A Higher Game – Colored Pencil Drawing

About two years ago, I was a guest on what was then called the Atheist Pastor Podcast. The host had invited me to share my story about how I lost my faith after serving as an evangelical missionary to China; but in addition to that, we talked about another issue that is now much closer to my heart: tribalism.

It had become increasingly clear to me that the greatest threat to America’s future (and humanity’s) was our own tribalism. In the face of enormous problems that threaten all of us, we have been unable to make progress because we’re too caught up in petty intertribal conflicts. All we can think about is “owning” the other side.

In the interview, I presented the following metaphor: Humanity is in a chess game against the devil, and as the devil gradually strengthens his position and prepares to checkmate us, we’re gathered around nine squares in the back of the board, playing a stupid, petty game of tic-tac-toe. What we need to do is play a higher game.

For several months, I fantasized about drawing or painting the metaphor. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to do it justice, but eventually I decided to give it a shot — and I went all-out. After five months, I had a drawing that I’m tremendously proud of. Below are some photos documenting the process.

I began by taking dozens of pictures of myself sitting at a chessboard in different positions in order to build the composition of the piece. Using those photos as reference, I produced the following underdrawing:

I decided to start coloring the characters in the foreground first, using blue on the left and red on the right to match the traditional political spectrum. I was nervous about coloring their flesh, so I began with their clothes. Here’s the blue guy:

I was especially pleased with the buttons on his jacket and the wrinkles and creases in his pants. Then I colored the red guy’s clothes:

I wasn’t very happy with the red guy’s pants, but I really liked his tie and the buttons on his jacket. After that, it was time to color some flesh. I started with the blue guy’s hand, figuring that if I messed it up, it wouldn’t be too big a deal. But I ended up being really pleased with it:

I then finished the hands and faces of both guys in the foreground. Their faces ended up looking a little more wooden than I would have liked, but they weren’t bad. I wasn’t pleased with the blue guy’s hair, so I decided to wait a bit before doing the other guy’s hair:

I decided to tackle the chess pieces next. Getting the chrome look was a worrisome challenge, but using various shades of gray, I achieved a very nice effect. And I really liked taking pictures of the pawns with my hand in front of them as if I were holding them between my fingers!

The rest of the pieces turned out well — especially the black knight, I thought. And then it was time for the board itself. The board I was using as a model had beautiful wood grain, and I wanted to capture it as closely as possible. I started with the light squares:

When I finished the board, I was feeling great. I was especially proud of the perspective, the highlights, and the reflections. It really felt to me like it was coming out of the page:

Now for the devil. I’d been putting him off because up to this point, I’d been able to rely on my photos for models. But although I had a photo of myself (and a colleague) posing as the devil, I didn’t want the devil to look just like a regular person. I thought for a long time and settled on a look inspired by the character Te Kā in the movie Moana, with charred, cracked flesh haloed by flames:

I still wasn’t sure how I should color the devil’s face, so I punted again and began working on the background. I wanted this chess game to have a cosmic feel to it, so I used space scenes. On the left, I drew the famous “pillars of creation” (a nebula about 7,000 light-years away from Earth), and on the right, a spiral galaxy:

Finally, I colored the devil’s face. It didn’t turn out as well as I would have liked, but it didn’t ruin the drawing:

That was five months of work. The title is A Higher Game — because that’s what it’s saying we need to play. I really wish it could be in an exhibit somewhere, because I believe the concept is truly important, and (if I do say so myself) it’s some damn good colored pencil work.

If you want to buy a high-resolution poster of it, you can do so here at my store on Spreadshirt.

Rambow’s Rules for Life

Shortly after my son was born, I began drafting a letter to him — something I hoped he would remember me by long after I was gone that would also help him live the best life possible. The letter included many of the most important lessons I’ve learned in life — advice on how to be happy, healthy, and successful. My hope was that it would help him avoid many of the mistakes I made. For anyone who might be interested, here is the advice. I’ve divided it into three parts: (1) keys to success, (2) keys to happiness, and (3) miscellaneous advice.


