The Matter

Labels can be limiting and as far as that goes I can agree with those who disdain them, saying they do not like creating or existing in boxes. Fine sentiment. But some labels are useful to accomplish the ripping apart of boxes and the freeing of those trapped in them.

I am a feminist.

Nothing new in my saying that, but times have, superficially, changed, and now a lot of people seem to claim not to know what that means anymore or, worse, claim that it means something which it does not.

Below is a TED Talk by novelist Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie. Here, in easy to understand (even for those who may be obdurately opposed to understanding) language, she gives a thorough primer and explication of the problems of being a woman in a world where men are the privileged sex and where more and more the simple truth of what she describes is being disingenuously yet ingeniously denied.

I have written often about where I stand on this issue. First and foremost, everyone is a person first. Sex and gender are important but should never be a limiting factor. What I am free to do as a male should be open for anyone. (What I am free to do as a white male should also be open to anyone, but that is another, albeit related, issue.) This is very difficult for some people to understand, for reasons which Ms. Adichie touches on.

But for all those who wonder in mock dismay what is the matter with all these women complaining about the lives they live, the culture, keep talking about rape culture, the glass ceiling, sexism, harassment, objectification…yes, I say “mock dismay” because I’m beginning to believe that you actually do know what it’s about, what the matter is, but you just don’t want to take responsibility for changing things—or, you just don’t want things to change. So you intentionally misunderstand.

Enough. This isn’t rocket science. Testicles do not make you superior or give you a pass for idiotic behavior and bad choices. They aren’t a membership card in an elite club established by divine proclamation. Just because your mommy told you how special you are doesn’t mean rules shouldn’t apply to you and just because your daddy may have acted the king of his domain doesn’t mean you inherited the privilege.

Of course, the capacity for ignoring such things is one of the true indicators of a kind of genius. But I can’t help feel that it’s wasted genius. I see the behavior of certain males and all I can think is, “Man, what the hell is the matter with you?”

Well.

You Don’t Really Mean That!

Kevin Sorbo, who came to public attention portraying a mythical strongman on television, has been saying things about atheists lately.  He thinks he has a good bead on what makes us tick.

It began when he wondered why atheists are so angry at something we claim doesn’t exist, i.e. God.  Because atheists seem to spend a lot of time talking about him/her/it and being outraged about the subject.

This is deflection.  It misses the point.  Atheists are not angry at god—clearly, since we do not believe god exists.  We’re angry with god’s promoters and acolytes who keep shoving a nonexistent something-or-other in our faces and telling us we’re everything from “mistaken” to the cause of civilization’s collapse to…well, several other things one is shocked to hear come from the mouths of self-professed “good christians.”

Part of this seems to be standard in religious practice, the deflection of just about everything onto the god of choice.  It’s god’s will, it’s in the hands of god, etc.  So obviously when an atheists gets angry at the politics and social practice of devotees we can’t possibly be angry at them for the kind of activism that grinds the back teeth, we must be angry at their deity of choice.  After all, they’re only doing what god wants them to do, so how can they be held to blame?

Which is a goodly part of what drives us to distraction.

I have never had a pair of atheists knock on my door to tell me the good news of the nihilistic way of life.  I’ve never had an atheist tell me I got over a serious illness because they got together to use thought waves to communicate with the cells of my body and effect a cure.  I’ve never had to put up with an atheist telling me a certain political situation was the way it was because of a corrupted condition endemic to being human.  And I’ve never heard an atheist insist on the efficacy of magic over science.*

Insofar as the record on public action in this country goes, it is no surprise that religious thinking dominates, since it’s a matter of sheer numbers.  But it would be well for people to remember what has been justified in the name of religion in this country.  Slavery, the disenfranchisement of women, the eradication of native American culture, and the persistent insistence on irrational laws and punishments which have now resulted in our having the highest per capita incarceration rate of any developed country (which can only be explained by a devotion to some notion of sin that refuses to take into consideration genuine remediation, social context, or common sense).

Atheists are not angry at god, Mr. Sorbo, we’re angry at the impenetrable cluelessness of believers who let their children die rather than take them to a doctor, who continually see nothing wrong with setting aside the First Amendment to their advantage (but, in some cases, absolutely worship the Second Amendment), and who insist on relegating women to second-class status because, well, equality isn’t Biblical.  Let’s not even start with the debate over alternative sexualities and the question of gay marriage.

Before you protest that these people are a minority, I will agree with you, but they are a minority which enjoys massive tacit support from a broad and often passive culture base which, while disapproving many of their tactics nevertheless approves their source of inspiration and at least some of their motives.

“Well, we’re not all like that,” comes somewhere in the same conversation as “our church is different.”

