Dear Pope

A consistently baffling phenomenon in life is how people with zero actual experience in something and with a stated ideological reason for not and never having that experience find it in themselves to advise, recommend, insist, dictate, and judge people who likewise choose not to have that experience—but for completely different reasons.

Life is full of this kind of thing. “Experts” with all kinds of advice for other people about things they’ve never done and have no intention of doing. One of the most egregious is all the “friendly” encouragement to have kids. (And yes, many of these people do have kids, but it’s surprising how many who don’t will join in.) For a certain period of time in one’s life, this becomes a thing when you’re in a relationship. People coaxing, prodding, dropping hints, suggesting. Propagandizing, essentially. “It’s different when they’re your own.” I’m sure that’s true.

And utterly beside the point.

The part they haven’t done? They haven’t lived your life or dreamed your dreams. They’re telling you where you should go with all that based on an unbridgeable ignorance of who you are.

It’s bad enough when this is the behavior of acquaintances, but when the leader of one of the major religions of the world does it, it strikes me as downright unethical, especially when the vow that leader has taken excuses him from ever having to participate in it himself.

There is a moral principle at work here. The edgy one, which is the distinction between telling people to do the right thing and telling them to remake themselves in order to accommodate your formula of the right thing. The pope has made a sweeping generalization about what human beings should be without bothering with the thorny question of what may be morally right for individuals. That, of course, is complicated and difficult to manage.

How many unhappy families must follow the traditional line before there is an acknowledgment that we are not all suited to one definition of correct behavior?

Before the cherrypickers pipe up with examples of killers and molesters and sociopaths of every stripe as being those who are doing what may be suited to them, let me say that there is a moral principle that negates those arguments, which is that one is obliged not to harm others in the exercise of one’s proclivities. You can name any of the varied acts of transgression as being unsupported by moral fiat and they all entail doing harm to others.

At what point do we add the thoughtlessness of making children without regard to our ability to properly parent?

I know, this is supposed to be one of those areas uncovered by reason or forethought, that is simply supposed to just happen as a consequence of love. That we should, according to the model handed down by the propagandists of human idealism, simply feel “blessed” and look forward to the joy of raising a child. When that is the case—and it is for many, many people—it is a wonderful thing. But it is not true for many others.

To define this as a simple-minded instance of selfishness is itself a species of prejudice.

(Especially when we do not acknowledge the selfishness of people who have children the way they collect knick-knacks and pay them no more mind than how they add to the family reputation.)

And insisting that people conform to your idea of what should make them more human is the sort of arrogance which has been costing churches membership for decades, and rightly so.

Pope John XXIII instigated the Vatican II reforms. Unfinished at his death was his attempt to revamp the Church’s attitude toward sex, especially concerning birth control. It was—would have been—a tacit acknowledgment that people have a right to decide for themselves whether or not to procreate. Further, it was an implicit recognition that sex and procreation are two different things, and that human beings have a right to express themselves in an act of physical love without further justification, which is what procreation has become in this instance. John XXIII died before seeing that through and his successor balked.

But over time, people have, more and more, assumed that right for themselves.

For myself, I realized that I would not have been a willing parent. Oh, I probably would have done a fairly good job, no doubt I would have loved my children, but that is not where I wanted my energies to go, and I believe the resentment would have shown through. Every child deserves a family that accepts it and loves it without reservation. I doubted I could have done that. You tell me if that would have been fair to any child. I was unwilling to gamble on sentiments I did not already possess. Does that make me selfish? You might construe it that way. Or you might step back and realize that I had made a moral choice not to risk another human being’s welfare on the chance that “it would be different with my own.”

And of course there is the absurdity of a committed celibate dictating such things to people who he does not—cannot—know. This is of a kind with all those males who see fit to dictate to women what they should do procreatively. Telling them how to live when they themselves will never have to face the decision with their own bodies.

You might also consider that you have mischaracterized uncounted pet owners. Most probably did not adopt a pet in place of having a child. Most adopted a pet in order to have a pet.

