Revisiting

Nostalgia can be a narcotic. Lately I’ve been going through the accumulated evidence of 50 + years and wondering why I kept it even as each bit triggers memories I’m glad to have. Do I really need this gew-gaw? This piece of paper? This book or album? Part of me can’t bear to part with any  of it, but the practical side of me is starting to sort and allocate in anticipation of the time I just have no more room, no more interest, and no further use. I’m already cutting back on acquiring more. I have enough music on my shelves to last another couple of decades, by which time I could start all over. I don’t need any more. I’m trying to figure out how to arrange my days so I can hear more of it. As for books, well, good lord…

But getting rid of it?

I go through periods of expunging my belongings, making the hard decision that I will probably never read that book (again or even once), that I haven’t listened to that album in 30 years, so why do I still have it. I’m starting to be worried about my photographic archives, which are sizeable and I haven’t made much of a dent in digitizing them (too many other things to do getting in the way, time is finite, and so forth). Recently some opportunities have presented themselves that have taken a little pressure off.

The thing is, I’ve never been able to ignore the practicalities for any length of time and pretend everything will simply go on as it is now. I’ve always known I had to prepare for the time when I won’t be here.

Does that sound depressing? It’s not, I assure you. Better, I think, to know where everything’s going to be and manage to have less of it to deal with than leave a godawful mess behind for somebody else to clean up.

There are two writing projects I have on backburners for which I have a lot of research material to hand. One of them is actually written, but I haven’t found a publisher yet. The other I have to find some time to start. I have very practical reasons therefore for keeping all those books. Believe me, I would like to get them off my shelves, many of them are not the kinds of books I would bother to reread for pleasure.

But I have other sets of books about subjects that I have vague notions about using for future projects, and I’m wondering if I’m ever going to get to them. (As I sit here, I can look up at a row of biographies of American presidents. I had a notion once of reading through them chronologically, but I haven’t read a one of them yet, and I stopped collecting them. It’s not that I don’t know anything about these people, but what I have learned I gleaned from histories of the periods, not specific biographies. Am I ever going to get to them?) Part of my conundrum is that I do not read particularly fast. I have the Oxford Histories of the United States on another shelf, each volume covering a specific period and each one a brick. Reading one can take up to a month of my time. (Fortunately I’m usually able to keep four books going simultaneously, but even so…)

And then of course there’s the music and the movies and tv series…

I have a hunger to absorb as much as I can. I never thought about this for years, because there was always more time, but.

Nostalgia combined with dissatisfaction can be genuinely painful.

There was a time I thought—carelessly—that I could do anything. You can go through life thinking that as long as the things you do do are successful. If you never turn your attention to the rest, you’re never confronted with your actual limitations.

But once you are, you have some choices to make. Howl at the injustice, turn inward, resent the short span of life and the confines of your imagination, or—

Or take inventory, acknowledge reality, and embrace what you can. You might be surprised at just how fortunate you have been to do, be, and experience what you have. And that taking life as it comes without worrying about what won’t come leaves you with an open field for the next wonderful thing.

Clearing one’s inventory can make the coming experiences fresher. That whole Zen notion of letting go (more or less) and letting the past remain the past. There is one central question I’ve found useful to ask and answer, providing we don’t take it as some kind of final judgment.

Have we done what we’ve done as well as we could?

Certainly we’ve all left some things twisting in the wind. All kinds of reasons to walk away or, often, we are prevented from seeing something through to some ideal conclusion. But in the moment, did we do the best we could, honestly, and with care? All those things you wonder if you should keep—none of it has an answer other than to remind us of the question.

I’m not advising complete divestment. I love my books, my music, my home, my things. But certain of them I love more and maybe would appreciate better with less competition around them. Many of us use our possessions as markers, extensions of identity, augments to personality. That’s why getting rid of some things is so hard. But it’s not an accurate way to see things. They do not make us more, we make them important. It behooves us to choose carefully what we invest with that kind of authority.

Anyway, it is not my intention to be maudlin. I’m just ruminating n the midst of the archaeological dig of my life to date, and thought I’d share some observations. I’m going to go work on some fiction now.

Oh, and—yes, I think I’ve done what I’ve done as well as I could. To paraphrase Arthur Miller, I’m going with the idea that the goal is end up with the right regrets, the worthwhile second thoughts. Those would be those that add to the achievements not bury you in pointless nostalgia.

Anyway, be well.

Year One

A year plus since retirement. October, 2021, I left the regular work-world. It was a harder decision than anyone knew, even me. I’d certainly given myself enough advanced notice, letting my employer know eight or so months in advance. Plenty of time to train replacements, let people get used to the idea. Even me.

Now it’s December of ’22 and I wonder at the time.

I’m sure most people have plans. Plans. “I’m going to do—.” Sure. And then reality swallows everything and what happens happens and maybe some of those plans survive. I’m looking around an office I had every intention of thoroughly cleaning, rearranging, and updating. Well, the piles are in slightly different places, and some of them are different piles than before, but in the main it doesn’t look like I’ve done a thing.

The same goes for the rest of the basement. Attempts have been made, but frankly I need a month in which nothing else makes demands on my attention.

I have, however, managed to clear some dust off my career (writing) and make some headway in getting it back on track. After my novel-writing period more or less crashed and burned, I finally decided to turn back to short fiction, and to my pleasant surprise things picked up. I’ve written and sold a score of new stories. And now I have a new novel coming out in the spring. (Not science fiction, which is a bit of a surprise, though very welcome. More about that later.) In recent weeks a few things have occurred to give me hope that matters will turn around even more. Allow me to leave that vague for the time being.

I include as an element of any advice I dispense to want-to-be writers that of paramount importance for a career is Persistence. Just showing up is inestimably vital. You cannot succeed if you quit. Persistence does not guarantee success, but surrender pretty much guarantees no success. I’m now of the opinion that this is a matter of playing in traffic. Put yourself out there, in the flow, and eventually something will hit you. Not the most coherent plan, but with few exceptions the one most of us are able to act on.