No, it’s not.  In one very significant way.  Religion by definition defines unbelievers as flawed, blind, somehow crippled, and in need of fixing.

That’s what makes atheists furious.  It’s patronizing.

Now before atheists who read this nod sagely and come away feeling in some way virtuous about themselves, not so fast.

For our part we tend to adopt a superior attitude every bit as condescending and misdirected as the true believers we disdain.  Often we refuse to acknowledge the ineffable and relegate many attributes of moral systems to what we consider superstition.  At times we use our position as self-designated rationalists to pass judgments on others we deem less enlightened, and even if we tend to keep such judgments to ourselves (with notable exceptions) they nevertheless affect our behavior towards others.

That said, if anyone has a reason to be miffed…

What can be truly irritating in both camps is the aforementioned process of deflection.  Atheists are not angry at a god that does not exist but at those who insist one does and take that insistence as permission to push their beliefs on us.  The believers manages to not see the difference because, as they claim, they are doing god’s work, so it seems to not make sense to them that we make a distinction between the believer and the thing believed.

Believers get justifiably miffed at atheists who judge them and conflate that judgment with the philosophical position that seems to allow such judgment.  Atheists think themselves acting out of reason and fail to understand that they’re being boors, which is not justified by rationalism.  Rationalism in this case is just an excuse to be an ass.

Hence both sides engage in the time honored sport of talking past each other.

Not all believers act like Mr. Sorbo or those who think their god has given them permission to disregard all other philosophical positions and forget—stridently—what pluralism means.  Not all atheists are judgmental louts who treat believers like unenlightened primitives in need of education (which can lead directly to the kind of proselytization the atheist is bitching about in the first place).

But they seem to be the loudest ones in the room.

 

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* I’ve heard a lot of non-christians do and say these sorts of things, but that’s another problem, which is the conflation of all alternative beliefs into the “atheist” camp.  For the record, pagans are not by definition atheists.  Nor are Buddhists, Hindus, Zoroastrians, or any other non-western faith.

The Power of the Dark Side

Depression is one of the most seriously misunderstood phenomenon dictating human choice.

For the record, I have never been so seriously depressed that I contemplated suicide.  I’ve been seriously hurt enough to do so*, and I think there’s a difference, but when you’re in the midst of it I don’t know that it matters.

I have been depressed.  I put up with it on a fairly regular basis.  But when I say depressed I’m pretty sure it’s not the same thing, by degree or otherwise, as what it means when we talk about clinical depression or organic depression wherein the disorder stems from a physical illness, an injury or disease.  I’ve had down days, bleak moods, raw nerves, the kind of bone weariness that comes from disappointment.  It never lasts, I come out the other side in a few hours or a day or two, and while maybe I’m not spinning cartwheels of joy at the wonderfulness of life I’m at least not looking at kittens and feeling hopeless.  Anyone with expectations that get regularly thwarted has this kind of foul outlook that relates to depression.

Not wanting to get out of bed or leave the house for weeks on end…that’s different.

Feeling that the entire universe is nothing but a weight conspiring with its various aspects to suffocate you…that’s different.

Being unable to respond in any but a negative way to anything, especially what might be wonderful news or good fortune or simple pleasure…that’s different.

Thinking that the only cure for the constancy of abysmal pointlessness to any attempt at engaging even with yourself is death…that’s different.

The structure of our social routines is such that the depressant learns to mask it, to say nothing, to imitate what is expected.  Hence, getting help can sometimes be delayed simply because no one sees and tells you that it’s okay to admit to being out of control of your emotions.  (Because sitting on them, ignoring them, pushing them down so no one else notices, that’s not control.)  Because we are raised in a culture that says such conditions are caused by weakness, by moral ambiguity, sometimes even by selfishness, the depressed will live with it rather than admit the problem and seek help.

It’s not easy to know.  We’re getting better, but it’s just hard.  When your friend shrugs your concerns off with a “I’ll be all right, just…” and we don’t press the issue because we don’t wish to presume, it can be devastating later when tragedy happens and you wonder if you could have done something, anything.

It’s particularly hard when dealing with the facade of success.  That person is on top of the world, has money, fame, a cool car, a great mate, smiling all the time.  What do they have to be depressed about?  Hell, if I were in their place I’d be the happiest s.o.b. on the planet, because isn’t it worse not having what you need or what you want?

Making the mistake—again—that material goods are adequate replacement for a normally functioning limbic system and a sense of well being.  Sure,  struggling with constant want can be a bitter thing and sour anyone’s mood, but if the depression came before the recognition of want, having more is not likely to cure it.  Granted, understanding the difference can be like trying to describe a particular shade of white laid against new-fallen snow, but the difference is there and very real and can have unfortunate consequences if not recognized.