  1. BE INDUSTRIOUS. Let your natural, default state be one in which you are always creating or learning something of value. If you’re always productive, success will be almost automatic, and you’ll never regret how you spent your time. Build things. Write. Learn new skills or languages. Keep a list of things you want to accomplish, and make sure you’re always chipping away at it. Don’t waste any time, because time is the most precious thing you have. This doesn’t mean that you should be a workaholic; quality time with friends and family is vital as well. Relaxation and recreation, in moderation, are not a waste of time; in fact, they can help replenish your well of creativity and make you even more productive — and creative pursuits are a big part of what makes life meaningful.
  2. CULTIVATE USEFUL SKILLS. Skills give you freedom and power. If you’re good at coding, you have the freedom and power to create new software. If you speak a foreign language, you have the freedom and power to live and succeed in a different country and to make friends with people you otherwise wouldn’t even be able to communicate with. Look around and think about what skills you’d like to have. What skills are employers looking for? What skills match your interests, talents, and affinities? What skills will give you the freedom and power to get a good job and earn a good wage? What skills will give you the freedom and power to do the things in life that you really want to do? It’s not just about work; there are plenty of skills apart from work that make life more enjoyable and fulfilling.
  3. BUILD PERSONAL CONNECTIONS. Cultivate and maintain lifelong friendships and business relationships. Always be engaged in your community — at work, at school, in your neighborhood — and make positive contributions while also building useful connections. Help others, and don’t hesitate to seek their help as well. It’s not about using people; it’s about being part of something bigger than yourself — a community that benefits everyone. Make sure the relationships are genuine; care about the people in your network, and learn to speak their love languages. Good relationships will help you not just to be more successful, but to be happier as well — because companionship is another big part of what makes life meaningful.
  4. BE PROACTIVE AND ASSERTIVE. If you want something to happen, make it happen. Don’t wait for opportunities to come your way; rather, actively seek them out and create your own opportunities. Just being good at what you do isn’t enough. People won’t come along and offer you a dream job just because you’re an excellent student. Figure out what you want; then figure out what it will take to get it; and then do it. You have to be willing to take risks. I was never very good at this, and I regret that I didn’t understand earlier what it meant to be proactive. I was a “great” student who always made good grades, and so I always got funneled automatically to the advanced classes at the next level. I made very few decisions on my own. I expected everything to be handed to me automatically because I was a good, hardworking student. But when it came time for me to graduate from college, I didn’t have a plan. Other people had made plans much earlier on: medical school, graduate school, law school, internships, and engineering jobs. While they were starting their dream careers, I still had no idea what I wanted to do. That was a huge mistake — one that I don’t want you to make as well. So, figure out what you want to do, and make it happen.
  5. EXERCISE YOUR MIND. Your intelligence level is not fixed; never stop raising it. Push yourself to master knowledge and skills that are difficult to understand, and you will become smarter. Stay in the “zone of proximal development” — the region where things are neither too easy nor too hard, but challenging enough to make you grow. If you feel that everything you’re doing is easy, then you’re not challenging yourself enough, and you should find more difficult problems to tackle. Actively and intentionally develop your problem-solving, comprehension, and communication skills. Be informed, be discerning, and expose yourself to a variety of viewpoints.
  6. PROTECT YOUR HEALTH. Take good care of your physical and mental health. Poor health is an obstacle to success, because health problems can eat up time, energy, and money that could be better spent on other things. You can’t control everything about your health, but there is plenty you can do to maximize your chances of staying healthy. There are four keys: diet, exercise, sleep, and companionship. Don’t pollute your body with smoke, excessive alcohol, or too much sugar and fat. Don’t eat too much or too little. Play sports that exercise your heart and lungs; lift weights enough to be strong; stretch enough to be flexible. Take care of your appearance so that you will always feel good about the way you look. Get enough sleep so that you’ll be mentally sharp and have plenty of energy. And surround yourself with people who push you to be a better person and make you feel good about yourself. Your health has multiple components, all of which will affect your success; don’t neglect any of those components.
  7. MANAGE YOUR MONEY WISELY. Always spend less than you earn. Whenever you receive money, save and invest a portion of it. Obtain assets, and avoid liabilities. An asset is an investment that brings more money into your pocket. A liability is something that drains money out of your pocket. An expensive car is a liability, not an asset. A fancy house is a liability, not an asset. A stock or mutual fund that grows in value and pays dividends is an asset. A house or condo that you rent out is an asset. Don’t worship money, but manage it wisely so that you’ll always have enough to take care of your family and do things that you enjoy.

Of course, success is not the only important thing in life. There are plenty of highly successful, wealthy people who are miserable, who hate life, and who drag everyone around them down. Don’t be one of those people. Happiness is more important than success or wealth — though of course, success and wealth can make it easier to be happy. Below are some additional principles that will help you to be as happy as possible.


  1. Surround yourself with cheerful people who work hard and like to help others. The friends you choose will have a tremendous influence on the kind of person you become. Make sure you’re always surrounded by people who make you a better, happier person. If you surround yourself with unhappy people, then you’ll be unhappy too. If you surround yourself with lazy and unsuccessful people, then you’ll be lazy and unsuccessful. On the other hand, if you surround yourself with people who are just like the person you want to be, then you will become the person you want to be. Here’s a good rule of thumb: If you like the person you are when you’re with someone else, then keep spending time with them. If you don’t like the person you are when you’re with someone else, then stop hanging out with them.
  2. Don’t compare yourself to others. There will always be people above you and people below you; people who are faster, and people who are slower; people who are richer, and people who are poorer. If you focus on the people who are “ahead of you” in life, it will be easy to become afflicted by envy, bitterness, and despair. If you focus on the people who are “behind you,” you may be tempted to feel an undeserved sense of superiority and pride. Neither is beneficial. Focus instead on being the best you can be. Take satisfaction in your own unique identity, the special roles that you fill, and the never-ending process of striving to become a better person.
  3. Find enjoyment in your present circumstances. A lot of people spend too much time focusing on what they want next. First, they can’t wait to grow up and become an adult. Then they can’t wait until they finish school. Then they can’t wait until they have a job. Then they can’t wait until they’re married. Then they can’t wait until they have kids. Then they can’t wait until their kids grow up. Then they can’t wait until they retire. Before they know it, their life is over, and they didn’t enjoy much of it because they never savored what they were doing in the present. Satisfaction was always one step ahead of them, so they never reached it. Instead of dwelling on where you want to be next, focus on where you are now. Find enjoyment in the process rather than the goal. If you’re doing the right thing now, you’ll end up in the place where you want to be next.
  4. Hold onto the good, and let go of the bad. Your memories will be your most precious treasures. The ones you choose to focus on will determine whether you are happy or bitter. Every night, as you drift off to sleep, open up your treasure chest of happy memories, and fill your heart with them. Think back on the bad times just enough to learn from them, and then let go of them so that they will never bother you again. This can be difficult to do, since we can’t always control our thoughts; but what we can do is notice negative thoughts when they arise (without passing judgment), notice how they make us feel, and then redirect our attention toward something more positive. Do not try to stop thinking about bad things. (There’s a classic joke about this: If someone tells you not to think about an elephant, they have just made you think of an elephant — and so it is impossible to avoid thinking about an elephant by trying to avoid thinking about one. In the same way, if you are focusing your attention on trying not to think about something painful, then you will necessarily be continuing to think about that painful thing.) Instead, start thinking about something else; the only way to get rid of negative thoughts is by replacing them with something positive. Don’t punish yourself for mistakes you’ve made. If you feel bad about them, then you’ve already learned from them. Let go, and move on.
  5. Never allow bitterness, resentment, contempt, or anger to take root in your mind. Don’t let any event — a horrible illness, the loss of a friend or loved one, or any kind of conflict or tragedy — make you bitter. Your life is too precious and too short to allow any significant part of it to be ruled by bitterness or anger. You may not be able to stop yourself from having these feelings temporarily, but the important thing is that you not let them take root and grow. Notice the bitterness or anger when it arises, and then let go of it and actively replace it with something positive.

