A Pilgrimage

I recently returned from a trip to the British Isles – England, Scotland, and Ireland. It’s a journey I have long wanted to make, and seeing this desire fulfilled represented an important life goal achieved. Aside from a few pokes along the northern and southern U.S., I hadn’t really traveled outside the country.

The first week I spent in London. Each day was packed with a variety of destinations ranging from ancient churches and museums to the residence of fictional characters and pubs frequented by the Bard or mentioned in a Charles Dickens novel.

The experience was similar to when I visited the East Coast last year, exploring Civil War battlefields and the U.S. capitol.

For those of us who hail from the Pacific Northwest, the concept of heritage and tradition can be hard to grasp. When I was born, Washington hadn’t even been a state for a hundred years. A building that has stood for more than half a century is considered “old,” and structures even younger than that are being demolished and replaced with new ones.

In world history, we are hardly more than newborns.

Compare that to London, which has existed as a settlement since the Romans first invaded Britannia. A London Bridge of one kind or another has stood in the same place for more than a millennia, beginning when centurions built a wooden fixture spanning the Thames. There is little separation between old and new. Modern architecture is adjacent to edifices built when the Anglo-Saxons still sat on the throne of England.

The same can be said for the other parts of Great Britain. That history and continuity is woven into ordinary conversations in a way that you don’t find in my region.

By standing there myself, beholding effigies of Templars or the Forest Charter, a part of me finally accepted that what I read in a book and online, or watched in a film or video, actually happened and involved real people.

A Pilgrimage

Nowhere was this feeling more intense than at Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, carved out of the sandstone rock and reputedly the oldest inn in England. It is difficult to describe what it was like to enjoy an English ale in the same place where, according to legend, Richard the Lionheart and his knights drank one final time before setting out on the Third Crusade.

Another thing that struck me through and through was not only how beautiful these churches were, but the incredibly meticulous nature of their design. Every exterior corner it seems is adorned by a statue of some saint or a carving of a biblical scene. Modern buildings exist to strictly serve a utilitarian purpose and look the part. Churches are no exception. However, designers in the past saw their work as achieving something greater than providing a space for people to congregate. There is a distinct character and, one could say, cultural values one can hew from subtleties on display.

Some photos below from London perhaps demonstrate my point.

After a brief stay in Scotland to view Edinburgh Castle and the William Wallace Monument, the rest of the trip was spent touring the southern half of the Irish Republic, where my family on my mother’s side originates. Although driving on the left side of the road was an eerie new skill I had to quickly learn (or didn’t), it took no time getting used to the weather. The rain and green topography was, in many aspects, uncannily similar to that of rural areas just outside Seattle.

A Pilgrimage

I’m well versed in Irish history, but even if I wasn’t, there’s something about the island’s stark beauty that conveys enough poetic tragedy so that one gets the gist of it. Driving along the coast near small towns like Skibbereen, one can sense the sorrows and miseries endured by those who had long gone, either dying from the Famine or fleeing in desperate hope to America.

However, these photos also offer why the people, despite hardship and poverty for centuries, could articulate humor and joy in their music and stories. The scenery is indescribably stunning.

In many ways, the trip was very much a pilgrimage. Not only did I visit ancient churches, but I had the unique opportunity to receive the Eucharist in Westminster Abbey and attend a worship service in the Temple Church, the Knights Templar’s English headquarters in London, celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

A Pilgrimage

The service included Reformation hymns sung by the Temple Church Choir. Buried within its walls are men such as William Marshal first Earl of Pembroke and champion of the Magna Carta. I was so moved by what I saw that I made the tribute video below.

The Temple Church – Tribute Video

A video I made after attending a special worship service at the Temple Church in London, the former English headquarters for the Knights Templar. Buried there is an English hero and champion of liberty whose name should be better known among Westerners.

Posted by TJ Martinell on Friday, October 20, 2017

One part of the trip I found intriguing was the power of an author to create a character so real people treat him as thus. The Charles Dickens Museum in the writer’s former residence is only a walk way from the Sherlock Holmes Museum, also found in the detective’s old home.

Except he never lived there, because he wasn’t real. But you would never know that by the way the museum is arranged and how the museum’s staff speak of him. Touring both places in the same day, the rhetoric was indistinguishable. Both were treated like famous London residents. Holmes’ place at 221B Baker Street was chock-full of his “old” things just as Dickens’ was, and with the same attention to detail and accuracy.

