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.

 

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.

*****

 

 

 

 

Detritus

Things pile up.

In 27-some years of living in my house, debris accumulates. Not dust, that can be swept up, wiped away—redistributed—but Stuff. Books, papers, nick-knacks, unquantifiable objets-d’art. A long list of “do you know what this is, where we got it, do we want/need/feel impotent to discard it?”

In my case, books, music, movies. Media. I am an art packrat. A “pack-art” or an art rat or some such. My shelves are full, the stacks are growing, and I find myself unwilling to part with any of it, because it all means something. I have a three foot shelf of books about the Napoleonic Age I am loathe to be rid of because they are research for a trilogy I have written but not sold and on the off-chance I need to do further work on that trilogy, I do not want to lose the books. (I have another, seven foot shelf, of books about the Civil War and Reconstruction Era for a novel which never got out of the note stage, but which I very much want to write, so I’m hanging on to the books.) I have piles of books I want to read, but have no idea when I’ll get to them, and some of them will be rather beside-the-point if I don’t get to them soon.

Then there are the sheaves of notes. Story ideas, phone numbers, websites, research comments, scribbles. Some of it goes back 30 years and I can look at the words and wonder just what that was all about.

The music and videos are another matter. I listen to music a lot. I love movies and television shows. But we now have Netflix, which adds to the obvious impossibility of “catching up.” I’m beginning to think about that during retirement, but then there are all the books…

It is my past and I am unwilling to bury it.

A bit of morbid darkness creeps in sometimes, looking at all this. Leaving it all behind for others to pick through, assuming they will. More likely it all just goes out the door. No one in particular will know the history of acquisition behind it all.

Which for the most part doesn’t bother me.

But I am an artist. I don’t mean that in any egoistical sense, only in that I have spent my waking life creating things, ostensibly beautiful things, for the pleasure of others. I have spent almost as long puzzled that no one really gets to see much of it. I am—have been, remain—terrible at self-marketing. I have tens of thousands of photographs going back to my adolescence. Most of it unremarkable, journeyman work, forgettable if not just bad. But there are some good images.

I have nothing in place to secure the future of that body of work.

The writing is different. I’ve managed to get it out there, in front of people, and I am modestly able to claim some kind of imprint on the public. Not much, but it won’t all just vanish.

My music is yet another matter still.

But it is there. All of it. Sitting beneath the surface of a life.

I wonder how other people anticipate the evidence of a life lived. I had every intention of being more or less orderly, with a place and a context for each important object. The filing system of my experience should have been like a gallery, through which one might stroll and see everything. Instead, it’s more or less a mess. A comfortable one, for the most part, but sometimes I see the need to impose order, just so it doesn’t look like it needs throwing out.

Purges can be therapeutic, though, never mind the freeing up of space.  There is the mental drag of always being reminded of what you haven’t done yet.

Maybe it’s the writer in me, but I wonder about the workers tasked with throwing things out of suddenly vacated houses or apartments. Are they aware that they are excavating lives? Not curating, though. That’s what concerns me now.

I had other plans for my ecology.

I think “ecology” is a useful way to look at one’s life, the furnishings, the rituals, the care. Healthy ecologies extend across the entire spectrum of possibility and desire. We assemble them over life. Early on, it’s a matter of adding things in, then arranging them, and finally some weeding becomes necessary.

But there’s some comfort in all that surround. Familiarity, at least. And throwing things out can sometimes feel like self-surgery.

It is true, though, that sentimentality can become a trap. It can feel better than the here and now, especially since it is so malleable. Sentiment (as well as a constantly reshuffled memory) rewrites history for us.  Not only pain, but everything acquires a temporal gloss. Like the speed of light, the closer we approach precision, the harder it becomes, and we can never quite get there. We assume record-keeping, memorabilia, scrapbooks, and the components we build to represent our lives (to us as well as to others) will make it easier.