The thing I did not count on is the fading of desire. I remember the fire, the urgency, the firestorm of optimism, and the excitement at the creation of new work. The impatience with the molasses progress of execution. Why should it take so long to get these words down in the right order? Why did everything take so long…

And now, forty years after making the decision to pursue this thing, that burning eagerness has lessened. I’ve become a bit jaded and quite tired. Partly this is a kind of maturity that counsels me to use myself more efficiently, that the fire never added much to achievement. It still takes so much time to write something, to edit it, to shepherd it through the stages of getting it out into the world, and that now it seems to take the same amount of time as it did when in the grip of the fever. Calmer impulses marshal resources to better effect. 

But more than that, I simply don’t suffer from disappointment and disillusion as much. Rejections still hurt, but not as much, and there’s a muffling kind of acceptance that seems therapeutic now. If it will happen, fine, I can only work the machine the best I know how and wait.

I wonder if this is not just the result of callouses grown thicker and that I’m missing out on something that I once felt to be so significant, possibly even the point.

Still, I’m working. I believe I’m writing better than ever, the work that goes out is better. My impatience is the only thing that seems lacking.

And then there is the rest of life…

I’ve begun reading philosophy again. Once upon a time, I was a casual admirer of Ludwig Wittgenstein. I appreciated some of his approaches to what was known as Logical Positivism, part of the Analytical School of modern philosophy. Primarily, it was his (quite arrogant) thesis that all of philosophy’s “problems” stemmed from misapprehension and misconstruals of language. That if we just figured out how to be absolutely clear, we would understand. Granted, he realized later how simplistic this claim was and embarked on a deeper analysis of language structures and their application to questions of the real. 

I have believed for some time that science fiction is at base the most philosophical of literary endeavors, that the primary assumptions in most of it have no relevance outside an attempt at understanding the nature of reality in a unique way that emerges in the array of speculative presentations against which human struggle might be understood in evolutionary terms. In a way, the very idea of The Future has no actual meaning outside a philosophical framework. The best we can say is that something will follow the Now in which we exist. We call that the Future, but it has no material reality that we can examine. By the time there is something to examine, it is no longer The Future, and from our position Now we can only make assumptions about the Future because Now is the Future of a Past we can cite.

That is the exact sort of proposition that one would find in a good piece of science fiction. It is also the sort of thing that informs philosophical propositions.

It relates here, now, in this, because the day I retired I had a speculative framework of what my Future would be like. Ambitions, desires, expectations. (If you think about, life is a science fiction story.)

I haven’t attended to philosophy as such for some time now. It would be fun to get together a group (again) for regular discussions. The last several years have in so many ways challenged common agreements on causality, truth, and commonality itself, and it seems the only sane responses are either to yield to the impossibility of ordering the conceptions of the world (insanity) or work at better understanding in order to create conceptions that reduce the chaos. Ultimately we can only control our own reactions. 

Some of this, for me, comes from having reached a strange place in relation to those past ambitions. I am in many ways more comfortable in my own skin than I have ever been, but at the same time I recognize the world around me as a place I do not know how I found. I’m reading older books, my indulgence in history has increased, and yet I still revel in the new voices I encounter, even while the names on the spines fail to spark the kind of thrill I once had regularly seeing a new work by an author with whom I was familiar. I can see clearly how nostalgia can become a trap, one we may not wish to escape. The familiar has such gravity, increasing year by year, distorting our path.

It’s Christmas weekend. The landscape is punctured by rabbit holes. The people you surround yourself with (and who are likewise surrounded by you) are the only guidons to keep you on the solid plane of vital connections. The deep structures of reality (of perceptions) are anchors to a world navigable to the betterment of the soul. The hypotheses of conspiracy wonks are less than the shadows on Socrates’ cave wall. (I will not call them conspiracy theories—that elevates them above their utility and lends credibility where none exists—but at best hypotheses, at worst con games designed to distract from actual living.) I am still with my partner of over 42 years. Snow fell yesterday. The sun is bright today. I’m listening to some very good music (late period Herb Alpert, if you care to know—he seems to have left behind the heavy reliance on “catchy” tunes and clever hooks that made him so popular in the 60s but he is still one of the cleanest horn players around) and I have the capacity to speculate on matters of moment. The trick is to identify what matters.

Wittgenstein, as I noted, asserted that we need find the clearest way to express ourselves in order to “solve” the problems of philosophy. I have no real quarrel with that idea—after all, I’m a writer, story aside my work consists of trying to find clearer ways to say things that might lead to truth—but I would only add that life does not have A Solution. Living is a process, an evolving set of realignments, relocations, and above all recognitions (re-cognitions). There is no single answer, only the ongoing encounter and construction of an imagination that renders chaos meaningful.

Starting on that path can be as simple a thing as cleaning up one’s office. 

Election

Next week it will be November. Election season.

Voting is already underway and by some reports it is more than tradition would suggest. A great deal is at stake.

I don’t have much to say here. Only that the issue this time around has little to do with what we have come to engage as normal. I do not believe it hyperbolic to suggest that our very way of living is at stake and that voting for narrow interests might be a mistake. The economy will not be fixed by splenetically throwing the majority party out of office. We’re in a fix due to factors beyond the ordinary—a pandemic, a major war in the east, and the aftershocks of certain trade decisions that were not well thought through. It will take time and the appropriate institutions are working on that, mainly the Federal Reserve. The president has little to do with it. Congress can only adjust taxes and approve spending bills. On that note, I think it is clear by now, or should be, that the previous few decades of trying to tax-cut our way out of slumps does not work the way we wish it would. Giving more money to corporations or the wealthy has not worked. Britain is dealing with that in a major way now and they are drowning in the backlash.

We are instead facing an election which will determine how all future elections may be conducted. Those who have decided to push the fallacy that the last election was stolen are allied with state factions that seek to limit who can vote. Spin it any way you want, that’s what it amounts to. We need a national voting law that will override such local attempts and we know that the GOP is not about to back that.