In summation, this is just more of the same old patriarchal arrogance that has rendered chaotic situations that perhaps might not have been with a simple freedom to choose. The guilt innate to this position is an ongoing nightmare for too many people. You might have been a bit more sympathetic for people whose situations you do not, cannot, and, frankly, by virtue of the vows you took to get where you are, will not know.

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.

Is Scrooge Merely A misunderstood Businessman?

It was a tradition in our family for many years that at Christmastime we get together, eat, drink, make jokes, and endure the Yule Season with a skeptical resolve to give unto Santa what is Santa’s. We appreciate the spirit but the actual mechanism leaves us a bit chilly. In rejecting the corporate gloss of Xmas, though, we’ve sort of recovered some of what the holiday is supposed to mean, at least according to all the armchair philosophes.

My mother is more enamored of the childlike aspects of Christmas than my father ever was, and he indulged her. She still holds to that in her small way, even as circumstances have changed. We still try to get together around this time, though it has long been a loose calendrical event. 

However, one ritual had worn on me for a long time. I write about it now because the entire country seems in the grip of ethical and moral contests which echo this seemingly minor one and it may be that exploring the small might illuminate the large in some useful way. 

My father, who should be a charter member of the great Curmudgeon’s Club, picks bones as a hobby. He’s good at it. He can find something to carp about with almost any topic. He can be fun to listen to and more often than not we find ourselves nodding with sympathy at some sage formulation from his mouth. 

Except this one. He thinks Ebeneezer Scrooge is a maligned and misunderstood character.

Classic conservative business-speak: “What the hell, he’s employing Cratchit! And Cratchit has a house! A house! How poor can he be if he has a house? As for Tiny Tim, what could Scrooge actually do to save his life? The kid’s a cripple, they didn’t have the medical technology back then. Would just paying Cratchit more help save his life? Everybody beats up on Scrooge and in all honesty, just what can he do?”

It was an aggravating rant because the rest of us knew there’s something he fundamentally missed, yet, like many arguments from specific points, it’s difficult to counter. My mother attempted to explain that the story isn’t about what Scrooge can do for others but what he needs to do for himself. He’s got a lot of money but he’s poor in spirit, and I imagine most people see it that way.

But I grew impatient with it after years and did a little digging.

Dickens wrote four Christmas tales, A Christmas Carol being the most famous. Each was intended to be edifying about some aspect of the Christmas Spirit and they were hugely popular in their day, and A Christmas Carol has remained so, through many reprintings and several dramatic adaptations. If all one is familiar with are the movies and television versions, it might be understood that certain aspects of the story are misapprehended, but I always found this particular view stubbornly obtuse. 

Firstly, you must credit Charles Dickens for his powers of observation. Read any of his other novels and you find a severe critic who was engaged in the close inspection of the world around him. He put down in detail the ills and failures of the society in which he lived and when considering a work such as Oliver Twist or Bleak House one would be hard pressed to complain that he had gotten anything wrong. His chief power as a writer in 19th Century England was as a social critic. So, given that he was not one to complain about something just to complain and was unlikely to abandon truth and fact just to make a point (since his points were all pointedly about truth and fact), why gainsay him in this tale?

Oh, well, we have ghosts and flights of supernatural fancy! Obviously he didn’t mean it to be read at face value in those passages concerning the “real” world. 

Nonsense. Credit him with keen observational skills.

Scrooge paid Cratchit 15 shillings a week. “Fifteen bob” as it says in the book. It’s difficult to be precise, but rough equivalencies can be found. The story takes place in 1841 (or thereabouts). Fifteen shillings then would be the equivalent of approximately 56 lbs today, or about $90.00. 

Now, it is unlikely Cratchit owned that house. He likely rented it. A great deal of housing in London at the time was owned by people who may have kept a townhouse but more than likely lived elsewhere. Rental fees ranged between 2 lbs annually to over 300 lbs. Dickens doesn’t discuss that, but just the cost of food, clothing, and heat—heat especially, which was from coal, and not cheap—would have eaten up most of Cratchit’s weekly salary. Anyway one looks at it, taking care of a family of eight on less than $90.00 a week would be a challenge. 