A Pilgrimage
Sherlock Holmes’ parlor.

It was a testament to what a writer can accomplish, and the effect they can have over people, to the point where they are so immersed into the narrative they act, even if they don’t actually believe, like the character is flesh and blood as much as they are. It also demonstrates the power of the imagination for both Holmes’ creator, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the readers who embraced him so enthusiastically they brought him back to life from his literary death in “The Final Problem.”

Doubting Thomas With An iPhone

Back in October, I traveled to the East Coast to see relatives in the Washington D.C. area. While I was there, I also had the incredible opportunity to visit many significant historical sites, including Civil War battlefields that speckle the region. One of the first I went to was Gettysburg, location of the deadliest battle in American history.

At one point during my tour of the battlefield, I knelt beside a stone wall where young boys almost half my age fought and died one hundred and sixty years ago. Looking across the field, I could see the forest of trees where fifteen thousand Confederate soldiers had waited for the order to make their fateful charge that, as one Confederate officer later put it, “achieved nothing but glory.”

Two things struck me about the whole experience.

One, places such as Gettysburg have changed little since the day Lee’s army first marched into the town thinking the impending fight would end the war. Unlike other historical locations situated amid modern cities, Gettysburg has not lost the surrounding environment to urban planning and population growth.  You feel transported back in time and can almost sense the presence of the ghosts of fallen soldiers as you walk about.

Second, it struck me deeply that it was all real. Prior to that moment, Gettysburg had been a place I had heard about. I had read books about Gettysburg, viewed pictures of the battlefield, and watched movies filmed there. But I had never actually seen it myself, and it was only then that I fully accepted it as something other than a concept. It no longer required faith that what I had previously relied on was accurate.

A similar experience occurred when I viewed one of several original copies of the Magna Carta kept in the National Archives. I had long before read stories of cruel King John – courtesy of Robin Hood tales – and the English barons who forced him to sign a document that would inspire the signing of the Declaration of Independence centuries later. However, like with Gettysburg, it had only been an abstract idea or thought. No longer.

I don’t think people are fully aware of how much of our life consists of dealing in the abstract. Less and less we deal with others directly. We don’t literally see each other or speak to one another. What we deal with directly are intermediaries; phones, computers, laptops, newspapers, television, and radio. But for whatever reason, we do not accept them as truly genuine. We can watch a person on TV for years and develop a sense of familiarity, but there is a sense of awkwardness when meet them in the flesh. We speak words online we would probably never say to someone’s face (though there are exceptions) because for whatever reason it doesn’t “feel” the same.

It is why I am rather sympathetic to “Doubting” Thomas, the Apostle who infamously declared he needed to see Jesus and touch his wounds to believe he had resurrected from the dead. I doubt he would have said anything different if Skype had existed.

We are all have a Doubting Thomas within us, but with an iPhone. We can read about things, write about them, watch them, and view photos. Yet none of it has the same effect of seeing something with our own eyes. It is as though in the recesses of our minds, our subconscious retains a profound suspicion that what we see isn’t real until we actually see it and receive confirmation.  It is one thing to learn about the Magna Carta; it is another to stand inches away from the millennia-old document with the King’s seal still attached and know from direct witness that it existed.

Perhaps this explains the sense of isolation many people feel despite living in an era of instantaneous global communication. The entire world is within our grasp, yet no chat forum can satiate our natural desire for organic human interaction the way an in-person discussion does. And yet, we find ourselves increasingly addicted to these intermediaries. We are beginning to favor them over the people in front of us. Go to any public area and note how many people are on their phones as opposed to speaking to the person beside them (I am guilty of this as much as anyone). How many times have you seen a family with every child’s eyes transfixed on some sort of electronic device?

Despite our apparent preference for the digital, I believe deep down people realize there has been a price to pay for the conveniences our technology affords us. Our reality is shaped not by what our physical senses perceive, but what our intermediaries present to us, and one wonders if the benefits have outweighed the loss.

The craving for the real versus the artificial is something I explore in my novel The Stringers. The protagonist, Roy is a bit of a misfit because, like his father, he perceives the value of direct human relations in a society where the use of artificial intermediaries are practically mandated by law. One character experiences such deprivation of authentic human contact that, like Doubting Thomas, she insists on touching those with whom she speaks to prove that they exist.

