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Absurdity

On Being Overwhelmed By

Too many things.

I’ve been on Facebook for years and I have a great many people on my friends list. I belong to a few interest groups, one of which was, till recently, a Science Fiction discussion page. Natural fit, yes? I left the group. I had two comments arbitrarily deleted by the admin.

I hasten to explain that this was not an arbitrary decision on my part, to leave, at least not as arbitrary as it sounds. Nor am I particularly thin-skinned. This was a question of how much time I’m willing to waste. It had entirely to do with the nature of the post to which I responded and the nature of my comment. Thinking it over, I realize that this sort of thing is indicative of a problem most of us are facing.

Now, to the post. It was about Nichele Nichols and her iconic role, Lt. Uhura. One of the responses quoted Whoopie Goldberg, who recalled seeing her first Star Trek episode and running into the other room to alert her family that there was a “black woman on the television and she ain’t a maid.” This led to someone demanding that “politics be kept off the board! This is for science fiction, not politics.”  Well, I had to scratch my head. “How,” I asked myself, “do you talk about SF without discussing politics?”

That was the nature of my response. Mainly, to point this out, and that in some 50 + years of reading the stuff, I cannot recall a single worthwhile work that did not, even if buried in layers of subtext, have something political about it. Because science fiction is inherently political. It’s all about change. Worldbuilding? Substitute the phrase “regime change.” You don’t get there without politics. Utopia? That’s a mode centered on political theory—outdated, perhaps, but nonetheless. Dystopia? That is about the collapse of one form of politics and the substitution of another. Interstellar travel? Hugely expensive, entire nations would have to vote for it. Politics. New technologies replacing old? Political ramifications from beginning to end.  And meeting aliens, well! We have actual experience with that on a cultural level. Major politics ensue.

There’s no getting away from it. Science fiction is fundamentally, inherently political. It can’t not be. As soon as you suggest the future will be different, somewhere in there is a political question, and if you then go ahead and describe how it got to be different, you’re up to your eyeballs in politics.

So the demand to keep politics out of a discussion of SF is prima facie ridiculous.

Now, really, I know what the poster meant. He didn’t want present-day, in-the-news politics interjected in what he regarded as his “safe” escape medium. But as soon as Nichele Nichols as Lt. Uhura came up, photograph and all, that was not possible, because she was all about equality, and that is an argument we are having.  At the time she was first cast in that part, it was for many people incendiary politics. The character of Uhura was a slap in the face to white supremacists, a statement that the status quo not only had to change but would change. Damn right it was political.

But this is an indication of something we may be in danger of losing, at least for a short time, and that is the ability to talk about such things without descending into a partisan mud wrestle. Not that we ever possessed this ability completely. I remember many a conversation that proceeded along on what one might describe as a theoretical basis, and it would be civil and interesting. But there was always a line, usually somewhere that a suggestion was made along the lines of “how come we don’t do this now?” Then ranks and minds closed.

But there was that space, for a short while, where issues could be discussed like adults…

That space has shrunk in recent years.

So we end up with the absurd demand from some who seem not to realize that what they ask is not possible, not if a real discussion is to be had. Keep politics out of science fiction?

Get real.

But people are overwhelmed lately. I know I am. It manifests in a brevity of response to stupidity. It manifests in my growing willingness to call certain things stupid rather than politely engage until some clue as to the source of said stupidity emerges. I have neither time or patience lately, because the stupid is threatening to destroy too much.

It may well be, though, that we should develop a new appreciation for science fiction. All things being equal, it may end up being the last “safe” place to discuss these things among people on opposite sides of an issue.

For the sake of the future, it would be worth a try.



Onward

We stayed up till past midnight, so heard the revelry, stepped outside in the cold and saw some beautiful firework bursts, and retreated back inside where we toasted each other, wept, laughed, and made stabs at promising to have a better year. Some excellent bourbon and he late hour and I feel a bit…strained.

But it is the first of a new year, and while I am not much for symbols, I respect them to the degree that they enable rather than encumber.

This morning, we had this:

 

Tomorrow? Who knows?  I exhort you all to find beauty, turn away from bitterness, do something fine in the world, and indulge your dreams (where possible).  Harm none, smile a lot, and be the solution rather than the obstacle.

May we find ourselves on the far end of this year with our friends, homes, and sanity intact.



March (the Ides of)

And I haven’t posted anything substantial since the beginning of February. February turned out to be a difficult month. I came down with some species of flu-like yuck and ended up home in bed for a week. I’m still getting over it, whatever it was, but I am managing to get back to the gym and work on new stories and all.

So I thought I would do an update.

The Ides of March will be here soon.

The current issue of Analog has a new story by me. I’m rather pleased with it. I think I managed to do some things I’ve always wanted to do and never felt quite good enough to pull off.

I’ve been working my way through a few stories that are proving reluctant to complete. I’ll get there.

I’m behind on finishing the last couple of batches of photographs. But that will keep for now.

Donna and I are coming up on an anniversary. Forty years since our first date. I took her to see 2001: A Space Odyssey and to a Chinese restaurant afterward, both of which were new experiences for her. The theater and the restaurant are long gone, but we try to watch that movie and eat that cuisine every year. (We might change up the movie to 2010 this year.) I’m working on my thoughts and feelings about four decades with her. I can’t imagine anyone else being there with me through what has been a long, strange trip.

