Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Preparing for the Apocalypse

If you plan on surviving zombie infestation, invasion of the cylons/Chinese/Russians, or any number of apocalyptic scenarios, one thing's for certain: you need to know how to fend for yourself in the wild. To that end, I took a winter survival course this past weekend. After this class, I clearly know how I'll end up during a zombie infestation:

In short, the idea of going out and living off the land is great. The execution would be friggin hard.

Pre-emptive apologies for the long post. It was a 2 day course, so I wanted to cover everything we did in those two days.

Initial Thoughts

I was thinking that this was going to be a military style of camp where I just get yelled at for being a failure of a man and we would discuss the waterboarding vs. electroshock torture methods. So, I dragged a buddy of mine along with me so it wasn't just me and a bunch of gun nuts.

We got there at 8:45 Saturday morning after making an emergency stop to pick up one last piece of equipment I didn't have (an empty gatorade bottle). When we got there, I was surprised to see a pretty nice cabin. Upon walking in, I secretly hoped that this was mostly going to be classroom training where we would stay nice and warm inside.

Looking around at the other guys (there were 18 guys and 1 gal) I noticed I was definitely the most out of place. I was the only one not wearing some sort of camouflage and one of a few that didn't have an extra 50-100 pounds on them. But overall, the group seemed pretty nice.

Cabin at the entrance

Day 1 Activities

Obviously, we weren't inside much. Once we got started, we walked a little bit down to camp. The first thing we did was gather a bunch of wood, because that was going to be used for shelter and fire. Most of guys had to start shedding layers because they were getting warm and we weren't supposed to sweat. I found this a little amusing because all we were doing was walking around and carrying logs. As one of the not chubby guys, I didn't really take much clothing off because my heart rate simply wasn't raising high enough to get me all hot and bothered.

We learned a bit about different knots so that we could build our shelters. After that, we started to assemble our shelters. They were simple a-frame shelters. Here's Bob's with just the frame setup:

Once we were done with that, it was time for some bedding. This was simply switch grass gathered from around camp. This kinda sucked. It took about an hour or so to hack away at the grass with your knife in order to get an adequate quantity to sleep on. This was important because it kept you off of the cold hard ground. Now that we had all of our supplies, it was time to put all of those fancy knots to use and assemble the shelter. Here's my fully assembled shelter:
I honestly had little faith in this guy keeping me warm through the night, especially the garbage bag door that I had on the front. But, I had a sleeping bag that was rated to -30 degrees, so I wasn't too worried.

After shelter building came fire craft. Boy howdy does this suck. You see it in the movies and it seems so easy. We didn't even try the whole rubbing two sticks together thing, we were just gathering wood and then using firesteel. The hard part here wasn't so much getting the fire started, it was finding the right wood to start with. I didn't have a saw with me, so that made this task much more difficult. The key is finding a dry piece of wood without knots. You're going to be batoning the wood, so you need a nice straight grain. After a decent amount of work, you'll have your pile of wood, your tinder, and your fire platform and you can go to town with your firesteel. It was pretty cool to get this going, and I feel fairly confident that I could do it again, but it's easier to have a lighter and a pile of newspaper.

Everyone setup for camp
After fire, we were pretty much done for the day. We set up our sleeping arrangements, ate dinner, and then essentially watched a one-man comedy show from one of the owners. It's definitely one of those "had to be there" type of things, but suffice it to say, I'm pretty sure I heard more gay sex references than I would hear in a bath house.

I thought for sure that night I was going to get a decent night's sleep. My shelter seemed warm enough, I had enough clothes, I had lots of ground padding, my sleeping bag was rated to -30 degrees, and I wasn't sleeping in the same tent as Bob who is the worst snorer ever (his wife is a saint). Then the wind came. Around 2 or 3 in the morning, I awoke to what sounded like a freight train coming through. It was a little eerie. We were down in a little depression surrounded by trees, so my shelter was barely moving in the wind. So, I could hear howling wind and all of the trees moving, but it was fairly still where I was. Additionally, as I mentioned, I had little confidence in my shelter. I rolled over onto my stomach so that if it crashed down on top of me, it wouldn't hit me in the face. In the morning I learned that we were getting around 50mph gusts throughout the night.

Also at this time, I had a strong urge to use the bathroom (i.e. the tree marked as the piss tree). However, I was very cozy in my sleeping bag. So, for the first time ever, I grabbed my water bottle and relieved myself with that instead of getting up in the wind and cold. I was very happy with that decision. Once again, I was glad I wasn't a woman. Unfortunately, only in the morning did I realize that this was exactly what the empty Gatorade bottle was supposed to be for.

In the end, my shelter held up great through the night. Even my little garbage bag door. I am still a little surprised at how well it worked and how warm it was inside there. Who needs a tent? Just some paracord, a tarp, a 55 gallon trash bag, and some logs.

