Stephen W. Browne | Rants and Raves

Aug/15

1

Reflections on Chattanooga

I was on the road again this past two weeks and not paying much attention to the news. Nevertheless I couldn’t avoid hearing that four Marines and a sailor were killed in a spree shooting at a recruitment center in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

I must confess it was not altogether a surprised to find the name of the (late) shooter was Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez.

As it happens, what I was doing that weekend was participating in a get together of violence professionals. Including : law enforcement, security personnel, medical professionals with experience in traumatic wounds, scholars. In general a gathering of seriously well-educated, seriously tough people.

The underlying theme of these events is the safety of yourself and your loved ones in a dangerous world.

The event included not only training in specific techniques of personal combat, but lectures on awareness, avoidance, and de-escalation.

Naturally I’m going to draw a parallel between the events of that terrible day and the gathering the following weekend.

The obvious issues were brought up right away.

We have a military in which trained men and women are not allowed to carry personal arms on base or at duty stations such as the recruitment center.

We could go back and forth on that one, and I’m sure we will over the next few weeks. I understand some governors in their capacity of commanders-in-chief of the state National Guards are taking matters into their own hands.

Then there is the observation that when that evil young man murdered nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston last month, the media immediately, and I believe correctly, assumed it was a racist hate crime. But in this case an awful lot of people seem to be looking for a motive while ignoring the quite obvious conclusion he was a jihadist who regarded himself to be at war with the United States.

What’s I’d like to contribute to the discussion is this.

There is something any professional or trained non-professional in the field of personal security would say you have to, have to do in a dangerous situation to have any chance of survival.

Don’t pretend it’s not happening!

We share the world with a culture and a religion which produces a certain critical number of individuals who hate us enough to die for the chance to kill some of us.

Yes they’re a minority within their own culture. Yes the number of casualties they inflict are miniscule in comparison to auto accidents every year.

We should not however lose sight of the fact they enjoy widespread passive support among Muslims world-wide, and that the auto industry is not working feverishly to produce more automobile casualties.

We can disagree on whether Muslim rage is caused by our foreign policy. We can argue whether we should pursue a conciliatory or aggressive policy towards Islamic countries or some combination of the two. We can argue all day about the likelihood of Islamic jihadists acquiring a nuclear bomb or bioweapons.

What we should agree on is: the jihadists regard themselves as at war with us, many live among us, they will seek to do us harm at unpredictable intervals, and they are looking for ways to maximize the harm they do.

Can we at least acknowledge this? Or will we continue to deny the simple reality until they force us to acknowledge it?

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Jul/15

29

Minnesota windmills

Windmills

I’ve been on the road for two weeks, starting from Oklahoma to Colorado, to Wyoming, to North Dakota, Minnesota and back to Oklahoma. I visited with friends each stop of the way, took some training and gave some training in martial arts. All in all a very productive trip.

I’ve always liked road trips and I like camping as well. Campgrounds are a cheap alternative to motels, and if setting up and breaking camp is a hassle KOA has cabins for about half the price of a decent motel. You have to bring your own bedding though. Big deal, it’s like a room with a bathroom down the hall except it’s across the lawn.

It’s like my old dad used to say, “The definition of a good traveling companion is one who doesn’t mind a bathroom down the hall.”

KOA cabins even have wifi, TV and air conditioning. However I found a campground outside Casper, Wyoming with cabins that had neither, but were only $25.

After a lifetime of moving around restlessly, I think I am beginning to master the art of travel.

When I was younger I was intoxicated by the idea of covering ground in a short time. Now I like to turn off the road and investigate whatever catches my fancy. The picture above was taken in Jasper, Minnesota a town of 633 residents located at the intersection of Minnesota State Highways 23 and 269.

There is evidently a windmill business in Jasper. These are the little decorative ones. What I missed about a mile and a half north of town was a 10-acre yard where Terry Rodman has a collection of larger working windmills.

Next time!

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Jul/15

10

Hidden Agendas

Well same-sex marriage is now by judicial fiat the law of the land, and our president couldn’t be happier.

“Our nation was founded on a bedrock principle: that we are all created equal,” Obama said. “Sometimes there are days like this, when that slow, steady effort is rewarded with justice that arrives like a thunderbolt.”

