It’s getting down to the wire. That will make sense later. For now, a contemplation and a photograph.
This weekend past was Archon. Number Forty. 40. Donna and I have been attending this, our hometown con, since 1982, number six. I’ve missed a couple, I think we missed one, but by and large it has been a regular thing. In years past, some of the vitality seemed to go out of it. They had some hiccups, which are now quite obviously in the past. This one was pretty damn good. Writing and books were more evidently on the menu and the panels I attended were well attended and well received. Even the Sunday ones.
For my part, there was a pre-con event last Thursday evening at the Brentwood Recreation Center. I hope to establish this as a regular thing, a Thursday evening event with the GoH, Toastmaster, and perhaps one other writer, sponsored by Left Bank Books with the convention. This year, Ellen Datlow and Bradley Denton were our guests, along with Ann Leckie. It was a fun evening. My intention is to broaden the scope of science fiction/fantasy for a general audience, draw attention to Left Bank Books as the go-to bookstore in St. Louis for speculative fiction (as well as all the rest), and spotlight these writers and editors for people who don’t normally attend the conventions. I ferried Ellen and Brad across the river to the event and moderated the talk, which took on a life of its own.
It seems remarkable that, in hindsight, we’ve made friendships which depend on annual visits. Great people show up at these conventions and I got to see them. Lynn and Selina of Yard Dog Press, who publish my work but, more importantly, are part of the rich community I am pleased to be part of. Vic Milan, the apparently permanent M.C. for the Archon masquerade, which always produces some remarkable entrees. Mitch Bentley, artist, as well as Allison Stein, John Kaufman (who did the terrific cover for my short story collection Gravity Box), Michelle and Rich, who run the art show, which is now becoming another regular feature for me.
Connecting up with Brad was a treat. I guess I’ve known him since 1992 or so. He is a fine, fine writer, a blues musician, and one of the best people I know. He’s had a rough few years lately and I wish him all the best. I’d like to read more of his fiction. If you haven’t read Brad, do so. Find his books.
I got to meet one of my favorite actors, if but briefly. Claudia Christian, who played Susan Ivanova on Babylon 5, a show Donna and I have been binging on since the unfortunate death of Jerry Doyle, who co-starred as Security Chief Michael Garibaldi.
All in all it was a good con. If I am a bit melancholy it’s only because I get to see some of these people at such long interludes and the pressure of time weighs more each year.
But. The art show. I actually sold a piece this year. This one, in fact. But I had a couple of new pieces as well. This is one, which I call Way Station.
Others may interpret it differently, but I’m sticking with the title, a reference to Clifford Simak’s terrific novel. (Another one which, if you haven’t read it, do so. Too many good things are forgotten because they get buried under the avalanche of shiny new baubles.)
I’m particularly pleased with the fantasy images I’ve been producing the last few years. I’m getting better, I think.
I don’t know when the next con I’ll attend will be. No doubt Archon 41, but other than that? It depends on much. I’ve handed in the current novel to my agent, I’m working to finish another one (possibly a YA), and I need to write some short stories, some by request. I’ll be busy this winter.
Meantime, to all my friends who I see far too seldom—be well. I’d like to see you again, sooner than later.
In my previous post I talked about the use—misuse—of a term: Snowflake. It was brought to my attention that I myself may be misusing it or at least misunderstanding it.
It derives from Fight Club, as a negative. “You are not special snowflakes…you are not unique…” More or less. Tyler Durden exhorting the new members of a club no one is supposed to speak about. Which kind of automatically makes them special. Exclusive club, deeply hidden, secret, and very radical. How much more special can you get short of joining the Masons or being recruited by the NSA?
The term then entered the language by way of gaming, applied to people claiming unique privileges—usually unearned—in the course of some rule-heavy role-playing extravaganza. It went from there to an appellation attached to Millennials of a certain mindset who had absorbed the pseudo-Montessori-esque lessons of specialness and uniqueness and then took it to the next level as sinecure that they, being unique and special, can do no wrong and are allowed to exercise a degree of privilege and intolerance based on that assumed status.
Like all such terms, obviously, it has been handed on, re-purposed, reapplied, contorted, enlarged, expanded, and now, today, it is being used to label anyone even glancingly allied to that other wonderful term that has come to be applied as a derogation, the Social Justice Warrior.