We’re facing an election which may impact what going forward will pass as “legitimate” history, and we know where one faction stands on that because of the books they keep trying to ban and the straitjackets they keep trying to wrap school boards in.

We’re facing an election that may set the stage for the rollback of hardwon rights for minorities and marginalized people, rights that have been mischaracterized as harmful to our civilization. Damned if I can see how. The expansion of rights has marked every period of growth and revivification in our history.

We’re facing an election which will signal whether or not equality has any chance of being the hallmark of our country.

For my part, until the Republican Party begins to repudiate the people and policies exemplified by people like Ron DeSantis, Marjorie Taylor Green, Trump and all the rest of the MAGA horde, they will not get my vote. They have been on the wrong side of history for decades. But that assessment aside, the last few years they have moved legislatively and judicially in such ways that people I know—friends, colleagues—have been put at risk, personally, all in the name of supporting a panic-driven creed of intolerance and powermongering.

I don’t care this time how bad the economy might be (it is such a mixed bag, I’m not sure it is bad, just expensive, which for some people may be the same thing), there’s no point in my mind having prosperity if people cannot live without fear.

Vote against the systemic intolerance of those who would have you believe that being Woke is a bad thing.

Current State

I finished the final edits on a new novel, which is for the moment scheduled for an April 2023 release. It’s a departure for me, in that it is not science fiction. Several years ago, after finishing a novel, I considered the possibility of switching genres, so I wrote two non-SF books, both in some fashion murder mysteries. One of them, because I had done so much research on St. Louis, I decided to do as an historical. I set it in the 1780s, starting just after the Revolutionary War Battle of St. Louis. After that, I decided to try a contemporary mystery. That one is not set in St. Louis, but in a fictional county in Southern Missouri. As of this writing, it did not come out as well. It’s the historical that is set for publication (through Blank Slate Press, an imprint of the Amphorae group).

Having sent it off, I collapsed into a weeklong period of exhaustion. Not that I haven’t experienced something like this before, but usually only for a couple of days. My past aftershock has included a spate of housecleaning and the tucking away of the odds and ends of the writing process. This time it was all I could do to get out of bed. Largely an emotional reaction, it still bothered me a bit, but I’m better now and starting to think about the next project.

I still have several novels on hand that need homes. (Including that less-than-wonderful contemporary mystery, which I fully intend to rewrite now that I know what the problem with it is thanks to a friend’s review.)

But I’ve found myself introspective. I have to face the reality that I am likely never going to be a New York Times Best Selling author. I suspect there is a window for such an achievement and I missed mine. (I doubt I’ll ever win an award, either.) Two thoughts about that: given my career and what I have achieved, I think I’m okay with that. And…it’s better to be reasonable about one’s expectations. I’m not sure I have the energy anymore to engage with all that bestsellerdom might require. And the next novel I write will be a slower, lower-key process. It’s surprising to contemplate how much energy is expended in maintaining high hopes and expectations.

(That said, it could happen, and I will certainly not turn away from it.)

Long ago (and not so far away) I began a set of novels and short stories under the overall title of The Secantis Sequence. The first novel, Compass Reach, was shortlisted for the PKD Award. That’s as close as I’ve ever come to a major award. There were two more novels published and number of short stories. It was built as a mosaic universe, so while certain elements are consistent in the background, they all could deal with different characters, different locations, different time periods. I’m still publishing short fiction set in this universe, the most recent being Exile’s Grace in Analog. I have a handful under development. I have concrete plans for two more novels, one of which is finished (has been for a long time) and the other of which I haven’t even begun. Originally I had vague intentions of just mining this universe for several novels, just to see where it all went, but the vagaries and vicissitudes of publishing kind of derailed that.

Now I’m looking at this new novel and considering the possibility that I may be writing historical fiction for some time to come. I’m not sure how I feel about that, but certainly not bad. I do have rough plans for an ongoing series based on the characters and setting. What gives me pause is the simple fact that I’m soon to be 68 years old. The question of how much time I have to see any of this through is no longer theoretical. Now, there’s nothing wrong, and I am from long-lived stock, so barring unexpected catastrophes I think I have a reliable 10 to 20 years left, but it is now a factor, and will become more so.

Choices now take on sharper meaning. I love science fiction. The fact is, though, I am not as well read in it as I once was. The bulk of my reading these days is nonfiction. What I see coming out lately I am impressed with, but some narrative conventions (and expectations) have changed. This is inevitable. It was going to change. It might have changed in any of several directions, and just now this one seems fertile ground for some seriously good speculative work. But I’m not as conversant with the work or the players as I once was. What this means for my work is simply that I feel free to write what I find most interesting to write, without paying much heed to what may be popular just now. I write with the hope that there will still be room for voices like mine. But I’ve been given an opportunity to go in another direction completely, which may work out better. I don’t know. I can say that whatever I write next will be from the heart. That’s always the best source. This is such a difficult thing to do that you really should love what you create, otherwise it can be a dreary slog.

On that age front, I went to the gym this morning and did a full workout, up to my best level. At this point, I will continue to do this until something breaks. (No going gently into any night for me.) More importantly, I am still interested. I get tired but the next day I’m looking for something to engage with.

I’m about to do a dive into World War II history (I have no idea why just now, though I did have an idea for a horror novel a few years back set during the Berlin Airlift…)

On the homefront, my father is not well and we’re counting time. He’s 92. I will have more to say about that when the time comes. I have been retired now for nearly a year and it has been an education in what I may be like going forward. I discovered back in the 1990s that I had the discipline to work at home and produce. I’m still capable. The thing is, there’s more than just writing I want to accomplish and that will require some adjustment.

Altogether, life is good. I cannot complain, although I do, and I will. Recently my mother pointed out to me that I’ve been very fortunate in that I have pretty much done what I wanted most of my life. It’s curious how when you’re in the midst of that kind of luck, it rarely feels like it, but she’s right. I’ve had only one job that I came to loathe, and my last job was wonderful beyond words. I’ve published books and told stories. I found my life partner 42 + years ago and we have a good home. I’ve done the things I wanted to do (perhaps not quite at the level I wanted to do them, but that’s getting picky) and it appears I’ll be able to continue doing them.