Whatever your opinion on the issue is, there are two things I wish we were talking about.

One is that you can support the idea of same-sex marriage and still disapprove of the way it was achieved.

Proponents of utopian plans to set the world to rights have an attitude of, “Don’t care how it gets done, just so it gets done.”

The more cautious among us, those who study history, think that how something gets done in a republic is as important as what gets done. A constitutional system has to follow a consistent procedure or the system falls apart.

Yes it’s messy, expensive and time-consuming to go through the drill in 50 state legislatures.

That’s how it was designed. If you look at history you find examples of nations which fell into tyranny almost literally overnight. In the United States we’ve flirted with it from time to time without ever quite falling over the edge. At least not yet.

The other thing is Obama and Hillary Clinton were on record not all that long ago as firmly dedicated to the principle that marriage is between one man and one woman.

Now it’s no sin to change your mind. In fact I’d be bothered if a politician said he’d never changed his mind on a single issue no matter what.

But, it’s evident Obama did not change his mind. He’s been in favor of same-sex marriage all along and had just trimmed his sails until the political winds shifted.

We know that because his former adviser David Axelrod wrote in his memoir, “Believer: My Forty Years in Politics,” he’d advised Obama not to be honest about his real views for reasons of political expediency.

In other words, Obama had a hidden agenda all along. As did Hillary and a lot of others.

I could get loudly indignant about this. I don’t like people with hidden agendas. Not in my life and not in public life.

But I can think of three men with hidden agendas I can’t condemn.

After the Battle of Marathon, the Athenian politician Themistocles invented an imaginary threat from an island to the west of Greece to convince the Athenians to build a fleet. The fleet that destroyed the Persian fleet at Salamis and saved Greece for another generation.

Abraham Lincoln claimed for years he only wanted to restrict slavery to the states in which it already existed. Southerners didn’t believe him and seceded when he was elected. Lincoln’s early writing shows the South was right. He detested slavery and wanted to move against it when the time was right.

Franklin D. Roosevelt said, “Again and again I tell you, your sons will not be sent to fight in any foreign wars.”

Again, history shows that to put it bluntly, he was lying through his teeth. He always intended to get the U.S. into the war. By doing so he saved Western Civilization for a few more generations at least.

There is a difference between a hidden agenda and putting an issue on the back burner.

Many conservatives such as the late William F. Buckley favored abolishing drug prohibition, but didn’t push the issue because it was divisive and the time was not right. By and large they didn’t lie about it (though I know personally of one exception) they just didn’t harp on it. Only now is the idea becoming respectable enough to bring up.

Themistocles and FDR saved their civilizations. Lincoln freed an entire people. But our civilization would not fall if we’d failed to legalize same-sex marriage.

It is an insult to free men to lie to them.

Yes, sometimes the people can be wrong and must be led by far-sighted leaders who cannot always be candid. Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures.

But how often? And for what ends?

Can we talk about that?

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Jun/15

28

Invasion of the giant beetle!

OK3

This Sunday morning I got up and went out in search of a plate of eggs benedict and an old Oklahoma landmark. Found them both!

On US 77 about nine miles south of Noble, Oklahoma is the VW bug. A sculpture made of a VW beetle body mounted on steel legs. It’s commonly called the Spider, but I’m going to be pedantic and point out that spiders have eight legs, so this is obviously and appropriately a beetle.

It’s been there every since I remember, but Sunday I determined to go and find out something about it. So I dropped by the Lexington Family Worship Center and asked Pastor Louis Bennett who acquired the property a few years back.

“I was going to cut it up,” Bennett said. “But it’s a landmark and I promised the town I’d leave it there. We get about 50 visitors a month.”

According to Bennett it was the project of one Leroy Wilson who put it up on June 3, 1979.

I hope to find out more about the now-deceased Mr. Bennett and his giant beetle.

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Jun/15

16

The sad story of Rachel Dolezal

The head of the Spokane, Washington chapter of the NAACP, Rachel Dolezal has resigned amid allegations she’s been “passing” for years.

For people with a sense of irony, this has been the gift that keeps on giving.