That’s the problem with labels. They start out one way, they inevitably become something else, and then history gets retroactively rewritten to incorporate the new meanings.
Democrats belong to the party of Jim Crow.
Republicans freed the slaves.
As if those claims describe what they are intended to today.
What I have witnessed and heard is the appropriation of the label Snowflake by people who are unfriendly to messages and arguments about social justice, equality, political correctness, diversity, and related issues so they can apply it where needed to shut down debate. Classifying someone as a Snowflake (or a Social Justice Warrior) is little more than an attempt to categorize what they have to say as a specific kind of rhetoric which we are not obliged to listen to or credit because it only describes the presumed delicate, unique, and supposedly privileged character of the speaker. We don’t have to listen to them because, well, it’s just the way they are.
And somehow these delicate souls manage to harass the virtuous manly men (male or female) who have right on their side to the point of silence.
I haven’t, if you’ll forgive the mixed usage here, seen the silence. On either side, frankly. What I have seen is a big fat fence raised between the deponents made up of labels.
Now, labels can be useful. I like to know which aisle contains the pet food as opposed to the household drygoods as opposed to the liquor. I like to know which building houses what services and addresses are very handy. I even like knowing what kind of music I’m likely to find on what station and it is helpful to know where in the bookstore I can find History as opposed to Humor.
But when it comes to people, labels are useless impediments to dialogue and intercourse. And just because those people over there insist on using labels does NOT justify labeling by anyone else. Because it is the nature of such things—language—that usage is hijacked, meanings change, and context shifts.
Back in the Sixties, there was an event in San Fransisco. There was a funeral for Hippy. The label, the tag, the identity. Because the people at the core of the counter culture saw what was happening—that what they were, how they dressed, talked, acted, was about to be appropriated as fashion. They knew that all they intended, all they meant for themselves, all they held important was about to be changed by the normal misuse of the American dialogue. So they declared Hippy dead and they held a funeral. There was, after that, no authentic hippy.
It didn’t stop the entire country from assuming it knew what a Hippy was and that they were all around.
In the Fifties the label Communist was horribly misapplied. A wide net of philosophical and political opinions caught people up and labeled them and lives were ruined. Because it’s easy to think in labels. Action follows thought.
I don’t care for labels like that. Especially when deployed in such a way as to shut down meaningful dialogue.
What I am seeing is the use of a term that once described something quite different being applied by people who think they have the right to determine what is meaningful by excluding what they think is without merit.
Does this go both ways? Of course. Labels have universal utility. They are shorthand. The problem with them is they make it easy to not think.
Just in case anyone thought I meant something else.
Worldcon is over, I am home, weary and pumped and amazed and frazzled. So much happened, it is difficult to sort it out and deal with it cogently.
This may have been the best worldcon experience I have ever had. Barring the first one, way back in 1984, in L.A., when Donna and I roamed around gawking at all the startling stuff and sitting in panels listening to the writers we were reading and finding books in the dealers’ room Walden and Dalton just didn’t stock, the worldcons in between have been mixed bags for us, often fraught with my anxieties of trying to become a pro writer and feeling alternately despairing and enthusiastic. Whipsawed.
Not so this time. Almost from the minute I set foot in the convention center I found myself treated with a collegiality I’ve experienced before but never so thoroughly and consistently.
Over the course of five days, I interacted with peers and pros and fans at nothing but high levels of sometimes ego-boosting wonderfulness.
The best part was finding old friends I didn’t expect to be there. One in particular, a man I met way back at the very first convention I attended, Archon 6, and with whom I’ve had almost no contact for several years, was standing in the dealers’ area. Like a mirage or a ghost, I stared at him a few moments before realizing that, yes, Ed Bryant really was there.
Ed is a short story master. He has several collections to his name and the stories are wonders. He was kind and patient to a young wannabe who often did not know how to take advice. He’s been suffering poor health for some time and I never expected him to show up at a worldcon, but we spent several hours together in conversation, a now cherished experience.
The other face I did not expect to see was that of Daryl Gregory. Daryl has over the last few years become something of a Big Deal, though he would probably dispute that. It wouldn’t matter to me in any case, as we are Clarion classmates and I know whence the droids are buried.