I’m not sure what that means, though. As the past recedes, faster and faster, dopplering out of reach sometimes, the objects meant to remind become in themselves the thing of which we are reminded. Not the event or the people or the place, but the thing. At which point we have to question if it is worth keeping. If the memento no longer memorializes but, perhaps, just takes up space for something more valuable…

These are certainly personal considerations. But it may be that the same applies to larger matters. How much do we keep as a community? As a city? As a nation? At what point do the things meant to memorialize take on a self-importance that supplants the legitimate memory and thus become blockages, impediments, worse than useless? What might we learn or discover in their absence? What might we become if no longer encumbered by the distorted memorials of a past which may have no real relationship to what we were and certainly not to who we are?

If I finally get rid of that pile of old notes, will it change who I am? Probably not. But it might let me be who I am with a little more clarity.

Something to think about.

 

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.

On The Passing Of Friends

I promised to do something about our L.A. trip in September.

Over the last decade or so I realized that, unexpectedly, Harlan Ellison had become a friend. One of those with whom, despite only occasional contact, you connect with on some level which eludes description. I’ve puzzled over this from time to time, but was told by people I trust finally to just go with it.

Harlan trusted me enough to come to St. Louis for a local convention and put in an appearance despite considerable obstacles. He had suffered a stroke which left him physically diminished, he had undergone a number of blows healthwise, and, frankly, he had run himself at the edge of endurance for all his life.

I’ve written elsewhere about Harlan’s influences, on me and others, and what I thought of him as a writer. To encapsulate, I think he was remarkable and unclassifiable. He loved tilting at windmills. He tried to use his stories to expand the reader’s awareness, mostly of our own limitations, and give us an experience that might alter our perspective, emotionally, ethically, politically, and personally. To grapple with an Ellison story in its best example was to, whether we knew it or not, grapple with our own inner landscapes. In my opinion, Harlan Ellison was Up There, along with the Borges and the Vidals and the Capotes, the Lessings and the MacLeans and the Le Guins and the Munros. He managed to impact science fiction so significantly that it is difficult to talk about it without a nod to the seminal Dangerous Visions anthologies.

He did not live curtained behind his literary output. He was as voluble and controversial in his public self as he was dynamic and influential in his work and this, naturally, has led to, at best, a mixed legacy. I defy anyone to be so personally consistent and engaged at that level and make no enemies, leave behind undisturbed waters, and stir no antipathy even among those sympathetic.

Be that as it may, my acquaintance with him was surprising, enlightening, and altogether positive. He credited me with being a good writer and that is something, because he did not bullshit about that.

After his visit to St. Louis, I spoke to him a couple of times. He suggested we needed to come out there, to see him, to see the Lost Aztec Temple of Mars, to talk privately. Once more. He made me wish I’d met him ten years before I had.

For a variety of reasons, we delayed. Then I saw that the 2019 Nebula Awards were to be held in Los Angeles, so I asked Donna, what would you say to that and while we’re there we can go see Harlan and Sue? Of course, yes, call him.

I didn’t. I wanted to get a couple of things settled, line up a few more ducks, so to speak. I was going to call. I was going to call that weekend.

And at work I saw the notice of his passing.

To say that 2018 was a cruel year is too imprecise. A lot of people, friends and casual acquaintances, people we knew, were fond of, had good memories of, died last year. Harlan’s passing stung in a different way than Ursula’s, which was distinct from Vic’s. But it did sting, not least because of that intended phone call and the possible visit.

When we were called to be invited to the private memorial, there was no question of not going. We arrived on Friday, checked into our hotel, and then reached out to see what was happening. “Some of us are getting together with Sue at Mel’s Diner.” We called a cab and, because it was Friday and that time of day, we inched our way over the hill to Ventura Boulevard to join Sue and close friends.

Yes, that Mel’s Diner.

Here we are:

We were just sent this picture, which Donna shot with Marty’s phone. Marty is the one sitting opposite me. We’re the only ones with hats.

It’s a moment. I don’t know everyone in the picture. Next to Marty is Jon Manzo and next to him is Sue. The huddle to the right in the corner are more friends, in particular Tim and Andrea. Greg Ketter from Dreamhaven Books is further down on the right side of the table.

We met a lot more people the next evening at the memorial. George Takei and Walter Koenig were there, Melinda Snodgrass, George R.R. Martin, Tim and Serena Powers, L. Q. Jones, David Gerrold. A lot of stories were passed around, a lot of memories. They, however, are private.

