Life

Le Guin

Of all the things I thought I would be writing about today, this is not one of them.  Of course I knew she was unwell.  Of course I knew how old she was.  Of course I know all journeys end.

Still, the impact of such endings can dislodge and shock. Because it is difficult to envisage the world continuing with such an absence.

Unlike others, I have read relatively little of Ursula K. Le Guin’s work. The Dispossessed, The Lathe of Heaven, Wizard of Earthsea, The Word For World Is Forest, The Left Hand Of Darkness…a handful of others, short stories. Enough to start a long change in trajectory for my own work and, more importantly, in my apprehension of this thing we do called “science fiction.”

So I want to talk about that instead of reviewing a biography and a bibliography others will more ably do.

Le Guin never wrote the expected. She published in the magazines, her novels came out with the SF label on the spine, some of the covers suggested that a reader might find something like all the rest of the books around them inside. And indeed there was that—interstellar settings, outré physics, aliens, exotic locations. But then there were the bits that refused to sustain the standard pattern.

“I didn’t know Fomalhaut II had all those people besides the trogs,” said Kethro, the curator.

“I didn’t either. There are even some ‘Unconfirmed’ species listed here, that they never contacted. Sounds like time for a more thorough survey mission to the place. Well, now at least we know what she is.”

“I wish there were some way of knowing who she is…” 

Early in the pages of Rocannon’s World we read that exchange and it is a promise and warning that what will follow, for decades, was all about learning who we are. Le Guin took the potential of what we call science fiction to unbury the many selves of sentient life and hold not one but many mirrors up to us. To tell us, over and over again, that who we are is more important than what. That sounds banal, certainly, because after all, isn’t all fiction about that?

Of course, but not in ways that can delineate the artificial from the organic, the applied from the emergent, the structural from the holistic the way science fiction does. Too many things are too often taken for granted, left unexamined and therefore unquestioned, in most literature, and we’re left with portraits that, while often insightful and clear, go only so far in examining the limitations of selfhood, of identity, of the ramifications of social, biological, and technological fabrics that comprise context.

Read The Dispossessed and you see this potential in full flower.

But it is a constant throughout her work. It might be said that her work was always concerned with the problems of self-expression in relation to dynamic systems, be they natural, technological, political—in fact, all three as an amalgam. The interconnections between the self and the community drove her narratives, and intentionally or not she sought balance.  (I think intentionally, oh yes, fully.)

Much has been written and debated about the impact of the Sixties on, well, everything, but within SF in particular it seemed to have been a period of enormous ferment, regeneration, and experimentation. Most of it was ephemeral and soon vanished from memory, as with almost all SF in any given period. Le Guin entered the field with all the appearances of a writer of the Old School, but there was something going on in her work that, quietly and irresistibly, infected what came after. She exemplified, through her writing, the euphemism “the personal is political.”

Getting to know another, really knowing them, is a supremely political act.  It changes everything. Its changes you, them, the context in which this discovery occurs. Being open to such knowing is to be vulnerable, and that leads to unknown possibilities. If all we look for in others is what we already have, then we never know them, and so we preserve ourselves against the possibility of change, of growth, of the pleasures of otherness. That, too, is a deeply political act, the choice to not look, to not know.

To not see.

The Left Hand Of Darkness is entirely involved in this kind of seeing. It is a story of blindnesses and veils and the necessity of seeing anew.

After Le Guin, it is impossible to understand science fiction as less than the most deeply political of literary forms.

It is also impossible to dismiss it as nonliterary. In Le Guin, the range of possible ways of seeing others is expanded beyond any probable comfort zone. She expanded her vision so much that the boundaries that had kept SF neatly barracked cracked and fell open. Oh, certainly she was not the only one, but her assault on the limits of literary convention were all the more effective because they were so pleasurable to read, and once read, impossible to forget. Her work altered your perspective.

After Le Guin, there is no going back to previous standards.

After Le Guin, it is impossible to pretend that change can be forestalled, that the world is complete, that the self and the community can be kept apart to mutual benefit, that politics is ignorable, that others are not us.

After Le Guin, really, the universe is bigger, richer, livelier, more dangerous…and not at all what we might wish to expect.

She was amazing. She amazed.

 

2018

Later I’ll post my favorite posts of the year. For now, it’s too damn cold in my office for that kind of cut-and-paste indulgence.

So let me just wax nostalgic about the year just past.

The things I love are still with me.  Top of the list, Donna.  We’ve been moving through some changes, dealing with stuff and nonsense, and have finally gotten to a place where life can be simply enjoyed again, rather than wrestled with.