Here are some other miscellaneous pieces of advice that I think are extremely valuable. Many of them are things you’ve heard me say many times, and I repeat them here unapologetically. They will also contribute to success and happiness.


  1. Never complain or make excuses, even when there are legitimate complaints and excuses to be made. Complaining is unattractive. If you have a positive attitude and lift others up rather than dragging them down, then people will like you more, and you’ll be happier and more successful. Bad attitudes are contagious; if you get infected by one, try to cure it before you spread it around. And avoid catching a bad attitude from others, just as you would avoid catching a cold from them.
  2. Observe other people carefully, and pay attention to their motives. Do this in both the short term and the long term. It will help you identify dangerous people, and it will also help you make deals with people. If you’re on a bus and you see a woman taking care of her baby, then you know what is motivating her: the desire to keep her baby safe, happy, and healthy. She’s not going to hurt someone else on the bus unless she feels threatened or desperate; and if she does feel threatened or desperate, that’s something you should be able to see. But if there’s a young man who is all by himself and is eyeing everyone else’s bags, purses, and pockets, then maybe he’s looking for something to steal. Pay attention to what people are looking at. Watch their eyes, watch their body language, and listen to their words. Think, what is this person trying to accomplish right now? This habit can be useful in working with other people. If you know what someone really wants, you can make a deal with them; they might be willing to do something for you if you help them get what they want. Just be ethical, and avoid shady deals that will cause trouble.
  3. Don’t be afraid to take risks. This old saying is true: “Nothing ventured, nothing gained.”Often, it’s worth it to give up something of value to get what you want, just as you might sacrifice a valuable piece in chess in order to win the game. Just be wise, not reckless, in the risks you take and the sacrifices you make.
  4. Be a player in life, not a spectator. Theodore Roosevelt put this idea best in the following quote:
    It is not the critic who counts; not the person who points out how the strong one stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the one who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again; who spends oneself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if one fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that one’s place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.
  5. Avoid motivated reasoning. “Motivated reasoning” is one of the most harmful things to human society. It undermines truth itself. And yet it is something that we do naturally, so we must watch for it in ourselves and try to avoid it. What is it? It’s the tendency to fabricate logical reasons for believing the things we want to believe. The following statement is counterintuitive but true: Intelligence doesn’t necessarily bring you closer to the truth; rather, it just enables you to construct clever reasons to continue believing the things you want to be true. A man once said to me, “My IQ is just a few points shy of Einstein’s. If you give me any argument against the Bible, I’ll be able to prove it wrong.” All this really meant was that he was committed to using his high intelligence to buttress the dogmas he had already decided were true before examining the evidence. His mistake was this: He never approached the Bible with an open mind and used his intelligence to consider the question, “What is actually true?” Instead, he was tackling the question, “How do I interpret the evidence in a way that won’t conflict with my cherished beliefs?” If he had been born into a Muslim family, he would have said the same about Islam: “If you give me any argument against the Qur’an, I’ll be able to prove it wrong.” And indeed, there are many people just as intelligent as he is who are just as certain that the Qur’an is true and whose arguments for its veracity are just as clever. The honest pursuit of truth is NOT about searching for evidence to prove your hypothesis correct. It is about going where the evidence takes you — whether that’s where you wanted to go or not. Good scientists search just as hard for evidence that will disprove their theories as for evidence that will support them.
  6. Avoid tribalism of all forms — especially political, racial/ethnic, and religious tribalism. Just like motivated reasoning, tribalism is tremendously harmful. It exists naturally within you, and you have to work hard to avoid falling victim to it. What is it? It’s a tendency to fall in line with people in your group — something we all do without being aware of it. Think about this: If you know what people believe about one particular issue, such as abortion, then you can usually guess what they believe about most other issues — even totally unrelated ones. Take guns and abortion, for example. You might think that someone who wants to protect the lives of unborn babies would also want to limit the availability of guns. But as it turns out, most people who are against abortion are also in favor of widespread gun ownership. And the reason is purely political. Most people are born into a political tribe, or they join one when they grow up. They think they’ve arrived at their beliefs through logical reasoning, but the actual truth is that they’re going along with their tribe, and they’re just employing motivated reasoning (without knowing it) to convince themselves that they arrived at their positions via rational thought.
  7. Become adept at defusing tense situations and disarming agitated people. It is in our nature to escalate tensions and repay offenses with greater offenses. Be strong and creative enough to step out of such destructive cycles. Interactions with people are like games of chess. You can be a slave to your nature and make expected moves that bring about expected conflicts — or you can master yourself and make unexpected moves that take everyone by surprise and change the direction and outcome of the game. In fact, most people are trapped in petty games without even realizing it. They are trying to score points for themselves and for their tribe. They spout insults and broadcast false virtues (which will win them esteem in the eyes of their tribe) without any regard for what is actually true. They cannot see their way to exit the game and play by a different, higher set of rules, putting an end to the point-scoring and the tribalism. Once they are locked in conflict, they cannot even see the possibility of ending it and working together. They cannot see the possibility of admitting they are wrong or apologizing. Get in the habit of watching for ways to transcend the games that others play. This is how you turn enemies to friends. This is how you get people to come together and accomplish more than anyone ever would have believed possible.