He was in company with his new companion, Liza Groen Trombi, who is top person at Locus Magazine these days. It was a pleasure to make her acquaintance. We all went out one evening for dinner, ending up in typically dramatic fashion almost caught in a thunderstorm. One of those evenings when I glance about for the camera crews and wonder who is in charge of special effects.
The principle motivation for my attending turned out to be one of the best parts. As I said in an earlier post, I had not intended going. But then my agent, Jen Udden, told me she would be there and wanted to meet, so plans changed again.
I am especially glad about this. You can work with someone long distance a lot and work perfectly well, but a face-to-face makes a difference. It adds a layer and validates opinions. I have no idea what she came away with, but I am even more confident that I’m in excellent hands.
We met for lunch at a Kansas City great, Jack Stacks BBQ. I’d never been before. It’s in the freight yard area adjacent to Union Station. I had a bit of a scramble getting there, but made it almost exactly on time (I hate not being punctual). They seated us on the patio and we proceeded to overeat on some of the best barbeque around.
We cabbed back to the hotel and she introduced me to some of her other clients. I reconnected with Maurice Broaddus, whom I’d met several years ago in Ohio.
My panels were all well-attended and produced the kind of discussion I look forward to. The Generation Starship one in particular, in company with Gregory Benford and Pat Cadigan, was a learning experience as well.
I am, as it has turned out, getting too old for the party scene. For one thing, my hearing is not what it once was. If the crowd is too large, I have difficulty sorting out individuals. This was especially hard at the TOR party, which was thunderous. (Someone had a decibel meter app and said it was about 110 db.) But I had to go to Roomcon and hear Bradley Denton in his role as Bland Lemon Denton, play along with Caroline Spector, with extra vocals by Sherri Dean.
The Marriott bar was watering hole central. Meet-ups for dinner and other excursions most often took place there. The SFWA suite was also in the Marriott and it was trhere that I saw the live feed to the Hugo Award ceremony. Though not all, I came in late. But I saw enough to feel very positive about our field. The rockets went to deserving writers for exemplary work. Despite the bellyaching of certain factions in the genre, this year’s winners show how much the work has grown and developed and, if I may say so, matured.
However, George R.R. Martin’s Hugo Losers Party was still the place to be afterward. George had rented a restored movie palace, The Midland, nearby. Attendance was invitation only. I managed to get in (thank you, Paul Burns) and stayed through George’s handing-out of the “Alfies”—Hugo substitutes for those works which had, by some lights, been unfairly pushed off the final ballot this year by the manipulations of a disaffected element.
The Midland is incredible. George spared no expense. The bar was open (courtesy of Random House) and the attendance was…well, let’s just say that no one was sorry to see that element mentioned above be offered a rising finger of salute.
All in all, it was a great party.
The band provided for the night’s festivities was new to me but apparently a K.C. fixture, the Black Crack Review. I asked someone what kind of music they played and was told it would be a blend of George Clinton and Sun Ra. They did not disappoint.
Sunday, like every other last day of a worldcon, was both pleasant and melancholy. I did a podcast interview for SciFi4Me, ran around saying bye to too many people to name, did my autographing session—which was another egoboost, as I had a queue waiting when I arrived—and my last panel, on interstellar colonies (which complemented the earlier one on starships, though the consensus this time was generation ships simply will never happen). I did not stay for closing ceremonies, but instead return with my hosts for a wind-down dinner at their house.
Monday morning I hit the road for St. Louis and made good time.
There are several takeaways from MidAmeriCon II, which was not without its controversies. I will discuss one of those later. But one of the biggies for me was a renewed sense of welcome and excitement. The possibilities of doing new work and being part of what I’ve always considered the best kind of fiction. I’m pumped. Just wait for this new novel.
He was a presence in my growing understanding of the professional side of science fiction for almost 40 years. He was the first book editor whose name I knew. I collected a slew of his Timescape imprints from Pocket Books, regarding the label as a mark of excellence in a volatile field that was often untrackable in terms of what was good and what was not. Because of David G. Hartwell, a number of authors came to my attention whose work I have continued to follow to this day.
I was fortunate to know him. A little. Somehow. We crossed paths enough times to be acquaintances and he was always—always—-gracious and, more importantly, interested.