Why am I saying all this? Because the majority of my posts in recent years have been political, bristly, occasionally tortured, and attempts at some kind of wise observational prose about the world and people, and not always very pleasant. Personal views, certainly, but not a lot of just personal, and often not of a positive nature. I’m not a sage, far from it, and I look back occasionally at posts of the past and cringe sometimes at the naïvety or the lack of proper restraint. I think I’m better at fiction. But they stand as a record of what I thought or felt at that time. It’s easy to get into the role of curmudgeon. But once in a while, you need to just let people know how things are and what’s happening.

For those of you who have stuck by all this and will continue to read these meanderings, I very much appreciate you. Thank you for coming along for the ride. I would like there to be many more years and many more miles.

Later, then. Have a good one.

The Chains Of Normal

Over my lifetime, one concept has popped again and again to tangle things in a web of pseudo-logic. It seems to go unexamined most of the time, until it emerges as the fulcrum of issues over systemic change. Normal. We seem ever in search of Normal. To be Normal, to return to Normal, to stop deviations from Normal.

But we have a damnable time defining what that is. I mean, really, just exactly what is Normal?

Normal has changed steadily over my lifetime. And with every major realignment, a new Normal becomes established and accepted and soon enough we find ourselves contending again over that which is Not Normal. It’s understandable that some people get confused and frustrated. I keep remembering poor Tevye from Fiddler On The Roof, striving to find a way to see the changes and accept them, always declaring his fidelity to Tradition.

It doesn’t help that we all have a different idea about what Normal is. Not necessarily wildly divergent ideas, but if the topic is pursued long enough, these small variations can emerge that throw the whole notion of Common Ground into question.

What is Normal?

More to the point, why should we always try to assert a common definition as if anything else will doom us to chaos and agony?

I see two concepts of Normal in conflict. They overlap, but are not the same. The first might be something like “that which supports a common and consensual equilibrium throughout a community.” Normal, in this case, might be construed as that much-acknowledged but hard to achieve “level playing field” we hear so much about.

That it is so difficult to achieve may be due to the other concept of Normal: “that which allows me to feel secure in my expectations and opinions.”

In my teens, men with long hair were seen as violators of Normal. You could point to pictures of Wild Bill Hickock all you wanted, and Society refused to accept that boys walking around with hair to their shoulders was in any way Normal. It wasn’t done. And while it may seem trivial today (because that background concept of Normal has changed) it created an ugly atmosphere in the country. (My freshman year in high school saw the football team assault the handful of “hippies” that attended my school and forcibly cut their hair off. Of course, three years later, some of those with the longest hair in the school were on the varsity team.)

Why should these things conflict? Well, that should not be difficult to understand. If you have an idea of what is Normal and then the community around you exhibits changes that cause you ill-ease, requires you to question your assumptions, or even, at some point, shift your politics or moral assessment, what we see most often is an aggressive denial of those changes, and at some point a reliance on a presumed set of standards called Normal.

“That’s not Normal!”

We can go down the list of things in the last 60 years that were opposed because they were not Normal. Civil Rights. Homosexuality. Women’s Equality. Opposition to these things often enlisted language and philosophies that seemed more involved and sophisticated than merely saying they were not Normal, but when you dig down you can see that, for many people, these were violations of personal desires to feel secure in their expectations and opinions. We know this because over time, all of this has become accepted—become Normal—for most of us. It turned out none of these things were actually dangerous to the community.

Opposing them was.

The perversity of these conflicting concepts of Normal can be seen in cases of those who engage in behaviors which they personally pursue but then hide because they realize this may not be Normal. The awareness of community standards drives the given behavior into hiding. Sometimes these behaviors are inimical, both personally and publicly. But attempting to be seen as Normal overrides even the logic of coming to terms with the deviation.

How to tell the difference? How, in other words, to “normalize” something and how to know when such normalization is not acceptable?

Start with a simple question: does this hurt anyone? (One should include one’s self in that question, but for practical purposes, look beyond.)

Help for certain problems is avoided by the overwhelming urge to appear Normal.

But we don’t actually have a good idea of what that really is. To each their own only goes so far, because the community had to be considered.

So perhaps a definition of Normal might be: “that which allows for a mutuality of conditions sustaining both community equilibrium and personal fulfillment in private choices.”

Ah, but what might this mean in practice?

Obviously, this would entail a recognition that personal concepts of Normal have limits. As would community concepts. (There was a time unwed pregnant girls were put in “homes” so they wouldn’t be seen out in public. A girl in my high school sued the public school system when it tried to kick her out for being pregnant—and won. Of course, many people expressed outrage that a pregnant girl would be attending classes with all of us “innocent” students. But this was what passed for Normal back then. And it changed.) So obviously some notion of harm would have to be better codified on both sides.

It could be worked out. We do it anyway, but it’s such a messy process that often leaves casualties behind. Those chains of Normal are loud when they get rattled. I think it’s an innocuous idea that becomes pernicious too easily. We’ve traditionally been too willing to censure, incarcerate, punish things that in the end only make certain people uncomfortable. Their efforts to suppress behaviors that ruffle their delicate sensibilities (or their power base) harm far more than not.

Just now we’re seeing that conflict play out over competing notions of Normal. Not to make light of it, but really, the outraged sensitivities of one group trying to reassert a standard of Normal that was revealed as inadequate decades ago is causing enormous harm.

Normal is a monster. I’ve had that cudgel waved over my head a good deal of my life, for one thing or another, most of it relatively innocuous in itself. “Why don’t you be normal?” And ultimately, the question had little meaning, because all it meant was “why don’t you be like the rest of us and not make us feel uncomfortable around you?” Well, in the end, their discomfort was not my problem, though they tried to lay it on me. And this was over things like hobbies or aesthetic preferences (my love of science fiction at one time). What might it have been like if the issues had been more life-threatening?