Taste (A Satirical Short Story)

Best. Fucking. Meal. Ever.

Sure, it wasn’t over yet, and I knew I might be jumping the gun, but I went ahead and composed a quick review on Squeal anyway, using eye movements to dictate the text to my iGlasses while I ate: “Sichuan Hut’s spicy chicken so succulent, would give both my kidneys to eat this shit again.” With a saccade down and to the right, it was posted.

Across the table from me, Mel and Leslie’s eyes changed focus, and I knew they were reading the review on their own iGlasses. It was because of them, really, that I’d felt confident enough to write it in the first place. Not five minutes ago, Leslie had said that the food was pretty rank, which is the highest compliment she gives anything. And Leslie fucking defines good taste.

I watched as they turned to look at each other. Leslie’s headshake was almost imperceptible, but I knew what it meant: I’d gone and made a fool of myself again. Mentally, I cursed myself; and I cursed Mel and Leslie, too. If they’d detected something wrong with the food, why the fuck hadn’t they said anything?

It was Leslie who spoke first. “You must not have eaten one of these,” she said, dropping a pepper fragment onto my plate with her chopsticks. Under her gaze, which was somehow both damning and sympathetic at the same time, I slipped the oil-soaked red flake into my mouth and turned it over on my tongue.

“Right?” Leslie said.

I had no fucking idea what she was talking about; but that’s not something you ever give away to Leslie, not if you want to keep hanging with her. So I put on a mask of dawning recognition and said, “Oh, shit, you’re right. How did I not notice that?” Then I waited for Mel to bail me out, which he always did.

“Fucking brazen, isn’t it?” Mel said. “Putting peppers from Guangxi—or maybe Guizhou at best—in a Sichuan dish!” He was holding up another pepper fragment with his own chopsticks—an impressive feat, considering how heavily modified his hands were. Tattoos and piercings were neither original nor extreme enough for Mel. No, his way of saying “fuck you” to the world had been to cut the index, ring, and pinky fingers off both of his hands. The result was that it always looked like he was flipping you off.

“Jesus Christ,” I said.

“Next thing you know,” Mel added, “they’ll bring us fucking fortune cookies.”

Leslie snorted.

The two of them went on at length about what a God-awful affront to the ideals of authenticity Sichuan Hut had turned out to be, and I ate in silence. While half-listening to their criticism, I realized that there had been something off about the dish; I just hadn’t been sharp enough to put my finger on it. But now that Mel had pointed it out, I had to admit that any fart-brain with half a dozen taste receptors ought to be able to tell the difference between Sichuan and Guangxi peppers.

How could I have been so stupid?

And yet . . . the food tasted good, damn it. Fuck pepper geography, anyway. And even though fortune cookies had been invented in America, hadn’t they still been created by genuine Chinese immigrants? Weren’t they therefore Chinese in essence, despite not being rooted in the Mainland? Why the fuck should I be ashamed to like them?

Recognizing my own thoughts as blasphemous, I mustered the necessary effort to crush them; and when I turned my attention outward again, I saw that Mel and Leslie had graciously, if grudgingly, paid the bill. Now they were looking at each other, sharing one of their ideas, and I could see that something interesting had just been decided.

“We’re taking you to The Sand Bar, Scrub,” Mel said.

Twenty minutes later, I was sitting at a dimly lit bar, trying to ignore the soundtrack of a screaming infant—the latest thing in music—when a sampler paddle was set down in front of me. There were eight shot glasses on it, each containing a teaspoon of sand, still radiating warmth after having been heated in an oven.

“Try the Hawaiian Green first,” Mel said, pointing at the olive-colored grains in one of my glasses. “And use the Sahara as a palate cleanser; that shit’s like distilled water.” Both he and Leslie smiled encouragingly at me, watching closely to see how I would do. I flashed them a nervous grin and reached for one of the glasses.