Coffey is still full of puppy-ish enthusiasm.  Slower, certainly, but for a 13-year-old dog remarkably spry. No arthritis or other impediments. She sleeps a bit more.  Of course, some of this is stored energy from being by herself a goodly chunk of most days while the humans are at work.  Coffey is a joy.

My friends are all reasonably well.

I have a good job. Some new faces came this year and we had a great year. Our first (annual) book festival came off magnificently and this year’s will be even better. I’ve settled, more or less, into my role as consignment buyer.  Despite every intention to the contrary, I have become an acquisitions editor. It has been an education.  I have been very pleasantly surprised by some of the books I’ve gotten for the store.  I’ve also learned quite a bit about that world and the reasons behind the choices made.

I finished a new novel and turned it in to my agent in July. We wait. I think it may be the best thing I’ve ever done—it is certainly different than anything I’ve ever done, written at a level I don’t think I’ve ever achieved before. Of course, once again, I think I’ve written something that has no real category, is a bit off from the expected. My agent has been tremendous in her support.

I’m now working on the third book of my alternate history trilogy, which has taken far longer and traveled some much stranger roads than I expected. Once more I’m immersed in the Napoleonic Era, trying to get as many things “right” as I can.  This is all but a straight historical in many ways.  I’ve had some surprises with this one, in my research, but I will be glad to finish.  Maybe a couple more months and I’ll have the first draft done.

After that I have some decisions to make. If things don’t change…

This is the first year in a long, long time that I’ve chosen to make resolutions.  No, I won’t tell you what they are.  I don’t need anyone else’s expectations to live up to, this will be hard enough.  But check here in the next few months for an update on at least one of my decisions. We’ll see if I can pull it off.

I may be facing a hard time this year. My dad is not doing well. I’ll leave that as it stands for now.

I managed to get through 51 books this year, cover to cover.  I’ll do a post about those over on the Proximal Eye in the next few weeks.

Healthwise, I seem to be doing okay.  I’m more tired than I like, but everything works, and the other day at the gym some young guy guessed my age at 52. Heh.  If I can be mistaken for 62 when I’m pushing 80 I will be pleased.

I don’t know if I’ve become more stoic and accepting of how things are or if I’m just too tired to give the same damn that I once did. Almost nothing has gone according to plan, which is to be expected, but enough went close enough to be a source of mixed satisfaction and frustration.  One thing this past year that caused me to reassess my attitude came from a former coworker, a young writer whose first novel was released to considerable acclaim and a degree of commercial success I frankly envy. Talking about it, though, she suggested that she hoped to be as successful as I am. This baffled me. I do not consider myself successful at all.  “How do you figure that?” I asked. “You have 12 books out,” she said. “Yeah, but they didn’t do very well.”  “You have 12 books out.”

That was it. I had sustained a publishing career long enough and well enough to have put out a body of work she thought admirable. It forced me to reassess my own standards. What do I mean by success? I’d fallen into the usual, equating it with money. Well, that certainly is one measure of success, but not the only one.

I’d always aimed for the condition of sustaining myself materially by the work—that since what I wanted to do was to write, then the writing had to pay the bills.  I never reached that point. Came close, but it has slipped further and further away from that moment. I’d gotten into the habit of thinking myself a failure.

But there are other metrics, and my coworker confronted me with one, and I realized that rejecting her assessment would have been cruel. To her, certainly, but to myself as well.

I’m still working through all the implications of that. I still want to be able to write for a living, but it has, for now, become less an issue.

With that in mind, 2018 awaits.

Of course we are now living in a shit show nationally.  All the fights waged in youth seem in need to fighting again. I’ve been vocal here about that and will continue to be.  But the fact is, I am a lucky, lucky man. I have so much, from great people, and I’ve had and will continue to have opportunities to do more.  So many people never get the chance.

So may the coming year offer for us all the chance to realize the good life can hold and let us all have some of it.  And be aware of what is good.  And that we’ve experienced it.

Travel well, travel far.

Post Christmas

So it’s the 26th. Digesting, relaxing, contemplating.

Saw my parents. Wished good cheer to each other and others.

This morning, I went to the gym, paid taxes, other errands. Lunch. Then looked at some of the images from the last few days. It has been a hell of a year. We have come here, to the verge of 2018, unsure of some things, comforted by the people still with us and close, and at least willing to face what  challenges may come. A mixed bag, as they say.  (Whoever “they” are—I suspect different “they” for each saying.)

Per Mr. Gaiman’s sage advice, I made some art. Till I have something more to say, I will share it with you.  Be well.  See you on the other side of the sun.