We’re making upgrades. A couple of new windows going in, some other details in need of tweaking. We probably won’t be going on any major trips this year. Might be a good year for review and reassessments.

So…

 

…what with the chaos and instability of the last year and a vague set of possibilities for the next, I thought I’d make a couple of observations about—well, about us. Humans.

It has brought me up short to discover that certain people whom I hold in considerable esteem and respect support the current administration. As has been my wont through most of my life, whenever confronted with something like this, I do a long, deep diving analysis of my world views to see if I’ve missed something. Perhaps things are not as I perceive them. Perhaps I haven’t recognized the “big picture.”  My reflexive reaction to our president has been consistent since before the election and I’ve gotten used to certain attitudes which, maybe, I should rethink.

I’ve been doing that for a couple of months now.

My conclusion is that no, I haven’t missed a thing. The fact is, I want something different than those who support him. My expectations are distinctly other than theirs. That’s fine, people are welcome to their viewpoints. If the problems were mostly a matter of style, I could even live with the differences.

But they are not. They are matters of, to me, moral judgment.

The first problem is the least tractable. The election which put him into office was deeply problematic on several levels. Fifty-three percent of the electorate turned out to vote and he in fact lost the popular election, which means that he, as has been the case for many years now for most of the so-called Right, is in office based on at most a quarter of the adult population’s support. I say “least tractable” because the only solution to this is higher voter turnout and I do not know how to achieve that. Some have said it would have been higher had any other candidate opposed him but Hillary Clinton, but I don’t buy that. This is not the first time low turnout has been an issue and it does not excuse the indifference exhibited at state and local elections. You don’t like the presidential candidates, fine, don’t vote for them, but show up and vote for your senator, your representative, your state offices. If this had been the first or only one a few elections with this problem, I might be inclined to agree with the “wrong candidate” excuse, but it’s not a bug, it’s a feature.  Americans seem to be lazy. They don’t want to be bothered. Then, when things turn out badly, they complain. Loudly.

A partial solution to this would be to make election days holidays. Mandatory. Even state and local elections. That might take care of part of it. Add to that making voter registration automatic upon one’s 18th birthday and tie it to your social security number, so this nonsense of lacking an address no longer can be used to deny a basic right. You’re the voter, not your house. With modern databases, it would be easy to track your voting record and see that you vote once.

But inspiring people to actually vote? I like Australia’s system, where voting is required by law, but I rather doubt it would work here. We’re too punitive at the best of times.

When we had a pool of educated, semi-responsible people in government, this wasn’t as big a deal. The country would run along regardless. We didn’t have people in congress conducting a guerilla war with each other.

Where did that come from?

Many places*, but the chief one seems to be that our sense of national character has been weaponized and turned into a do-or-die cause. The chief problem with that is, no one can actually define what is or isn’t our “national character.” It changes. The genius of our system up to this point has been its ability to adapt so efficiently to that changing landscape that from generation to generation there seemed to be widespread coherence and agreement about what that character was, with the illusion that it is at any given moment what it has always been. With the loss of rationality in our representative offices, the revelations that we have from time to time been less than faithful to our assumed ideals has scraped nerve-endings raw.

We hear that the country, the nation, the People, need a new narrative. Why? Because left to our own individual devices we can’t seem to find one that works? Evidence would suggest such a factor, but I’m not convinced. We had a pretty good narrative. The problem hasn’t been the story we tell about ourselves, but in living up to its requirements. If we throw up our collective hands and say “Well, we can’t do that,” it doesn’t mean the narrative is a bad one, as if to say “That’s too hard, so let’s get a new one that’s easier.” For one thing, swapping out national narratives is not so easy, and anticipating outcomes is even dicier.

But no, I don’t believe the narrative we had was so bad. What happened somewhere along the way was the additional thread that told people that if they didn’t like it, they could opt out.

Or blame someone else.

There has always been a degree of this all along, people who don’t like the way things are feeling that they can just pick up and leave. Once upon a time, there was something to this, but it meant actually leaving, heading west, risking oblivion if you failed. Interestingly enough, every time enough people migrated and settled, they dragged along all the community-based accoutrements the first bunch supposedly fled in the first place. The Great Westward Migration was never primarily the individuality exercise our fiction made it out to be.

With the closing of the frontiers, though, the “opting out” became considerably more complex and usually a matter of antisocial resistance to group standards all the way up to actual criminality. Today it manifests chiefly in debates over not who leaves but who gets let in. (It, in fact, always was this debate, but the inclusion narratives are not universal nor as pleasant as we like to think.) Right now there is a flurry of voting poll closings in Texas ahead of the coming elections. Minorities, mostly. One part of the community trying to deny another part a say in how the community will operate by attempting to exclude their vote.

In its simplest terms, this is a toxic combination of NIMBY and “I don’t wanna pay for them.”

Or look like them. Or sound like them. Or eat, think, act like them.

