitting, one leg crossed over another, writing in a notebook:

The notebook is now sitting in a trunk in a storage unit in Santa Fe, which I haven’t seen in years. I don’t know what I wrote that day, but whatever it is, I came to it honestly.

So I must find a notebook. Only a leather-bound Moleskin will do, or at least a cheaper Moleskin knockoff. It wouldn’t do at all to just write on a yellow notepad, no that wouldn’t do at all. That’s not how I see myself. No, I will get a Moleskin, and then grab whatever pen I can find (I’m not particular on my pens at least), and I will start to write authentically. At least then I can write something purely for myself, and not for an audience, and if necessary I will burn the pages in a fire before a significant other or a family member can get their hands on it and actually discover what I really, truly, authentically think.

Gentle men

When I think about the qualities of a man, and of manhood, I think about Clark Shutt.

Shutt was the director of the Christian Science summer camp I went to for seven years starting when I was ten. The story my mom tells is that she sent me to Camp Leelanau, on the tip of the thumb of the glove that is the state of Michigan, because it was the Christian Science camp furthest from both her and my dad. I was growing up with my mom in New York at the time and visiting my dad in New Mexico during Summers and school breaks. Northern Michigan was about as far as I could get from either of them.

My childhood had no shortage of strong-willed, independent, intelligent and creative women to look up to. My mom and my grandmother and my sister were ever-present, and each embodied a kind of feminism that I am still learning from today. But as much as I feel like the examples of the women in my family helped prepare me to love, admire, and be interested in women, ultimately there was only so much they could do when it came to preparing me for manhood.

I knew of course that I was not to hit girls, even if they hit me first. My little sister provided many opportunities to show that I understood and had absorbed that lesson early. But what else? My memory is exceedingly thin on instructions passed down to me from women about how to act as a man, to say nothing of actual examples.

For that I needed something else. And though my mom originally sent me to Camp Leelanau as a way to get me away from feuding divorced parents, the impact of her decision would ultimately be much larger.

Christian Science: A brief primer on love

I’ve written a little before about my upbringing in Christian Science (see Convergence: What Mary Baker Eddy, Viktor Frankl, Sam Harris, Marcus Aurelius, and Hamlet have in common). Not to be confused with the cult of Scientology, adherents of Christian Science believe they have discovered the method used by Jesus to heal spiritually, and thus most of them rely on this method rather than make use of modern medicine (to be fair, when Christian Science was “discovered,” in 1879, modern medicine was about as likely to lead to positive outcomes as was a coin flip).

But it’s not spiritual healing that I want to talk about here. It’s love.

In Christian Science, every Sunday school student is taught that there are seven synonyms for God: life, truth, love, soul, mind, spirit, and principle. God is, in a literal sense, those seven things, and true to the best aspects of Christianity as a whole, the focus in Christian Science is often on love.

There are no crosses or statues of Jesus in Christian Science churches, and no idols or representations of saints. But there are, written in bold lettering on the wall of nearly every Christian Science church in the world, the words from John in the New Testament: God is Love.

In College I decided to leave Christian Science - the religion got more things wrong than right, I had decided. Nevertheless, a religion that puts love at the center of its communications is on to something. Christianity as a whole is always at its best when it is focused on love and charity, and Christian Science is an offshoot that at least got that much right.

Clark Shutt

Which brings me back to Clark, as we all knew and referred to him. Clark was like a force of nature those Summers. As I’ve kept in touch with some of my old camp friends, we continue to talk about him as if he were a legend.

In the mornings on the shores of Lake Michigan they woke us up by firing a sawed off cannon, sometimes underneath one of our cabins. The first task of us groggy young boys and men was to trudge our way down the long path to Lake Michigan to dip, come rain or shine, and if one morning it seemed the entire camp was walking down especially slowly, it was Clark who would appear from behind, as if like a dervish, yelling down the hillside in a deep baritone that we needed to get running, and that he better not beat any of us down. When we heard his voice behind us, we ran. I can still hear it, its exact pitch and growl, yelling that us “lollygaggers” better get moving.

It wasn’t that we were ever afraid of Clark. It was that we didn’t want to let him down. Clark was too full of that one, most important quality for us ever to be scared of him: love.

Clark talked about love constantly. He talked about it at the weekly Sunday night campfires. He talked about it at award ceremonies. He talked about it to the Counselors in Training when he was explaining to them the example he expected them to set for the rest of camp.

Clark always pushed us to try harder. He expected us to be tough, to try to beat him at races (it was hard), to be diligent, to be kind to each other. But no matter how high a bar he set, no matter the expectations, it was always love that I remember most of all. He radiated it.

In fact, I googled Clark as I started writing this, just to see where he was and to make sure I spelled his last name correctly. He’s left camp after 30 years as its director and is now Dean of Boys at the Christian Science boarding school in St. Louis. Here’s what I found in his bio:

When asked to describe how he works with young men, his response was simple: ‘Well, it’s not rocket science. It’s love.’

It really was that simple with Clark, and it worked.