It is crippling.  Just from my admittedly limited and not particularly deep experiences with my own periodic episodes of being depressed (as opposed to depression, which is chronic and worse), you can wake up and wonder why you should bother with trying.  It’s like moving through thick, humid air in a gravity well half again as deep as the one everyone else is in.  I cannot begin to imagine what it must be like for anyone living with that day in, day out, twice or three times as bad, and nothing—nothing—mitigates the bleakness of just breathing.

We shrug it off.  All of us.  “Oh, she’s just having a bad day, she’ll be fine.”  Or, more tragic, “I dunno, I just can’t talk to him anymore, he’s always bummed about something.”

Maybe those observations are true.  But then again, the dark side may have taken hold.  We should all pay attention.

We all make use of masks.  Sometimes it’s a self-conscious act and we know it and everyone around us knows it.  Sometimes, it’s job related.  Sometimes it’s diplomatic.  But once in a while, the mask is standing in for us in ways that are wholly unhealthy.

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*Yes, I once, for a long and much too melodramatic night, sat with a pistol in hand and weighed the merit of ending it. Because I was hurt, as badly hurt as I’d ever been, and it seemed, for seconds at a time, that nothing would end that pain or be worth having after I got over it.  Why didn’t I do it?  Well, that’s hard to explain concretely, but I’m pretty sure it was because I had—and have—good, good friends who I did not want to hurt by that kind of a purely selfish act.  I began thinking of how they would feel and I eventually put the pistol away and have never since come anywhere close to contemplating such an act.  I can only wonder what I would have done had I believed myself truly as alone as I’d felt at the beginning of that session.  I suspect the deeply depressed cannot make that leap.

 

We Were Just Talking

A couple of decades of online conversation has revealed many thing about our culture, about our selves. One is how little most of us seem to consider what we say before we say it.

I recently saw the term “flaming” used in a description of certain problematic exchanges in a forum I till recently frequented.  I’m sure it’s still in current usage, but I hadn’t thought of the term in some time because I long ago vacated forums and chatrooms where this was a common problem.  One of the more congenial things about FaceBook is that while flaming (and trolling and all such related hate-baiting tactics) still happens, users aren’t locked into the thread where it occurs. With multiple conversations going on all the time among many different arrangements of “friends” it is not a problem requiring something like a nuclear option to deal with.  You just stop commenting on a poisoned thread and move over to a new one, often with the same people.  True, the flamer might move with you, but the mix-and-match nature of FaceBook makes this less convenient.

Unlike a dedicated forum with a regular membership, etc.

You can find one, filled with like minds and congenial conversation, which can run on for some time till one day someone you thought you “knew” (solely from the interactions in the forum) says something wholly baffling and even hurtful, but certainly unexpected and baiting.  Or a new member shows up and after a few days or weeks turns into an aspersion-casting, logic-defying, unreasonable twit.  Such people indulge, usually, in the ancient schoolyard game of “let’s you and him fight.”  They get everyone stirred up, create a toxic situation, and then, often, leave.  “My work is done here.”  People who were once friends, or at least friendly, are now on opposite sides of issues they had no hand in either creating or aggravating.  Mistrust, defensiveness, and a new attention to certain words and phrases dominates the forum and arguments flare at the drop of a phrase.

Partly, it seems to me, this is one of the unfortunate factors in what we know to be human nature.  Some people are only enjoying themselves when they create a mess.  In my opinion, it’s the same kind of mentality that gets off on obscene graffiti, incendiary phone calls to talk shows, or gossips who spread rumors about people they hardly know.  For such people communication was invented in order to sow discord.  People getting along nicely is something they cannot abide because where’s the fun in that?  In a way, this is related to the more refined pleasure of honest debate and philosophical enquiry, wherein positions are taken and defended in order to find a higher accord.  But it has the same relationship to this as Tae Kwon Do has to a drunken fist fight in a bar.

Another part of this, however, is less perverse but more difficult to define and that has to do with the difference between written discourse and casual conversation.  Two people sitting across from each other—at a barbecue, having a beer, over dinner, what have you—just talking do so within a set of protocols that, when transferred to the written word, are at best “loose.”  We rely on a whole suite of cues that have nothing to do with the actual words we use.  Tone, inflection, regional accent, body language, gestures, facial expression, and the all-important momentum of the exchange work to add multiple players of interpretive possibility to the dialogue only the better fiction writers seem able to encode in words on the page.  They manage this by careful attention to which words and how they are placed within a scene and contextualized according to the emotional framework set up.

Which means that great care is taken to achieve a particular effect.

Not something the vast majority of people “chatting” in forums, online, get anywhere near doing.