 

 

 

 

Holiday Wish

It’s Christmas Weekend.  That and several other seasonal  celebrations. People want to celebrate. It doesn’t matter what the label says, it’s the same full-to-brim wish for mutual love and respect.  Gift-giving is great, but the sharing of hope, dreams, soul-urge, and the commonality of human decency underlies and overarches it all.

So a kind of card for any who may stop by here.  Be well, be safe, be loved, be amazed.

Immorality Sweeps The Land!

Roy Moore lost. In a state so Red it could be on Mars, Doug Jones squeaked into the win by 1.5%.

Moore is refusing to concede. In some quarters, this is seen as principle. In the civilized world, sour grapes. But delusional.

“Immorality is sweeping the land!”

Says a man who allegedly hit on teenagers when in his thirties, and then relies on a biblical defense, something about Mary only being 13 or some such nonsense, and the fact that he asked their parents.  Forgive me if I find that whole scenario simultaneously dubious AND extra-creepy.  (But there is in the South, and presumably other places, a whole cult of True Believers who groom their prepubescents for marriage by parading them in adult drag in front of potential husbands, so maybe. If that’s the crowd he’s drawing from, you have to ask what standard of morality he actually subscribes to, because it isn’t that of anyone I know, even among my conservative friends.)

His issues are, in no particular order, The Bible, homosexuality as national threat, and abortion.  As far as I could tell, he had no stance of his own on education (unless it relates to the Bible), economic growth (unless that remark about slavery counts), foreign policy, the budget, or anything else that may be relevant to actual people living today.

Now, if you want to discuss morality, we can start with that: the complete apparent disregard for any issue that might have any real impact on his potential constituency. Irresponsible?  Surely. But in one of the reddest of the red states, where economic conditions still lag and poverty is a profound problem, concentrating on non-issues and counting on that to win the day, with nothing in his tool box with which to address the present realities, strikes me as a sign of someone who has a badly skewed moral compass.  Added to that the allegations of sexual misconduct, his blatant bigotry, and his disregard for law (he was a state supreme court judge and somehow did not care that he was in violation of federal law over the decor on state property)—this is not someone I would trust to tell anyone what is or is not moral.

That he relied on the entrenched aversion of the voters to anything labeled Democrat to see him into office is also blatantly arrogant, especially knowing full well that his state is one of the most problematic in terms of voter suppression.

I am not well pleased that it seems to have been the sexual misconduct allegations that lost it for him.  Maybe it wasn’t, but I would be happier if I thought people had finally decided to look at the issues and judged him an inferior candidate on the merits.  It is telling that while it appears white women voted for him in a majority, when you tease apart evangelicals from a more secular group, only evangelical white women voted for him as a majority.  White women who are not all caught up in the religious balderdash that passes for political value voted predominantly against him.

While it is true that one should not equate intelligence with religious affiliation, it is difficult to avoid when you see this sort of thing. Blindness, of course, afflicts different people in different areas, but damn, we have to stop pandering to the evangelical vote this way.  This is not 4 B.C. and this country is not, despite the aggressive wishing of many people, a christian nation, not the way they mean it.

But have it your way.  I’ll take a little honest immorality over willfully ignorant moral posturing any day.

But that’s not what we’re seeing.  Every single issue Moore saw fit to blather about, at base, was about stripping away civil rights.  Period. Dress it up any way you like, he longs for the days of the mint julep on the veranda as the master gazes out upon his plantation-fiefdom. He wants people “in their proper place.”  He wants an aristocracy.  I find it telling that people like him believe the way to achieve it is through the religious beliefs of people are afraid of the future.

Moral leadership my ass.

Being Adult

I have been wrestling with all the recent allegations of sexual harassment and assault boiling up like magma from a caldera. The image is apt—volcanoes can appear sedate, dormant, unthreatening for decades or even centuries, and then, suddenly, boom! Like that volcano, it does not mean there was never a problem before, only that we grew comfortable with its failure to express itself and assumed everything was fine.

Well, some people did.

The problem I’ve had, I will admit, has been incredulity. Knowing there are men in the world who behave this way is not quite the same as learning that  those men and so many and for so long are like this, and it is a bit overwhelming.  And in some instances the temptation is great to make excuses. Circumstances, the times, “it was different back then”…  Personal heroes melt into their own clay and we’re left trying to reconcile the obvious and often real divide between what we perceive as the good done from the closed-door actions we are now learning about. How, we ask, can that person, who has done so much worthwhile work in the world, be someone who could do that to a woman?  And what does it say about the apparent good work?