Ideally, a healthy balance between digital and the real could resolve what we might refer to as a “First World problem.” However, as I depict in my book, mankind tends to deal with such issues in absolutes.

Making Fact Out of My Fiction

This month, President Obama signed National Defense Authorization Act of 2017. The bill contained provisions from another congressional bill known as the “Countering Disinformation and Propaganda Act.” One section creates a veritable federal Ministry of Truth within the State Department, known as a “Global Engagement Center” (Pages 551-553).

Its purpose? “To recognize, understand, expose, and counter foreign state and non-state propaganda and disinformation efforts aimed at undermining United States national security interest.”

Translation: To discredit anyone who contradicts the official state-approved version of reality and events.

Some of the Center’s functions include:

  • Monitoring news overseas that undermine the U.S. government narrative.
  • Promoting U.S. propaganda efforts through a grant program.
  •  Funding local journalism outlets to “refute foreign disinformation and manipulation in their own communities.”
  • Creating a “disinformation, misinformation and propaganda” database of unapproved articles and social media content.

It isn’t hard to see how this unconstitutional authority will be misused and abused. Naturally, the center’s director or some other federal bureaucrat decides what is “disinformation” and “fact-based” news. The definition is subjective, not objective.

As always, historian Tom Woods frames the issue perfectly:

Of course, the absurdity of all this should be obvious: who has spread more lies and “fake news” than the U.S. government itself?

Who can outdo our mainstream media when it comes to fake stories they later apologize for because independent journalists and bloggers embarrass them into doing so?

Who spreads more nonsense about U.S. history and economics than our own professors of these subjects?

It’s a truly upside-down world.

Imagine you say or write something the government center decides is “disinformation” or “foreign propaganda.” Imagine you’re targeted by your local media for espousing views the government will now pay them to denounce.

Better yet, what if some reporters and news outlets conclude the government narrative, including the one promoted by other media, is factually incorrect?

If unelected bureaucrats can decide what “disinformation is” and use taxpayer money to attack unapproved news sources, how long before they start separating protected freedom of speech and press from “propaganda” they’re authorized to censor and suppress.

Tyler Durden at Zero Hedge described the political situation well in a recent column:

The scene is now set for the US government to legally crack down on every media outlet that the government deems to be “foreign propaganda.

It is exactly the sort of censorship I depict in my novel, The Stringers. Instead of a Global Engagement Center, the Information Security Administration determines what news is “real” and which is “fake.” Rather than manipulating local journalism through a grant program, all journalists are licensed and the ISA has an officer in every newsroom ensuring the state narrative is protected before any article is published.

When I first started writing The Stringers in 2013, I envisioned the country creating anti-free speech laws under the guise of combating “misinformation,” along with some clever constitutional misinterpretation.

Suffice to say, I never imagined reality would bear so close a resemblance to the story.

If you want to know what your future might look like, pick up a copy of The Stringers, and read tomorrow’s headlines today.

The Joy of Lifting

I am what you might refer to as a gym rat.

I enjoy weight lifting the same way Bob Ross loved painting. He had his happy trees. I have my happy dumbbells.

Aside from illness or perhaps vacation, I’ve been on the same workout routine since I was 16, and in a few years half my life will have involved a relatively consistent lifting program.

It is interesting whenever I discuss lifting or workouts with people either in the gym or outside of it. Some are regulars. Others buy the annual membership every December in the hopes of finally meeting that seemingly elusive New Year’s goals and shedding the extra fifteen pounds they accumulated somewhere between the peppermint schnapps and spinach dip.

What I find intriguing is the common distaste for lifting among both sets of people. To them, it’s boring and monotonous. Lifting is like taking out the garbage or doing the laundry. You do it not because you actually enjoy it for its own sake, but because if you don’t your life is worse off for it.

I’ve never held that sentiment. For me, the gym is akin to a sanctuary, a place of refuge and comfort. If I’m on vacation or traveling, I’m on the lookout for one at my hotel. If there isn’t one, I do a minimalist workout. If and when I ever get around to owning a home, the garage will include a bench press and squat rack. Barring a severe disability, I fully expect lifting to remain an important aspect of my life.