The goose was likely from a club in which funds would be pooled, paid in advance and over time, so geese could be purchased in bulk (reducing the price somewhat) and then made available to the subscribers at Christmastime. Cratchit was hardly buying such things on a weekly or even monthly basis.

As to what Scrooge might have done for Tiny Tim, well, that is difficult to say. Medicine was not advanced, causes of diseases were only vaguely understood, and many ills befell people simply from living in squalid conditions. The onset of the industrial revolution had drawn people into the cities from the farms by the thousands and they ended up shoved into tenements where the normal barriers that kept disease proliferation in check broke down. Poor hygiene, close quarters, bad water.

Patent medicines were big business. Some of them actually had palliative effects, like Turlington’s Balsam of Life, which sold for between 2 and 5 shillings a bottle (about 12 oz.). That would have been between 8% and 33% of Cratchit’s salary to treat Tiny Tim on a regular basis.

But treat him for what?

There wasn’t much accurate diagnosis of disease in 1841, but Dickens assumes in the story that Tiny Tim’s condition can be alleviated by Scrooge “loosening up” his wallet. Certain diseases Tiny Tim might have had, granted, there would have been no cure. The best that might have been done might have been to make him comfortable. But if we allow for Dickens’ accurate powers of observation, then this wasn’t one of the guaranteed fatal ones.

Tiny Tim might have had rickets. They were rampant in London at that time. The coal used to heat homes, run factories, drive boats up the Thames had filled the air with a dense soot that effectively cut down on sunshine, which would have cut down on vitamin D manufacture, and, subsequently, rickets. A better diet would help—better diet from maybe a raise by Scrooge. But rickets, even untreated, was rarely fatal.

There is a disease that fits the description. Renal Tubular Acidosis. It’s a failure of the kidneys to properly process urine and acid builds up in the blood stream. Enough of it, and it begins to attack the bones. Untreated in children, it is often fatal.

But the treatment was available at the time as a patent medicine, mainly an alkali solution like sodium bicarbonate.

Scrooge’s penny-pinching didn’t just hurt himself and his miserliness could cost Tiny Tim his life.

But it’s also true that Dickens was talking about a wider problem. The tight-fistedness of society was costing England—indeed the world—in spiritual capital. Interestingly, Dickens never, in any of his novels, suggested legislative or government intervention in poverty. He always extolled wealthy individuals to give. He thought the problem could be solved by people being true to a generous nature. It’s interesting in a man so perceptive that he recognized a problem as systemic but then suggested no systemic remedies.

In any event, on the basis of the information at hand and a couple of shrewd guesses, we can see that Dickens was not just telling us a ghost story. The consequences for Scrooge and company were quite real.

There is at the center of the Christmas Spirit, so I have been told and taught from childhood, a benefit to abandoning questions of profit and cost. That generosity should be its own reward. That mutual care is balm to the pains of society as a whole. Scrooge is a Type, one that is with us magnified in ways perhaps Dickens could not have imagined possible, a constricted soul who sees everything in terms of costs, returns on investment, labor, and balance-sheets. Everything. The point of Dickens’ story is that such people not only poison their own spiritual pond but can spread that harm to others simply by never seeing things any other way. The stubborn money-soaked impoverishment in which Scrooge lives does no one any good and the point of Christmas is to at one time a year stopping living that way. 

But Dickens was not all of the spirit. He was a materialist and for him the costs were very real, in terms of hunger and disease and crippling disorder and agonizing despair, and that a man like Scrooge has real, destructive impact on the people around him, whether he knows them or not. The potential for him to Make A Difference was not some sentimental concept bound up in airy essences of fellow-feeling, but in the actual material well-being of people and, by extension, society.

I must here explain that my dad, curmudgeonly as he was in such debates, was in no way a selfish or stingy man. His response to need—need that he saw, that was tangible to him—was axiomatic and without strings. He never was a Scrooge.*

But I think it behooves us to stop paying lip service to the very old and too-oft repeated idea that “there’s nothing to be done.” We may not as individuals be able to fix everything, but we can fix something. We start by fixing ourselves.

The last word here I leave to Tiny Tim

______________

*To be clear, my dad is still alive, but circumstances have changed somewhat, and certain traditions have had to be modified to suit.