“Be Gentle Men”

Clark always talked about love, but it was actually another moment from camp that I have stuck in my mind. We were sitting around a campfire late one night. Clark was giving one of his usual speeches. He often talked about the week behind and somehow spun it into a parable for action.

That night, for some reason he was talking about the word “Gentlemen,” a word which perhaps had already been cheapened to the point of meaninglessness. It was a word that none of us had any clear definition for, and perhaps still don’t. Clark talked about love as always, and he talked about being kind to each other, but then he said something I’ve never forgotten: Be gentle men.

I remember he let that hang in the silence and the crackle of the campfire, and the call of the night crickets, and then he said it again, with the emphasis on the world gentle. It was a simple commandment to be sure, but it also provided us a guide for action. We may play tackle capture the flag in the Michigan woods or we may play pirates during sailing class, jumping from ship to ship to capsize each other before making our escape through the wind and waves, or we may compete on the soccer field, compete to build the highest campfire, compete over the cleanest cabin, compete on everything - but through all of that, Clark was telling us: Be. Gentle. Men.

Sometimes when I’m wrestling with my son, I remember Clark’s voice, and I know that the process of learning to be both fierce and gentle, or strong and gentle, or competitive and gentle, is also the process of growing from a boy into a man. My son is learning. He knows that he can try his hardest, be fierce and be strong, and yet still look out for me, the person he’s wrestling against: still make sure they don’t hit their head on something sharp.

I’m not sure what the word masculinity should signify today. I’ve written before that there are too few examples out there in the ether. “I feel like there’s a void,” I wrote:

It is the gender studies void of the bookstore, where I can find hundreds of books about what it is to be a woman, but virtually nothing about what it is to be a man. And I don’t mean “be a man” in the cultural indoctrination sense, but simply in the sense of being male. If I wanted, I could put on my historian hat and tell you what it used to mean to be a man at various points in history. I could talk about duty or chivalry or courage, or any number of other things that were historically associated with maleness.

Now, I’m not so sure what manhood is or should be, and that’s a shame. It’s a shame because, to be honest, I am really interested in exploring what it means to be a man. I am interested for myself, and also as a father to a son. I am interested in what I should teach him, what I want to teach him, about what it’s like to be him in society. 

Next to Clark’s bio, there’s a picture of him, looking exactly as I remember from my youth twenty years ago:

You can look at the photo if you’d like and put a face to the person I’ve describing. But all you really need to remember is this: he told us young men to love each other, and to be gentle men.

➡️ A lesson in path dependency

And Hunter S. Thompson's Ninth Path

I started 2019 with a cushy job that allowed me to work 95 percent from home, paid handsomely, provided outstanding benefits, and required far fewer than 40 hours of my time each week to do well. It was also possibly hollowing out my soul, bit by slow, unnoticed bit.

And then I lost that job. The decision was made for me, brought about by forces outside my control and through no fault of my own. It would have been insane to quit, but once the decision was made for me, it was the thought of going to find another job just like it that struck me as insane. That’s not a contradiction. It’s just a lesson in path dependency.

In the six months since leaving the aforementioned cushy job, I have had to learn and relearn that lesson. My fear then, as now, is this: that I would take all the easy ways out, that I would fail to lead an intentional life, that if the choice was to be or not to be, I would choose the latter by default.

A Letter from Hunter S. Thompson

That choice is not, in Hunter S. Thompson’s estimation, a suggestion that we all commit mass suicide. Rather, it’s a choice to be intentional with our lives, or not. When Thompson was 22 and already far wiser than me, he wrote a letter of advice to a friend in which the Bard’s to be or not to be featured heavily. “That IS the question,” Thompson wrote: “whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal.”

The first option is to assume that the paths you are on are the paths you must continue on. The second is to realize that you can leave those paths at any time. We are never “stuck,” at least not in the way it can so often feel. There has almost never been a complaint about a job, a career, a home, or a relationship that can not be altered by making a different choice.

If you need convincing of this, I would put money on the fact that what you think of as being stuck isn’t actually being stuck - it’s just a choice you’ve settled on and are unwilling to revisit, perhaps based on values you choose not to interrogate too closely. The classic, uncontroversial example is the person who stays in a career they hate because of the money. That’s not being stuck: that’s a choice to value money more than your own mental state. You can always go work at Trader Joe’s if you hate your current job so much: they offer health insurance and viable career paths and you get a discount on your groceries.

On being effectual

So, you can always make a different choice.

But what choice to make? If we get off the path we are on - or we’re kicked off - then what? That is the question I have struggled with for months. I still don’t have an answer. This newsletter is part of my investigation into that question.

If life is a matrix, it is an exceedingly complex matrix, full of competing values, difficult tradeoffs, and endless options for how to spend our time and attention. And as Thompson wrote, we can choose either to expend those precious, non-renewable resources of time and attention floating with the tide, or swimming for a goal.