And so we fucking ate sand.

I gagged on some Coral Pink from Utah; Mel savored an ounce of Alaskan Garnet; and I looked on as Leslie paid three thousand dollars for a gram of Antarctic Radiolarian and then sent it back to the kitchen with the complaint that it had been served at the wrong temperature. The bartender gave her a shot of Gypsum White in compensation for the error.

When we’d all finished our sand, it was time to decide which movie to go see. By this point, I should have known better, of course, but I still wanted to prove myself. So I made a suggestion: Shattered Dream, by Walter Calhoun. Actually, I was cheating; I’d already seen it, and I’d thought it an unassailable work of art. Mel and Leslie consented, and as we left for the theatre, I imagined that I was about to be vindicated.

Sadly, I was completely unable to enjoy the film this time. I spent the whole two hours watching my companions out of the corner of my eye, hoping to catch some hint of their thoughts. It wasn’t until we were exiting the theatre that they shared their assessment, and once again, it was Leslie who spoke first.

“Well, that was fucking derivative.”

“You’re telling me,” Mel said.

Mel went on to unpack Leslie’s initial comment, and as he talked, I realized that the film was indeed patently uninspired. Anyone who knew anything at all about film could see that it was just an amalgam of Mitasareta Seikatsu by Susumu Hani (who was greater by far than Kurosawa), and Mickey Warden’s masterpiece, Lukewarm Fallout. Suddenly, I felt betrayed by my inner critic. How had I missed what was so obvious?

“We sure as fuck can’t end the evening on that note,” Leslie said.

“No shit,” agreed Mel.

And so even though it was getting really late, we went to an independent theatre to see Umbé Umbé’s new release, a post-avant-garde piece called Cold Hand, Warm Penis. It was a silent, black-and-white film about a man who hangs from a rope by his ankles, swinging like a pendulum for three hours.

I went into it expecting Umbé Umbé’s brilliance to be apparent right from the start. But for the first hour, I felt nothing but discomfort—to the extent that I seriously thought about walking out. Eventually, though, after about two hours, I began thinking that the film actually was quite ingenious, in both its simplicity and its rawness. Then, halfway through the third hour, I had an outright epiphany.

I saw that I was the man hanging from the rope, trapped in an endless cycle of aimless swinging, back and forth, back and forth, bound by a force that was forever pulling me down. I also saw that there was something inside of me on which that force was acting, something that gave the force its power by submitting to it. If I could find that something and change it, I would be free.

It happened in the parking lot.

“At least now the evening wasn’t a total waste,” said Leslie.

“Yeah,” Mel agreed. Then, turning to me, he added, “Just let us choose the film next time, Scrub.”

Don’t be pulled, I thought. And then I was floating, no longer swinging, no longer hanging by my ankles, no longer bound. My blasphemous thoughts welled up again. I liked Sichuan Hut—infinitely more than The Sand Bar. And if I had to watch one of those two movies again, I would choose Shattered Dream over Umbé Umbé’s execrable creation any day.

“Fuck you,” I said.

Mel and Leslie stopped, as one.

“What did you say?” Leslie whispered.

“I said fuck you, Leslie. Fuck your narcissistic projection of yourself as an infallible critical genius. And fuck you, Mel, for going along with it. Fuck your mangled hands, too; that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard of anyone doing to himself. And why? To be original? To make a statement? If you ask me, you’re saying the wrong thing, and you paid a stupid price to say it. You’re both full of shit, putting up this hypercritical façade to cover your own insecurity, and in doing so you suck the enjoyment out of every experience, belittling the people around you along the way. I’m through with you.”

When the last word had left my mouth, my own furious panting was the only sound disturbing the night air. Mel and Leslie were looking at me, studying me as a pair of entomologists might examine a never-before-seen species of beetle they had just spotted scuttling across the forest floor. Mel interlaced his thumbs and middle fingers, cracking them loudly, palms outward, and Leslie barked a laugh.

“Nice, Scrub,” she said.

“Yeah,” Mel added. “That’s the first original thought you’ve expressed all evening.”

Then the entomologists were looking at each other, consulting one another, marveling at their find, partaking in some kind of joint analysis. “It was the film that did it,” Leslie said at last.

“I know,” Mel said. “And he doesn’t even see it.”

“You’re pathetic, Scrub,” said Leslie. And then she turned to leave.

Before following after her, Mel looked me in the eye one last time, straightening his iGlasses by pressing on the bridge with the middle finger of one hand. Maybe he was saying fuck you, and maybe he wasn’t, but for once I didn’t give a shit. Glad that I would never again be depending on him to bail me out, I laughed at the sight of him trotting off behind Leslie like an obedient dog.

“You think that stupid film is what got into me?” I said to their backs. They didn’t answer, but I didn’t need them to. “Yeah, I had a flash of insight while watching it. I realized that I don’t need you anymore. So, yes, thank you for that.”

On my way home, I posted some thoughts of my own:

Sichuan Hut is fantastic.

The Sand Bar is a total waste of time.

Loved Calhoun’s Shattered Dream.

Cold Hand, Warm Penis is utter shit.

The responses began pouring in immediately.

You’re joking, right?

You’re a tool, Scrub.

You’re even worse than the turds who make such derivative films and cook such unauthentic food.