The first time I saw him was in L.A. in 1984, at L.A.Con II, in a party shortly after the news had broken that Pocket Books had pulled the plug on Timescape. Among the other problems, apparently, was the fact that David kept buying books that wouldn’t sell. By sell, I mean they would not make bestseller lists. Her had this arcane idea, apparently, that a good book ought to be published, regardless of the numbers it might (or might not) generate. Odd notion, that, in an era dominated by the quest for the next blockbuster. But David kept acquiring and championing books that did not have that kind of potential. Anyway, I saw him in a hotel corridor, his hair sprayed with red and pink highlights. (In contrast, I recall his tie was relatively tame.) We spoke briefly. I was just a fan and a wannabe writer at that time. We talked a bit about the books and publishing. A few minutes. He said, finally, “Yes, well, the books are out there now.” He had won one over the corporates. The books had been published, despite the disapproval of the suits.
We said hi to each other in Atlanta in ’86 and by then I was, with some temerity, trying to write novels. We connected again in 2000, in Chicago, where we spent a couple of hours talking at the Japanese party at worldcon. I remember that especially because it was the quietest party I’d ever attended at a worldcon—-or any con, for that matter—and David spoke knowledgeably about Japan and fandom there. In the midst of our conversation, a number of our hosts,in kimonos, stopped at the same time, producing a variety of small cameras, and snapped pictures of us, as if by pre-arrangement. By then Allen Steele had joined us, so they were getting pictures of two famous SF personalities and one semi-obscure one.
A few years later I was involved with the Missouri Center for the Book. I’d just become its president and we were trying some new events, and one idea I came up with was what I called the Genre Forums. We would do a public panel with a number of writers in a given genre, with a Q & A afterward. The first one we did was science fiction, of course, and I had Robin Bailey come in from Kansas City, Carolyn Gilman, who lived in St. Louis then, Nisi Shawl from Seattle, and myself. At the last minute, David called Robin. He had seen a notice for the event. He was coincidentally going to be in St.Louis for a family wedding that weekend and wondered if this was something he should attend. Robin called me to see if I wanted David on the panel. Rhetorical question. We had a small audience, unfortunately, because it was a first-rate panel. My partner, Donna, said it was the best panel she had ever seen, and by then we had both seen enough to judge. His presence, his knowledge, his erudition graced our discourse with a sensibility difficult to describe, but it was wonderful.
After that he began soliciting work from me. We never connected on a project, but we had several fine conversations afterward. He was, I learned, a wine lover and I was able to introduce him to one.
Of course, he’s famous for the outré ties. He possessed an antic quality that leavened his profound seriousness. He had been instrumental in many careers.
He bridged the tail end of the Golden Age and the present. Elder statesman of the field seems a bit pompous, but in many ways it was true. For a long time he ran the New York Review of Science Fiction—where I finally sold him a few things—and through that facilitated a high-minded, ongoing discussion of the workings, the objectives, the ongoing assessment of science fiction and, indeed, literature.
Here is the Locus obituary for more detail.
David took me seriously. I am glad I knew him, sorry I didn’t know him better, and feel the world has lost a gentle, intelligent, wise light.
This past weekend was Archon 39. Our local science fiction convention.
Donna and I have, with a couple of exceptions over the years, gone to just about all of them since number 6, which was in 1982 at the Chase-Park Plaza hotel. The guest of honor then was Stephen King, which meant that everything was exaggerated and gave us a seriously distorted set of expectations of what this convention was normally. The guest list that year was a who’s who of authors, who were then the rock stars of the convention scene. We met Joe Haldeman, Robert Bloch, Robin Bailey, George R.R. Martin, and several others. We were, you might say, agog. It was a bit overwhelming and in retrospect it was a peak experience, at least as far as conventions go.
The problem with such things is, you never know that’s what they are until some time afterward, and even then there might be some question as to how peak it was. So you go into them a bit unprepared to really appreciate them.
Not so this Archon just past. We knew months in advance that this was going to be a peak experience. Because Harlan Ellison surprised everyone by agreeing to appear, despite ill health and considerable impairment from a stroke a year ago. I knew about this immediately because I instigated the whole thing and ended up promising to be his gofer for the weekend.
As it turned out, I didn’t have to do that, Harlan has minions, and they came. But I didn’t know that until they actually arrived, so the month or so leading up to this I found myself getting more and more stressed by the responsibility I felt.