“Please know I will never stop fighting for human rights and will do everything in my power to help and assist, whether it means stepping up or stepping down, because this is not about me. It’s about justice. This is not me quitting; this is a continuum,” she said on the chapter’s Facebook post.

Oh “allegations” pfui! The lady’s parents blew the whistle on her, and they’re white. When confronted with the “allegations” Dolezal went all deer in the headlights and started blathering about how we’re all from Africa.

Well yes, Africa is the original home of humanity. But the term “black” or “African-American” has a specific meaning associated with ancestry from a specific part of Africa where slaves were captured, sold, and transported to the New World.

(A history which ironically, our first black president does not share. Barack Obama Sr. came from Kenya, on the other side of the African continent.)

In America, unlike France or parts of South America, society adopted the “one known drop” rule. ANY known African ancestry made you “black.” No qualifications, no gradiations of color that mattered.

In France with some African ancestry you could be the Chavalier du St. George, master swordsman. Or Alexandre Dumas pere et fils, popular authors.

In America you could be Frederick Douglas, but it was a lot tougher row to hoe.

Mark Twain wrote a whole novel, “Puddinhead Wilson” in which two children, a slave and the child of that slave’s master, are switched at birth. Since the blood quantum is so small, no one can tell the difference.

But Dolezal evidently does not have even that one drop. Photos of her as a teen show a blond light-eyed girl who needed hair dye and frizz plus what appears to be a spray tan to pass.

(Full disclosure, I have that one drop. It recently caused much hilarity in my family when my father contacted a distant relative revealed by the genetic testing service Ancestry.com. She’s an African-American lady whose privacy we will respect. She was evidently mortified by the connection and refused to talk to him.)

NAACP officials have put on the best face they can, correctly pointing out that the organization was never limited to persons of color and has always had white members.

Oh pfui!

Dolezal passed for black not only in the NAACP, but in the city of Spokane where she served as Chairman of the Spokane’s Police Ombudsman Commission, and at Eastern Washington University where she’s an adjunct professor in the Africana Studies program , teaching African and African American Art History, African History, African American Culture, The Black Woman’s Struggle and Intro to Africana Studies.

Dolezal coached her adopted African-America siblings not to “blow her cover.” She constructed an absurd back story of living in a tipi in Montana where her parents hunted for food with bows and arrows. She claimed to have lived in South Africa.

And she claimed abuse by her parents and her ex-husband. This is not a harmless thing.

The weird thing about all this is not just that it happened. We live in a historically odd time when the privileged desire to identify with the oppressed, and they’ll by God do it if they have to manufacture some of that oppression to do so!

It’s a nice, safe way to pat yourself on the back for your courage that involves no sacrifice of comfort or even popularity. Unlike say, speaking out about the ongoing slow-motion genocide of white farmers in South Africa or Christians in Africa and the Middle East. That could get you dropped from fashionable circles – or killed.

No, the strange this about this is how she got away with it for so long when the simplest background check, the kind you and I go through every time we apply for a job or a loan, would have blown her story into the stratosphere.

For heaven’s sake, this lady looks like a kid in a wig going trick or treating!

Why were people so easy to fool? Why did they take an absurd story on face value, told by a woman is so obviously a seriously disturbed person?

The only answer I can come up with is, because they wanted to be fooled.

And why? That’s the conversation we ought to be having.

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May/15

20

Outlaws!

This Sunday saw a pitched battle between two motorcycle gangs in the parking lot of a Twin Peaks restaurant in Waco, Texas, which left nine dead and 18 wounded.

The good news is there were no bystanders harmed. The bad news is it’s not over yet.

The shooting involved members of the Bandidos and Cossacks gangs, with some involvement of the Scimitars and Vaqueros gangs. The score reportedly stands at eight Cossacks and one Bandido.

A possible cause of the battle, according to Texas Department of Public Safety Joint Information Center, might be the Cossacks refusing to pay Bandidos dues for operating in Texas and for wearing the Texas logo under the club patch on their vests without the Bandidos’ approval.

The Bandidos, like the Cossacks founded in 1969, are the dominant motorcycle gang in Texas. They are said to allow other gangs to exist in their territory, but do not allow them to wear the Texas patch.