There is a whole massive piece of my personal history entangled with Harlan Ellison from before I had any possibility of calling him on the phone. It is, for some of us, awkward to make that transition from One Who Is Influenced By to a friend. I doubtless made a bit of a fool of myself tripping over my tongue. It took a while to get over the hero worship. He made it easier than it might have been, because he had no patience with it.

You can sometimes gauge the size of someone’s soul by seeing those who will remember him fondly. Harlan’s soul was pretty damn big. And by “soul” I do not mean some ethereal afterlife wisp of religiously defined phlogiston. No, I mean the very real imprint left behind on the people who knew him, either through the work or personally.

He was here and for a while he mattered. For many of us, he still matters. And for the rest, pick up one of his books and read—he’s still here.


2018

I suppose I should do this. What a year. What a miserable year.

Not entirely. But it’s amazing how a couple of truly unpleasant events can color an entire period, mixed bag though it is. There were good things, there were pleasant things, there was ample to lift the spirits.

It’s just that they had to be lifted so far.

As year-in-review posts go, I should probably keep this one short.

At some point back in the spring I finished my last novel. (Or was that the year before? I’d have to check, I don’t remember. No, that was April of 2017, so among other things my sense of time is fraying.) So a year and a half (or more) ago I turned in a novel to my agent and I am still waiting. I should be good at this.

I say “my last novel” because I have a drawer-full unsold. (I know what it was. I set aside the third volume of the alternate history trilogy I’d been working on to do Voyage of the Only Child and went back to it that fall and finished a draft this year. Okay, not as frayed as I thought.) I decided to go back to short fiction. The trouble is, I haven’t been writing short stories on a regular basis for so long that somewhere along the way I sort of forgot how.

Not completely. I’ve got a half dozen in rough draft now. I just have to find the time and patience to do them up and get them out, but that’s on track, and I actually submitted two stories last month.

All of that to say, basically, that this year has caused me to reassess my so-called career.

I don’t really have one. There are many factors at work—lack of time, too many things vying for my attention, being 64 and tired—many I’m probably not even aware of. My output, which used to be respectable, has slowed to a crawl.

I’m working on it. That fact alone is a positive. I am working on it. I’ve got new stories in process, ideas, and I find I cannot just say I’m done. I have officially given up on quitting. It never works and I start to sound like a broken record.

It helps to be working with several of the brightest people it has ever been my privilege to know.

It seems surreal that I’ve been working for Left Bank Books now six, almost seven years (is that right?) and I’m looking at the fourth year just ending running the Great Novels of the 22nd Century reading group there. The SF component of the store has grown and as of this past year we have a regular author track for events, the SF: STL series. Working with Archon has been a plus and it seems on track to become a Real Thing.

It seems often that all the peripheral things to The Career work out fine while the central thing—publishing books and stories—lags. I had something of a revelation this past year in a conversation with a coworker who claimed she wanted to be as successful as I. When I demurred, stating that I am not particularly successful, she cut me off and talked about how many books I’ve published.

Well, it did cause me to reassess, and it helped. Metrics vary, standards are different.

In the end, though, it comes down to how you see yourself. For now, I’ll keep that to myself.

2018 has been a mixed bag, to say the least. I’m not sure where it will end up, but right now it’s hard to get past the fact that too many friends have left the scene. It just wouldn’t stop, leaving the stage with one more loss that seemed almost insulting. But to who?

What I am looking forward to is a year of getting our feet back under us and accomplishing what we managed not to accomplish yet.

I read 76 books cover to cover (up from 51 the previous year) many of them read aloud to Donna in a newfound pastime we both enjoy. I’ll go over them on the Proximal Eye later.

As I said, I started submitting stories to magazines again. There aren’t that many of the old magazines left, but there are bunch of new ones.

I get up every day with curiosity, even though I feel wearier than ever before. I have no doubt the state of the world around me is a big contributing factor. It’s hard to be hopeful in the face of so much crap.

Philosophy has its benefits in this case, but I find the fact that we don’t have much choice but to do better pretty serviceable right now.

I plan to play a little chess, read several of the really Big Books on my to-be-read pile, and travel.

And write. Again, not a lot of choice there.

