Another Year Gone By

I’ve been doing these annual assessments for a while now and this weekend began wondering why.  Maybe a way of marking time and keeping track.  Not quite keeping score, I’ve never been much concerned with that.  At times, maybe, but I really am not competitive that way.

I’ve also never been one for keeping a journal.  This blog has been the most sustained attempt at something like that ever, but if it had all been about my life and what I did today or last week, it wouldn’t have made it much past the two month mark, which was the longest previous attempt at maintaining a journal or diary.  I’ve noted before that I don’t consider myself very interesting and if proof of that claim is required, there it is.  I find myself too dull a subject for continuous consideration.

Which has had the curious consequence of making my fiction difficult.  My protagonists have pretty much all been, in first or second draft, the least interesting characters in their stories.  I write by seeing through the eyes of the viewpoint character, which for that period means I am that character.  My own lack of appreciation for any “special” qualities I may possess translates into a muffled persona on the page.  I find myself having to go back in later and insert all the stuff that makes the character worth following.

But the secondary characters thrive under this problem.

Turning around and using that insight to look at my own life yields some…troubling observations.  While wanting in many ways to be the hero of my own story, I give far too much, sometimes, to everyone else.  They’re important, not me.  My granting them that importance is both habitual and a desire that they see what I’m doing and reciprocate.  I want my friends to be important so that when they then see me as a friend it must mean I’m important.  It can be a tortured way of validation.

(And a bit too complex for any sustained reality—I have my friends first and foremost because I love them.  How I deal with them is another matter.)

But it has gifted me with some very good friends and a workable framework for writing.

That assumes I’ve always done this, always used this, always moved accordingly. There’s a certain amount of disempowering going on regarding my friends, as if they had no choice but to accommodate my particular peculiarities according to the way I wanted them to. They accommodated me, sure, but on their terms.

As far as the writing goes…

I put out two new books this year, both of them collections.  Gravity Box and Other Spaces is published by a local small press, Walrus Publishing, and a fine job they did of it.  John Kaufman, a local artist, did the amazing cover.  I’ve bragged about this before.  What I would like to add here is that most, over two thirds, of the stories are new, previously unpublished.  So far I’ve heard nothing bad about any of them.  People have their favorites, their less-than-favorites, but no one has said anything negative about the word, which bemuses me somewhat as there’s a reason these stories have first appeared here and it goes to the question of career trajectories and choices and values.

The other is a reissue of sorts, The Logic of Departure, from Yard Dog Press.  Yard Dog was an early supporter of my work.  A micropress, they put out two chapbooks by me and a short novel as part of a series of “doubles” (two short novels back to back, like the old Ace Doubles).  Logic… is a reissue of the two chapbooks along with a brand new story which I wrote to fit that particular background.  They are loosely connected but all three share a theme of getting out, getting away, getting free.  I’m very proud of these stories, this is a good collection.

I’m looking at these two books now and trying to understand how I got here instead of somewhere else.  I’m looking at my shelf of published works, which now contains about 60 short stories as well as 10 novels.  Twelve books.

Donna Tartt, in a career spanning about the same length of time, has published 3 novels and a handful of shorter works. She’s won a Pulitzer and is a regular on bestseller lists.

There’s no comparison between us other than the fact that we are writers who write for publication, which is another way of saying we want to be read by strangers and be, on some level, relevant to the culture at large.

I had plans to have closer to 20 novels out by this time, but plans are often like farts in the wind.  You make them, they dissipate, sometimes you don’t even remember making them.

If I have a new recognition this year, today, it’s that I have no likelihood of getting anywhere close to those old plans anymore.  I’m not being pessimistic just realistic.  I have now turned 60.  In most important ways, this means nothing, but importance is relative, and perspective is all important.  I’m 60.  I am now, in the estimation of my childhood, an Old Man.  It’s just a number but I remember clearly wondering how it was possible people could live that long and still be able to walk.  Some childhood assessments are difficult to shed and this is one that I find myself wrestling with now.