What does it say about our judgment?

What, finally, do we do about something which seems as pervasive as air?  Is this something we just have to put up with if we want things to get done in the world?

Overwhelming.

And, of course, we have the bizarre situation of a president guilty of the same behaviors who at various times has bragged about it.

Through all this, as well, is the real fear that one of the solutions that might be proposed and gain ground is the segregation of the sexes.  Keep ’em apart.  Obviously men can’t be trusted and women will always be vulnerable, and by so thoroughly mixing them up in situations where perhaps they ought not to be together—work, politics, schools, etc—we have somehow invited this.

Anyone with half a brain will immediately see that as not only unworkable but as offensive as the behavior such a proposal would purport to protect women from.  Such a solution might be viable for five-year-olds, but it seems to me we live in a society that is already over-infantilized, especially in this area.

I grew up believing intrinsically that in matters of sex, women had the final say. Always. For me, forcing an issue was simply unthinkable. Nothing my parents ever said explicitly told me this, it was more a matter of…well, it was pervasive on a certain level. But my parents also offered the example of a man and woman who constantly respected each other and did nothing without the others consent. Furthermore, my father was not one of those who had some innate idea of “women’s work” that rendered him unwilling or incapable of doing anything in the house that needed doing. I saw no such gendered division of labor growing up in my home. Along with the movies and television I saw at the time, I came of age with an idea of women as…

I had no idea at the time. Certainly, upon entering adolescence, they became alien to me.  This was also reinforced by many of the same givens that had shaped everything else. I had no idea, by age thirteen, how to talk to girls.  This was aided by my grade school, which was parochial, and had, in retrospect, the unusual physical situation of two entirely separate playgrounds for the boys and the girls, separated by the very building. By seventh and eighth grade, a transgressive air attached to the boys sneaking to the other side and talking to Them through the chain-link fence that kept them isolated from us.

Then, too, was the whole hormonal thing and all the boys felt it keenly, this quite obvious transformation we had no idea how handle. The girls, of course, seemed to us to have it all in hand. They were very self-assured in their emerging sexuality and we guys, feckless and inarticulate as we were, could only watch and try to find a way to be cool while restraining a drool reflex.

Then high school, where dating really became a thing, and at which I was very bad.  And of course it was another way of rating people—who went out with whom, how “well” you did, and so forth. Without much being stated bluntly, it became clear that those who did poorly at this ritual were somehow defective.

And for no discernible reason.

We do not, in this culture, have anything like formal adulthood rites. No one takes us in hand to teach us what we need to know. We expect parents to do this, but there is nothing universal, nothing agreed upon, and in too many instances parents choose to punt. Leaving us all to figure it out from the clues which, in some instances, are the equivalent of reading tea leaves.

(This is evermore difficult for anyone not traditionally cisgendered, who likely grows up being flatly told that their essential self is “wrong” or “obscene” or “broken” and the tea leaves get tangled with weeds.)

That so many of us come out as well as we do is a tribute to those elements of our culture that do serve and to our own sense of being.

It seems to me that we still inhabit a euphemistically-driven culture. One must “read the signs” regarding things no one is willing to state baldly. Most of us, I hope, have outgrown this, but when you look at some of the dialogues in play about rape that center on how a woman was dressed instead of on the brutality of her attacker, you have to wonder how much past this we are.  “Dress” is treated as a sign—not perhaps by the rapist but by the people who can’t quite accommodate the ugly dynamics of it who seek to find  reason to blame the victim.

(This is not something isolated to sex—during the height of the Sixties, with regards to riots, one heard it all the time that “if those people had been home where they belonged, the police wouldn’t have had to bash their heads in.”  On campuses, “they should have been in their dorms studying instead of where they were.”  And of course the whole issue of dress attended as well.  But it is most egregious when it comes to our treatment of women who have been abused.  We seem, collectively, unwilling to simply say that none of that is important.  Well, some of us have that problem.)

I confess that I tried to find some way to intellectualize these behaviors by blaming the culture of Code Speak. Mixed signals, yes-no-maybe, and so forth.

No.  This will not suffice.

I am perfectly willing to lay the blame on the perpetrators, even if I might be able to find reasons for their behaviors.  But basically they are simply not adults.

A thirty-year-old man who consistently hits on teenage girls has an inability to deal with other adults.

A man who threatens a woman with her job in order to elicit sex from her is because he is a child with too much power incapable of dealing with others as equals.

A man who makes suggestive remarks to a coworker on the off-chance that she might take him up on it has no concept of appropriateness or confidence in his ability to interact as an adult.