But I can endeavor to be less boring.

On that note, welcome to 2019, and I hope all who read this will find health, reason, joy, and hope in the coming months. Be safe, be alive, be well.

Harlan

Some people just get in.

In this instance, though, the process was years at work.

Harlan Ellison died on June 28th, 2018, and I have been off-balance, riled, and melancholy ever since I saw the first notice, at work, doing something else on-line. It had been coming for a while. He was not well. He was never going to “recover” from the last few years. A stroke had wreaked havoc with him, although it had left him with access to all his faculties. This was expected. Nevertheless, it came as a shock, if not a total surprise, and the aftershocks have been working through me ever since. This one hurts. Deeply.

How, exactly, did this happen? I did not know the man so well. If I had to guess, I would say we had spent less than a week of actual face-to-face time together. We had spoken on the phone a total of maybe twenty hours in a number of years. I’d written him a few letters and he had written back. And yet, at least on my part, I counted him as a friend. I know that can happen, that people can know each other a very short time and somehow create a connection which, with other people, would ordinarily take years to build. It may well be only on my part, but I don’t think so.

How, I ask again, did this happen?

Well, there was this review I wrote about the documentary, Dreams With Sharp Teeth. But it didn’t really start there.

Back in my youth, I used to read all the SF magazines. From time to time I’d come across a story that stood out. Zelazny, Silverberg, Tiptree. Those kind of stories. Among them were fey pieces by this guy Harlan Ellison that troubled me. They troubled me because while I read them eagerly and felt moved by some of them, I suspected I didn’t really “get” them. These were not like most of the other stories. In fact, they weren’t like any of them, really. And they bothered me. So much so that at about age 15 or 16 I swore off them. If I stumbled across a Harlan Ellison story, I avoided it. I was uncomfortable with them, they disturbed me in ways no one else’s work did.

And I more or less forgot about him.

I was unaware of scenarists back then. When the credits rolled on a tv show or movie, I never paid much attention to the Written By. Or much else other than who was acting in it. I was dimly aware that the Star Trek episode which has subsequently come to be regarded as the best of the original series was different. For one thing, when I saw it the first time I was startled by a curse word. “Let’s get the hell out of here,” Kirk says. That was practically unheard of on television then. That “hell” stood out.

But what did it mean? The rest of the episode stuck with me more clearly than most of the other episodes, but then time passed and everything else piled on top, and I forgot.

I had no knowledge of Fandom then. I was ignorant of that world, so the controversies being generated by this guy who had written stories that bothered me enough that I avoided them were unknown to me. The next time his name crossed my awareness was in the pages of OMNI when I read two things. One was a short story, called On The Slab and the other was a profile of an attempt to turn Isaac Asimov’s I, Robot into a film, and Harlan Ellison was going to adapt it. Harlan Ellison. I remembered that name. Why did I know that name? Oh, yeah, he wrote those weird, unclassifiable things that bothered me. Huh.

In 1980 I met my partner, who read the rather malformed things I’d written and encouraged me to try to publish them, and suddenly I was fully invested in this science fiction thing. Friends told us about conventions and we started going. We began meeting people. Joe Haldeman, Phyllis Eisenstein, George R.R. Martin, Rob Chilson, Vic Milan, C.J. Cherryh. I started submitting stories and I began paying closer attention to the magazines again, trying to divine the secrets of writing this stuff. The first convention we went to was Archon 6 and we heard stories about the one and only world science fiction convention that had been held here and Harlan Ellison figured prominently in relation to it. We listened to these stories and wondered, “Who is this guy?”

In the 1980s a new publishing line came out, Bluejay Books, and they reissued Ellison’s work with marvelous new covers, and I bought them and started reading them.

And suddenly they were not off-putting. Maybe I had grown into them. Maybe it required more of me than I had at 12 or 14 or 16. Maybe I was paying attention to Other Things. Whatever the reason, I tore through them, unable to get enough, amazed and awed and startled and terrified and intimidated and thrilled. I wrote a review of them (which never got published) which involved dinner of crow. Harlan Ellison’s work suddenly ranked alongside Bradbury, Sturgeon, Zelazny. I’d missed this way back when, I hadn’t understood, but it filled me up then. It might have been that I was in the process of trying to do this thing and was open to influences in a way I had never been before.