Sixty.  As a matter of practicality, barring any kind of revolutionary change in the culture of which I am a part, I’m on the downslope.  Most of my life is over.  What this means to me primarily is that I don’t have the time now to have the kind of career I imagined for myself when I embarked on it.  Barring something extraordinary, I’m likely going to remain a small-press author, publishing books a small audience will buy and read.  A couple of years ago I was encouraged greatly about the trilogy I’d been working on, that it might open major publishing doors for me, and I had good reason to be encouraged, but as time has dragged on without a publishing offer I am beginning to conclude that my writing is simply not what major publishing wants or knows what to do with.  If I could write it differently to accommodate whatever the disconnect is I would.  (I’ve recently read a synopsis of a new SF novel which suggests strongly that certain elements of my Secantis Sequence have been imagined by someone else and will now inform their career, not mine.  No, I’m not suggesting plagiarism in the least.  Wheels get reinvented all the time.  The resurgence of Space Opera flowered a couple years after my publisher began to implode and so none of my stories now get included in any retrospectives nor my name mentioned with those who are credited with this renaissance.  Am I annoyed by this?  Sure, but at whom should I direct it?  It is pointless envy.)

There were supposed to be at least six Secantis novels by now and perhaps two short story collections set therein.  As it transpired, I didn’t think the original three were viable to be marketed elsewhere and without them further novels would be orphans of a sort.  I wrote one more Secantis novel and turned my attention to other things which have likewise been unwanted by the market.  Since I do not know why it is near impossible for me to change the way I do them.

I have a supportive agent now.  She’s helped quite a lot with the writing.  She’s one reason I haven’t simply given up.

In a very real sense, this is a relief.  I can now stop fretting about my career.  It is what it is and, being as objective as I can be about something this personal, it ain’t bad.  I can now write the next book or short story without the extra weight of wondering how it will “further” my career.  I feel right now, today, that my career isn’t going to be what I wanted it to be.  I could pick it apart and name a dozen reasons why—sure I made some bad choices, didn’t do certain things I might have, went with some ideas that were perhaps not as good as I thought they were at the time—but it changes nothing.  I’m still where I am.

I went to the gym on my birthday.  My right arm has been rather nastily injured lately, so I’ve been finding my routine truncated and often painful.  I should probably not work out at all for six months, but by then I would resemble a bowl of mashed potatoes and I don’t have the energy anymore to start all over after that long of a lay-off.  I’m stuck with what I have.

That said, I leg pressed 920 pounds.  Ten reps.  Not shabby.

For my birthday, they gave me a free smoothy, a very healthy one with blueberry and banana and whey.

I came home and found that Donna, my partner for going on 35 years now, laid out a birthday feast for me that just made me want to cry for happy.  We ate, drank good wine, and watched an excellent film (The Hours) together.  No pressure.  Wonderfulness.

On those off-moments when I’m not obsessing over this or that, I have to admit my life is pretty damn good, and I’m just happy to be able to recognize that fact.

Even in my dotage.

Later this week I intend to write a post about my fiction.  Time for a (self) critical assessment.  Till then, thank you all for bearing with me.

Why Science Fiction?

I found out several years back, when my career started wobbling, that my dad, concerned, wondered aloud to my mom, “Why’s he writing science fiction? Wouldn’t it be better to do something people will buy?”

Of course, he didn’t understand that the odds of making money at writing are pretty much the same in any genre, that it’s as much luck as talent, more than a little being in the right place at the right time sort of cosmic alignment, and personalities are always involved.  There’s a bit of playing the lottery in trying to launch a writing career.   Once you start publishing, it’s natural to think things will get easier or at least more predictable.  But stability is a distant shore you keep rowing toward.  You bump into a lot of other boats on the way.

His concern was over financial matters and it might not appear evident to anyone not involved in the writing business how these things play out.  In my own case, I will say that it might not have mattered what I chose to write about, the trajectory might have been much the same.  The business aside, though, the question has validity in terms of the artistic choices we make. Why this and not that? What is it that inspires you to do what you do and not something else?

I’m currently working on a new novel.  As I’m writing, I find myself venturing more and more into what is recognizably literary mainstream.  The choices I’ve been making about the way I approach the characters and the themes feel less genre-soaked.  I sense I’m pitching my prose toward a wider audience.  That said, it is definitely science fiction, insofar as I’ve set it in the future and I’m talking about the changes in human conditions brought about by technological and cultural shifts.  I’m very interested in how then will be different from now.

Isn’t that what “mainstream” does as well?  Detail the difference in a character that emerges after a series of transformational events?  Trace the path of those changes and show how people evolve over time, under pressure?

As far as I can tell, the chief difference between mainstream and science fiction lies in the nature of the change.  In mainstream, characters evolve in perfectly recognizable ways to become something perfectly recognizable to our current apprehension and experience.  In science fiction, those changes connote differences we may not recognize and cannot yet achieve because they require the world around us to be different.  That “What If” in science fiction is qualitatively different and sometimes quantitatively distinct.

Yet it’s still change.  It’s about character.