The Bandidos are also said to have a feud with the Hell’s Angels, the largest motorcycle gang in the world.

Bad blood between the gangs goes back to at least 2013 when Curtis Jack Lewis, president of the Abilene, Texas chapter of the Bandidos, was arrested on charges that he stabbed two members of the Cossacks during a fight outside a restaurant.

The current war has been building for a month at least according to law enforcement. Reportedly the restaurant management was warned trouble was coming their way, but did nothing. The parent company has now revoked their franchise.

To be fair it’s difficult to see what they could have done short of a 24/7 security presence that would scream “DON’T COME HERE” to both bikers and the general trade.

So what is this all about?

That some people like to ride motorcycles is neither new nor hard to understand. Two-wheeling is some of the most fun you can have on a vehicle which doesn’t leave the ground.

Then there’s the romance of outlawry. There’s a fair number of people in our society who find it just too civilized. The allure of the outlaw band appeals to the desire to take to the open road and thumb your nose at civilization.

With this comes the primal impulse of loyalty to the tribe. In an age of gigantic impersonal nation-states this is very powerful.

With your brothers at your back you can feel powerful! Think on that the next time you’re being bullied by some petty bureaucrat and the thought creeps into your mind unbidden, “Man to man, he wouldn’t have a chance…”

This is not confined solely to the anti-social. I personally know a city attorney in the northern Midwest who likes to don his leathers, leap on his bike and ride down the road, returning with hints of not-quite-respectable adventures and bar fights.

And there are the material advantages. The lucrative criminal enterprises these gangs engage in are said by law enforcement to include trafficking in marijuana, cocaine and meth.

This is not confined to the U.S. A few years back there was a motorcycle gang war involving the Hell’s Angels in Sweden. Just last month the Night Wolves, a Russian gang, rode through Eastern Europe to demonstrate their support Putin’s dreams of resurgent Russian nationalism. Until they were stopped at the Polish border.

The outlaw biker gang is an odd phenomenon. They harken back to an age of feuding tribes, but depend on industrial civilization to build and maintain the roads and vehicles they use.

They proudly proclaim their outlaw status, but their survival depends on the laws of a free society. Because face it, how difficult would it be to wipe out gangs of conspicuous law-breakers who wear identifying badges and often tattoos, if society decided to ignore due process?

Their existence is mostly a nuisance to the larger society as long as they obey the first rule of civilized gang warfare: If you’re not a player, you’re not a target.

And I wonder, is there something about their existence we find thrilling in a guilty sort of way, as long as they confine their wars to themselves?

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May/15

14

An idea worth a second look

I’ve been an observer, commenter, and sometime-participant in politics now for several decades in several countries. Believe me, there is nothing like it to make you appreciate the truth of Bismarck’s observation that those who love sausage and respect the law should never watch either being made.

We are not ruled by the best among us nor the wisest. We are not ruled by those who have our best interests at heart, or who even care about what we want.

Not long ago a study conducted at Princeton University combed through 20 years of data from 1981 to 2002, looking for the answer to a simple question. Does the government represent the people?

Researchers compared public support, measured by more than 2,000 public opinion surveys, for more than 1,800 public policy initiatives with the likelihood of that measure being passed by congress. Ideally in a truly representative system the percentage of public support would track closely with the chance of it becoming law, i.e. 50 percent public support equals a fifty-fifty chance of passing, etc.

We would expect some exceptions of course.

Edmund Burke said, “Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

We would hope to have representatives with the wisdom to know when popular sentiment is wrong, and courage to go against their wishes and risk their displeasure.

But what they found over 20 years was an almost flat 30 percent chance of any given bill passing, whether it had zero support or nearly unanimous support of the voters.

The study concluded, “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a miniscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.”

However, when they compared the support of the top 10 percent of income earners the likelihood of a policy initiative passing was not identical but far closer.

The fact wealth translates into political influence has never been a secret. The Founders wisely built a dynamic tension into our system, balancing the interests of the powerful few against the many, in an attempt to prevent it from lapsing into either an oligarchy or a mobocracy.

It is evident now that the equilibrium has come unbalanced, and that this is a long-term trend. It is not the result of any single law, nor the exclusive fault of either of the major parties. The problem appears to be systemic, and not fixable by electing new representatives who swear on the Bible to do something about it.