The difference in attitude over weight lifting or working out stems from what motivates us to do it on a semi-regular basis. Visiting the local gym or fitness center isn’t a huge inconvenience compared to other activities, but there are only so many hours in a day. A regular 40-hour work week eats up most of it. Then you have your commute (double it, if you live in the Puget Sound region), meals, other hobbies, necessary chores or errands, and even that doesn’t account for children or a spouse.

In other words, the average adult doesn’t hit the gym because they’re bored and have too much time on their hands.  Some look to shed weight they’ve inadvertently gained or keep the pounds they see on their friends’ waistline off theirs.

I get why people lift to stay thin and healthy, and that’s partly what compels me to wake up in the early morning’s dawn, but unless your metabolism rate is irregularly low, it’s easy to keep the same clothing sizes without lifting. If most people simply ate a respectable diet centered on meats, fruits, and vegetables, and stayed away from booze, soda, and snacks, they’d probably do alright. During the times when I’m not able to lift, I’m more conscious about what I eat and do just fine.

However, none of that has anything to do with why I love lifting.

A lot of lifters do it to get big. I certainly appreciate the extra muscle, but looks can be deceiving. I know plenty of men who are muscularly bigger than I am, but they can’t lift as much. I also know a lot of men who are smaller or leaner, but somehow they manage to lift in the same weight range.

I’m a borderline addict to working out because I like being strong. As it turns out, this desire is much more instinctive than we might believe.

A few years back, a fellow Pacific Northwest writer named Jack Donovan wrote a book titled The Way of Men that looked at what defines masculinity. His argument was that masculinity is based on four tactical virtues. The first one was strength; the other three were courage, mastery, and honor.

Physical strength is a distinctly masculine trait in the sense that we respect men who have the ability to lift a lot of weight. We admire the physically strong. Chances are, most people would regard an impoverished gym rat that can squat the weight of a small car more of a man than billionaires such as Mark Zukerberg, who has probably never done a squat in his life.

Some might argue wealthy men have strength as well, but not only is it indirect and confined, it is not strength the way we traditionally understand it. A physically strong man’s power is internal and a part of himself, while a rich man’s strength is of external origins. What a rich man has is power, which is similar but ultimately different from strength.

Our post-modern Western society has less of a need, at least economically, for physically strong men than it ever has. However, rapid technological changes cannot override something that has been an indispensable part of manhood for thousands of years. In a world increasingly secure, hazard-free, and deliberately devoid of physical risks that were part and parcel of the world until the late Twentieth Century, lifting is one of the few affordable and non-dangerous ways for men to bear some semblance to their ancestors for whom physical strength was necessary merely to survive.

Bear in mind that tactical virtues such as strength are amoral; strength does not make a man good or evil. Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan were no doubt physically strong men, but their millions of victims could certainly attest to their severe moral failings.

Strength is not directly intertwined with fighting, but it is easy to connect the dots. A man who can bench press three hundred and sixty pounds can probably inflict a great deal of harm to someone should a brawl ensue. It isn’t the proclivity to inflict violence, but the potential. Schoolyard bullies tend to be the bigger kids, not the smaller ones, and their victims are typically the weak or scrawny, not the star athlete.

One of the things I love about weight lifting is its laissez faire environment. What I mean by that is achievement is mostly placed in the hands of the person themselves. Unless you work out with a group or have a personal trainer, you’re left alone. You aren’t required to have someone lift with you, nor can someone force you to lift with them (though voluntary spotters are always appreciated). You are free to do whatever you want.

Additionally, there is relatively little regulation or red tape compared to other hobbies. Properly formatting my books for Kindle and setting up the necessary accounts were not effortless or straightforward endeavors. Numerous times I had to fix a problem or error that consumed much of my evening.

However, as soon as I reach the gym I can begin my effort toward reaching whatever goal I have for that workout. Most of the equipment is there, and if not they are relatively inexpensive items such as a lifting belt or chain belt.

There is no micromanagement or restriction on how I choose to lift. I do not need anyone’s permission to change up my regimen on the spur of the moment. My success or failure is entirely on my shoulders, literally and metaphorically.

I am constrained only by the lack of will; I will to be stronger, so I become stronger.

As someone who yearns for simplicity, the appeal in that is readily evident.

Perhaps the absence of complications has helped me thrive over the years, which brings me to another source of joy that lifting offers. Despite several setbacks and physical injuries, I’ve managed to find success in weight lifting that other areas have yet to offer. My college years saw me at my physical peak, but years later I’ve overtaken most of those personal records. And the best thing is, I could easily be stronger in five years than I am now. I’m no professional body builder, but I can certainly hold my own, more so as someone who does not use protein powder, Creatine, or any other supplement.