During this time, we’d become friends with another writer, Ed Bryant, who was one of Harlan’s best friends, and we heard more stories. At our first worldcon we got our first look at the man himself when, at L.A.Con II he made a surprise appearance in order to honor his first editor on stage during the Hugo ceremony. We picked up some of his nonfiction there and I became acquainted with that side of him.

Gradually, almost glacially, we became Aware. We found out about the Enemies Of Ellison (what?) and his involvement with Clarion (the workshop) and started hearing about his public contentiousness, the dispute with Roddenberry, the activism, the rumors, the extremes he generated in people. No other writer seemed to do these things or spark this kind of response. Piece by piece, a portrait assembled, but how could you trust it.

It’s fascinating sometimes to realize how much information one can accrue by means, vectors, and sources one is often completely unaware of. We saw him again in 1986, in Atlanta, and spent about four hours in an auditorium listening to him, both solo and then, when he ran over, in a panel which had been physically moved to that auditorium in order to have Harlan on it. We had had an exchange of dialogue that day over a book I’d bought in the dealers room (the only time a writer told me I should get my money back for a book with his name on it), and somehow we knew that he had found his soulmate, Susan, and she was with him, and Donna opined that it seemed she had calmed him somewhat.

How did we know that?

I applied for Clarion the next year and was accepted into the 1988 class. I had a book, Phoenix Without Ashes, by Ed Bryant and Harlan Ellison. Ed had signed it for me years before. Ed happened to be in town one weekend to help a mutual friend of ours move. He lifted that book and sent it to Harlan for his half of the autograph. (Ed was a wonderful, kind man.)

And somewhere during that time, he had become Harlan.  Just Harlan. To my knowledge, he’s the only writer I know of who is recognizable by his first name, at least the only writer of fantastic fiction so known. But how did that happen, that somehow a certain presumption of intimacy had occurred? Except for that one occasion in Atlanta, we never never met, did not know each other. (Not that unusual, though, many people who have never laid eyes on him call him “Harlan” as if they know him.)

More stories, more essays. He was by then a regular part of my reading.

Clarion happened. I began publishing. I rarely thought about “Harlan Ellison” unless I came across a new story or new collection, but Harlan had become part of a gestalt associated with my writing, a background presence.

We heard about the heart attack.

Then in 1999, Allen Steele suggested we come to Massachusetts for Readercon. Harlan was going to be guest of honor. He and Allen were buddies. We could finally meet.

We went. It was an incredible weekend. I had a chance to sit and talk to Harlan, to watch him, to see what all the fuss was about. And to hear him read aloud. That was a treat. Few writers are good public readers, but Harlan was incredible.

Allen introduced us. Harlan was talking to Gene Wolfe, whom we know slightly, and Allen brought me up and said, “Hey, Harlan, I’d like you to meet my friend, Mark Tiedemann.” Allen then proceeded to recite a list of my publications.  I am perversely shy about that, more so then, and I cut him off with a self-effacing, “Yeah, I’ve all over.” Harlan, without missing a beat, said “Oh, yeah? What’s it like in Tuva?” My brain skipped a beat. One of the few times in my life under circumstances like that it caught up and somehow pulled an answer up. “Very flat and cold, but if you’re into monotoned nasal music, they’ve got a great scene.”

Harlan said nothing for about five seconds, then cracked up, stuck his hand out to shake mine, then said “When were you last there?”

But my powers of repartee deserted me then and I had no reply.

Saturday night that weekend, I was wandering the hotel late. About to give it up and go back to my room, I waited before the elevators. The doors opened and a crowd poured out, led by Harlan as they made a beeline for one of the function rooms, which the hotel opened up so they could continue the party which had gotten them booted from a room on the fifth floor. I was swept up in the throng, carried into the room, and ended up sitting two down from Harlan, who was regaling his audience still with jokes and stories. (Somewhere there exists a photograph of him that night and you can see me, sitting, I think, beside Warren Lapine, who is right next to Harlan.) It was one in the morning and after a grueling day Harlan was still On. He seemed to vibrate from the stress and tension, but he was delivering his 110%.