Another Note On Whiteness

The last session of the Witnessing Whiteness workshop is coming up. We’ve read the last chapter in the book. While I have been somewhat ambivalent about much of this, I came across points in this final section that resonated strongly.

My ambivalence has to do with the idea of defining White Culture as a starting point for recognizing—and then witnessing—racism. Knowing who “we” are and where we come from sounds reasonable, but when you start trying to put that into concrete terms you realize that “culture” is such a slippery thing that getting a handle on it is tricky and can be exhausting. Like other subjects, we come face to face with the distinctions between tropes and foundations. So much of what we might casually name as aspects of culture are often little more than ephemeral occasions of fashion. What the fashions are built on, that’s another matter, and requires that we look more deeply than perhaps we know how. Or wish to.

Take, for instance, the naming of sports teams. On the surface, this is shallow ground. It’s a sports franchise, a game, an excuse to have a party. Fashion. Who cares what the team is called? (From my perspective, personally, this has always been the case because sports itself has always been, to me, ephemeral and trivial—my hometown baseball teams is the Cardinals. Named for a bird. How is that important to anything other than having a cute handle to identify a local club that plays a game which feeds a desire for public distraction? I am in the minority in this, recognizing that for many people this can be profoundly significant.) The name of a team is a handle. But we discover, sometimes to our surprise, how important such handles are to many people, especially when there is a move to change it. The reasons for the change matter. The backstory of the name, the associations, the pervasive impression made by the name…all these factors spring from underlying structures that usually go unremarked and unrecognized by most people, until challenged.

Knowing those deeper structures—the foundations of Culture—would seem necessary to, at a minimum, prevent difficult and often painful misunderstandings over what seem to be trivial matters. Why would anyone get violently upset over such things? Perhaps having the buried nerves of a less than pleasant past rubbed raw suggests that the upset is less to do with the name than with the historic details of what that name means to people outside the dominant culture—and what those inside that culture wish forgotten.

One argument in defense of offensive emblems—Indigenous mascots, in this instance—holds that these emblems are ideas attached to the subject and in no way are intended to imply anything about actual indigenous people.  They’re caricatures, based on (in this case) archaisms that no longer apply meaningfully to persons currently alive, intended to evoke nostalgia or media representations or isolated virtues associated with. It begins to sound silly. The idea that they are intended to honor the subjects also has sharp limits when you ask What about them is being honored? Basically, when you start questioning the whys of the emblems, you get to a point of diminishing defense and are left with the simple fact of appropriation. That at some point we felt entitled to appropriate those emblems for our own purposes, without meaningful consent, never occurs to the audiences at which they’re directed until the questions are raised.

And then you have what seems like an absurd debate. Absurd partly because the defenders of the emblems refuse to admit that there had never been any reason to do that other than the only thing of value in the emblem to them is that is was safely rendered powerless to be used to mean anything they felt like using it for.

An aspect of White Culture comes into play here:  white people are quite used to relegating to themselves the status of distinct individuals, but even in casual discourse tend to assign all members of any other ethnicity to a blanket definition and stripping the members of that group of their individuality.  Which means that the use of such emblems automatically defines the entire group according to the prejudices of the appropriators. Bluntly, all American Indians are the same and can be signified by a single emblem and no further effort need be taken to understand them as people.

We see this again and again. Pick any minority. All Jews are like this, the Irish are that, Blacks do this, Asians are—you get the idea.

It may be asked, with seeming reasonableness, why would any member of these groups agree to be so defined? They don’t have to participate in such categorization. Again, to put it bluntly, fair enough perhaps until a member of said group walks into a bank to do business the way anyone might expect business to be done, and the question has to be asked—how much of those emblematic definitions are in play on the part of the bank officer who will be determining the value and character of that person, whether or not they will allow business to be done according to the standards and rules that attach to the dealings they would have with a white customer?

Some definitions will not allow people to escape the preconceptions that follow them through the door by virtue of those caricatures so ardently defended by people who never have to worry about such things.