One of the clearest distinctions between SF and Literary Fiction I ever read put it this way: science fiction always privileges premise over character.  In other words, the normal SF story is about its conceit more than it is about its people.  I can understand that, but then I have to ask: Well, isn’t the standard historical novel more about the history than it is about the people in it?  I pick on historical fiction because it shares the most with science fiction in terms of approach and purpose.  Both are about people in conditions and contexts separated from the here and now by distinct differences in culture and technology.

(I could point out here that, even were this to be generally accepted, received wisdom would make the fact that Hilary Mantel’s historical novels, Wolf Hall and Bringing Up The Bodies, winning the Man Booker Prize raised almost no eyebrows, but had something like Ann Leckie’s currently much-praised novel Ancillary Justice even shown up on the long list for that esteemed Literary award there would have been dismay and more than a smidgen of ridicule.)

To be fair, a great deal of science fiction has treated the changes in technology and culture like suggestive exoticisms rather than as serious considerations.  A lot of this may have to do with maturity more than any inherent problem with the conceits themselves. Speaking for myself, when I began writing (as a teenager especially) I included as much strange stuff as I could imagine simply because it was strange.  It rarely served the story, not because I didn’t want it to, but because firstly I thought the strangeness was the point and secondly because I had a long way to go before I understood how one makes such things relevant to the story.

Insofar as science fiction emerged from an adolescent-driven pool of interest, this makes perfect sense.  In my own case, it was many years before I found myself consciously caring about character.  I was most interested in event, in novelty, in that exoticism I mentioned.  I was interested in the “coolness” of the thing, not the emotional inner lives of the people living in that coolness.  No more than I cared about the personal insecurities and childhood regrets of any of the gunslingers in the westerns which I also indulged because of their innate coolness.  In that case we wouldn’t necessarily call it exoticism, but it was.  It wasn’t here or now, which seemed dull and annoying.

With growing experience and maturity we eventually discover that, on a fundamental level, it really always has been a question of character that brought us back again and again to the particular stories we loved.  We just didn’t think of it in those terms or have the intellectual or emotional stuff to recognize and expect more from that part of the story.  We could grasp the emotional significance of swords and guns, or spaceships and rayguns, but not be equipped to handle an existential crisis in the midst of the changed milieu in which the story was set.  That milieu seemed easier to grasp, like next year’s new car models or a new fashion just on the scene.  Experience teaches, gradually, that such things have little value with the viewpoint of the people living with them.

So the question becomes, since character eventually emerged to dominate my concerns, why then do I still write science fiction?

Because that appreciation of the exotic and the cool factor did not erode simply because my appreciation for what others hold to be all-important grew.  Because I am in many ways still 12 years old.  And lastly (though not, perhaps, finally) the world seems to have caught up with science fiction and to do it honestly and rigorously and with due attention to all æsthetic concerns demanded of good art is to write perfectly good Literary Fiction.  If we can regard stories about England under Henry VIII as  “literary” then we can so regard stories about the interstellar diaspora.  Both eras may be equidistant in terms of relevance to the present and both may serve as substrates for telling us things about ourselves.

Finally, though, I write it because I love it and to do any art really well love has to be involved.  I may be able to write an essay about something I find only somewhat amusing or interesting but my ficti0n requires viscera and I’m only able or willing to supply that if I am in love.

Although my reading is no longer largely science fiction and I have grown pickier about it than I was in times past, a good science fiction story still pumps my imagination and drives my senses more than any other form.  It takes a lot of work to write fiction and if I’m going to devote that much to it I’m only going to do so if I love it.  I find that while I feel just as strongly for individual works in other genres, I do not feel that way about other genres in toto.  If they were neighborhoods, I’d only want to live in the SF district.  I can visit the others as much as I want, but I’ve built my house on the Foundation of science fiction.

And I can’t tell you how pleased it makes me to see other neighborhoods adapting the style and coming here to visit more often.

All that said, it does sometimes pain me to see so much in the field still written as if the neighborhood was still under siege, a ghetto where a certain want of technique is regarded as a kind of gang color and a disregard for more refined observations as a sign of defection, where the obstinate insistence that fine writing—which can only really derive from closer scrutiny, greater empathy, and more honest assessments of character—is somehow the mark of someone who doesn’t “get” SF, and where the simple recognition that the world and therefore the universe is a multiplying heterogeneous metaplex and should be written about as such is a form of betrayal.  Genuine experience must be conveyed through the lens of genuine observers, i.e. characters who are real and complex as we can make them.  This is the only way to deal out truth, which at the end of the day is our stock in trade.

