Time For A Photograph, I Think

 

We are returned from a trip to Colorado. Family wedding. In spite of being a stone’s throw (so to speak) from the mountains, we did not get to them. Reserved for a future trip. But I can’t go anywhere special without my camera. I’ve been photographing things since I was 14—53 years. I think I’ve gotten reasonably good at it, but that’s not really for me to say.

In Loveland, we found a marvelous park filled with flora, fauna…and a lot of sculpture. I made this image.

Now, I’ve had a gallery open for some time now. The images there are available for purchase—you can even pick from a variety of frames—as well as for perusal. This one, for instance. Here’s the direct link:

https://Markimages.zenfolio.com/p615992500/e175f6fc3

Not that I’m being pushy or anything, but…I think it would look great on someone’s wall.

Have a good summer.

Trekness

I sometimes marvel at my own inability to apprehend the cluelessness of my fellow beings. Some positions come out of the zeitgeist that leave me gobsmacked at the utter feckless density of people.

And then I recover and reconsider and realize, no, I’ve been hearing this kind of nonsense my entire life. One just never expects it from those one considers allies. It calls into question all assumptions, then, about what one considers an ally, and the realization (which has always been there, really) clarifies that it’s all surface.

There are fans of Star Trek who have apparently only ever cared about the ship, the uniforms, the phasers, and the astronomy (such as it is). When it comes to the message? Not so much. They groove on the coolness of the æsthetics and manage never to quite grasp the underlying themes. Their favorite episodes, no doubt, are those with the maximum number of phaser blasts. Stand-offs between the Federation and the Klingons/Romulans/Cardasians/etc are held up as the whole point of the show. Somehow, they have reduced the entirety of the universe to a military SF genre.*

Fair enough. There has been a great deal of that. It’s exciting, it pulls in eyeballs, it offers a kind of astropolitical board game view of the future interstellar gestalt. But after 50-plus years of an expanding milieu, I can’t say that those have been the episodes or arcs that have stayed with me or had the deepest impact or resonance with me.

I do not see those as the soul of Trek.

They’re aberrations. They are presented as the thing to be solved so they stop happening. And the thing being defended is the vast, peaceful diversity of a polity steeped in nurturing the best of what is possible. The motto that started the whole thing and continues to be the basis for each new series—seek out new life and new civilizations—is the heart and soul of it, but that seeking and finding comes with a commitment to learn, grow, adapt, and remake ourselves in the face of the new.

In other words, it’s not about conquest, it’s about mutuality.

To be perfectly clear, Star Trek has been “woke” since the very beginning, when that multi-ethnic bridge crew appeared in living rooms all across a white-dominated United States. Equality and diversity have been the underlying given throughout the whole franchise. Poorly handled at times, muffled at others, occasionally embarrassingly unaware, but all through it.

Here’s the thing about aliens in science fiction. They have always, for the most part, been stand-ins for humans who are different. They have always been there as something against which to react and learn about differences. They have always been there as challenges to assumptions.

The conflicts? In the best and most memorable examples, breakdowns in communications, understanding, or intolerance unmitigated.

Oh, sure, there has been a great deal of war-fueled SF born out of recasting our own conflicts. More than a few based on WWII, the Cold War, Vietnam. But even among the best of these, there is the message, to be read if willing, that the whole thing is a mindless, stupid mistake that brings all parties down in the end. “Winning” is a lesson in irony.

The lesser material revels in the glory of conflict and the “honor” of coming out on top.

I can see no instance of Star Trek in which this has ever been a laudable scenario. Even Kirk, cowboy that he was, almost always did everything he could to avoid conflict. His worst moments were those in which he gave in to the easy solutions and wore the mantle of revenge.

For the rest of it, everywhere you looked the show extolled the virtues of cooperation, of dignity, of equality, of diversity. It was just there.

So the complainers, those who have somehow been taken by surprise that there is a core of empathy and acceptance and tolerance and an examination of difference and an exaltation of plurality and discussions of what it means to live in a society where everyone by right is accorded the agency of self-worth and the benefits of choice and that, yes, these are the bases of political discourse, have frankly not been paying attention.

Maybe their filters have been set too high and now that we have a few recent examples where the continual, ever-present message has been a bit more foregrounded than in past examples, they are shocked that what they saw as one thing, is actually much, much more. Star Trek has not become Woke (and I find it fascinating that a term intended to signify a state of awareness, of people paying attention, of recognizing what is around you has been repurposed as a pejorative by those who clearly would rather not be challenged by any of that, much the same as all past slurs of the anti-intellectual, the empathetically-stunted, the self-satisfied, the privileged ignorant) it has always been.

Just what do you think all the controversy over Kirk and Uhura kissing was about if not a bunch of unself-conscious racists reacting against an example of what we term miscegenation? Maybe go look up Loving v Virginia for a bit of then-current background. This was Trek saying “this should not be an issue!” But it was and it offended and had the term been current then, people would have been calling the show Woke.

Certain people have a deep investment in not seeing what they find challenging to attitudes with which they are comfortable. In this case, I’m quite pleased they are being unsettled. Squirm.

What I challenge here is the a-historical nonsense being touted that SF has never been political. SF by suggesting the future will be different is fundamentally political. SF by suggesting that change is essential is  fundamentally political. SF by suggesting that we still do not know what Being Human means is fundamentally political.

And SF that actively seeks to deny all this and puts forth a philosophy that such matters are settled and all that remains is for us to assert an end to self-discovery…well, that kind of SF comes in two forms: dystopia and crap. (The dystopic form is aware that this is merely an assertion of power and is basically wrong. The other form is philosophical onanism and is essentially anti-science fiction.)

I find it sad that these things need to be said. I grew up with Star Trek and from the very beginning it was the most positive piece of science fiction on television. It offered a future free of things like poverty, the KKK, anti-intellectualism, tribalism. Those are the aspects of it that sank in, made it a narrative that could not be denied, and has led to what it became today. Not the guns, not the wars—the aspirations of a future worth living in, for everyone.

If that’s being Woke, I’ll take it. Better than staggering through life asleep and destructive.

 

_____________________________________________________

 

*”But I don’t wanna see stuff about LGBTQ+ or compromise or learning about alien life forms so I can live with them or about empathy or how flawed humans are or any of that gooey touchy-feelie let’s-all-love-each-other shit!” Then all I can ask is, “Why in the Verse are you reading or watching science fiction in the first place? Just for the SFX? How sad.”

Processing….

Notice the new banner? I played around with an image till I came up with something suitably SFnal. We sometimes forget to talk about æsthetics in SF, even while responding to it in a big, big way. I mean, how else to explain how so many otherwise mediocre or plain bad movies became so popular, even for a little while, except by their Look? Be that as it may, I thought I’d post the unmanipulated image from which the new banner was derived. Because, heck, it’s kinda cool, too.

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.

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.