Day 2 activities

Day 2 was a little less intensive. We didn't really get started until about 10:00am. Once we got started, our instructor showed us how to build a completely natural shelter. It took 10 of us only about 20 minutes to build this. However, there were 10 of us and all of the materials were already gathered. I think it would take about 4ish hours to build one by myself.

The instructor then built a signal fire which we had to make all of the shavings for. This was pretty cool just making a fire that would give off as much smoke as possible.

Our last activity was snaring. As an ethical vegetarian, I was a little apprehensive about this. Thankfully, he said up front that we weren't actually going to be leaving our snares out. But now I know how to strangle a squirrel with some brass wire should the need arise.

Finally, we went back up to the cabin and had a review of what we learned. Most importantly, we got a little velcro patch.

Summary (or TL;DR Version)

Being in a survival situation would suck. I now know how little I know about the topic. And, while it was a fun weekend, I also know I don't want to dedicate the time and effort necessary to learn these skills. My plan, should it hit the fan, is to drive to Tekamah and hope that these guys will take care of me.

Ready to leave

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

On Pacifism

In writing up my post on Quakers, I decided I wanted to write a bit more about my thoughts on pacifism.

Back in 2011, I went and visited the Battleship Texas. Surprisingly, this is what planted the seed for pacifism in my mind. As I was walking around that ship that is a marvel of engineering, I was simply astounded by the effort that went into killing people. I just started to wonder what we could have done with all of that effort had we put it towards construction instead of destruction.

For some reason, thinking about pacifism makes me very uncomfortable. I think there are two main reasons for this.

  • I've always been interested in military history and strongly believed in "just" wars.
  • A lot of my personality is "violent". It's not that I go around punching people, but I used to get very angry easily, I make jokes about violence, and just make comments that objectively are "violent" but most people wouldn't really think this is the case.
These reasons make it hard to reconcile pacifism. However, I think pacifism is more than strict violence, it's about having your default response to people be one of kindness, not aggression.

The "pure" pacifism view is that there's never a reason for violence. I think a quote I heard from Penn Jillette sums this up nicely, "The ends do not justify the means. Because there are no ends, there are only means." In this context, you will never truly get to a place of peace through violence.

I think I'm still in the camp that there is a time and place for violence, but those should be significantly less frequent than they are in American society today. I also think it's a worthy goal for everyone to simply be more kind to everyone else. Having "violent" thoughts and attitudes gets in the way of this.

To get more towards the state of being kind to everyone, I think it's about approaching the natural. I don't need to flip a switch and become your end state. I can take small steps like simply adjusting my language and mannerisms to be more in line with that end state.

The next step in my hippie transmogrification and Quakerism

Since moving to Nebraska, I've been slowly becoming more and more like a hippie. It wasn't until last year that I realized this has happened.

How to become a hippie in 10 easy steps

  1. Grow long hair - make sure you don't comb it or anything, just grow a majestic mane. Oh, grab a spirit animal while you're at it.
  2. Start riding your bike to work and think about how awesome you are riding your bike powered by smug.
  3. Start a garden
  4. Become a vegetarian. Take that Omaha Steaks
  5. Start composting in preparation for next year's garden.
  6. Grow a beard. Regardless of how rugged and handsome it makes you look, it still takes you a step closer to being a hippie.
  7. Become a pacifist
  8. Join a commune. Doesn't matter what type, could be anarchist, nudist, etc...
  9. ???
  10. Profit

I have yet to do the last 4 but step 7 is underway.

Quakers (not the oats)

Sunday I went to a Quaker (technically called the "Religious Society of Friends") church service. They call it a meeting, not a service; regardless, it's their weekly devotional practice. This ties in to step 7 because Quakers are big time pacifists (I've decided to break out my thoughts on pacifism into another post). It was definitely a new type of spiritual practice that I had never experienced before. I knew going into it that it was a little less formal than most other services, but didn't realize how informal it was.

I also knew that this was going to be a super small group. This made me a little apprehensive because at most small churches, I almost get a feeling of desperation when a new person comes. I probably put off the same feeling of desperation around girls when I was in High School. I'm not sure if desperation is the right word, but I can't think of a better one. To my surprise, I didn't get that feeling here. I still can't put my finger on what it is exactly, the feeling I got was more "it's nice that you're here, but we wouldn't be too distraught if you weren't". I liked this attitude.

Due to their size, the group just meets in a room at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church. I got there at a strategic time of about 9:51 for a 10:00 start. This gave me enough time to get the lay of the land but not get tied up in overly long awkward conversations. The 10:00 start put it during a service for St. Andrew's, so there was no one in the hallways when I got there. After finding the room we were supposed to meet in, I found it empty. So, I wandered around aimlessly for awhile. At around 9:59 or so, another guy came, and he confirmed this was the place.