In comparison, other undertakings of mine since then have left me thoroughly frustrated despite investing appropriately enough.

People are drawn to things where they discover success and avoid that which has produced nothing but failure. I understand the value of not quitting easily or in the face of setbacks, but I also think there is a certain point where a man must accept his apparent limitations; if that is the reason some men avoid weights, I am sympathetic.

In that same way, a man should also focus on developing skills and abilities where his effort has borne fruit.  It comes down to return of investment. I don’t know if that one book on my shelf will be worth my time. Nor do I know if a new movie will be enjoyable. But I know the hour or two I spend in the gym will yield the results I want.

Going back to the Bob Ross comparison; if you watch him paint, you’ll notice how at ease he appears. He’s relaxed. Painting, it seems, brought him solace. I experience the same thing lifting. Some days I walk out of the weight room on what you might call an emotional high. Even when I’m exhausted, it is a joyful fatigue; I gave the workout my all and was rewarded in return.

The Life Of Dick Proenneke: What It Means To Be Free

Freedom is a curious word. We use it a lot in conversation without the need to explain or justify why we want it. The desire would appear to be a universal human craving.

However, as an overall concept, it is somewhat subjective.  What does it mean to have freedom, to be free? The answer all depends on who you ask, and their reply indicates their highest values in life.

I recall a passage from the novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Captain Nemo tells Professor Aronnax why he loves the sea.

“Independence is possible only here!” he declares. “Here I recognize no master! Here I am free!”

Freedom seems to be the idea that we are in control of lives. We are masters of our own fates. What befalls us, for better or worse, is the result of our behavior, not that of others who impose their will upon us. When we are free, we decide our destinies.

When I think of freedom in that sense, I think of the life of Dick Proenneke. A Navy carpenter and later diesel mechanic, Proenneke left civilization in 1967 at the age of 51 to live near the Upper Twin Lake, located in southern Alaska. Using only hand tools, he built a 10-foot by 12-foot log cabin entirely by himself. The cabin is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Aside from the infrequent family trip, he lived there for 30 years until old age made it impossible. During that period he kept detailed journals about the local weather and filmed his adventures, including the cabin’s construction. The footage was later used to create several documentaries of his life. The most popular by far is Alone in the Wilderness.

Dick Proenneke filming.
Proenneke filming in 1975

It is hard to watch the film and not observe the immense freedom he had despite no electricity or running water. Yes, he relied on friends to bring him some basic supplies, but nature and the elements were his two biggest constraints. Even then, there is a beauty found in the way nature imposes restrictions on man through the seasons.

Other than that, he had few limitations. No one was around to control him or regulate his daily routine. Every morning was a chance to do something different, every day open to new possibilities. His life was devoid of the tedious complications that make so much of modern life feel circumscribed. When he wanted dinner, he walked a few yards to the lake, dropped a line in the water, reeled in a fish, and took it back to his kitchen to cook. He hiked where he wished to hike, explored where he wanted to explore.

It is easy to envy Proenneke, even though most would never choose his austere, isolated lifestyle. For all the technological comforts he denied himself, he still lived on his own terms. I wonder if a lot of people question whether giving up those luxuries is worth the price. How many wished they had done the same upon retirement?

At the same time, it is a moot point for the average person because they could not live the way Proenneke did, if for no other reason than the fact that much of what made his freedom possible was a self-reliance hardly any possess – incidentally, I think this is why anyone who watches his documentaries can’t help but admire him. Building a decent cabin that can withstand harsh weather is no small task, even less so without support. Watch the documentary and observe the ingenuity needed merely to build the front door. He also constructed a separate log cache to house additional supplies and fashioned many of the utensils or tools he needed. If tools broke, he could repair them. If emergencies arose, he could care for himself. He had to, because help would not arrive with a quick phone call and a short drive across town. And he was able to live like this until his eighties when most men could not do so in their prime years.

Which brings up perhaps the most fundamental part of freedom; to be free in any real sense requires ability. You cannot just have freedom as though it were some trophy or object you put on your desk to display. It is a state of being. You must have not only the competence to maintain freedom, but the aptitudes that make it possible to be free in the first place.