In Strangers In Their Own Land, Arlie Russell Hochschild lays out another component of this, namely the notion of “keeping one’s place in line.” In other words, many of the constituency who put Trump in office have felt for a long time that undeserving people have been “placed” in line ahead of them.

“Like some others I spoke with in Louisiana, Jackie felt she had hold of an American Dream—but maybe just for now. Gesturing around her large living room, she says ‘This could all vanish tomorrow!’ She had worked hard. She had waited in line. She’d seen others ‘cut ahead,’ and this had galled her and estranged her from the government.”

What this has led to is the election of representatives who seem to feel it is their duty to interrupt as much of the federal government’s operations as possible in order to prevent a perceived Leftist takeover. On behalf of people clamoring for justice, at least as they see it. Combined with the erosion of trust in anything “knowable,” this has led to a situation in which the optimal condition is a free-for-all wherein no one idea can gain ascendance over any other. This is, naturally, untenable. Some ideas will rise out of the chaos, but with no reasonable discourse it will likely be the less nuanced, most emotion-laden, immediate kind of ideas that can solve little (or nothing) but “feel good” to those who think they’re defending “balance.” What results is anything complex gets shouted down or barred from consideration, especially if it seems to run counter to a preferred narrative.

In congress, Mitch McConnell is sitting on around 400 House bills and has stated categorically he won’t allow them on the floor for a vote. Same thing only at a higher, more organized and potent level.

I don’t care how you try to spin this, it is immoral. It is a denial of voice to people who are legally guaranteed to have a say. It is saying “My mind is made up, so fuck you.”

That’s all.

Very simply, whether that representative is yours or not, this is wrong. It is immoral.

McConnell has been rubberstamping Trump’s policies all along. Why? Because Trump is disassembling the regulatory apparatus that stands between powerful people and the rest of us. He has been taking apart the machinery that is designed to keep the predators from feeding on the body of the nation.

Look at the list of things that have come under the axe in this administration and, whether you agree with how they function or not, it is impossible not to see that the only things being attacked are protections.

Now, some people will loudly declare “I don’t want your protections! I can take care of myself!”

This is a flamboyant, boastful, egotistical bit of self-aggrandizing nonsense. You live in a community, which provides many things you may not, perhaps, even notice. Without them, you could not live the life you may think you’ve earned. But what I have observed among those who often make this claim is a contradiction: they do not pick up, move to the wilderness, live off the grid, and “take care of themselves.” If they did, we would never hear from them. They would have no means to participate in this dialogue. Instead, the statements masks the fact that these are people who either assume the services they use exist in nature (so to speak) and if everyone withdrew from supporting them they would continue uninterrupted or they are people who feel they have achieved a level of self-sufficiency that will allow them to isolate themselves from those parts of the community they don’t like, even while continuing to live in that community and availing themselves of the services.

Or they think they’re just denying these services to others of whom they disapprove.

Somewhere along the way they lost the thread of the actual narrative, the one that says “We are all in this together.”

Even so, hoarding is immoral. When you look at billionaires, you are looking at a species of hoarding.

Not that any of them keep all that money in a safe buried beneath (one) of their houses. No, they’re hoarding influence. The landscape shaped by economics. Their decisions affect people’s lives and those people—you and me, presumably, living on salaries (and that covers a wider range than a lot of folks seem to realize)—have virtually no say in how that manifests.

Again, we are muted, almost voiceless.

“But the Market!”

The market is a wide, wild river. It goes where it will and is only ever controlled grossly by those people hoarding the influence who build dams and levies. And they only build them to direct the flow into preferred channels and those channels may not be to anyone’s advantage but their own. Get over this idea that the Market means leaving those people alone. We labor under the myth of the Free Market. There is no such thing. All markets are at least nominally “owned” by someone and that ownership manifests in exclusions. (What most people likely mean by Free Market is Open Access Market, which is not the same thing. An Open Access Market is one that is inclusive, but in order to achieve that we need a system of wardens to keep the gates open.  Once in the market, freedom may be expressed at what we then can do inside, but even that is not the complete absence of rules some seem to believe should maintain.) We have been sold this myth along with several others by those with the most to gain from our accepting less in the presumption that eventually there will be more. So far, that has not been the case other than for specific groups here and there (not always the same ones consistently); never for the kind of universal improvement supposedly on offer.

There are over seven billion of us on this rock. It is not flat, we are inextricably part of its biosphere (nature), and our collective impact has progressively changed over the centuries and we cannot blithely go on behaving as if nothing we do has any consequences on the world we inhabit. Size matters and while you as an individual would like very much to be released from any responsibility to people you don’t know (including what they do to our environment), no one can absolve you from that. You are part of your species and we—WE—have responsibilities that extend beyond your backyard. Whether you like it or not, you are as much a part of the human race as someone in Guatemala or Indonesia or Chad or Norway and pretending you are either separate from them as an organism or superior to them as a member of a given polity is a surrender of conscience. The problem is, that conscience you’re so willfully trying to deny does not go away into oblivion but remains extant for someone else to pick up and co-opt and use as part of their argument. So you can either be part of the dialogue or a witless tool. but you cannot be apart from it all.

