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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Editor's Notes: Epilogue

Stephen H. Provost

When you know you might not be in a place much longer, you start noticing things you’ve taken for granted. The wind in the pines that whips around the corners of your house. The shops on Main Street, housed in buildings from a bygone age and nestled against a crisp, blue springtime sky. Conversations with people who’ve been part of your life for the past few years but who might not be much longer … at least not in person.

I’m noticing such things these days. How long will I be in Cambria? I have no idea. But I figured I’d better do some things I’ve always wanted to do here while I still have the chance. If the Who and Derek Jeter can go on farewell tours, I suppose I can, too, right? I spoke at Mary Anne Anderson's open mic night last Thursday, and I've got a farewell party set for tonight.

I’ve been meaning to take a drive up Old Creek Road between Highway 46 and Cayucos. I’ll probably do that sometime in the next few days. I want to drive some of the other back roads, too. Maybe I’ll pop in for karaoke one last time at San Simeon Beach Bar & Grill if they’re still doing it up there. “Elvis,” who runs the show up there, is always a kick.

Last weekend, on my second official day of unemployment, Samaire and I went to lunch at La Terraza, using up what was left on a gift certificate she got me for my birthday last year. I’d been milking it through three meals, and I figured I’d better use the last of it while I still had the chance. The meal was great, as usual: a chicken tamale, carnitas taco and some flan for desert.

While we were there, we ran into Clive Finchamp, who has sent letters to the Cambrian on a regular basis, but whom I’d never met in person until today. Samaire was taken by a stunning purple outfit worn by Clive’s wife, Sharon, and she said so.

Not knowing who we were, they asked whether we lived in Cambria and what we did. I said, “Until two days ago, I was editor of the newspaper here.”

Recognition dawned, and when they introduced themselves, I recognized them, as well. It’s funny how you can spend three-plus years in a place and never run into someone, then do so two days after you’re out of a job.

When I stopped by the mailbox the other day on Berwick, Aaron Wharton pulled up alongside me in his truck and wished me well. A couple of days before that, Iggy Fedoroff drove up alongside me on Main Street and expressed his appreciation. So many of the people in this town have been so supportive, and I can’t help but feel fortunate at that.

When we stopped in at Linn’s for a bowl of tomato soup, we ran into both owner John Linn and his son, Aaron, both of whom have appeared in the pages of The Cambrian during my tenure. I interviewed John after he told me about an exclusive deal he had to supply preserves and syrups to Knott’s Berry Farm. It’s hard to believe that was three years ago. Columnist Charmaine Coimbra talked to Aaron about his efforts to support youth cycling on the North Coast.

Linn’s is one of my favorite restaurants, and we’ve been there a number of times, but I’d never run into both Aaron and John there at the same time before. As an added bonus, my wife’s favorite waitress, Jordan, took care of us that evening. Synchronicity.

Before we sat down for lunch at La Terraza on Saturday, Samaire and I drove down to Moonstone Beach Drive to visit Art Van Rhyn in his gallery. I’ve worked with Art as The Cambrian cartoonist since I got here, and he’d drop by the office every Monday to deliver the week’s submission and chat for a few minutes. I learned that, before he was an artist, he’d worked as an engineer for Caltrans, and he supplied me with some great material for my book on Highway 99. More synchronicity.

We spent some time talking with Art about his paintings, our lives and what we have in common as artists (his specialty being visual, ours being words). I hadn’t expected to, but I wound up purchasing a painting from him: a stunning springtime view of San Simeon Creek Road bordered by yellow-golden flowers, which you can see at the top of this column. As a lover of old roads and pastoral vistas, I couldn’t resist. Samaire purchased a painting, too, of a Monterey pine. They’ll be perfect remembrances of our time in Cambria, if and when we decide to move on.

(How, you may ask, can an unemployed journalist afford to buy original works of art? I’ll let you in on a secret: Art’s paintings are very reasonably priced. Sometimes, when he sells one, it’s like saying goodbye to one of his children, but he loves to see them find good homes. Make the trip. You won’t be disappointed.)