Note I say “felt” rather than “had.” What my actual responsibilities were compared to what I felt them to be were somewhat mismatched. I found myself at one point asking myself “What the hell is it with you? Calm down!” Did no good. But everything came off fairly well. Not everything that was intended to happen, did, or at least not in the way planned, but I’d say a good 70% of it worked, and the stress served one positive function other than making me obsessive about details. I knew this would be a peak experience.
Harlan is in a wheelchair. He’s partially paralyzed on his right side. There was some question as to whether or not he ought to have done this, but he would not be denied. If sheer willpower counts for anything, Harlan has enough to do pretty much what he sets his mind to doing, even in his present condition. Donna and I picked him and Susan up at the airport Thursday night around nine o’clock and took them to the hotel in Collinsville. We sat in the lobby together for a while. Two of his best friends showed up, Tim and Andrea Richmond, who we now count as friends.
By Friday evening’s opening ceremonies, Harlan’s presence at the con was unmistakable. I wheeled him up on stage after he had spent over an hour signing books. He’s slower, sure, but the mind is as alert and sharp as ever. He was pleased to be at the convention and he disarmed everyone.
We who have been involved in SF for any length of time know The Stories. Harlan can pop off at the drop of a moronic comment and hides have been flayed (metaphorically) and sensibilities challenged. If I heard it once I heard it fifty time, “He’s so gracious!” Yes, he is. He has a heart of enormous proportions.
He was physically unable to do as much as he clearly wanted to, but under the circumstances what he did do was generous and impressive.
Peak Experience time. I got to be on a panel with Harlan Ellison.
Let me explain. I grew up reading stories by the giants of the field when most of them were still alive and many still publishing. For me, the pantheon includes Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Alfred Bester, Robert Heinlein, C.L.Moore, Alice Sheldon, Joanna Russ, C.J. Cherryh…well, you get the idea. And Harlan, who wrote like a fey combination of Bradbury and Bester with a touch of Borges stirred in and made everyone react viscerally in ways they did not react to their other favorites. I recall getting very turned off by Harlan when I was, say 15, and then later coming back and trying his work again only to find that I had missed almost everything important about the stories the first go-round. He was like a tornado whirling through the more deliberative winds of his peers. I’m still not sure I “get” everything that is going on in an Ellison story, but that’s the sign of a work worthy of ongoing consideration.
Of the aforementioned bunch, I shook Asimov’s hand, chatted with Bradbury and Cherryh, never met Bester, Heinlein, Moore, Russ, or Sheldon. There are a couple of dozen other Greats I’ve had opportunity exchanged words with. I’ve been on panels with Gene Wolfe, Frederik Pohl, Elizabeth Ann Hull, a number of others. So many are just gone.
I got to be on a panel with Harlan. The 12-year-old in me was having a field day. This, I thought, is as good as it gets. At least in my list of cool things to do.
After 2010, I never thought I’d see Harlan again. Certainly not at a convention. He’d said he was done with them. Who could blame him? He’s tired. We talk on the phone occasionally. I like him, but most of the time I don’t quite know what to say to him, other than some variation of Thank You For Being a Powerful Aesthetic Presence In My Life. Of all the acquaintances I thought I might make in this curious life and profession, his was unexpected.
So when this opportunity came up, by a series of unexpected steps, I was torn. Certainly his health is problematic and he’s 81. This probably was not, for a number of reasons, a good idea. On the other hand, when I reach that point in my life and there’s something I want to do and believe I can do it, I hope there are people who will help me do it. I do rather doubt I’ll see him again. I don’t know when we’ll be able to get to L.A. anytime remotely soon. But I did get to spend a good chunk of this weekend with him and it was surprising and rich and bittersweet.
He charmed practically the whole convention, signed a boatload of books, gave of himself until he just couldn’t. I’m sure he got as good as he gave. I will confess that I was waiting for someone, anyone, to start anything negative with him. It would not, had I been there, lasted long. But no one did, everyone seemed so gobsmacked pleased to see him.
We did not take him back to the airport on Sunday. Other, closer friends did that. He recorded a thankyou and goodbye for closing ceremonies, which was classic Ellison.