There is a group of people who think they have the solution though. Represent.us is an attempt to start a grass roots movement to pass a model anti-corruption law at city, county, and state levels with the goal of reform from the bottom up.

There are nine provisions to the model law which boil down to three basic principles: 1) prohibit politicians from receiving contributions from interests that they regulate, 2) require full disclosure of all political contributions of any kind, 3) create a small tax rebate for political contributions by individual taxpayers.

They appear to be going about this in a sensible and practical way. They’re starting with modest goals on a local level, with a program that ordinary people on the right, left, and center can support.

I confess to some reservations about this. I’m not totally sure complete transparency of political donations wouldn’t create the possibility of intimidation of donors by employers, unions or any powerful interests.

I’m also cynical about the ability of venal politicians to work around laws designed to limit their greed.

But I’m also hopeful about the enormous reservoir of talent and courage within the American people, and I refuse to believe they will tolerate becoming serfs in a corrupt oligarchy, no matter how well-upholstered their servitude may be.

And let it be said, I’m also confident that those oligarchs are smart enough to realize the people when roused will reform that system, or destroy it.

Without endorsing it yet, I say give it a look.

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May/15

4

Terror in Texas

Charlie Hebdo TBy the time this goes to press readers will know more than we do now about the shooting in Garland, Texas at the Mohammed cartoon contest last Sunday.

All we know for sure at the time of writing is that two men with rifles were shot dead by police after opening fire on an unarmed security guard outside the event.

The event itself was sponsored by the American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFDI), a new organization founded by Robert Spenser and Pamela Geller, both prominent anti-jihad pro-Israel activists.

The convention featured a contest with a $10,000 prize for the best drawing of the Prophet Mohammed, an act considered blasphemous by Muslim fundamentalists. Attending was Dutch politician Geert Wilders who occupies a prominent place on the Al-Queda hit list.

AFDI has already generated a fair amount of controversy in a short time. The Southern Poverty Law Center wasted no time putting it on their list of “hate groups.”

But they are not so easy to dismiss. Spenser is acknowledged scholar of Islamic history and has been asked to conduct seminars on jihad by the United States Central Command, United States Army Command and General Staff College, the U.S. Army’s Asymmetric Warfare Group, the FBI, the Joint Terrorism Task Force, and various organizations of the U.S. intelligence community.
Geller is an author, columnist, and outspoken proponent of free speech and opponent of honor killings, the Middle Eastern practice of murdering sisters, daughters and wives deemed to have dishonored the family for being seen with an unrelated male or just getting lippy.

Whatever you think of her political opinions Geller puts her life on the line for them, and for your right to express yours.

At a time when so many people conspicuously congratulate themselves on their courage for expressing opinions which carry not the slightest risk of even minor inconvenience, that’s impressive.

At this point speculation is rife. Some have said it’s significant there were no demonstrations outside the venue and speculated potential demonstrators had prior knowledge of the attack.

Reportedly there have been many enthusiastic expressions of support for the attackers on Twitter.

Maybe so, maybe not. We’ll see.

What does seem obvious is that organizers of the event were prepared for something like this. Response was swift and well organized. And we know that 200 people knew the risk and came anyway.

This is important after 206 members of PEN, the writers’ organization dedicated to free speech, signed a letter disassociating themselves from the decision to honor the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo with the PEN/Toni and James C. Goodale Freedom of Expression Courage Award following the murder of 12 members of their staff in Paris on January 7.

Doonesbury cartoonist Gary Trudeau, who made a career of fearlessly lampooning right-wing politicians who whatever their faults uphold his right to do so, publicly ran like a jackrabbit from the impression he’d ever offend anyone who might kill you for it.

After the targeted murders of journalists in Paris and Copenhagen many wondered if that kind of up-close-and-personal jihad against free speech could come to America.
Now we know.

Note: This is my weekly op-ed. I usually archive them after they’ve appeared in print, with exceptions such as this when the news is still breaking.

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Apr/15

26

Go see Ex Machina

ex-machina-

Alex Garland’s Ex Machina is one of those movies that’s very hard to review without spoilers. It’s got a conclusion I kind of didn’t see coming, though I did guess some of the twists and turns before the end.