We know that by and large people think with heuristics. Rules of thumb, algorithms encapsulating complex ideas in largely automated responses, semi-conscious conceptual models that allow us to quickly move through life without having to stop and apply critical thinking to every decision. In Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman has presented findings that not only do people operate largely unselfconsciously, but that we can’t not operate that way. Our brains, evolved in conditions requiring responses to environments that will kill us for a moment’s inattention, are not actually capable of supporting fully conscious thought for more than a handful of minutes at a time. (Recently it has been determined that this period of conscious presence increases dramatically—when we’re in dialogue with someone else. The isolated individual suffers a deficit in this instance, something that will concern us later in this essay.) As we mature, the number of heuristics increases, and we rely on them to make quick judgments, respond to situations in minimal time, and navigate through a world of ritual, routine, and repetition.

But what it also means is that beliefs, points-of-view, prejudices, “received wisdom” and the like tend to operate on us the same way. We go with the “givens” rather than reconsider things with each situation. Such things reside just behind consciousness, often as part of our sense of self, and we tend to be unaware of them until challenged. This makes changing one’s mind difficult at best and changing other people’s minds Sisyphean. What does this mean with regards to racism? It is simply easier to treat members of out groups as all one thing rather than do the work of individuating them. And if that single group definition is negative, well.

(I have listened to racists try to redefine a black individual they happen to like in such a way as to preserve the group definition while recognizing there is something different about “this one.” The definition that always got to me was “He’s a white man in a black man’s body.”)

But wouldn’t white people represent All One Thing in the same way? Yes and no. This is where Witnessing Whiteness enters with an observation that triggered this entire line of thought.

…the individualistic perspective depends upon the conception of the self as autonomous, independent, self-determining, unique, separate, and free. Remember that this orientation matches the modern worldview, which is also associated with being Western and white for many people. 

The shift in self-identity which occurred during the Enlightenment and which enabled people to develop a sense of self-worth apart from institutions, many of which sought to oppress them, is reflected in this passage. The Western ideal of the Individual allows for the concepts of personal autonomy and freedom to acquire real meaning. But in the fraught reality of a frontier world alá the 18th Century North American landscape, it acquired the germ of a pathology which today has flowered into a number of toxic blooms.

Unfortunately, the suggestion that we need to challenge individualism can be easily misunderstood and resisted. This occurs because many confuse individualism with the job of becoming an individual. These are two completely different ways of relating to the world. The modern self who subscribes to rugged individualism risks becoming isolated, disconnected, and competitive. 

This problem—Individualism—is a pervasive issue bound up with our national myths as much as it is with the psychology of self-reliance.  And both those issues are bound up with what I am calling Pathological Ownership. The whole question of Individualism is problematic here, because it is in the end unachievable. No one can do everything in the claimed isolation of a bootstrapping autonomy. We have been having this argument for decades now with regards to big business and taxes and community obligations, but it begins with individuals who wish to see themselves as wholly independent, self-contained, and unalloyed in their will to be. You might ask, where did this idea come from? Among other sources, this flows from the fount of pseudo-wisdom penned by Ayn Rand, who has become a touchstone for the self-described indispensable man. There is no such thing, really, but there seems to be many people who wish to be, or at least be seen that way. The one trait that seems to bind them all together is a desire to be free of any obligation not entirely of their own choosing. To do that, however, one would have to cut oneself off from almost everyone else.

Rand is not really the problem. She wrote stories. The problem would seem to be in the American apprehension of Story.

There was a clue to this in the chapter under discussion, where Tochluk  makes an observation about a movie which I did not expect. Minority Report, the Steven Spielberg film based on a Philip K. Dick story, pops up, and she describes a scene concerned with a possible future in which everyone is watched, identified, and targeted for advertising. She claimed to be “horrified” by the very notion. How this related to her topic struck me as less important than her reaction, which is not new to me. I write science fiction and one of the things that always dismays me with people who are not especially familiar with it as a genre is how they see it as predictive—that the futures described are how the authors either think they are going to happen or, worse yet, what the author wishes to see happen.