I confess, it’s strange. Coming from a place in life never expecting to ever say a single sentence to him, he has become one of the major influences and associations in my life. All told, I doubt we’ve spent a week’s time together. But it’s always been memorable. I’m about to wander into mawkishness now, so I’ll wrap it up with two final images and maybe one more line.
So there we have it.
I hope he hangs around for many more years, as long as his mind is clear and his imagination active and he feels welcome. There are a lot of people—a LOT—who are very glad of his presence.
I know I’m glad to know him.
This coming weekend is Archon 39, our local SF convention. For the last two months I’ve been rushing about, often only in my own head, to prepare. This year is special in a number of ways. Harlan Ellison is attending. Now, unless one keeps abreast of such things, that alone is no explanation for the level of anxiety I’ve been feeling about this. For one, I instigated this event, largely without intending to. For another, I’ve been involved in arranging things for him and his wife, Susan. I’ve consequently been more involved in Archon than in previous years. But today, Monday, I can honestly say I have covered as many bases as it is possible. The unforeseen is…e=unforeseeable.
That’s not the only thing going. Those of you who have been following me on Twitter will know that I have been updating my computers. That has been both less bothersome and more annoying than it ought to be, but is now largely done. (I have one more thing to get, but it will keep till later.) I’m now well into the 21st Century on that front and not a moment too soon. This morning I took care of the last bit of bother for Archon that is in my power to take care of, so I spent the last twenty minutes playing with the theme on my blog. I think I’m sticking with this one for a time. How do you like it? I feel it is a theme of great nift.
Recently, Left Bank Books hosted an event with Sammy Hagar. He has a new cookbook out (yes, that Sammy Hagar, and, yes, I said a cookbook) and we ushered through a myriad of his ecstatic fans and sold a ton of them. So for no other reason than I have it on hand, here’s a photo of Mr. Hagar.
We have all more or less recovered from the chaos and excitement of that day, which was one day in a week filled with notable events. Jonathan Franzen was also in town and we (not I) worked that event. And earlier we hosted Mr. Jeff Smith, former Missouri state senator who went to prison and has, since release, dedicated himself to prison reform. He has a new book out about it. I did work that event and must report that some of what he said, while not surprising, was nevertheless disturbing. The whole fiction of “rehabilitation” in regards to incarceration…
Well, I may have more to say on that later.
I’m unwinding as I write this, so forgive me if I wander about from topic to topic. Last night we had friends over to dinner and it was terrific. Good food, great conversation, laughing…we don’t do nearly enough of that. Partly it’s the time thing, but you know, you can lose the habit of being social, and over the last several years we’ve seen our skills erode. We may be coming out of a long hibernation, but then there is still the time thing, and I have a book to write over the next several months. (Hence the new computers.)
On that front, this Saturday past I was one of eight local authors invited to attend the Carondolet Authors’ Brunch. Strange thing that it was, it was nevertheless fun. They arranged tables and set it up like speed dating. The authors would visit each table for 15 minutes, then move to the next, and so on. I was delighted that no two tables produced the same conversation, although some variation of “where do you get your ideas” came up each time, but that was only one of two questions that I found repeated. The other was “Do you teach?”
There were a couple of household repairs I tended to this morning and now I’m procrastinating here. I should be writing something serious, profound, or at least with the potential to earn income, but I’m fooling around with my blog theme and gossiping.
…And I just realized I have one more thing to take care of for Archon.
That said, this Thursday we’re trying something at Left Bank Books that I hope will establish a tradition. We’re having three of the major guests in the store for a kind of pre-con event. Jacqueline Carey, of Kushiel’s Dart fame; Esther Friesner, of multiple fames; and Vic Milan, who has been the toastmaster at Archon’s masquerade since forever, and if you like costuming and haven’t been to an Archon masquerade, you’re missing a real treat, of which Vic is a major part. So, seven o’clock Thursday night, October 1st, be there or be a tessaract.
After Archon I intend to find a corner and melt down into it.
Until then, thanks for stopping by.
The other day I was taking with friends about that pesky subject, wages. Minimum wage is in the news, a big argument, and the politics are necessarily touchy. Comparisons were made and my own situation caused a bit of raised eyebrows and “What’s up with that” detours through personal histories.
According to some, among people who have known me a long time, I have always been seriously underpaid throughout my working life.