At least, that’s my opinion.

And that, not to put too fine a point on it, is why I still write science fiction.

New Additions

I have a rather ambivalent relationship to automobiles.  My dad was a shade tree mechanic par excellence.  I doubt there was anything he couldn’t fix short of straightening a bent frame (though I bet he could have figured out how to do that, too) before cars became half computer.

I, on the other hand, could not have cared less about the machinery of…well, anything.  The mechanic’s gene or whatever it is missed me.  Dad would haul me out to the garage regularly to help him do a repair and my overwhelming sense was one of “LET ME OUT OF HERE!”  Bored doesn’t cover it.  He would try to explain how things worked, why they were the way they were, and for what it’s worth a good deal of it stuck.  If, later, as a driver, I found myself in the middle of nowhere with a malfunctioning set of wheels, I could probably have pulled a McGyver and fixed the damn thing.

But the all-consuming love one sees in the faces of males of a certain type when they pore over their engines…uh uh.

I still don’t care that much.  Oh, in a theoretical way, certainly, but the getting-the-hands-in and “tinkering” is not anywhere in my suite of anticipated pleasures.

But I do like cars.  I like the way many of them look, I love driving them, I appreciate the æsthetics of them, I would not want to do without them.  They are, in my book, cool things.  I am a firm believer in paying a good mechanic to keep them doing what they’re supposed to be doing.

I would like one day to own a really fine high-end…something.  Mercedes, Lincoln, Porsche, Lexus, whatever.

For now, though, I am a happy driver to have a new set of wheels.  Given the destruction of my previous set, this was a necessity that has turned out nice.  I have a new car.  2013 Corolla.

Yes, another Corolla.  Our fourth.  We like them.

But this one is NOT BLUE.

Observe:

 

New Wheels, September 2014

Not quite a matched set, but close enough.  His and Hers.  Ours and Ours.

Life Has Been So Much Fun Lately…

…that I’ve decided to say nothing about it today.  I’m getting a new car tonight, already selected it.  Just need to sign the papers and take it home.  I’m getting almost no fiction written today, which is a bummer (maybe I’ll slip a paragraph or two in later), but other things are getting done.  I’ll tell you all about the year I’ve had this past week some other time.

For now, a photograph. An old one.  Was a time I toyed with becoming a portraitist.  I was developing a style, according to some (though I couldn’t see it), but I had done some half-way decent work.  I found this the other day while looking for something else.  This is Paula, who modeled for me for a few months way back in the late Seventies.  She never wore make-up, she was just naturally beautiful and photogenic, and I would have loved to do more work with her, but time moved on and we’ve long since lost touch.

Anyway, I still do the occasional portrait, should anyone be interested.  Enjoy.

 

Paula, portrait, 1976

Life Sometimes Hits You In The Ass

I realize people don’t want to hear about your woes, not unless they’re amusing in some karmic way, or you have a manner of relating them that takes them up out of the pit of despond wherein the currents swirl in an effort to pull you down further.  But life is a heady mix of things, both good and bad.

Let me start with the good, just to leaven the stew.

We’re alive, the meteor missed the house, and the dog is happy.

Well, now.  On to the rest?

Last Friday I was due to be at work at two in the afternoon to prepare, with coworkers, for a Big Deal event for Left Bank Books.  We were entertaining Melissa Gilbert at Maryville.  Yes, that Melissa Gilbert, of Little House On The Prairie fame.  Half Pint?  Was that the character’s nickname?  I wouldn’t know.  I think I’ve seen three or four episodes, ever.  Not my thing.  (But to my chagrin, no one got my repeated references to Z’Ha’Dum, so maybe that evens things up.)  Anyway, I had to stop by the post office on the way and do something else (I don’t remember now) and after that I turned onto Kingshighway to head north.

As I drove along I glanced to the right and saw a woman walking down the  street, just past Ackerman Toyota, dressed in what I think of as “Dig Me” attire.  She was attractive, seemed in good shape, and was certainly an attention grabber, painted on distressed and ripped jeans, tank top, long blond hair.  I saw all this in less than an eyeblink and turned my attention back to the road.

Traffic was stopped at the light at Osceola, at the north end of the Charles Schmitt car lot.  I stopped just shy of the entrance to said lot.

A moment or two later I heard a horrible squealing of tires, looked up to see a large pick-up bearing down on me, just time enough to think “Oh, shit” and brace for impact. Bam! Rocked the car, jostled me around, ruined my afternoon.   Naturally, just as this happened, the light turned green and the vehicles ahead of me moved on.  A few seconds either way…

I got out of my vehicle.  The trunk of my car…well, have a look:  Smashed Trunk 1

The truck that hit me was a Ram 1500.  Appropriately named, I think. Two men got out, both in workmans attire (painter pants, t-shirts) and the driver had a panicked expression.