Which led me to an observation about how Americans—some Americans—treat (or mistreat) stories. Science fiction quite didactically and all other genres less so presents scenarios of possibilities, for our entertainment certainly, but also, depending on the book, for discussion. The dialogue is what matters, not the prescriptive element, which with few exceptions is nonexistent. But I’m not at all sure Americans take stories this way. Many of us don’t seek the dialogue. We don’t want to learn from stories, we want to be the stories. Or at least the hero.

Now, this is a perfectly normal kind of process—for children. Role-playing, trying on different personas, looking for models. But this is learning. If we look at this in concert with the process of Individualism described above and in the book, this can lead some to very surreal and often destructive places. (I am minded here of conversations I’ve had over a movie like The Searchers. I’ve known people who identified John Wayne’s character, Ethan, as the Hero and even wished to be like him. When I pointed out that Ethan was a seriously flawed, even sociopathic character, they were dismayed, even angry. They did not see his character as instructive in the sense that “this is something you should not become” but as a role model to emulate. Because it was John Wayne. Because he was the Hero.)

We are raised with stories—nothing unique, all cultures have stories—but here the stories are taken as in some way biblical, certainly nationalistic. We can see part of this in the perennial argument over banned books. This is nothing more than an attempt to privilege “sacred” texts over those that may lead to other conclusions.

Look at the current state of politics and you can see how the three things are combining destructively. Individualism, Pathological Ownership, and Story As Law. (We hear analysts talking about seizing the Narrative. We should pay closer attention to that entire process.)

Now consider these things in relation to race.

The Individualist eschews recognition of community as something on which he or she is dependent, because that would obligate the individual; ignoring the internal elements of Being Human, a set of traits taken perhaps from stories is adopted in lieu of an openness of genuine self-knowledge and an embrace of what is common; and an assertion of primacy of possession so that these things are claimed as Owned, because sharing is seen as a zero-sum game. Other Individuals may also own things and be in some sense equal (but what does that actually mean in this formulation? Equal to what. since we are all unique?), but since all Individuals by definition are “like us” then those not like us cannot be Individuals and therefore can claim no privileges.

If we believe that racism is, in Shelly Tochluk’s phrasing, a dis-ease, a pathology, then it is by definition irrational. But the irrational is not causeless. It has components, attributes, defining features. Granted, these are perversions, and the things from which they spring may not be in themselves perverse. If we are going to examine Culture as a source, then we need to look at those aspects of it which have become distorted. I am here offering my conclusions on what the elements of White Culture are that have brought us here.

One more observation. It is not necessary that everyone or even a majority of a group believe a thing in order for that thing to affect the entire population. Beliefs can acquire momentum, and like gravity can bend the whole along an orbit even a majority may not approve. What can make it extremely difficult to correct is when those toxic elements are founded in things we all more or less approve, and which may have no intrinsically toxic effects.

 

Catching Up

It’s December. Many things are going on. I can’t decide which to write about, which to leaver alone, so I’ll punt and put up a photograph.

This is Eads Bridge. Long ago, when I was running around photographing anything and everything, trying to learn the craft, this is one of the first images I made of which I felt I had “done something.” This is from 1973. I have a couple of old prints of it around here, but I unburied the negatives and did a scan so I could make a decent image. It holds up rather well, I think.

Anyway, till I have the mental space to do elsewhat, here:

 

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.

*****

 

 

 

 

It Was Twenty Years Ago…

…but not today. This year has been hard on keeping track of things, especially dates. Twenty years ago this past June was the release of my first novel, Compass Reach.

 

 

I missed the anniversary. Here it is, almost August (probably will be August by the time I post this) and I forgot to mark the occasion. But, better late than, as they say.

Twenty years.

That novel ran a very twisty path to publication. There was a draft of it complete before I went to Clarion in 1988. The story itself had evolved from a number of sources and ideas over the previous few years until it manifested in the (very rough) first example. So, let’s say I had it in some semblance of novel form in 1987. It was not published till 2001.

Why did it take so long?

Well, a lot has to do with not knowing how the game is played. But. Let me tell you the story of the story.