Before we get into that, though, I would like to reference this article, written by my boss, Jarek Steele, about the current anxiety-laden question of raising the minimum wage. Go read this, then come back here.
First off, I would like to say that I work at a wonderful place. Left Bank Books is now family. As you can tell from the essay, they are thoughtful, concerned people with no small amount of brainpower and good bead on life as it is and a solid moral sense. I’m lucky to work there. I’ll come back to that later.
Now. Most of my adult life I have been relatively unconcerned about my wages. I don’t know where I got this from, but I’ve always felt they were secondary to several more important factors. Some of this is naïveté, but some of it is a result of early on making a choice between security and fulfillment. For many people, money serves as fulfillment, and for some it genuinely is. They work to have. I offer no judgment here, everyone is different, and it’s all a question of degree anyway, because we fall along a spectrum.
For myself, I’ve always worked to Be.
Perhaps a small difference to some, but a huge difference over time. I came out of the box, as it were, with intentions to be a certain kind of person, to do certain things, to make a crater in the world that looks a certain way, and if the pursuit of money got in the way of that, then I ignored the money. Not consciously, because I always just assumed that somewhere along the way I would have it, mainly as a consequence of having done all the stuff that fulfilled my requirements of Being.
Now, if this all sounds a bit zen and possibly foolish, so be it. I’d be willing to bet many if not most of us have career-type dreams at some point that focus mainly of what we’re doing and not how much money we’re going to make doing it. But this is America and identity is conflated with owning things, so it becomes very difficult to tease apart the doing from the reward.
Which brings me to my rather jagged career path, which saw me graduate high school intent on a career in photography, which I pursued as an art first and foremost and, in the end, only. I never figured out how to make it pay.
So I worked for a major photofinishing chain, then a period as an in-house commercial photographer for a marginal advertising company, then as a delivery driver for a custom lab, and finally as the darkroom jockey of one of the best camera stores/black & white labs in town. That last for 20 years.
I never became the photographer I thought I’d be, at least not commercially. I did all the things. Portraits, landscape, art and abstract, architectural. Occasionally I did them for clients, but mainly I did them because they were cool to do and they produced images I wanted to see. I was Doing Photography and that was the important thing. I was fulfilled.
All the while I drew my wage from my job, which supported the art and all the other stuff.
Then I picked up the writing again. Time passed, I learned my craft, started selling stories, and then that 20 year stint of a job ended with the close of the business. Two years later I applied to and got another lab job, at which I worked for 11 years, most of them rather unhappily.
(And here the concerns over money enter in the most annoying way, because money would have been the means by which I would have been able to just write instead of having to work at something I no longer loved in order to eat.)
The story sales never added up to enough for me to quit that job.
But I was getting published. I was fulfilled, at least in the desire to Do The Thing.
Age does force one to confront certain realities. Looking back, I realized that I had never pushed for more money. I never once, in all the years of “working for a living,” asked for a raise. Somewhere in the back of my head there floated the assumption that good work brought remuneration, so if the people I worked for chose not to give a raise, then it was due to my lack of good work. I could maintain this attitude largely because, with one exception (that first job right out of high school) I have never worked for a large corporation. Never. I have spent my employed life working for small local businesses, the health of which I could see, right in front of me. They all struggled. I was part of that struggle, so adding a burden to them was not in my nature. I never asked for a raise.
Instead, I lived a life that fit with my earnings. One could do that at one time. And I did get raises, so it’s not like I’m talking about trying to scrape by on minimum wage. (Which was, btw, right around two dollars an hour when I graduated high school, and I worked for Fox Photo over a year before they granted me a ten cent an hour raise.) But I never asked. I was always grateful when they came, but I never asked. The people for whom I worked were usually close enough to the ground to show appreciation when they could. For a while I made a decent living.
Donna and I, however, had no children. That one fact explains a great deal about how we could opt to work for who we chose (often) and live as we pleased without overly worrying about income. We were careful. When we bought a house, we paid it off early. We carry no balances on our credit cards. We owe no bank anything.
And we realize how unusual this makes us.
But it also points up the major disconnect many people suffer in their lives in terms of employment and compensation. I never asked for raises because, by and large, I never had to. Had we lived a more traditional lifestyle, money would have been the single greatest driver of all our choices.