Among the things that have been allowed to drift into the control of those who do not have your best interests at heart:

1: Climate change is real. Stop for a moment and just look at it this way—in order to live, we burn things. It does not take much to understand that the more we burn, the more residue is released. When there were only a few million of us, this was negligible. There are over seven billion now. It adds up. It is the height of wishful thinking and willful ignorance not to understand this.

2: Vaccines have been the most effective weapon against disease ever invented and a refusal to vaccinate your children is criminal negligence. The only reason you might think otherwise is because you have no direct experience of uncontrolled diseases like measles. The only reason you lack that experience is because of vaccines. This nonsense is self-entitled, trendy, pop-culture propaganda and it will kill people.

3: Evolution is real. If it were not, vaccines would not work. Modern medicine would not work. We would not, ever, find new species, anywhere, and quite possibly there would be no life on this planet at all. The only reason to deny evolution is so you can maintain a privileged view of yourself as somehow apart from and above Nature. Which view allows all those corporations to feed you lies about how pesticides are safe, climate change is a hoax, and Democrats are evil. You have put gullibility on like a bad suit and it will kill you some day.

4:  Economic systems are just that—systems. We built them, we run them, they do not exist in Nature, and consequently we can control them, modify them, tweak them, and revise them to suit circumstances. Labels have no actual valence, so calling something by a label you do not understand because you’ve been told it is evil and will inevitably lead to dire consequences, you contribute to the lobotomization of our collective intellect. Ayn Rand aside, Capitalism is neither a philosophy nor an ideal and in the hands of those who see it as a game of one-upsmanship, it can be used to hurt you. Stop assuming all controls and regulations are there to hurt you. Haven’t a lot of us been hurt by their absence? (The answer to that is Yes.)

5:  The Civil War was fought over slavery and slaves. This is not up for debate, despite the continual and continuing attempts to rewrite history into something more noble or innocuous, like States’ Rights. Most of the articles of secession published by the Confederate States list the preservation of slavery as the number one issue and if that were not enough, Alexander Stephens’ Cornerstone Speech (he was vice president of the Confederacy) made it about as clear as it could be that it was about maintaining white supremacy. A great deal of our subsequent history has been maligned, ignored, disputed, and twisted over this and whether you like it or not, the facts are not in question. (Why this is an issue now is complex but the fact of the matter is we have a resurgent white supremacist problem, much of which hinges on this issue as a matter of patriotic nostalgia.) The Confederacy was illegal, the instigators were essentially traitors, and no one should use this as an excuse to be either a bigot or a nationalist.

6:  Presidents are not messiahs. Resumés matter. Being inspiring is nice, being competent is vital. We are not crowning a king, we are hiring a manager. Policy is at issue, not endorphins. Stop voting with your amygdala.

7:  Following upon that last, stop thinking the only election that matters is for the president. Congress matters more. I don’t care if you’re bored, staying home because you can’t be bothered to vote is, especially today, inexcusable. (There are reasons for not voting that are, voter suppression being one.)  We have been ruled by quarter-population mandates for too long.

I suppose I could on, but you get the idea. I felt the need to get that off my chest.

I have been told that confronting people with accusations of idiocy, stupidity, venality, and so forth do no good, that it just makes more enemies. That may be. But the soft-touch approach has been used against us for too long. I don’t believe in shaming, but I am tired of living with the consequences of people who probably should be ashamed.  Ashamed of their feckless disregard for what we euphemistically term “common sense.”  (I believe there is no such thing. I know what it’s supposed to connote, but that kind of acuity and wisdom has never, in my experience, been common.)

Because ultimately it is a result of a refusal to trust. Perhaps an inability. But when you look at the decisions of some people, especially with regard to who they elect, the only common factor seems to be that such choices leave one free of having to think about what to do next. The bombast, the denials, the questioning of every single inconvenient fact, is designed to allow some of us to posture over “balance” and retreat from considered argument because “both sides are just as bad,” which leaves us off the hook morally. It’s a refusal to take the kind of steps to find out and be informed and then make decisions that are not just masked motions designed to wash our hands of a situation we don’t understand.

Corporations did not want to pay for their messes or admit to culpability or even float the costs of changing the way they did things, and so embarked on a campaign barely dreamt of by postmodern onanists.  Evangelical churches wanted to maintain their lock on our consciences and so embarked on a similar series of campaigns to convince people that science was just another religion and nothing could be known but “god.” Politicians wanted to get re-elected and maybe get rich by appealing to both these sectors and so abandoned their civic responsibility to hold themselves and the nation accountable to reality and principle.

November is approaching. I’m not as concerned about who ends up in the White House as I am who becomes the next Senate Majority Leader. In order to preserve our democracy, we have to actually use it.

These are the kinds of thoughts occupying me. Thank you for your time and attention.

___________________________________________________________

*For those who wish to lay actual blame as a matter of first causes, you can blame this on the corporate actions to undermine legitimate science in order to avoid the costs of cleaning up messes. What began as a fairly simple tactic to call into question facts which pointed to the need to change certain practices in order to prevent enactment of new regulations (and later undo existing regulations) got away from them and became an evangelical movement to deny any fact that did not fit a particular view. It has led to the discrediting of any kind of authority, valid or otherwise, and hamstrung us when collective action is necessary. The method has become a politic position.