No surprise to anyone, I grew up loving science fiction, and my favorite part of it was space opera. So when I decided to write the stuff, that’s where I wanted to go. The vistas, the idea of traveling from star to star, the possibilities of all those alien worlds…no matter how practically absurd it might be, I could not get away from it. I loved it. I wanted it. Yes, a starship is a hi-tech Magic Carpet and the captain a repurposed Sinbad. Between 1981 and 1984, I developed the background for what became the Secant. In geometry, a secant is a straight line that cuts a curve in two or more parts. A metaphor, if you will, for space travel. There are other definitions having to do with angles and such and I ended up creating a logo for the series which you can find on the splash page of this website and inside the second two Secantis novels (Metal of Night and Peace and Memory). Yes, I had ambitions. I developed a scheme to write a series of novels set within this universe but few if any would share characters, what has become known as a mosaic universe. (My one exception so far is a kind of loose cannon named Sean Merrick, for reasons which predate even my first attempts at becoming a professional writer.) C.J. Cherryh did this kind of thing and I was a big fan. A great idea, I thought. Especially when you didn’t want to write a straight series with the same main characters.

I created a star map, plotted out distances, made sketches of the various settled worlds, and so forth.  But I needed a story.

The thing that always piqued my curiosity about all these great space epics, even Star Trek, was—how do they pay for all that? I rarely ever found discussion of the economics of interstellar systems. It was just a given that we could build all this stuff. But the economics always felt…incomplete.

So I set myself to study economics (a little) and see if I could answer that question.

It led me to some strange places, one of which resulted in the creation of the Freeriders. Interstellar hobos, to be crude. At some point that became my focus. Then the structure of the polities involved—the Pan Humana and the Commonwealth Republic—evolved from the tension between differing ideas of what inform value and worth. In the former case, the idea of the kind of ownership that results in class systems, in the latter a kind of work-in-progress that is largely if not wholly economically egalitarian, and then all the questions around control, distribution, trade, and the reasons for Doing Things. The basic economics of interstellar civilizations. Rarely has there been a more pointed example of when to leave your research off the page.

I won’t pretend to remember each step, but at some point I started writing, and that is generally how I flesh out ideas. Dive in. I probably had a draft of Compass Reach some time in 1986. I rewrote it a time or two, then did an experiment in revision which entailed a friend who is a first-rate reader and editor spending a long weekend with us and the three of us doing marathon revisions.

That was just before I went to Clarion.

Upon returning, I took a look at the novel and decided, no, this won’t do. Structurally, it was sound, but the writing…no. Just no. But I didn’t tackle it immediately. I wrote short stories. And started selling.

My friend and colleague Nicola Griffith got her first agent somewhere around 1991. I pulled Compass Reach out of the drawer and did another rewrite and, with an introduction, sent it to her agent.  She in turn requested a revision. When I completed it, I sent it back, and our next couple of interactions showed me I could not work with her.

I did one more revision and then went hunting agents. I signed to Writers House around 1995, based mainly on my short fiction. By then I had written Metal of Night and was most of the way through Peace & Memory. The universe was feeling very real by then. I made sketches for a couple more novels and had begun writing short stories set in the Secant.

I thought I had sold the trilogy to White Wolf. Well, I had. I’d even been paid. But they melted down and handed the three books back to me in 1998. In the meantime, Writers House got me the contract to do the three Asimov novels I wrote. It was a rocky deal, but I was desperate at that point to publish a novel, any novel. I felt I was working at a disadvantage because all I’d published to date was short fiction, and I was beginning to realize that publishing had changed and that a track record in short fiction was becoming less and less relevant to then publishing a novel.

A few things happened over the course of a year or so. I nailed down the first robot novel, I lost my agent, started a new job, and then was approached by a small press about the Secantis Sequence. Meisha Merlin finally took the three novels then completed.

Worldcon 2000 was in Chicago. I met the art director for Meisha Merlin, who asked me what I wanted to see on the cover. That night in our hotel room, I sketched a concept. Originally, there were five people in the picture, but I was asked if they could get away with three. (Apparently the price goes up per additional person.) What became the cover for Compass Reach is pretty much what I drew.

I signed with a new agent, Virginia Kidd.

I thought I was on my way.