I would welcome a community-wide reassessment of what constitutes Normal. We have a heuristic appreciation of it and in some instances it works well enough, but given that the only constant is change, we need to have a clearer idea about it.

Fascism, after all, is the ultimate insistence by one group on everyone else about what is Normal. We’ve seen what that costs.

 

 

Patriots

I want to be precise here, so there is no misunderstanding. There will be, because the moment it becomes clear that I’m being critical of a certain posture, some will stop understanding what I’ve written (many would stop reading) and will fall back to automatic reactions that are designed to shield them from any meaningful reassessment. It can’t be helped. People live by heuristics, build walls of rhetorical shielding behind which they can feel secure, and doubt is anathema. Questioning becomes a threat. Just by bringing up the idea of an alternative point of view, the defenses come into play to shunt these ideas and their purveyors into a predetermined category, one which says that they need not be listened to, in fact, must not be.

So when I say that I am tired of people throwing their patriotism around like a glove in the face of others like a challenge to duel, I know there will be those who will immediately see the threat to their so-called principles and stop hearing what might come next. They append it to their introductions, like some kind of degree, both personally and on their social media pages, any chance they get. “I am So-n-So, patriot.”

To me, this is nothing but a red flag waved to attract attention, a goad, like saying “So what are you going to do about it?” It’s a dare to question, to disagree, to argue, to fight. It’s a method for slotting people into Us And Them categories, and as such it is laziness incarnate, because it is designed to prevent meaningful engagement with any viewpoint that may differ. It is, as I said, a shield—and a whip. Using it that way is intended to cause reaction, to establish a set of rules for engagement.

However, it says far more about the insecurities of the one using it than it does of any presumed opponents.

Most people I doubt consciously do this, but it has the semblance of community. Like putting a flag out on Memorial Day or the Fourth of July. Celebratory examples abound. But they are special occasions and people not so insecure in how they may feel about their neighbors, their community, their country then put them away for the next holiday. It’s not necessary to prove who you are to everyone all the time.

Of course people do use labels all the time. Religious affiliations, degrees, business titles, political parties, fraternal associations. Shorthand, mostly, a way of signaling who they are, what they find important, where they come from. But for most people, these are open doorways, the start of interaction, a place to begin understanding. The common utilization of such indicators aids quick connection, suggests interests in common, avoids certain misapprehensions, and smooths the way for people to know each other.

That’s not what I’m addressing here.

I’m talking about those who use the label Patriot to validate and justify hatred, intolerance, and a kind of chauvinism that admits to no other possible way to see the world. A refusal to see alternatives. And, at all costs, a rejection of the possibility of being wrong.

More than that, the belligerent claim implies—strongly—that others are not. Patriots, that is. That even the discomfort of being challenged by the claim is an indication that one lacks “proper” patriotism. It is an insult designed to make the one insulted appear in the wrong. That anyone who is willing to consider the idea that the United States of America could be wrong about something is not to be trusted because—well, might be unpatriotic, possibly treasonous.

I’ve been personally confronted with this kind of thing. “Not much of an American, are you?” It’s an absurd charge. For one, it reduces what it means to be “an American” to nothing but a set of litmus tests based on personal prejudice. For another, it attempts to make ignorance a sign of righteousness. But more corrosively, it rejects dialogue.

More than that, it rejects any position that does not align with a personal conviction of How Things Should Be. “I’m a Patriot, my mind is made up.”

Wishing your country to validate and support your prejudices is not patriotism. You aren’t defending the country, then, you’re using it. And yes, when you insist that others conform to your conception of what constitutes a “proper” citizen of your country, that is an expression of prejudice. When you tell them because they do not think the way you do they are not—cannot be—patriots, that is prejudice. Because to admit that anyone can be a patriot and see things differently, calls your own conception of patriotism into question, and that means changing, and that—well, it would seem to be inconceivable.

What this sort of braggard seems incapable of is any kind of humility of the sort that is contributive and supportive. Staking out an ideological ground and then subjecting everyone else to tests to see who fits and who doesn’t is neither. Doing so is not patriotic, it’s pathological. True strength is not paranoid. Claiming your intolerance is from a sense of patriotism is to confuse love of country with fear of others.

The problem this makes for all of us is the very use of the label, because this practice requires a degree of mimicry. Many of the stated sentiments of the false patriot (or perhaps I should say the Shallow Patriot? Just because the sentiment is misused, co-opted, doesn’t mean the abuser doesn’t actually love his/her country) sound just like what one would expect to hear from a genuine patriot. It’s not, therefore, so much what they say so often as how it is said and the context in which it is said. If you hold a morally or ethically tenuous or indefensible position and your primary or only defense of it is that you are a patriot, then some question is legitimate. Arguing an issue on its merits is quite different from arguing something on its allegiances. It is a peculiarly slippery appeal to authority.

Someone followed me on Twitter the other day and when I looked at their profile, the second identifier was Patriot. I then scrolled through their posts and found a list of chest-pounding, aphoristic belligerencies consistent with the Shallow Patriot movements that inform efforts to undermine many of the aspects of this country I most appreciate. It prompted me to write this and to state that I find people who do this—what I used to call Lapel-Pin Patriots—pitiable. Dangerous, too, but more simply offensive in their assertion that anything which threatens their insular understanding of what this country is must be countered, even, apparently, by force if they think it necessary.

I’ve known real patriots. They don’t brag about it. They never refer to themselves that way. They are, in fact, empathetic, generous, and open-hearted. More than that, I believe they understand love quite well.

 

2021

I came close to not writing this. I’ve done annual assessments in the past and while they have all been mixed bags of good and bad, I’ve never experienced this level of ambivalence and anxiety, yet at the same time feeling…better.

The big news for 2021 is—I retired.