“In a hurry are you?” I asked.

“Not really,” he said.

Then I realized what had happened.  “But she was awful nice to look at, wasn’t she?” I said.

He hesitated, then gave me a goofy, embarrassed grin.  “Yeah, I admit it.”

Naturally, the young lady to whom I referred was nowhere to be seen.  Not that it really mattered.  He could have been trying to read a billboard for all it mattered, the fact was he hadn’t been paying attention to what was in front of his fairly rapidly moving vehicle.

Other Vehicle   As you can see, it didn’t do much to his truck.  Knocked the front license plate off.

His passenger called the report in on his cell phone.  We pulled onto the lot so we didn’t block traffic.  A mistake, I realized later, since it then took damn near two hours before a cop showed up to take the report.

The people at Charles Schmitt let me call my work to let them know I might be late.

At which point Kris and Jay appeared, as if by magic, to see what had happened.  My bosses.  They’d been on their way in and passed the lot and Kris said “Is that Mark?”  Jay said, “I don’t know, was he wearing a hat?”  They called Left Bank and found out about my call, turned around, and hung with me for a time until they absolutely had to go.

The event that evening was going to be awkward without me, but they assured me they’d handle it.  After the police FINALLY arrived, I walked down to Ackerman Toyota to see about leaving the car there.  We’re good customers.  We’ve bought three vehicles from them (and will likely buy more) and get all our service done there, so no problem.  I then called Donna, who was as it happened on her way home.  She picked me up at Ackerman and took me to work.

No one had actually expected me to come in, but they seemed appreciative.

Now, I had just spent almost $600.00 on that car repairing the automatic window mechanism on the driver’s side.  It’s probable that the car is now totaled, but we’ll see.

Yesterday I learn that the gentleman who hit me let his insurance lapse months ago.  Wonderful.

This is some kind of cherry on the sundae of my year.  I’ve had to replace me glasses.  There were other repairs.  My coffeemaker died.  But several weeks ago I injured my arm at work.  An annoying injury at the bicep that is taking a damnably long time to heal and when this guy hit me I apparently jammed that arm again and it now hurts about as bad as it did when I first injured it.  It’s now Tuesday, though, and I have no other mysterious aches and pains, so I seem to have dodged the whiplash bullet.  (I’m fortunate to be in as good a shape as I am, otherwise I might be more screwed up.)

The prospect of buying a new car is one of mixed emotions.  I’d love one.  But not just yet.  We’ve had a year of unexpected expenses and more stress due to other factors which I would rather not discuss here, and things are…awkward.  We were talking a couple more years before new car time for me.  We really can’t afford it, but on the other hand you do what you have to.

I had two new books come out this year, of which I am very proud and happy.  I would appreciate a bit more attention to them.  A few reviews in the appropriate places wouldn’t hurt, a few more sales, etc.  But all in all, that part is good.  But if this is some kind of karmic realignment, I think I’m glad a new novel didn’t come out this year, I’m not sure I’d survive the balance of joss payments!

One thing of which Donna and I are extremely grateful is the number of good friends we have.  They’ve been terrific, even in wholly unexpected ways.

But I would rather not have things happen that calls upon them to be as supportive as they have been.

In a few weeks I’ll be sixty.  The mind boggles.  Unrealistically, I’d thought things might be a little easier by now, and really, when I pull back from dealing with the daily nonsense, much of life is easier.  It’s just that I don’t have as much energy to deal with it all as I used to, so it seems…well, more annoying, to be sure.

I picked up my rental this morning—a rather cumbersome Kia SUV—and the insurance adjustor has already looked at my old Corolla.  I await his call to tell me what will be.  Whatever it is, we’ll deal with it.

With a little help from our friends, who have been terrific.  Thank you all.

So let me wrap this report up.  Just letting you all know what’s going on.

Have a better day.

___________________________________________________________________________________

p.s.  Well wishing and so forth are appreciated.  But I’m perfectly serious about boosting the signal on the books.  That kind of support would do some serious good anytime, but right now it would be balm to a sore psyché.

Gravity Box and Other Spaces

The Logic of Departure

Or, if you’re so inclined, give a follow on Twitter:  https://twitter.com/MWTiedemann   That would be like a kindly Thumbs Up sent across the interweebs.

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.