Now that I’m no longer representing the newspaper, I can do some things I couldn’t do before. I can extol the virtues of my favorite places in town, I can take part in demonstrations for causes I believe in, and I can plant political signs on my front lawn. I can even write books about politics (stay tuned, but no, I won’t be writing about the water plant; I’ve done enough of that already).

Still, I’m running this under the heading Editor’s Notes – the title of my column at The Cambrian – because they’re not replacing me there, so I figure no one else will be using it. I may not be the editor of a newspaper anymore, but I look at it this way: As of this week, I’m managing editor of my own destiny.

I like the sound of that.

(See? I told you I wasn’t going to stop writing!)

7 questions introverts ask themselves at a party

Stephen H. Provost

They call us wallflowers, because we stand along the walls at social gatherings, hoping not to be noticed. It’s not an insult, really. Flowers are pretty, and most of them smell good, so I’ll take it as a compliment.

They say we’re “antisocial,” which sounds negative but is fairly accurate. Given the choice of being in a social setting or just hanging out with one person we find really interesting, we’ll invariably choose the latter. If that isn’t an option — and sometimes, even if it is — we’re happy to keep our own company. To write. To paint. To read. To veg. To go on long drives and marvel at the scenery that has so much to say without even opening its nonexistent mouth.

We’d rather listen to the timbers creak in an old barn by the side of the road than we would to someone, cocktail in hand, making small talk that will be forgotten in the morning. We’d rather keep the company of those towering redwoods on the Avenue of the Giants? Or those canyon walls meandering through the desert, bedecked in striated hues of yellow-gold, copper and deep crimson. Or the snow-capped mountains thrust up eons ago by a slow-motion surge of tectonic plates. Each will outlive the inane conversations that constitute “mingling” and “schmoozing.” Each speaks with gravitas without saying a word.

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If you see an introvert at a social engagement, it’s almost like sighting a penguin in the desert or a giraffe in Yellowstone. Introverts simply aren’t party animals. Most introverts end up at such affairs because we’re required to be present for work, as a favor to a friend, or because we’ve gotten so stir-crazy that we’ve momentarily taken leave of the senses that remind us how difficult it can be to go out in public.

Parties aren't our natural environment. We spend much of our time in blissful silence, safely behind the door of our bedroom, reading or meditating, creating or or just chilling. We also like to serenity of nature, beyond the cacophony and chaos of city life. Parties capture that chaos and confine it to an even smaller space. They're loud, and we can't hear ourselves think, let alone hear other people talk over the din. Most of the things people say at parties don't interest us, but we can't hear those that do without straining our ears to drown out all the white noise. It's exhausting.

For an introvert, the entire party experience is an exercise in containing stress and keeping a lid on anxiety — which takes a lot of effort. The anxiety isn’t chronic, and it’s not the kind associated with a phobia. This may come as a surprise, but for many of us, it’s not even an instinctive response; it's rational. In fact, it’s too rational: It involves overthinking the situation to such an extent that, before long, you just want to leave.

The Seven Questions

Here’s a step-by-step look at how the process can unfold in any given social setting: how an introvert can wind up miserable by analyzing it to death. Ultimately, the introvert is apt to spend more time and effort talking to himself — asking questions in his or her own mind — than to anyone else at the party. Questions like these:

One

“Do I know anyone here?” If so, the first instinct is to head in that person’s direction. A friend offers a familiar sanctuary in an environment laden with potential pitfalls. You can shut out the rest of the room and engage in the same kind of one-on-one conversation you might have over a cup of coffee. If the conversation’s really good, it can seem as if you’re not really at a social event at all.

Two

“Am I monopolizing my friend’s time?” Hanging out with a friend only works for so long, though. Before much time has passed, you begin to feel guilty and wonder if you’re being too clingy or exclusive. This is a party, after all, and your friend doubtless wants to talk to other people – not just you! You may even cut off the conversation early out of guilt, which will leave you right back where you started: faced with the prospect of being tossed to and fro on a sea of social chaos.