Most of my life, this was something that never occupied my thoughts in any serious way. I vaguely imagined working till I keeled over dead in the midst of some task. I may yet do that, but not at a dayjob. After about 10 years, I turned in my notice at Left Bank Books, and in October I took my leave of fulltime employment. Believe me, I have very mixed feelings about it, but if I have acquired any skills at self-assessment over the years, it is knowing when I’ve reached a limit. (I will not be entirely absent from there. I’ll be doing some consulting and perhaps hosting certain events, but we shall see how that all shakes out.)

A couple of years back I made the decision to stop writing novels. I’d turned in my last one to my then-agent Jen and looked around and decided to devote my attention to short fiction. Back in the 1990s I had gotten fairly adept at it and then, when the novels took over, I let them lapse. I’d just about forgotten how to write them, So I devoted my attention to recovering that skill and this past year or so it has begun to pay off. I’ve sold five stories to Analog SF, one to a magazine called Fusion Fragment, and I’m developing several more. While from time to time I feel tempted brush off a novel, I’m sticking to this until someone makes me an offer on one already Out There. (I have seven in the queue.) In that regard, 2021 was a Good Year.

On the home front, my father had to enter a care facility last year in December and has been there ever since. Mom is managing. Having more time available means I can be more helpful to her.

Politically? I have never been so discouraged. There are days I just feel like turning my mind off to all the crazy. I won’t. It’s fascinating. Simply put, it has turned out that I did not know the nature of my country the way I thought I did.

I read some great books—not as many as I wanted to, but that should change now.

The pandemic changed a lot. We’re starting to look at new travel plans. We haven’t seen many people. I’ve passed up conventions. It’s a good thing Donna and I like each other as we do.

The net result has been a period of time full of changes without any clear sense of resolution. We’re all of us on hold, really, waiting for the next door to open and not knowing what will be on the other side. That’s always true, but lately that uncertainty is greater than I ever remember. Saying that “at least we have our health” has taken on meaning in a way never before so weighted with conditions and relief.

The coming year is likely going to be an ongoing outreach to friends. No grandiose plans, not epic resolutions, just quiet embraces and communications. I do not lack ambitions, but I’m not sure where to direct them now. I will keep writing. I’m in retrenchment and rebuilding mode. I have no major regrets, but I do have unfinished projects.

I wish for all those I know to be safe, to be as much in the world as good sense allows, and to know that we are here. We may lose people, but we must take care not to lose ourselves. And we need to treasure those we still have and will continue to touch. Be well. And, as the Sojourners say, Travel Far Travel Well.

Peace.

1000

I have a few things to talk about here, confluences, if you will. This is an important day in several ways.

This is my 1000th post for this blog. 

One thousand. Averaging, I think, 3 or 4 thousand words each, that’s a lot of wordage. I don’t even want to think about what that might be had I been paid for it.

There are a handful here I thought might be worth marketing, but that’s not why I put the Distal Muse up. I did it this way to avoid being told what not to say (or to say) and because, frankly, this is all personal, which is to say entirely my bullshit.

Oh, not that what I’ve written here is worthless. (I hope.) That’s not what I mean. But a lot of it is simply my viewpoint. My opinion. Take it with a block of salt. I have endeavored to be factual, to base my meanderings on substance, logic, rational apprehensions of what I see. Doubtless some posts suffered from the anger, dismay, or simple lack of comprehension of a given subject at the time. I’ve considered going back and revising where that might make what I said more in tune with my desire for offering a useful view, but two things dissuaded me.

One, I think leaving it as is serves as an interesting look at the evolution of thought and feeling over time (interesting to who I leave to the reader).

Secondly, one thousand posts would be a big undertaking.

I have other things to write.

If there is any common theme running through all this, it may be that the world is always more complex than it seems and that if we let our emotions run riot we simply cannot see that complexity, almost always to our detriment.

How well this might have come across, I don’t know. A lot of these posts are indulgences. Me venting, but just as often trying to work through something I don’t understand. I actually don’t mind terribly much if I got something wrong (well, I do but not excessively) as long as I sparked dialogue. Somewhere. Over something.

If a critic were to select one or two of these to judge me by, they would doubtless paint a vivid, one-dimensional picture of someone utterly dismissible, wrongheaded, and politically biased. Well, I am politically biased—I believe politics should be solely used for the betterment of everyone’s situation, and that if in the pursuit of that, someone decides that some must suffer in order for others to thrive, then they likely have it wrong somewhere. That, or they’re a sociopath. 

(Mind the way I phrased that. If someone must suffer in order for others not to. To my mind, there are those in the world who ought to suffer, just not to serve that particular syllogism.)

I have also talked a great deal about art. Another bias. I believe that without art, we are nothing. Mammals breeding and eating, contributing nothing beyond the recycling of organic resources. Art—music, literature, optical, sculpture, architecture, and all combinations thereof—is our expression of everything worthwhile. Art comes out of love. If there is no love, there is no art, and without art we admit to being blind and deaf to love.

That’s one reason I have no patience with those who discount it, censor it, betray it, even destroy it. Worse still (because they have a notion of it) those who see it as nothing but a commodity. 

1000 posts…

It is also my birthday. I am 67 today. I cannot express how odd that feels to say. I do not feel 67, but then, I’m not sure what 67 is supposed to feel like. I don’t, in this case, feel much different than I did at, say, 47. Well, I sleep a bit more. I predict more naps in my future.

I am also retiring today. The day job, that is. I am officially departing from Left Bank Books, at least on a day-to-day basis. 

About that job.

I cannot begin to convey the roil of emotions leading up to this. Left Bank Books is the Other Great Job I’ve had. I feel my work-life is now conveniently book-ended by two marvelous experiences, different but equally wonderful. I’ve been working there for nearly decade and I cannot find a thing to criticize about them, my experiences there, or the value of those ten years. I wish at times I had been fortunate enough to join them a decade earlier. My coming to work for Kris was unconventional, to say the least, but it worked out well, and I can say without reservation that it has been one of the best experiences of my life. Not being there five days a week, in the thick of it, dealing with something I love (books) and working with some of the brightest, finest people I’ve ever known will take more than a little adjustment.