After that, we had no contact. I pursued (desperately) a career that never got off the ground and thought not at all about any relationship with Harlan Ellison.

Then the documentary came out. Dreams With Sharp Teeth is a singular work. It may not be very complete history but it certainly gives a vivid picture of the person. I wrote a review of it and posted it on a blog site I’d been guesting on for a few years.  (I put it on my blog, too, but I thought the film deserved a signal boost that might do some good, so it went to Dangerous Intersections.)  A month or so after it appearance, the webmaster emailed me to say that he had been contacted by someone claiming to be Harlan Ellison who wanted to talk to me, could he get either my phone number or let me know. My friend was suspicious so passed it by me without responding.

Well, it was from Harlan. His phone number was attached. I thought, you’ve got to be kidding me.

I called.

Harlan wanted to personally thank me for the review. He thought it was insightful.

From that point on, we called each other occasionally. Never a lot, a few times we spoke for over an hour. He offered once to intercede on my behalf with an editor. I thanked him but declined. I think he respected that.

And then came Madcon in 2010.  We spent a goodly amount of time with him there. I honestly did not know what he thought of me, but he made himself available, and during what was a very hectic weekend for him, he was generous with his time.

We thought we would never see him again.

Then came the stroke.

And then the whole Archon affair, of which I’ve already written about.

The last time I saw Harlan was the morning he was leaving for the airport from the Collinsville Doubletree. Donna and I had picked Susan and him up the previous Thursday, others of his friends were taking him back. He had been using our transport wheelchair all weekend (long story, never mind) and this was where he had to leave it. Donna hugged him, I hugged him, he got into the van. The door closed. He looked at me through the window and put his hand on the glass, splayed out. I was a little startled, but I reached up and pressed my hand to glass opposite. He smiled and gave a small nod.

We spoke on the phone a few more times after that. Short conversations. He said he had had a wonderful time at Archon. We needed to come out to see him, to see the house (the wonderful house, Ellison Wonderland). We had no other reason to go to L.A. though, so we prevaricated. Then it was announced that the Nebula Awards would be in L.A. in 2019. We could attend and see Harlan and Susan again. It would work. A bit pricey, but hey. I was planning to call him to tell him. I was going to.

I should have.

Somehow, between the stories (and the Stories) and the few encounters, and then the all-too-brief time when we actually knew each other, he got in. His passing hurts. It’s strange to miss someone you knew so short a time, even if in some ways it was a lifetime.

Harlan Ellison was a singular person. Enormously talented, voracious in his approach to life, generous, unpredictable. Harlan, I think I may say, was a friend.

I miss him.

 

A Very Cool Thing Is Happening In St. Louis

I’ve been mentioning this in various places for a few days now. Time to explain what is going on. Here’s the announcement, official and everything, about Left Bank Books‘ new science fiction/fantasy author series.  This has been in the works for some time and the kick-off event is April 18th.

I’ve been working for Left Bank Books for about six years, give or take, and during that time I’ve been able to influence our science fiction and fantasy section. Modest improvements, some worthy titles that might otherwise have gone unnoticed, and for the last three years I’ve been hosting the monthly reading group, Great Novels of the 22nd Century. This year I’ve been able to start something new with that, but you should come by if you can and find out.  We do some terrific titles every month, first Wednesday, 7:00 PM in the store.

This author series, however, is a bit of a dream come true. A dedicated author series. If this goes well, the future will bring more of the same and even better. We have a sharp, talented events coordinator who has been magnificent in pulling this all together and of course my coworkers are excited and ready to see this take off.  But in order for it to fly, to go to the stars, we need to show attendance. We need people to come out for these events, so we can demonstrate that this is a viable, vital program. So here is the shameless plug and the request for the favor of your presence.

We’re partnering with Archon, our local SF convention, and hoping to turn this into a rich, fascinating, on-going event series that brings in great writers, offers readers of fantastic fiction a chance to come together more often, and will go to the support of this amazing literature. I’m proud and pleased to be part of this and I’m hoping that whatever small influence I may have will induce you to show up and see the show.

For the full schedule of our premier events, go here.

Thank you and see you there.  Ad Astra!

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.