Three

“Is there any food here?” If you can’t find a friend — or run out of friends to talk to — food can offer the next-best kind of cover. Are you at a party where hors d’oeuvres, drinks or a buffet is being served? Make a beeline for it and fill up your plate with an ample portion. This will give you a great excuse not to engage in conversation with people you don’t know (it’s impolite to talk with your mouth full). One unfortunate side-effect of this strategy is that you might end up packing on a few unwanted pounds. Another is that (again) you’ll start feeling guilty about doing something socially inappropriate. So, you step away from the buffet table and ask yourself …

Four

“How can I avoid being noticed?” This is where the “wallflower” strategy comes in. It doesn’t necessarily involve pressing your back up against the wall; that’s just a specific way of staying near the perimeter of the social minefield — and out of harm’s way. It can be even more effective to find a window and gaze outside. Whatever’s beyond the glass will be distracting, and this approach has a key advantage: You can turn your back to others at the party, and they may not want to disturb you. On the other hand, though, you might actually attract their attention by making them think there’s something wrong. This is, of course, the last thing you want, because it might lead to a verbal interaction with someone you don’t know. That’s stressful.

Five

“If I do interact with someone new, how do I deal with that?” We introverts aren’t as prickly as we might seem. It really can be fun to meet new people, even for us. It’s possible to start up a friendly and fulfilling one-on-one conversation with a stranger who turns out to share some of your interests. But even if you do, you’ll soon feel that same old guilt creeping up on you — the kind you experienced with the friend you spoke to earlier — and it’s likely to be more pronounced. Your friend probably understood your anxiety, but this new acquaintance won’t know anything about it. If you linger too long in a conversation, the person might think you’re hitting on him or her, that you’re “too intense” or even “creepy.” So, you withdraw again, with a new question in your head …

Six

“How do I avoid interacting with one of those people?” “Those people” fall into a variety of categories, but the upshot is that you’re the one who thinks they’re creepy. Maybe they’re self-absorbed: They may not even bother to seek out a common interest before launching into an extended soliloquy about a topic you couldn’t care less about. These are the clueless talkers. If they talk too long, they morph into ramblers. Then there are the “close talkers” who invade your personal space (which for an introvert is typically larger than for others). There are “touchers” who put a hand on your shoulder or elbow uninvited. There are “honey bears” who immediately act overly familiar by calling you “honey” or “sweetheart” or “love” or “brother” or “sister.” (I’m always tempted to let my sarcasm get the best of me and tell them I’m an only child.) The fact that you think these people are creepy makes you even more determined not to behave that way yourself (see No. 5 above).

Seven

“How do I get out of here without appearing rude?” It won’t be long until most introverts start looking for an exit strategy. Handy excuses might be fatigue; a headache; the need to get up early the next morning for work/school; a pet that needs to be fed or let out; homework. … These possibilities will begin forming in your mind shortly after you ask yourself another question “How and why did I get myself into this?”

Stage and fright

Some of you who know me might be scratching your heads as you’re reading this. You might have seen me get up in front of a roomful of people and deliver a 90-minute talk on Fresno or ancient mythology or the history of Highway 99. You may have seen me do a reading from one of my books. Or you might have witnessed me do my best to channel Garth Brooks or Billy Joel or Def Leppard during karaoke. Maybe you’re saying to yourself, “I could never do that!” And you’re probably wondering, “Him? Antisocial? Not that I noticed.”

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As hard as it might be for people with stage fright to understand, getting up in front of a room full of people can be far easier for an introvert than navigating the same room at ground level. Being on stage offers you the kind of insulation you can’t get in a room full of minglers. And the rules up there are clearly defined: You have people’s attention without having to compete for it. No matter how many or how few people show up to see you on that stage, it’s your room, and you’re playing to a more or less captive audience.