It was an accidental confluence. Back in the 2000s, as I’ve written about in this blog, I was involved with the Missouri Center for the Book. For a few years, as unlikely as it might seem, I was president. During my tenure we had the opportunity to launch a state poet laureate program. I recruited outside the board to find people I thought capable of doing the selection and preparatory work. That was my introduction to Kris, then co-owner (now sole owner) of Left Bank Books. I invited her to participate. It was one of the better ideas I had then and she did excellent service.

I was soon rotated off the board, but Kris remained for a time. Around then, the dayjob I had then disappeared. I worked at a photolab which was overtaken by the change from analog to digital. The job vanished and I was unemployed. I honestly wasn’t sure what I would do. I continued writing, hoping to land that Big Publishing Contract, but in hindsight it wasn’t likely to happen. 

Then Kris invited me to do contract work for Left Bank Books. They had a second location then, in downtown St. Louis. Sales were flat. She asked me to see what I might be able to do to raise their profile. Thus began a couple of years of going around, talking to people in downtown St. Louis, letting businesses know we were there, and it seemed to have some effect.

At some point, I formally joined the staff and became eventually a full time bookseller. Over the years, I’ve taken on managing the used books department and vetting consignment titles from independently published authors. I’ve worked a lot of events, met an amazing array of people, and have just generally experienced one of the best times in my working life.

Thank you, Kris. I did not expect the confidence you placed in me. And thank you Jay, for almost all that time co-owner. The trust you both placed in me has seen me through what in some respects has been a very difficult ten years.

And thank you, everyone I have worked with this past decade. It has been extraordinary. The conversations alone have been amazing. 

But as I said above, I have things to write, and I am acting on my limits. The last almost two years took a toll. COVID did a number on me, even though I did not get sick with it. 

Going forward, I once more have no idea what may happen. I have some ideas what I would like to see happen, but I’ve learned not to plan, at least not too precisely. 

We’d like to travel more.

I want to make some music.

Photography has never not been something I do.

And this…thing…this blog (unfortunate name for something that has become so important on so many levels for so many people) that I thought might be useful in promoting my work. Whether it has or not, I don’t know. But it has provided a platform for what may often be nothing more than the babble of my backbrain needing a release. It has helped me organize my thoughts, codify my beliefs (or lack thereof), give notice of my sentiments. It serves as a piece of history in a very modest way.

So, the next thing is upon us. I feel grateful. I have been able to do much of what I wanted to do. Not, perhaps, the way I wanted to do it, but still. I intend to continue doing. I’m not finished. And I have ideas…

One Thousand posts. And tomorrow starts a new era.

I hope you’ll stick around to see what happens.

Penultimatey Stuff

The title will make sense next post.

I haven’t written here much lately due to an inability to choose among the rich possibilities of commenting on the mass stupidity of my fellow countrymen.  Sorting through the morass of charges and justifications for the last four years, I’ve come to a conclusion (which I will hold until new evidence suggests I have it wrong) that nothing from the Fox News-driven fanatic fringe has anything to do with policy. From what I can glean from everything I’ve seen, a significant number of people either don’t care or wouldn’t understand policy issues. That’s why there appears to be no compromise.

I suppose one way to look at it is, the segment of the population I grew up hearing constant lectures from about morality and duty, patriotism and decency, have faltered over one of the social axioms they often threw at people of my generation, that we didn’t know the difference between love and lust. It would seem that they have marched on to the present having gotten that backward themselves.

Lust, in this case, is that mix of emotions wherein one wants to possess something and will do, believe, say, or try anything to have it. Whether it wants to be possessed or even if it can be. Nothing is acceptable that seeks to deny the possessing.

It is often mistaken for love because, on the surface, it seems such a positive thing. The object is not something to be harmed or destroyed, all the lustful wants is to enjoy it. And I would venture to suggest that, in very small doses, constrained by self-knowledge and a solid understanding that the aspects lust shares with love are not necessarily harmful—desire, admiration, even a modicum of appreciation.  Lust can morph into other things, and within something like love it can fuel moments of ecstasy. But not if it stays locked in the possessive mode.

But lust alone is utterly destructive, for the simple reason it does not allow for choice or change. Which is what love not only allows but requires.

So let me get right to it:  to love your country is allow for choice and to allow for change.

Sounds simple. In fact, to love another person is to allow for choice and change. Not only allow for it but embrace it.  And by embrace I do not mean happily accepting every damn whimsical thing that might come along, but to support the idea, the right to choice and change and to be an active participant.

To insist it be one thing, the same thing, forever, and if it is not, to condemn it, strike it, to violate it…

One of the drawbacks of lust is that it almost entirely has to do with surfaces. Appearances. All the rest is part of an imagined substance, and imposed ideal. No thought is given to the interior of the object desired.

I’m using this as an example for what I perceive as a major aspect of the current mass of rightwing affectation. The people responsible for January 6th are abusers. They may well be sorry they hit the one they claim to love, but they did it, and unless the victim adheres to an impossible standard of corrupted fidelity, they will do it again. Which means, as far as I’m concerned, they do not love their country.  They want it, they feel they have a right to control it, they cannot stand the thought that someone else might have a claim on it, and they certainly don’t accept that the evolution driven by democratic involvement is the way things are supposed to work. They want it chained to a form that allows them to dictate where it can go, what it can do, who it can be, and allows for no say from anyone else, not even fellow citizens who just might have a different idea of what the relationship is supposed to be.

Absurd?  Maybe.  But the events leading up January 6th and the sentiments expressed during and in the aftermath suggest to me a pathological ideation akin to an obsessive who feels a variety of proprietorship similar to a compulsive spousal abuser.

Which means we can discuss policy till the sun expires and it will make no difference. This isn’t about how the country should be managed, and reasonable discourse has no traction.

All of which ultimately funnels through a doctrinaire refusal to be told what to do, not so much in general, but by the abused partner in particular. In this way the disparate causes of tax rebels, segregationists, anti-vaxxers/anti-maskers, deregulation hawks, and social program opponents come together in a discernible commonality.