Workin’ On It

Once more before the screen, on an on-and-off rainy day. I’ve been trying to follow up on the good effect of a story sale and bulling my way through some stories that have been hanging fire for too long. What do I feel like doing instead? Well, not what’s below. I don’t fish. I would be one of those who would bring a book and fall asleep, probably get sunburnt, mosquito-bit, generally overheated, and with no fish to show for it because I wouldn’t really care.

But the sunshine would be nice. And a bit of placid surroundings. Don’t know about the audience, though…



Random Bits

No plan here, just thoughts. It’s Sunday as I begin writing this, second day for me of a four-day weekend. Timing.

Lack of attention bedevils me. I have things to do, a wide variety, and I get befuddled by which I should pay most attention. It matters because I end up scattering my attention widely and so get little done in each endeavor. Some of my friends understand this, but not all.

This morning I got out of bed (I hesitate to say “awoke” because I wouldn’t classify my condition that way) and stumbled through my morning routines. Making coffee is so embedded in my brain that I think if I sleep-walked that is one of the things I would do. Donna was already up, tending to the dog. To be honest, I felt like going back to bed, but I intuited that it would only waste time. Another hour or two would not improve my ability to feel whole, just delay it. Further honesty requires me to admit that mornings like this frighten me a little, because I feel so “off” that I think something must be wrong.

I’m just tired, really. An hour or two after getting out of bed I feel pretty much as I’ve always felt. Slow but present.

I’ve had a number of conversations of late about intelligence. Genius, even. I think a genius would be internally unaware of it. My father, I sometimes feel, was a genius. Is. (Yes, he’s still alive, but now so impaired by deafness and poor sight that interaction is virtually impossible.) He never believed so. He railed about how other people seemed so stupid, how they overlooked, missed, or never figured out things which seemed so obvious to him, and he blamed laziness or prejudice or ambivalence. How could they not see? When I pointed out to him that he himself was far from ordinary, he bridled. No, that couldn’t be it. He did not see himself as a particularly smart man. But he was dogged, possessed of a degree of focus and ability to concentrate I found unachievable. His own opinion would never allow recognition of his “gifts,” if gifts they were.

I’ve been accused—recently—of being “superior.” Not a compliment.

We live in a culture that prizes knowledge only when it’s somewhere else. It’s cool when it’s on tv or in a lecture hall or, most importantly, when it makes someone a lot of money. But when it lives next door to us we resent it. When we have to talk to it every day we hate it, because it feels like someone is showing off, trying to be better than everyone else, getting off on making others feel stupid. I’ve never understood that. It’s not like all the information isn’t there for everyone to access.

It’s a choice of what we find important. As far as I’m concerned, too many people are too invested in things that don’t matter. (Is that me being judgmental? Why, yes, it is. Unapologetically. You have to choose, you have to decide. Others, I realize, level their judgment at me to the same or greater degrees. What good is that novel you just read? Isn’t that a waste of time? Well, the same could said about the goal that player just made that you reacted to orgasmically. If you’re going to judge me for having no interest in your passion, I’m going to judge you for having none in mine. Let’s lay it out and compare worth some day and see how what stacks up.)

(I have noticed that this phenomenon is not limited to intellectual pursuits. I’ve been insulted in the past for being in good physical condition. I lift weights, it shows. I’ve been treated as somehow weird by people who…well, any deviation from an assumed norm will intimidate people who just can’t seem to bring themselves to do the work to achieve something they might actually want to do. It’s as if they think they should have been born with these characteristics and when it turns out they have to do some actual work, instead of embracing the opportunities, they turn to resentment of those who do.)

I didn’t intend to complain this morning. But I have some things on my mind. This is a free-flowing post. Read at your own peril.

I made myself go to the gym this morning. I halfway expected to be unable to finish a workout. Instead, as often happens, about half to two-thirds through, I felt better. Blood flowing, I came awake.

And on the drive home I started having conversations in my head.

Yes, I talk to myself. I always have. My interactions with my fellow creatures have often been frustrating to me. Things I miss, don’t get, say wrong, hear wrong, respond inappropriately. A good deal of what people see today is a carefully constructed façade designed to offer an interface that works in group settings. Not fake, no, but selective and practiced. At one time I did try putting a fake front up and it never worked. It took a long time for me to realize that, though, because part of the front was a very selective filter that kept useful interaction out.

(That annoying piece of advice, so often given, to just “be yourself” used to infuriate me. Firstly, how the hell does one do that? I mean, really. First it assumes you know who you are. Second it assumes that you have a choice about how you come across to other people. You do, as it turns out, but it rarely comes automatically. And thirdly, it fails to take into account whether or not you like who you may be as “yourself.” Don’t people realize that “being yourself” may well be the last thing you want to be because you find whatever that is to be…wanting? Of course they do, they’ve been having the same struggle, but probably don’t realize it. All those “popular” people, do we really believe that’s who they really are? If you could look inside to see, would it be what you see on the outside? No. So, stupid advice, well-meant, but as often as not self-defensive.)