You know, it’s people like you—people who lack discernment—who get swept up in the zeitgeist and join the herd in carrying civilization toward the abyss. You’re worse than all the fascist, genocidal dictators in the world, because you’re the kind of idiot who enables them.

There was no point reading any further. Leaning back in my seat, I removed my iGlasses, folded them up, and slipped them into my pocket. Then I started thinking about tomorrow. And suddenly it occurred to me that I could do anything I wanted.

* * * * *

For more stories like this, please check out my book, Loss of Consciousness: Satirical Variations on a Theme.

The Meat Grinder

[This is a satirical short story criticizing American education. If you teach or have a child at a “competitive” prep school or college, you’ll get it. From Loss of Consciousness.]

The walls of Hensington Elmworth Learning Labs were lined with framed photographs of ground meat. Jana chose one at random and leaned in to read the caption underneath it:

Caroline Fuller
Class of 2003
Net Worth after Ten Years: $150 Million

“You have a keen eye,” Mr. Ashfield said.

“I do?”

The director of admissions shuffled to Jana’s side, reached out with his right hand, and brushed the edge of the photograph’s frame with one finger.

“Absolutely,” he said. “Miss Fuller was one of our best.” His finger moved from the frame toward the center of the photograph, where he lightly traced one of the curling, yarn-like strands of reddish-pink meat.

“She was one of the most finely ground specimens we ever produced. Most people’s muscle fibers disintegrate when ground this finely. They become worthless. But hers retained the perfect texture. Look.”

Jana leaned even closer, grimacing slightly at the pain in her back, and squinted to look at the muscle fibers. She couldn’t see what he was talking about, but she nodded anyway, and Ashfield continued.

“Talk about return on investment! Only half a million dollars in tuition spread over thirteen years, and just a decade after graduation, she was worth a hundred and fifty million! If I remember correctly, she’s up to four hundred now.”

Jana couldn’t stop her eyes from widening, and Ashfield noticed. “I told you,” he said. “We create value here. And that’s what we’ll do for little Shareen.” He pointed toward Jana’s swollen belly. “You’d be hard-pressed to think of a good reason not to send your child to Hensington Elmworth Learning Labs. What we do here goes far beyond college. But you already know that, don’t you? That’s why you’re here.”

“Yes.” Unconsciously, Jana lifted a hand to her abdomen, which felt tighter than ever, and the baby chose that moment to shift its position. It was hard to imagine that the tiny child squirming inside her would one day be a grown woman whose photograph might be featured on this very wall.

“If you’re ready, I have a contract for you in my office,” Ashfield said. “This way.”

Jana followed, and a minute later she was sitting across from Ashfield at a small table, staring at a stack of papers he had given her to sign. Her fingers flexed and unflexed around the pen. She felt uneasy about it—physically sick, even—but this was what you had to do to secure a future for your child. This was the world into which Shareen would be born.

Hesitantly, Jana placed the tip of her pen above the signature line, and just as she was about to write her name, a crimson spot blossomed in the middle of the paper. Tiny flecks of red liquid landed on her hand. Another large drop splattered on the contract, and then another. Both Jana and Mr. Ashfield looked up. A dark red, glistening patch was slowly spreading from the center of the ceiling. More drops fell.

Mr. Ashfield cursed, pushed his chair back, and stood. Even as he did so, the series of discrete drops became a continuous stream, and Jana could smell it. If there had been any doubt to begin with, there was none now: It was blood.

“I’m terribly sorry,” Mr. Ashfield said. “There’s a class taking a test in the room upstairs. I thought we had fixed the leak. Please give me just a minute.”

He rushed toward the door, where, for the briefest sliver of a second, he hesitated. Jana was sure that his eyes flicked back toward something behind his desk—something he was worried she might discover in his absence. And then he disappeared, the sound of his footsteps growing fainter as he ran.

Jana followed the direction of Ashfield’s glance. There, sitting on the floor beside a paper shredder, was a box labeled “erasures.” She lifted one of the cardboard flaps and looked inside. There were three neat stacks of what must have amounted to thousands of photographs of ground meat, just like the ones in the hallway where Caroline Fuller’s picture was hanging. And there was space where a fourth stack had apparently been.

She looked at the paper shredder, then at the trash can beside it. It contained thin strips of photographic paper, most of it covered with what was now, to Jana, an unmistakable shade of pink—the pink of fresh ground meat. She went back to the box, looked inside once more, and removed one of the photos. Stapled behind it was a piece of paper, identifying the subject in the picture as Dennis Schwent, Class of 2009, now occupied as a teacher, with a net worth of $37,000.

Jana dropped the photo of Dennis and picked up the next one in the stack. The meat pictured in it was a less pleasant shade of pink, and it wasn’t very finely ground. It belonged to Allison Gockley, Class of 2010, now occupied as an artist. In the space for net worth, instead of a dollar amount, were written the words “In Debt.”

The next dozen or so photos were similar: graduates from 2009 or 2010, working low-wage jobs, with very little accumulated wealth. Not something Hensington Elmworth could display with pride. Jana was just wondering how many such photos Mr. Ashfield shredded each year, when her thoughts were interrupted by his voice.

“What are you doing?”

Her heart skipped a beat, and the photograph she was holding slipped from her hand onto the floor beside the shredder. She rose to her feet quickly and turned to see Mr. Ashfield’s figure filling the doorway. He did not look pleased.