And January 6th? “Well, if I can’t have her, no one can!”

The problem, though, is that what they seek to dominate, to control, is not a person, but an idea with supporting institutions.  You can’t slap anything and expect it to cower.

Of course I exaggerate, but to be fair, the situation is so broadly farcical and a product of exaggeration, that gaining traction, to try to rationally address it, may require a bit of out-of-the-usual-box conceptualizing. The ground shifts too quickly and erratically for a consistent assault confined to “issues.”  This is, in my opinion, largely a pathology.

Some sane politicians are beginning to deal with this for what it is. Compromise being not only impossible but impossible even to define, they’re moving on and dealing with tractable issues. Which will drive the obsessives to greater outrage, because that’s the sign of a victim taking back control of their life.

It tracks all the way down the line, from the national to the personal. There’s an element of narcissism to it, certainly, but several other things as well. In the end, though, when someone is more terrified of a solution than of the problem they’re living in, to the point where they won’t even entertain the idea of changing something that may be slowly killing them, then we have left the area of meaningful discourse.  If, then, clinging to that problem means forcing everyone around them to live with it as well, then we are dealing with intractable dysfunction.

Yes, I am aware that this argument can be turned around, inside out, and used to justify exactly what I’ve identified as the problem by making it seem those trying to make changes are the ones unable to deal with reality. That happens.  All that one can do then is keep in mind that continuing as we are may be fatal for everyone.

*****

On that cheerful note, other matters. Some changes are coming down the pike, fairly significant ones, which I will elaborate on in the next post.  It’s good, maybe even all good. Perhaps not as good as I’d like or in the way I’d like, but good.

We’ve been living in weird times. The pandemic has deformed our sense of normal in many ways. I would venture to say some people have thrived. Being stuck at home would not, for the most part, be a bad thing for me, but I certainly would not want it to be total and unending. We haven’t taken a long trip in some time. Of course, given the mood of the country, staying home sometimes seems like a smart choice.

But I’ve reached that point in life where it seems falling into habits is easier and easier, and some habits would be traps more than simple routines. Getting into a habit that deflects from going forward, engaging life, doing all the things…we’ll exercise reasonable caution, but sitting at home, watching movies all the time, turning into an Old Man, no.

We have never traveled outside the United States. I’d like to, but there’s still plenty to see here. (I’ve never seen the Grand Canyon and we’d like to visit Chicago again.)  If we don’t make it to another country, I will not feel shortchanged. I have learned that the best part of travel is who you’re traveling with and I have the best companion I could have hoped for.  (She did hint a couple of years ago about the possibility of going to England. Then COVID shut the world down.)

*****

Professionally, things are…strange.  I’ve now sold four stories to ANALOG, which is a market I never expected to crack. But Trevor, the editor who replaced the venerable Stanley Schmidt, is apparently much more open to my kind of SF. What I’m really excited about is that I now have two novellas in the queue! I would not mind if ANALOG became my primary market going forward, but it is a curiosity to me.

But on almost every other front things have stagnated.  I heard a new term recently that disheartened me a little:  post novel.  Apparently, this has happened to a number of writers who at one point in their careers published novels and now—can’t. The market, the readership, the publishing environment in which they could, all that changed, and they have become post novel.

I’m sanguine. Every generation has experienced something like this. Most bestselling authors from the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s are largely forgotten today, in any genre. It happens.  Tastes change. What is perhaps different now is the speed with which this happens. One can watch one’s career decay over the course of a decade.

To be clear, I do not blame the influx of new writers or the changing æsthetic they bring. I do not feel sidelined by the purported rise of considerations regarding so-called political correctness. Those new writers are saying things in ways and about things that speak to an audience that responds with their dollars. Good for them. This is as it should be. In 20 years they may be “post novel” for the same main reason—tastes change, markets morph, language mutates. It is worth bearing in mind that when we talk about past eras of remembered writers and great books, we’re talking about the tiny handful of works that survived out of myriad forgotten titles and writers.

I’ve been lucky to write stories people found worth publishing. I got to play the game. Would I still like to do it?  You bet, but I am mindful that I’ve gotten to do something so few ever get to do. It would be churlish of me (and really immature) to demand that time stop and the landscape remain as it was back then just so I could continue to be relevant (if I ever was).  Freezing the world in place to gratify my desires would be criminal.

Hmm.  That sounds familiar.

But I am still writing and I have my occasional sales. I may yet find a way to publish the novels I have ready to go, but I won’t insist on blocking anyone else just so I can.

I have been grinding away on a short story now for the past month which feels almost ready. And when I say grinding, I mean I’ve had this one “finished” several times.  But it’s never been quite right.  And right now it has me, it won’t let me step away to work on something else until it’s done. If I can pull it off I may well be about to accomplish something I’ve always wanted to do but never managed—do a series of shorter works with the same characters. If this one comes together and I manage to place it, it will be the third story about this particular cast.

I’m actually excited about the prospect.

*****

I’ve had my photography galleries up for quite some time.  The work therein is for sale.  I have in place the things I need to start doing more, and possibly some exhibition work. What I always failed to follow up on in my photography was putting it in front of people.  For several reasons, I never engaged with that aspect. Every time I walked into a gallery to check it out, within ten minutes I felt put off. Partly this is dismay at some of the requirements, but there is also a deep fear of rejection.

Yeah, you’d think I’d have learned how to deal with that by now, after 30 years of publishing fiction, but it’s always there.

But if I want to put my art into the world, I have to get over that.  So that’s on the agenda of upcoming reinventions of self.

So with that, I end this post.  As I said, the title will make sense with the next post, which may be a a ways off.  I’m busy, so I won’t be here for a bit. Never fear, I’m okay.

What follows is an assortment of images, some of which you may find in the galleries, and purchasable.  (There, a shameless plug!)  I leave them here for you to enjoy until we gather again for another update.

Be well.

*****