Before I get into the meeting details, I should clarify what a Friends meeting is like. Main difference to other services is that there's no pastor or anyone else "in charge". Friends are very egalitarian, believing that everyone is equally qualified to commune with God. The first hour of the meeting is just an hour sitting in silence, meditating, praying, whatever. It's called "expectant worship". The second hour is reserved for discussion. The topics are set weeks before (more on that later). The discussion may be about a specific reading, social issues, business meetings (as this day's was).

A couple other people filtered in between 10:00 and 10:30, again illustrating the informality (ended up with a grand total of 6 people, counting me). Everyone was chatting in the beginning and then all of a sudden, while I was in "waiting for others to arrive" mode, I noticed that people had stopped talking, folded their hands in their laps, and closed their eyes. I realized that expectant worship had started. Again, I thought someone was going to say "we're starting" or something like that, but it just started.

The expectant worship was uneventful as you might expect. I was glad I had taken the Zen Buddhism class so that I knew better how to meditate. There was a 17 month old in the room that made it a bit more challenging, but wasn't a big deal. Overall, I didn't have a super hard time sitting in silence for an hour.

The expectant worship ends when one person gets up and goes around and shakes everyone's hand. Then, it's time for the discussion portion. Again, I had strategically planned (strategy is an important part of winning at Church) by attending on a day that there was a business meeting scheduled. I felt I would have an easy out if I was super uncomfortable. I was liking the vibe so far, so I stuck around for the business meeting.

The business meeting simply talks about upcoming events, reviews notes of the previous meetings, plans out the next discussions, etc. Nothing too heavy, but I got a good feel of their upcoming topics and also learned a bit more about the religion just from side conversations. I also picked up some literature to read later.


Overall, I really liked the Friends meeting. I will definitely be going back there again. Additionally, I'm glad that I had written up my thoughts on religion beforehand, because this allows me to compare what I found to what I wanted. I would say the Friends matched up more than any other religion than I've been too.

A+ Would Buy Again

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Try out 12 new churches, an update

One of my items is to try out 12 new churches. The goal of this is to eventually find a place that I would be comfortable having a regular spiritual practice. I don't really know what I'm looking for in a church which makes it kind of hard. Here are some of my criteria that actually limit the list down pretty rapidly:

  • Okay with gay marriage - this one eliminates a whole heck of a lot right off the bat.
  • Okay with women in the ministry - surprisingly, this one also eliminates a lot (I'm looking at you Presbyterians)
  • Lack of emphasis on music during the service - I hate singing in church and most of the "contemporary" bands just suck
  • Sermons that actually have some substance
  • Has a decent number of people around my own age
  • Mid-sized congregation
I'm sure I have more but those are the main ones that eliminate quite a few churches.

I felt that in doing this item on my list, I should branch out beyond Christianity in order to bring a more well-rounded view to the table. Additionally, it would bring my spiritual beliefs in line with my actions.

Overall, I do not believe in ONE spiritual truth. Think of it this way, try to describe the feeling of hunger. It's somewhat nebulous if the other person didn't implicitly know what it was. Now, translate your description a few hundred times over the course of a couple of thousand years. How well has your description been kept intact?

Now, describing hunger might difficult, but describing God is immeasurably more-so. This is really why I don't think ANY religion has the "truth". I think they all have some things right and some things wrong. Plain and simple, we can't possibly grasp what God is, but I do believe it's important to believe in something.

That being said, I've decided to mainly stick to Christianity but to try out a few different religions as well. Here's my list so far for ones I'm planning on going to and ones I've attended, as well as a grade that I gave them based on my enjoyment. As you can see, there are only 10 on this list, so if you have other suggestions, let me know.

  1. Shadow Lake Church - B+ - Very casual atmosphere. I was impressed with the pastor's response to some of my questions I had in the guest book online.
  2. Stony Brook Church - B - Sister church of Shadow Lake. Nice pastor, nothing too ground breaking.
  3. Country Side Community Church - A- - This is probably my favorite church I've been to in Omaha. Great sermon that day (though now I can't remember the topic), fantastic music, and good demographics of the congregation.
  4. Omaha Zen Center (Buddhist) - A- - Took a 3 hour intro to Zen class here. I could have done a whole post on this (and might in the future). Very interesting and will definitely be developing a meditation practice in the future.
  5. St. Paul's Lutheran - C+ - Ugh, standard boring service. No substance sermon and tired music.
  6. Rejoice! - C+ - same as St. Paul's. Boring.
Planning on Attending
  1. Hindu Temple of Omaha - They provide tours!
  2. Islamic Center of Omaha - I'm quite glad that they have a section on how to behave while visiting on their site. I most definitely would have offended someone otherwise.
  3. Omaha Friends Meeting (Quakers) - I'm actually super nervous about this one. From what I've read, a Quaker service is usually just an hour of potential silence. If you want to speak then you can, but it could just be silent.
  4. Some synagogue - Look! There's more than one in Omaha! I'll have to make a choice. If anyone has suggestions, let me know.