“I saw the photos,” Jana stammered. “And I thought—” Her lie died on her lips. What would he be willing to believe she had been thinking? That she’d been expecting to see more cases of stunning success?

“Those are confidential records,” Mr. Ashfield said.

“I’m sorry. After all those pictures in the hallway, I . . . just wanted to see more.”

Ashfield’s eyes narrowed, but he said nothing.

“Is the leak fixed?” Jana asked.

“We moved the exam to a different room,” Ashfield replied. “The leak will be taken care of tomorrow.”

Absorbed in the photographs, Jana had hardly noticed that the rain of blood had largely abated. Only a few scattered drops fell from the ceiling now. She stepped back over to the table where her contract lay, still unsigned. Ashfield’s eyes followed her until she was seated, then darted to the papers in front of her.

“I apologize for the mess,” he said. “I . . . do hope this hasn’t changed your mind. Shall I get you a clean contract?”

“There’s no need,” Jana said.

“I see. I’ll walk you out then.”

“No,” Jana said, picking up the pen. “I’ll just sign this one.” And before Mr. Ashfield could say anything else, she signed her name, running the tip of the pen through three large drops of blood, nearly tearing the wet paper with the last stroke. She dropped the pen when she was finished.

“You’ve made the right decision,” Mr. Ashfield said.

“No doubt you said the same to the parents of the children whose photos you’ve been shredding,” Jana said.

Mr. Ashfield grimaced. “Yes, well . . . In every case, it’s a gamble for everyone involved. The parents, the child, the school—we all do as much as we can and hope for the best. Hensington Elmworth is still the surest bet. That much remains true.”

“I know. That’s why I signed.”

Minutes later, Jana emerged from the front entrance and began walking toward the subway station. The school building was on her right. The dark brown bricks were stained by a century of exposure to the elements. Something jutting out of the wall a foot above the ground caught her eye: the end of an old rusty pipe, three inches in diameter. A steady stream of crimson liquid trickled out of it onto the sidewalk, down over the curb, and into a storm drain.

Jana looked up at the second-floor windows directly above the pipe, above Mr. Ashfield’s office. Somewhere up there, the students were still taking their test.

She rubbed a fist against her back, trying to ease the pain, and something shifted inside her abdomen. She felt a dull internal snap, a slight release of tension, and then a stream of liquid running down her leg. She looked at her foot. A clear fluid trickled down the side of her shoe and joined with the stream of red liquid coming from the pipe. She realized the pain had moved from her back to her belly, which now felt even tighter than before. And she knew what was happening.

Shareen was coming.

[For more satirical stories with philosophical and political themes, please check out my new book, Loss of Consciousness.]

The Atheist Pastor Podcast

I just had a great interview experience on the Atheist Pastor Podcast. I talked about my experience as an evangelical missionary in China, my eventual loss of faith, my book Confessions of a Rogue Missionary, and the destructiveness of tribalism in American politics. Check it out:

Follow Chris Atlee (Atheist Pastor) on Twitter at @atheist_pastor.

Jonathan Haidt’s Greatest Fear

I just listened to an interview with the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt in which he was asked what his greatest fear was. It’s the same as my own. His reply was quite powerful, I thought. Here it is:

“What worries me most is that while almost all of our problems are solvable, I fear that we are not going to solve a lot of them because of our rising political polarization and rising distrust, all of which preceded social media but is now greatly amplified on social media.”

“So I do actually fear that the United States may end as a nation. That is, some time in the next 30 or 40 years, it’s at least conceivable that states will secede or that there will be a necessity of the military to come out and put down some unrest.”

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I do think that democracy is difficult. Democracy, as the founding fathers knew, tends to commit suicide, and I think that unless we pay a lot more attention to what we are doing, I fear that our democracy could commit suicide.

“So I think that understanding what’s happening to us, understanding rising political polarization, improving our political institutions to make them more trustworthy, less corrupt, is an urgent national mission.

It is an urgent mission—perhaps the most urgent, because if we can’t overcome our own differences and work together, we won’t be able to solve any of the daunting problems we face.


Read more about Jonathan Haidt’s anti-tribalism projects here:


Get anti-tribalism merchandise here:


Confessions of a Rogue Missionary — Second Edition

The second edition of Confessions of a Rogue Missionary is now available. It includes a new epilogue. Check it out!

Here’s the front cover:

As a National Merit Scholar majoring in physics at Rice University, Henry Rambow thought he was a rational person. But primed by years of Sunday School and haunted by a promise made as a terrified child, he nevertheless fell head over heels into a fundamentalist brand of Christianity. Confessions of a Rogue Missionary is an account of his struggle—and eventual failure—to reconcile his faith with reason.

At times dryly humorous and at times sober and contemplative, the story begins when Henry is “born again.” Brimming with zeal—but already plagued by doubt—he travels to Beijing as a missionary in the guise of an English teacher, where he tries desperately to embrace the culture and win disciples for Jesus. Culture clashes and miscommunications result in cringe-inducing encounters in unlikely settings, ranging from a brothel to a military base.

Eventually, the very questions that troubled him from the start prove to be too much, and his faith collapses entirely, leaving him feeling disillusioned—but free.