Unfortunately, Thompson is less clear when he explains how to find the goal toward which one should swim. In fact, he is rather down on the concept of goals generally. “We should not strive to be anything other than ourselves,” he writes. “We must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal.” He continues:

In every man, heredity and environment have combined to produce a creature of certain abilities and desires - including a deeply ingrained need to function in such a way that his life will be MEANINGFUL. A man has to BE something; he has to matter.

This is not too far from what Jonathan Haidt writes in The Happiness Hypothesis, in a section on work. Haidt points out that we have a deep-seated need to be “effectual,” that is, to have an effect on our environment. That need has been selected for by evolution - it goes back a long way, long before the days of factories and offices and Slack channels.

This need to be effectual is why the monotonousness of factory work - and often office work as well - feels so dehumanizing. It’s why I have felt a certain loss of satisfaction ever since I left my job at a daily newspaper to go into marketing. At the newspaper, every morning I saw the fruits of my previous day’s work in literal printed paper - huge stacks of them, in fact. They were left outside our office each morning for us to touch and unfold in our hands, and read, and I did so knowing that newspapers just like those had, overnight, been shipped to every corner of the state for other people to touch and unfold and read. And my name was almost always right there on the front page: by Russell Max Simon.

The ninth path

Unfortunately, the newspaper industry is a shell of its former self. Newspapers in the U.S. employ 25 percent fewer people than they did ten years ago. But even that statistic masks the severity of the multiple crises the industry continues to face. Suffice to say that I don’t view re-entering daily newspaper journalism as a particularly viable option for financial stability moving forward (Though - God bless them - Substack is certainly trying to help by reinventing the model.)

For me, whatever comes next is not likely to be quite like anything that came before. But what does come next? Again, here’s Thompson:

As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal), he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).

In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important. And it seems almost ridiculous to say that a man MUST function in a pattern of his own choosing; for to let another man define your own goals is to give up one of the most meaningful aspects of life— the definitive act of will which makes a man an individual.

Let’s assume that you think you have a choice of eight paths to follow (all pre-defined paths, of course). And let’s assume that you can’t see any real purpose in any of the eight. THEN— and here is the essence of all I’ve said— you MUST FIND A NINTH PATH.

I have read and re-read that passage many times over the past few years, hoping to glean additional insight, something more actionable, a nugget from which I can extract the definitive answers to questions about work, meaning, and purpose. Once I even googled “The Ninth Path,” and I found websites and businesses and YouTube channels devoted to and inspired by the concept.

I think that I haven’t come to any clearer or definitive insights because those come not from thinking but from doing. If you think, for example, that you want to be a graphic designer, and arrange your life to become a graphic designer, you won’t know whether this is a path that will bring you purpose or meaning or satisfy your need to be effectual until you have done graphic design for many years. This is because it takes many years to become good at nearly anything that is worth doing, while impact, meaning, and purpose, cannot be achieved until one is quite good at the thing itself. Becoming a working musician can satisfy many of our human needs for transcendence, creative pursuit, and impact. But damn, learning an instrument well enough to achieve those things is the long, grueling work of many years.

We must do the things, and in so doing we discover our passions and find meaning. Too many people think it’s the other way around.

In fact, I hear there is an entire generation of young people coming up behind me which hasn’t yet learned that all good and satisfying things in life come from struggle and work, and that this generation is called Gen Z. Supposedly, they are depressed and feel purposeless and a large part of this is because they expect good things to come easily to them after trying hard for a few days (or weeks, at most).

Instead, what we need is to cultivate patience and also to do things and make things. Eventually, we get to a place where we can evaluate whether the path we’re on (if you must stick with the “path” metaphor) is the one on which we want to stay. Then, we can make a choice to get off or continue on. Eventually, we may say that we have found that thing called purpose.

Being and nothingness

These are all abstractions of course: concepts we have invented to make sense of existence. To quote Thompson’s letter one last time: “I’m going to steer clear of the word ‘existentialism,’ but you might keep it in mind as a key of sorts.”

There’s a good reason Jean-Paul Sartre titled his book Being and Nothingness. There are no actual paths or callings, and meaning only exists to the extent that we humans choose to imbue it. As I wrote last month:

Events happen and seasons turn, but they are only a narrative if I choose to make them into one. They only have significance that I attribute. And, as is often the case, the truths I like to remind myself of are as liberating as they are scary.

I may yet go get a job at Trader Joe’s. I really like Trader Joe’s - I think they’ve reinvented grocery stores for the better by zigging (fewer choices, smaller stores) when everyone else was zagging. Besides, the only decent olive oil I’ve been able to find mass distributed in the U.S. is the Tunisian brand in a tin can found in Trader Joe’s, and having decent olive oil in your life is fucking important.

Until then, I will continue searching for my own Ninth Path. Even if it’s just a concept invented by Hunter S. Thompson.

Podcast - Episode 6: Go North

  
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On this solo episode I talk about two great challenges facing society right now: the first is climate change, and the second is the disintegration of tight-knit communities and the support we’ve historically received from having close relationships. Put these two challenges together, and there’s only one choice: go north. I mean that literally.

I explain further in the episode. Have a listen, and let me know what you think.

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