Instead, we type our words and send them out knowing in our own heads what we meant and unaware that without the full holistic surround of an actual face-to-face conversation such intent is completely absent and the person reading them may have a completely different set of circumstances dictating how those words will be interpreted.

It’s amazing anything meaningful gets transmitted and received at all.  But it does, because many of us, maybe even most of us, learn over time how to write a dialogue, which is a different thing than when we’re talking.

Some never figure out the difference.

Hence the thoughtless ingredient thrown innocently into a stew stirred by many hands, resulting in a soured moil of potential vitriol.

The great essayists make it look easy.  Just write, like you’re talking to someone, and your meaning will be conveyed.  Right.  Of course it will.  The reason we regard great essayists as great is that they make it look so easy.  We can read it and understand it, it ought therefore to be within our power to do the same thing.  It’s just talking.  Do that all the time.

But putting words down is very different than speaking them.  For one, they remain there, precisely as written, to be gone over again and again, to be reinterpreted, again and again, to be copied and pasted in responses that can be shoved back in our faces angrily.  Embarrassment, defensiveness, or egotistical refusals to understand why what we said wasn’t understood for what we meant, all this can feed into an impossible collection of antiphonal postings that quickly have nothing to do with the original topic and are now about hurt feelings, impatience, and perhaps even past events that have nothing to do with the present “conversation.”

Letter writing is even more considered than most of what passes every hour on the internet as epistolary exchanges.  Until mailed, the letter is not finished.  It can be reread, reconsidered,  reviewed. It can be thrown away and begun again.

Theoretically, so can something about to be posted to the internet, but it would seem we treat it more like that face-to-face at the picnic than as letter-writing.  So we dash it off and hit SEND and then what happens happens.

Unfortunately, those words, unless deleted by an administrator, are always there, unlike the unfortunate way you said something at the picnic, which can vanish from foggy memory as soon as the topic changes.  People looking for something to focus on can find them and use them against you.  You were not, no matter what you thought, “just talking.”

Still, even this is instructive for those who will be bothered to learn.  A thoughtful reconsideration of how we say things reveals how much of our conversation is less actual information than ritual.  It could potentially teach us how to say things we really want said instead of just mouthing sounds that are the conversational equivalent of greeting cards.  Understanding the host of assumptions supporting a sentence would be a very good thing for us to learn.  Because even at the barbecue sometimes someone says something so void of any real substance and yet so potentially inflammatory that you know the speaker really doesn’t have a clue what that sentence really means.

Or maybe they do.  And that is instructive as well.  In either case, we should consider our response…carefully.

Place Holder

I’m going to be writing a story in public tonight, at Left Bank Books.  I am cleaning house in preparation and playing a bit with Photoshop.  So till I have something to tell you about tonight’s frolics, here’s one of the results.

 

Brick On Granite, b&w, May 2014

Monday Morning Surprise

A friend of mine called while I was out. He left a message (which I thought had to be a mistake) to the effect that apparently my new book, Gravity Box and Other Spaces, made the local (St. Louis) independent bookstore bestseller list of the week ending June 29.  Post-Dispatch page here.

Well, not one to be fooled, I looked it up.  And there it is. (See link above)

I’m stunned.

I’m…well…stunned.  Gravity Box Cover

I mean, the last thing I expected was for something like this to occur with this book.

Not that I had a list of expectations, mind you.  I was just very pleased with the finished product and that it arrived on the shelves.  I was gratified right down to my socks that people showed up at the release party.  (No, that’s an understatement, I was beyond gratified.  I never expect people to pay any attention.  I’m always surprised and pleased and blown away.)  If I got a couple of positive reviews and the book sold well enough to justify my publisher’s commitment, well, that would be great.  Beyond that, no expectations.

Hopes, on the other, I got plenty.

But to be real, it’s a short story collection.  Best seller?  Granted, it is a local list, but even so, I’m in the top three with Gone Girl and Orange Is The New Black.  What?

So right now I am about as happy as a writer as I have been since…

Well, since I sold my first story.  Then sold my first professional story.  Then sold my first novel.  I was elated when I was informed that I’d made the short list for the Philip K. Dick Award.  And again when I made the short list for the Tiptree a few years later.  Yeah, I’ve had some moments in this insane business.

But this!  Wow.

So, what would be very cool would be to see this happen elsewhere.  I doubt this will be anything other than a word-of-mouth success.  That being the case, please—say something.  Push your local independent bookstore into getting it.  Talk to people.  With a little help from my friends (well, maybe a lot of help) I may yet have a decent career.  It would be really strange if this were the book that made the comeback for me.  But I wouldn’t be the least bit unhappy about that.

For those of you who have already bought the book, thank you very, very much.  Picking up a book and laying out cash for it is an act of faith.  One that, I hope, will be justified in this case.