I’m sitting here in my office, trying to rework a short story that has resisted conclusion for months. Like most of my short stories in the last several years, it seemed promising because I had a very cool idea. The idea remains cool. Getting it across as a compelling story is another matter. And, as usual, I am procrastinating by working on this post instead.

I’m listening to Walter Piston. He was an American composer, mid-20th Century. I stumbled on him during one of my periods of exploring obscure classical music. You can listen to him and hear a bit less experimental version of Barber and Copland and maybe Hanson. (Again, who? Yeah.) I’ve got a few CDs of his symphonies. They make excellent background for writing, but when you really listen to them you hear a familiar strain of anxiety that seems a part of most American neoclassical. You listen to Copland and the others and you can hear a boldness, a brashness that seems distinctly American. But along the way, especially in the symphonies, comes a stretch of uncertainty. I call it anxiety. The anxiety of not being so sure of yourself, perhaps, or the anxiety of knowing you have a lot of responsibility and can’t really carry it. (I sometimes think Ives, whom I cannot really stand, was about nothing but that uncertainty.)

The best science fiction carries that anxiety in its guts. We’re boldly going where we don’t belong and nervous about it, but eager. so eager to see the next neat thing.

So I get home, muscles still humming from a decent workout, brain filled with a silent conversation about an unresolved issue, and Donna is still doing landscaping in the back yard.  I help by moving some heavy stones, then retreat inside, eventually migrate down to the office, and start riffing on these stray thoughts.

Most days, lately, I write a few sentences, correct some errors, tweak. Then I scoot to the other computer and cruise. Yesterday I listened to a report on “downgrading” humans, which talked about how the information explosion has been coopted by the so-called Attention Economy to the detriment of actual intellection.

Downgrading Humans. According to the report, our brains are not equipped to deal with the information deluge constantly poured through them. We get overwhelmed, the tools we have to sort wheat from chaff are inadequate, we can’t tell noise from signal after a while, and soon we’re just clicking through from one bit to the next in a parody of research. The limitation offends, I’m sure. I’m resentful of my inabilities, especially when it comes to knowledge. But it’s an academic kind of resentment now that rarely obtrudes into the kind of seething animosity a teenager might feel when being told no. It’s more frustration now when I run against my own lack of information and ignorance when I’m in the middle of a project or a conversation.

The problem I imagine with what is being described as “downgrading” is that indulging the immersion in click-throughs can come to feel like genuine learning.

Plus, there’s something addictive about. The dazzle of bright, shiny objects.

There’s a big market for self-help books. A lot of them are practical, how to do things, but a lot of them are about changing your life, becoming a new or different or better person. Many border on genuine psychology, but most seem to be manuals for self-improvement that only glance off the deeper aspects of who we are. Years ago, groping toward some kind of self-knowledge, I read a lot of them. Fritz Perls, Leo Buscaglia, Eric Fromm, others. I gleaned useful things from them all, but it seemed as I grew older, less and less of what I read in these books offered anything truly useful. Reality never conforms to neat paragraphs of “if this, then do that.” But occasionally there was genuine insight. I stopped reading them after I shifted into philosophy. But there’s a huge market. You would think we live in a world of remarkably healthy self-actualized people. I have no idea, but I have come to believe that most of these books sell to people who believe that all they have to do is read them and that is sufficient. Acting on the advice? Well.

I’ve taken a hard look at my own habits. I’ve become craggier in some ways. The state of the world has a bit to do with this, but in general I’ve been dissatisfied with my own progress along various fronts. I wondered, after hearing about this phenomenon, if I were a victim of this. Turning to the very thing that is largely the source of the problem is an irony past stating, but it is true that even though an overwhelming amount of dross permeates the internet, there is much that is worthwhile. A degree of ordinary scepticism is required and some robust filters, but you can find out useful things. So I did a bit of research on internet trends and realized quickly that I am a weekend tourist at worst. This thing distracts me, but I spend far more time reading books than ever I spend online.

But the distraction is enough to derail my concentration. It’s worse when I’m not working on a specific project. The discipline of the project keeps me focused.

Of course, then there are the days when my hindbrain cries out for relaxation. For what Donna calls “vegging.” One of the things my parents, worrying all through my upbringing that they would fail to implant it, managed to instill is an ethic that demands I waste no time. So even the things I do for “relaxation” seem to require a practical reason, a purpose. I’ve invented a number of excuses to fool my subconscious so it will leave me alone when I’m indulging the “frivolous.” I wish I could just…

I listen to music to put me in moods. Moods to write, to read sometimes, to work out. Music is a deep pool of inspiration and replenishment for my soul. We live in an age where the available sounds are greater than at any time. The possibilities are amazing. I hear better performances, more intriguing compositions, wilder explorations today than ever before, in just about any genre of music you care to name. You would think we could find a common soundtrack with all this to choose from, but the click-through ethic renders too many too impatient to sit and truly listen.

Or does it? That same volume of data may just serve to lend cover to large groups of people who do exactly that—sit and listen. They don’t answer surveys, they don’t buy in predictable manners, they don’t feed the pop machinery. It may be that we’re about to hear from them in a Big Way. I have noticed a lot of young people buying more books, books you might not predict they would buy. And of course the books being published…I can’t say that they are “downgraded.” No more than they ever were. And the best is better than ever before.