I can tell you that 1) yes it’s entertaining, and 2) yes it’s thought-provoking, if you have steeped yourself in the literature of the Singularity and the possibility of what we call “strong AI.” That is to say artificial intelligence that can pass the Turing Test.

The Turing Test was proposed by mathematician and cybernetics pioneer Alan Turing, who is currently the subject of the movie “The Imitation Game.”

Turing suggested we’d know we’d created an intelligent being when a human could sit in a room with a teletype (this was a while ago) and exchange messages with a correspondent he couldn’t see. If at the end of a lengthy conversation he couldn’t tell if it was a human or a machine at the other end, we’d know.

At some indeterminate time in the near future Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is brought to the Alaskan hideaway of multi-billionaire genius Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who coded the world’s largest search engine when he was 13. It must have blown Google out of the water by then.

Nathan is experimenting with strong AI in the form of robots. Specifically one robot Ava (Alicia Vikander) who appears to be partly an attractive woman with body parts made of transparent plastic that reveal the inner machine.

These are only speaking parts in the movie. The only other character that interacts with the trio is Nathan’s beautiful mute servant/lover Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno).

Caleb has ostensibly been brought to conduct a Turing Test on Ava. In a series of seven sessions he simply has to engage in dialog with Ava and at the end give an opinion as to whether she passes.

Of course there’s more to it than that. All the characters are engaged in various kinds of manipulation – and that’s part of the test too.

Nathan is a seriously unlikable character, and he’s also consciously aware that he may be creating humanity’s replacement. Does that make him a god of sorts – or just yesterday’s news in an unimaginable future?

How will the AIs of the future feel about us, and how much does that depend on how we treat them? (Hint: reread Frankenstein, the original by Mary Shelley not the Hammer films.)

Would an intelligent entity without glands and hormones have any kind of motivations we’d understand at all? Would the concept of gender mean anything to them? How about self-preservation?

Sam Goldwyn famously said, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union,” meaning message flicks are all too prone to become didactic, heavy-handed and boring.

Ex Machina does a pretty good job of letting the questions suggest themselves – if you’re the kind of person who thinks about that sort of thing. If not, the plot comlications might still entertain.

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Apr/15

1

Resistance

ohm (The Greek letter omega is used in electrical engineering as the symbol for electrical resistance.)

I discovered author Steven Pressfield when I was living in Warsaw, Poland and just starting out as a professional writer.

The book was “Gates of Fire” about the battle at the Hot Gates, called Thermopylae in Greek. I bought it because I’ve always been fascinated by the last stand of the 300.

(Actually closer to 7,000 at the beginning of the defense of the pass. At the end the remnant of Leonidas’ guard stood with 700 citizen soldiers of the small city of Thespia who refused to leave when he sent the bulk of the Greek force away after getting news the path around the pass had been betrayed to the Persians.)

When I opened the book I knew right away I had a work of literary genius on my hands. I have since read more of Pressfield’s books, but none has quite hit me like that one.

Although I must say, after seeing the movie made from “The Legend of Bagger Vance” I marvel that he could grip my attention with a work about golf – a sport I am not merely uninterested in, but one I have an active dislike of.

Every book you enjoy is a wonderful gift from someone you may never meet. But the greatest gift Pressfield has given me is the concept of Resistance. He writes about Resistance often on his blog, and in his books such as “The War of Art.”

Resistance is a writer’s constant companion.

Resistance wakes up with me when I first check my email, get my children up and send them off to school

Resistance has breakfast and coffee with me while I think about what I’m going to write today.

Resistance gives me an overwhelming desire to do housework when I’m stuck on a sentence.

Resistance whispers in my ear that I can’t finish a book-length work and nobody will be interested anyway.

Resistance says tomorrow is always a better day to start.

Resistance asks wasn’t it better when you had a flesh-and-blood boss to tell you to write? Wasn’t it better when you wrote for an audience you knew was there every day?

I have known Resistance for a long time. She has been with me all my life, and will never leave me.

But though I often give in, I know I must never give up.

Pressfield showed how to defeat Resistance in the most masterful way – write about it.

Now back to work.

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