“Exceptionally well written. Ranging from the awkward and hilarious to the deeply felt, existential, and theological, these stories entertain and captivate. Rambow’s contribution to this discourse, his exploration of the interplay between reason and faith, is extraordinarily important—a can’t miss.”
— A. J. Valenstein

“Every honest Christian could benefit from reading Rambow’s lucid and faith-challenging autobiography.”
— Craig Bowe

“Well-written, enjoyable, and thought-provoking.”
— The Nowhere Tribune

“An essential tale of our times.”
— W. P. Rivers

And here’s the back cover:

Loss of Consciousness: Satirical Variations on a Theme

My new collection of satirical short stories, titled Loss of Consciousness: Satirical Variations on a Theme, is now available on Amazon (paperback and Kindle editions) and Audible. Check it out! Here is the blurb:

Consciousness. Memory. Identity. Death. Everything and nothing. Loss of Consciousness is a collection of stories that range from gritty dystopian satire to heartwarming fantasy. The author presents a dark vision of a future replete with automation and artificial intelligence, in which humans have committed their lives into the hands of machines, only to have their own consciousness fade. He pokes fun at the modern culture of safetyism, elitist millennial attitudes toward taste, and the ultra-woke’s penchant for finding offense in anything and everything. These stories are guaranteed to captivate, delight, inspire … and disturb.

Here is a list of the stories contained in it:

  1. “The Meat Grinder” — a metaphorical interpretation of the pressure and incentives at elite prep schools
  2. “Winner Take All” — a meditation on how those in power rewrite the rules for their own benefit
  3. “Safe University” — a satirical take on fragility and safetyism on college campuses
  4. “Woke” — a deeply disturbing portrait of a hyper-woke activist who goes off the deep end
  5. “In-Q-BrainTM” — an exploration of the metaphysical connections between the brain, consciousness, the senses, and the external world
  6. “The Jilting of Ogden Weatherford” — a story that raises questions regarding the possibility of uploading one’s consciousness into a computer
  7. “Loss of Consciousness” — a dystopian look at a future in which humans have committed their lives into the hands of machines, only to have their consciousness fade
  8. “Taste” — a bitingly hilarious caricaturization of elitist millennial attitudes toward taste and authenticity
  9. “My Lucky Boy” — a touching story about a father’s love for his son
  10. “The Window in the Luggage” — an airplane passenger is trapped in a time loop
  11. “The Judgment of Stan Wellcroft” — a man passes judgment on God
  12. “When Aliens Find Us” — a piece about one possible embarrassing legacy of humanity
  13. “To Become a God” — a silly story about a pair of physicists who attempt to use a time machine to become gods
  14. “A Day for Love” — a dying man gets his wish
  15. “The Parable of the Artist” — a short inspiring parable related to the arts and creativity
  16. “A Place in the Sky” — a bit of heartwarming fantasy

The New York Times Missed the Chance of a Lifetime

When Trump turned the Republican Party inside out and won the 2016 election, millions of conservative and centrist Americans were left feeling disgusted and politically homeless. This was the chance of a lifetime for every liberal media outlet in the country. All they had to do was open their doors to centrists and moderate conservatives, broadening the range of views represented in their pages, and they could have doubled or tripled their readership—and their influence.

If The New York Times had done this, it might have become a powerful unifying force in a time when we need healing more than anything else. It could have made great strides in bridging political divides and reducing the rampant tribalism that is now destroying us. Instead, it seems determined to become the Breitbart of the Left. And now, with Bari Weiss’s departure, The Times has lost one of its few remaining moderate voices. Her resignation letter is well worth reading. Here is a particularly incisive quote from it:

“The lessons that ought to have followed the election—lessons about the importance of understanding other Americans, the necessity of resisting tribalism, and the centrality of the free exchange of ideas to a democratic society—have not been learned. Instead, a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.”

It’s not too late for The Times to turn things around and seize the opportunity to expand its reach and become a force for healing. But under its present leadership and with its current toxic culture, it seems unlikely that this will happen. Hopefully, another media outlet will step in and do so. Otherwise, we will remain trapped in this downward spiral of polarization and tribalism.

I am a liberal, and I have been disgusted by Donald Trump from the very beginning. His incompetence, narcissism, divisive rhetoric, and utter disregard for truth continue to tear our country apart. When The New York Times published pieces that criticized him—which is part of the media’s job—he lashed out, dubbing them “the failing New York Times.” They had a chance to prove him wrong—to be bigger and better than him, to be unifying rather than divisive—but they blew it.

The greatest irony of all is that the tactics of The Times seem perfectly designed to help Trump get re-elected. The far Left’s hyperfocus on political correctness and their dismissive attitudes toward moderates and conservatives played a big role in stirring up support for Trump in the first place. And now they’re doubling down on this approach.

As Trump would say: SAD.

Our own tribalism is the greatest threat to our country right now. Trump is a symptom of that tribalism, not the cause of it. Voting him out of office is imperative, but it’s not enough. If we get rid of him without also dialing down our polarization, then we’ll only be paving the way for someone else just like him—or worse—to come along.

We need healing. We need unification. We need grace and civility. Join me in creating an anti-tribalism initiative. Use the hashtag #EndTribalism, and in all of your interactions, do what you can to reduce tribalism and polarization. You can buy anti-tribalism T-shirts, coffee mugs, and other merchandise here.