I take my optimism where I can find it.

Among the things I want to do before I’m gone: publish a dozen more books, record and release an album of original music, mount a couple of exhibits and possibly publish a monograph of my photographs, and maybe start drawing and painting again. State like that it would seem I need another lifetime. One thing I’ve come to appreciate (though perhaps not experienced yet) is that a lifetime doesn’t have a specific time limit and you can have more than one, overlapping or contiguously.

We’ll see what can be done with that.

Thank you for indulging me.



Demon Mask

This last two weeks have been stunning in the extremes of experience and emotion. Between the unexpected trip to Los Angeles at the invitation of Susan Ellison to attend the memorial gathering for Harlan to the circus in congress to the second annual BookFest in the Central West End to a significant amount of personal matters, I have rarely had such a ride.  I should write about these things in separate posts, but just now I lack the energy and the coherence of thought to deal with it.

So bear with me as I sort and shuffle. 

Meanwhile, an image. While in L.A. we went to the La Brea Tar Pits. An amazing place, with an amazing history extending back 30 or 40 thousand years. Of the photographs taken, I reworked this one after seeing a rather impressive version done by Marty Bast, a mutual friend of Harlan’s, who has a unique eye. Alas, Marty has no online gallery, but posts from time to time on FaceBook. (You really should cobble a gallery together, Marty.)

I worked my version through other changes. A fossil face (I forget the species at this remove).  Done as a demon. 

Use this as a placeholder and reminded that I am not gone. But you might see this as a subtle indication of my state of mind. Maybe.  I wouldn’t take me too seriously about that. 

On the other hand…



In What?

I had no idea till yesterday this was a thing. The Toronto van killer apparently was a member of a supposedly oppressed group that wishes to declare open rebellion against—

Well, I’m not entirely sure, but I think I understand. They have adopted a cognomen, which took me by surprise, one because it has the sound of something clandestine, serious, a thing with heft and glamour. But when you discover what it actually stands for there is a moment of dismay and…really?

Incels.

The incel rebellion is upon us.

Involuntarily Celibate.

Take a moment. Or two. This has emerged from something else with a label I had not heard before (because I don’t, apparently, pay attention to the people or places where I would hear such things), the Manosphere.

Involuntarily Celibate.

In other words, people who can’t seem to get laid.

And are convinced it’s not their fault.

They must all be 15 years old.

I am torn here between dismissive ridicule and being deeply serious. In another time, another age, no one would so publicly proclaim this condition, but since a way has been found to make it sound like a civil rights violation, it can now be a group identifier with significant political weight. Evidently so, since people are now dead because this guy doesn’t know how to deal with a personality problem.

There seems to be no middle ground on which to stand. Every adolescent who ever looked in a mirror has doubtless felt the despair of not being attractive. Most of us grow up and out of it and realize that it was just part of the learning curve of being human. Too many of us probably forget how awkward that whole part of our lives was. But some few no doubt never figure it out.

This is now a serious issue because it is being politicized, along with all the other aspects of what it means to live in the world, and in this instance it is based on a serious misapprehension of the entire question of sexual freedom.

After the Sexual Revolution, two notions seemed to become widespread that actually conflicted, although at the time it may have appeared to a lot of people that there was no contradiction. The first was that people now had the right to express themselves sexually and it was no ones damn business but your own. The other was largely, I think, a male reaction “Holy shit, now we’re gonna get laid more!” It didn’t occur to the latter that part of the personal ownership of one’s sex life meant saying No was now easier and a right. In the party that we witnessed that carried on through the Disco Era and started to stumble in the Age of AIDS, not a lot of attention got paid to the idea that women, especially women, could now pick and choose and say No without being castigated for it. (Men, it seemed to be assumed, didn’t know what to do with a right to say No. This is a stereotype, but one backed up by a LOT of circumstantial evidence.)

Fast forward to today when everyone is talking about Rape Culture and power arrangements and other aspects of civil rights and women’s health is threatened by political activists who clearly don’t like women having the ability to decide for themselves, and what do we have now? The same feckless arrested adolescents declaring their inability to get laid is because those people over there have oppressed us!

They apparently think it has to do with looks.

Let us put this out there now, clearly and succinctly. Sex is a gift. It is a wonderful gift people give to each other. You have a perfect right to have it when offered. What you do not have is a right to expect it and demand it. It only  counts if it is freely given and willingly indulged by all parties. You have a right to own your sexuality. You do not have a right to anyone else’s.  If you take it, it is not sex, it is rape. If you do not offer it and it is wrested from you, it is rape.  If you ask for it and are told no, move on. To do otherwise is to prove to all involved that you have no clue what this is all about.

To go out and run down a bunch of innocent people because you get turned down for sex is criminal narcissism. You aren’t being denied sex because you have been oppressed, you’re being denied sex because on some level you don’t know what it is. You’re throwing a tantrum, stamping you feet in petulance, and killing people because of a problem which is pretty much all yours.

Incels. My ghod, are you serious? Like they came to your house and clamped a girdle around you, like a chastity belt, and issued a restraining order to prevent you from having sex?