You might still worry about going on too long or (if you’re singing) hitting the wrong note, but not nearly as much as you’d worry about what might happen at a party. Clueless talkers might get in a few words during a post-presentation Q&A, but they can’t exert the same amount of control as they could at a party. Close talkers and touchers can’t get close enough to violate your personal spaces. Oh, sure, they might rush the stage, but this happens with rock stars, not authors and weekend karaoke kings.

You might need to do some mingling if there’s a reception after your talk, but it isn’t likely to last too long (people having already been there for an hour or more and will be eager to get home). Besides, any discussion — even with strangers — that takes place there is likely to revolve around the talk you just gave, and therefore be of interest to you.

This isn’t to say introverts only want to talk about themselves. In fact, many of us prefer to let others do most (but not all!) of the talking … as long as they’re talking about something interesting, as opposed to the frivolous or mundane topics that seem to dominate many parties. It’s understandable that they do. People like to test the waters before diving into the deep end of a conversation, and some weighty topics (politics, religion, etc.) can lead to nasty disagreements. But that doesn’t make introverts any less eager to spend time talking about the weather or health problems, celebrities, wardrobes or cars.

There’s always a better option, and it involves curling up at home in bed with a good book or a good movie or working on a creative project.

Like this blog.

Big ideas are infinitely more rewarding than small talk, that they’re a lot less stressful, too.

Foxholes don't prove god, just desperation

Stephen H. Provost

Believers are fond of saying, “There are no atheists in foxholes,” as though this statement somehow proved the existence of a god. And not just a god, but their god.

I’m not here to attack anyone’s traditions. The best of societies, in my view, is an open one that allows room for all manner of beliefs — or lack thereof — as long as they’re expressed, rather than imposed. But I do want to point out that the absence of “atheists in foxholes” does not, logically or otherwise, prove the existence of a deity.

To begin with, there are atheists in foxholes, and there's no basis for stating otherwise. (You can’t start with a premise like that and fail to provide evidence for it; since it’s impossible to prove a negative in a case like this, so you’re behind the 8-ball from the get-go.) Millions of people have sacrificed their lives for their principles, and the refusal to compromise those principles under threat of death isn’t exclusively religious. If it were, every soldier tortured would turn traitor rather than die for his or her country. No one would ever give his or her life for anything. 

But say, for the sake of argument, that the premise is valid. Let’s assume that, in the face of death, every single atheist will, in fact, call out to some deity in the hope of deliverance. If that were so, would it prove the existence of a god?

Hardly. The mere fact that you want something is no proof that it exists: If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. No, if such an impulse is evidence of anything, it’s that human beings (like other organisms) have a fierce will to survive, and that, in extreme circumstances, they’ll go to extreme lengths to do so.

Darwin’s monkey wrench

If necessity is the mother of invention, desperation is the nursemaid of hope. It’s not religion that impels us to contemplate actions at the far edge of possibility, it is — perhaps ironically — the very Darwinian struggle to survive. (Isn’t it just like that Darwin to throw a monkey wrench into the grinding gears of dogma?)

The impulse that drives foxhole conversions, when they do occur, is the same one that spurs the destitute to spend money on a lottery ticket, even in the face of ten million-to-one odds. It’s the reason a cancer patient might pay thousands of dollars for a snake-oil remedy on the slim hope that something, anything, might ward off the inevitable.

With everything at stake and nothing left to lose, what can it hurt? When all else fails, throw that Hail Mary. It's natural, it's human, and it has nothing at all to do with religion.

Proof of human desperation is no proof of any god. It’s merely proof that well-meaning people will sometimes enter into contracts under duress. Those contracts, however, are never binding to either party. They won’t hold up in a court of law, and the argument that they somehow prove the existence of a deity won’t hold up in a logical argument.

You can take that to the bank. Or the foxhole.


Author’s note: This essay is presented, not as a critique of a specific belief system, but of fallacious argument used in the defense of any belief system. For more on this subject, see Requiem for a Phantom God (2012).