It’s easy to complain about the disappointments in publishing, but it’s also boring. Except for some colleagues, no one really cares. Meisha Merlin published the three novels and then went out of business. The books were essentially cast adrift. There is a fourth completed novel and we were making plans to publish all the short stories in a single volume. I had—have—plans to write a direct sequel to Peace & Memory. Other books have dragged me from the Secant.

Twenty years ago, though, I saw my first novel out in the wild. It is an impossible feeling to describe. I was graced with a wonderful introduction by Nicola Griffith (Jack McDevitt and James Morrow did intros for the next two respectively) and the damn thing got shortlisted for the Phillip K. Dick Award. It was a high point in my career.

I would love to find a publisher to reissue them and possibly entertain the idea of publishing new ones. It probably wouldn’t be too difficult to get back into it. In fact, I have a novella forthcoming from Analog set in the Secant. It’s a great place to set stories, although I’ve written fewer of them than I thought I would.

Twenty years.

 

_________________________________________________________________

 

Copies of all three Secantis novels are available from Left Bank Books.  You can, if you request it, get signed copies.

 

Space

I must confess, I am conflicted about this.

Richard Branson made a suborbital flight in his own spaceship. Elon Musk is talking about going further. Together with Jeff Bezos, private space flight is a real thing and it’s getting realer.

Make all the jokes you want about wealthy people spending absurd amounts of money to book passage on one of these in the near future, but the fact that it’s happening at all leaves me a bit gobsmacked. Would I rather this had been achieved by the government? Probably. But would I rather have not seen it achieved at all? Absolutely not.

I’m going to be fairly unapologetic about this. Going to space was the one thing I have been consistently dreaming about since I can remember. (And no, I don’t personally feel the need to Go There myself, just so long as We get there.) As a kid being unable to get enough science fiction, aware eventually that the Real World was lagging behind the dreams I held dear, any endeavor that came along to advance that purpose I welcomed. I thought the whole moonshot thing in the Sixties was conceptually cool but awkward and dull in execution. The X-15 project was well on its way to building an actual spaceship, but that would have required considerably more funding which Congress was unwilling to dole out, but we definitely needed missiles (we thought) to counter Russia and Kennedy was (we forget) a fervent Cold Warrior. But we Got There.

And then turned our back on it.  Even then the detractors were hammering away at the perceived waste of spending money to send people to the moon instead of feeding the hungry. That tension is still at hand and it is certainly based on legitimate concerns.

My problem with it has always been, Why is this an either/or question?  We should have been doing something about poverty, yes, but we should also go to the moon.  And Mars and the Jovians and onward.

Because without Big Dreams, the rest is just…

Not pointless, but once we have solved the problems of poverty and fed everyone and seen to social justice, what next?

This is not a First World question. Every vital culture has a Big Dream, a set of stories if nothing else that inject transcendence into their lives.

The problem is, solving problems never happens in a logical order.

So while I understand the cries of frustration (why are these Billionaires doing this instead of—?) I can’t quite condemn the quest. As far as I’m concerned, this may be the one truly legitimate thing any of them could do with all that money (that they would do). As long  as we have billionaires, I would rather they build a significant part of the future with it. Going to space is the Big Dream of my childhood, and if we can’t elect representatives who will fund it, then let’s not stop these guys. It’s not like the things they achieve will be one-shots that no one else will ever get to do. The point of all this is to open that so-called Final Frontier, which will produce jobs, sure, but will also feed the need for Big Dreams and Wider Vistas and, ridiculous as it may sound to some, we ain’t gonna create the Star Trek world unless we Get There.

So, yeah. I’m conflicted.  I hate that it’s These Guys, but I don’t hate that they’re doing it. When I watched that single-stage rocket actually land, my ten-year-old heart pounded in excitement.  Yes! Yes! Yes! And that tech and those tools, they’ll remain when Musk is dust.

But let us get over this binary nonsense of either/or.  There is no reason we can’t have both. There are plenty of reasons we have to have both. Tax them, for pity’s sake. Even a hefty tax will leave them with the resources to do this thing. Impose a community profit-share on them. There are ways of achieving that.

But I’m not going to beat up on them for doing something ultimately very cool for the time being.

That’s how I feel.