If women (and, possibly, but given the rhetoric I’ve seen, not likely, men) turn you down (and of course one has to wonder if that is actually happening or if conversation leading to a refusal ever actually occurs), it is not because you are ugly (what does that mean anyway?) or because they’re “castrating bitches” and you have a dick. It’s because you are a dick.

I don’t know what the cure is for that, but it’s not revolution.

But there is also the likelihood that many of these males (I refuse to call them Men, that has other connotations having to do with character which may be problematic in this instance) are not celibate so much as intolerant. They cannot stand the idea of being refused, as if women, in their view, simply have no right to turn them down.  They want slaves. They want to live on Gor. They can’t find women who will put up with their unexamined misogyny. (But of course there are plenty of males who are like this who have plenty of opportunity for what for them passes as sex, just not from wholly willing partners. Abuse has many faces.) There may well be males involved in this who have political litmus tests, or religious criteria, or—

Or have no fashion sense and zero conversation.

Sex, at the end of it all, is conversation. A dialogue (or more). If you don’t know how to talk to people…

Which is an adolescent problem.

Forgive me for going on about this, but I am genuinely annoyed. And stupefied. It is difficult to take it seriously, but it is a serious thing. Next we’ll be hearing from them that they think the world of A Handmaid’s Tale is a good idea, a utopia. They will completely miss that this is satire, dystopic, a warning, an altogether Bad Thing, and long for the instantiation of Gilead.

Boys, if you’re having trouble talking to girls, start with something easier—talk to a person. And then get it through your skull that women are persons. Until then, instead of wasting all this energy trying to get a political movement going in order to get laid, get some counseling.  And stop hurting people.

Grow up.



Picking Nits

To some, this may sound petty, but others will know what I mean.

Back when I worked in photography, one of the things that separated the amateurs from the pros had to do with Finish. I did lab work most of my career, what was referred to as “finishing.” Now, at its most basic, this was simply processing the film and printing the pictures, but there was so much more to it than that simple description suggests. Because we weren’t just supposed to print someone’s photographs—we were supposed to make them look good.

And that required a lot of practice, more than a little experience, a bit of expertise, and, most importantly, what that idea meant. Often the difference between a snapshot of Long’s Peak and a photograph of it was largely a matter of how the image was presented. How it was processed, printed, was it then mounted and framed, had care been given to the balance of values across the range of tones, had anyone retouched (this is more to do with printing from negatives where the advent of dust could play havoc with an image and required a patient hand with a fine brush to repair) it, and finally had the printer treated the image with the respect and imagination it merited. As much as the original image itself is a work of art, the production of the print is itself a matter of artistic accomplishment.

What does this have to do with writing and publishing?

I’m glad you asked that question.  In its own way, just as much.

The other day I was handed a self-published book and started reading. I stopped less than two pages in.  (Before you wonder, this had nothing to do with my job, this was a book sent me by a friend.)  Why did I stop? Was the story horrible?

I have no idea. Because the “finishing” was bad. Poor typography, the page layout was not good, and there were transfer artifacts evident throughout. By that I mean the thing was not proofed after it was set up and so paragraphs that should have been indented were not, italics that should have been there was not, special characters were replaced with some kind of word processor code. Correctable mistakes having to do with appearance remained in the product to mangle the reading experience. In short, it was physically unpleasant.

But the writing was not good either. Not so much that the sentences were poor, but many of them were in the wrong place, paragraphs were crammed with whatever the author thought of to put down next in line, and later did not go back to put them in the right place.  Jumbles of sentences and ideas that may or may not have been necessary to the story but in the configuration on the page did nothing but cause bafflement and headache trying to do the editing that ought to have been long before the cover art was even considered.

Which was actually pretty good, that cover art. As if a pretty wrapper could compensate for the amateur mess inside.

The book had been released into the wild too soon.  It needed more work.  It needed “finishing.”

This is an aspect of the whole self-publishing phenomenon I do not understand.  When I worked in photography there were many people I knew who were gleeful amateurs who did their own processing. They had fun. They derived pleasure from printing their own pictures.  None of them would have dreamed of putting what they did in their basement up in a gallery to pass off as professional work.

But there are authors who think nothing of assuming, because they can now get their work between covers and find a way to distribute it, that this somehow makes them equal to professionals who publish through traditional houses. There is a false equivalency based on poorly understood standards.  It is one of the things I find most depressing about the self-publishing industry.  Through this mechanism there is little to require the wanna-bes to do the work necessary to make a good product.

Am I nitpicking? Michelangelo said “Trifles make perfection and perfection is no trifle.” Nits are like dust spots and they spoil the finish.

And it’s not like this is hard to see.  Go into a bookstore and pull a book off the shelf, something published by Harper or FSG or Putnam, Macmillan, Simon & Shuster, and open it up and look at the page. Look.  Does what you just paid money to produce match what you see in terms of font, layout, pagination?  And it is not like this should be that difficult to correct anymore.

Time-consuming, yes.  Just like rewriting and editing are time-consuming.

You can’t rush good finishing. If you do, it will show, and people will be put off by your work.  And if they’re put off, they won’t read it, and then all the work you have put into it will be for nothing.

I needed to get that off my chest.  Thank you for your patience.




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