I would go so far as to suggest that men like this really don’t treat other men well, either, but it comes out far less because the rules of male interaction are  bit more ritualized and, really, the sexual component in many instances is less present.  But if push comes to shove, these abusers have no regard for their male colleagues, either. An office full of such nascent sociopaths and arrested adolescents would be pure hell for anyone not a member of their “club.”

I could describe examples—a boss who thought it was outrageously funny to take his shirt off, fill his hand with soft-soap, and appear to the woman working that day with the declaration “See what you made me do?” A coworker who told me that he once thought his wife was cheating on him and was relieved to find out she wasn’t because otherwise he would have had to kill her, but then later when preparing for an out-of-town business trip with our employer gleefully anticipated “getting a little” when he was there.  An earnest talk by an older acquaintance about how you couldn’t let women turn you down, that this was degrading not only to you but to men in general, and really,”they want it just as bad but they need an excuse”—but if you think about it you have heard this and seen it often.

Women have been complaining about Man Childs for decades. They define separate spheres of appropriate work, but fall down on maintaining even their own.  The deficit in equal work. The petulance exhibited when they can’t play.  It rests on a continuum.

All of this, though, comes down to a mindset that will not accept even the possibility of being told No.  The circumstances, the power differentials, the absurdity of some of the behavior, all of it might be avoided by a simple practice of dealing openly with each other in situations where both parties are free of ancillary obligations and can walk away. “No, thank you.”  But for certain people, that no is intolerable.  So they use blackmail, threat, physical force.  Euphemism.  Turn it into a joke.  Anything but be an adult who knows how to accept being turned down.

Because, of course, this isn’t about relationships—it’s about power. Again.

And I have to say, if you are willing to subvert the autonomy of an individual for your personal gratification, you have no business leading others in any capacity.  I don’t care if you’re a CEO, a senator, the director of a movie or a nonprofit, or the president.  After due consideration, if you can’t see other people as people, then…well, I’m afraid I have to tell you no.

Try to be an adult about it when you lose your position.  I know.  That’s hard.  Probably everything you’ve done to get to your position has been so you didn’t have to be an adult.

Oh well.

 

Annual Pose

Okay, so maybe this is going to be a thing. I think I put my vanity in a box and on a shelf because I don’t wish to be vain. I am, somewhat. I am saved from being an ass about it by being basically too lazy to really  attend to it, at least to the extent of making myself an object of derision. But it’s there, I admit it.

Most of my vanity has to do with the interior. I want to be a certain kind of person. I wish people to see the kind of person I’m trying to be. And I want what they see to be genuine. Maybe “vanity” is the wrong word, since too often it attaches to matters of surface only. And maybe I use that word to caution myself to pay attention to what matters.

In any case, I work at maintaining certain standards, both physically and mentally. I am not as successful at any of it as I would like to be, but it’s the journey, right? Whatever.

I turned 63 this year. I cannot quite get my head around that. In another generation I would be two years from falling into an actuarial expectation of being dead.  I would be spent, replete with health problems, fading.  When I was a child, 65 was the age at which people died.  Today?

But that’s not even the weirdest part.  The weird part is the history that I have personally lived through, knowing it as history, and being in a position to represent some of that history.  The other weird part is that, intellectually, I still see myself as somewhere around the mid to late 30s.

As I say, weird.  However, I’ve been posting annual updates like this–not as regularly as perhaps I should, but I see now that it might be a useful thing.

So. This morning, after coming home from the gym, I asked Donna to take a couple of pictures.

 

 

I’m weighing in at round 160.  I no longer bother getting on a scale.  I go by how well my clothes fit and how out-of-breath I get running down the street.  (Yes, I occasionally break into a sprint when I’m walking the dog, just because.  I can still do three blocks at a good run.)

The hair is thinner, grayer, the wrinkles a bit deeper, especially when I’m facing into the sun.

I feel tired a great deal of the time.

But aside from working out regularly, I work a full-time job, still play music, and I’m still trying to make the best-seller lists.

And chores.  Don’t forget chores.

But–most importantly–I still feel like I have options.  “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

A writer.

A photographer.

A musician.

A friend.

Someone people might possibly be glad to know.

 

The thing is, how to know when or if any of that is achieved?  I have to be comfortable in my own skin first.  And my skin is…

Well, not, perhaps, for me to say.  But I have every intention of sticking around long enough to find out.

So this is 63.

Let me post another photograph, to follow, of something maybe a little more interesting.  (Remember, one of the things I want to be is  photographer…?)  And leave off with something more abstract to contemplate.

Thank you all for putting up with me all this time.