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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Off the Grid: Conviction and other social conveniences

By Ammi Midstokke For The Spokesman-Review

As I age (which appears to be happening at a more rapid rate than anticipated), I am beginning to realize that much discomfort in life is related to not having the answers.

I was given the impression that I would have them by middle-age. Unfortunately, I’m also unsure of which Bureau of Grievances would accept this particular complaint. In moments of desperation, I can always turn to my teenager. It is remarkable how much self-assured knowledge is stored in a brain fueled on cornflakes and Pinterest.

I wouldn’t mind not having the answers if I were not surrounded by people who do. What they have, and what I lack, is something called conviction.

This particular quality is applied to two things in my life: an indisputable reliance on caffeine and a deep-seeded belief that Bruce Springsteen is the greatest songwriter that ever did live. Pretty much everything else is up for debate and the Gemini forces that I blame for my personality flaws are more than happy to see both sides of an argument.

I thought this would be a useful quality when I joined a school board midpandemic. It wouldn’t be the first time my idealism smacked me in the face with a cold block of reality.

In emails with more colorful words than print newspaper allows, I am often told that I must be for or against, for the land in the middle is for idiots and fools and worse, moderates.

Curiosity about perspectives only gets one in trouble, so it’s not a good way to make up your mind. Questions like, “How did you come to this position?” are considered fighting words these days. This has led to a new reliable approach called “tell, don’t ask,” in which social media can be used as a megaphone for our personal values and convictions right from the comfort of our toilets and sofas and dining room tables.

You must mask or be unmasked! You must be fully vaccinated or anti-vax! Us! Them! Pepsi! Coke! And what about those untrustworthy tea drinkers, what with their dirty water and their uppity fragile cups and saucers?

I realized my lack of conviction was a problem when I ordered myself a dirty chai at the coffee shop one day. A row of horrified, divided patrons stood behind me and let out a unified gasp.

“Did you just put espresso in your tea?” asked a woman behind me, her bottom lip quivering with emotion at my disregard for society and cultural norms. Worst of all, I did not even consider how the brashness of my decision would affect the rest of the world.

Stumbling to justify my inclusive beverage, I recalled a friend who recently changed churches. The church he went to before had a rock ’n’ roll band. At a funeral I attended there, they even had karaoke on big screen TVs for us. This revelation made me question my general disdain for church, which was mostly based on my embarrassment at never being able to sing along. Also: I’m totally putting a cover band and karaoke setup in my own funeral plans.

I asked him why he left this hip church.

“It lacks conviction,” he said.

I was confused. It wasn’t like they were doing shots of tequila and lip-synching Prince up there. Apparently, if you are going to believe, you have to believe hard or somber or with less electric guitar.

If you want to be taken seriously in life, you have to display conviction. This can only be paraded on one side or the other of the road. It is a black or white, leaded or unleaded decision. No wishy-washy, both-sides-of-the-coin nonsense. It’s disingenuous. Like drinking decaf.

It’s coffee or tea, people. Entire nations have fallen because they couldn’t make up their minds (see: Brexit). Even the Italians got serious about what kind of coffee is appropriate at specific times of the day, but they never switch to tea. Doing so probably revokes ones Vespa license for life.

The easiest way to establish conviction is to be certain about your beliefs. As Russell Brand wisely notes, beliefs are ideas you really, really like. I have a lot of ideas I really, really like, but, as discussed, I’m not real certain about many of them and that is where my problem lies, and maybe yours, too.

Market studies show that developing certainty can be achieved by repeating oneself over and over again, particularly on that social media megaphone (or PTA meetings), bumper stickers, and bold-print crew-neck T-shirts.

Mine would read “LIBERTARIAN LIBERAL” if I wasn’t so worried about causing midtraffic strokes as I drove through the county, probably using both lanes of the road.

Until I have enough answers to support my own conviction, I’m going to keep putting coffee in my tea and trying to understand perspectives. As far as I can tell, there are some really great humans on either side of any argument, even amongst the tea drinkers and the vegans.

Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at

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