However, my comment above about being underpaid…
Several years ago an opportunity opened for me to possibly take a job as an editor at a local magazine. I’m not familiar with the task, but I’ve always been a quick learner, so I had no doubts about my ability to come up to speed, and I could offer myself for a bit less than others might. I went over the requirements of the position with a friend who had been in this end of the industry. She remarked as one point that the salary would probably be X, which was low, but in a couple of years I could probably come up to standard. I laughed and told her I’d never made that much in a year in my life.
She was flabberghasted. How, she wondered, could someone with my abilities have been so undercompensated?
Because it had never occurred to me for a long, long time that I had been. I’d been Doing The Things, and wasn’t that what mattered?
No. At least it’s not the only thing. Money is the means by which we live the kind of lives we wish to. I want “success”—monetary success—as a writer so that I can do that and nothing else. But I’m not good at that kind of success. I’ve never been adept at parlaying skills and artistic ability into money. Whatever it is that allows some people to be skilled at getting compensated, I’ve never been good at it.
And the owners of corporate America know that most people are like that. They depend on it. The main reason unions were so important is for that reason and that most people need someone who is good at understanding that game to struggle on their behalf. But the fact remains, most people take what they can get and then worry about the shortfall.
Because we have consistently misunderstood the relationship between, in the classic terms, labor and management. As the economy has changed, that misunderstanding is becoming critical, because we are collectively faced with the consequences of our failure to address it.
Business knows average people aren’t either interested or especially adept at Doing Business. That alone gives business—and I’m talking business at the disembodied corporate level here—an advantage because they take it. They can shortchange employees because they know how and their employees don’t know they have either any power or can find the means to engage management to worker advantage. Had we kept abreast of the changes to labor’s benefit these past 30 years when we shifted predominantly from a manufacturing economy to a service economy, then the present strained issue of raising minimum wages would not be so traumatic. The problem of catching up is putting strain on small to mid-level businesses that they should not have had to bear. Because we’ve been underwriting cheap product and services for decades by a disproportionate-to-reality compensation formula that treats people like parts. Read Jarek Steele’s breakdown above. Numbers, folks, and realities.
Drastic measures become necessary only because of indolence in the system. As long as the numbers of people receiving poor compensation for work that has become increasingly primary were low, the problem could be ignored. It’s not even so much that so many are trying to make full livings on minimum wage but that all wages are commensurately constrained by the growing imbalance in consumer ability to pay for what we need and want.
Then there are people like me, who frankly have never known how to care about the money. Or at least never felt the freedom to demand it, because we keep getting sidetracked by Doing The Things.
Because Taking Care of Business consumes the one thing that art demands—time. I loved doing photography. I hated running a business. I love writing. Paying attention to marketing and sales is frankly loathesome. I wish sometimes (lately more than ever) that it were otherwise, that I had that ability to engage promotions and negotiations, but I am who I am and do it only because if I don’t then some day I won’t be able to do the art anymore.
Which, by completely unconscious intent, has caused me to work locally, for people I see everyday and can talk to as friends more than as employers. I think this is a good business model, but because it is not primary in this country, because people who think very much differently set the parameters of what constitutes “business practice” for so much of the country, this is not the business model that trumps treating people like parts.
We’ve been arguing about this since the founding of the Republic, since the idea of the yeoman farmer and the independent artisan was turned into a romantic myth by the privileging of corporate giants saw a massive culling early on, when it became harder and harder for the independent owner to function in the face of cheaper prices and savage competition that stripped people of their own labor by turning them into wage-slaves. The argument went on and on, the battle raging for over a century and a half, until finally the Second World War, the Cold War, combined to usher in the era of corporate hegemony that, while not eradicating the small business managed to place the entire economy in thrall to the requirements of giants.*
Hyperbole? Consider what happens when a large corporation closes a plant or leaves a market and dozens of smaller, local businesses—those that survived the initial arrival of that corporation, at least (mainly by learning to service it)—find their customers drying up because so many of them are unemployed. Taxes dry up as well, so relief doesn’t stretch as far, and we no longer have an economy that will support a regrowth in a timely manner. Towns have been abandoned due to this cycle.
Doom and gloom? No, I think there’s enough latent ability and power in local, small business to still have a good chance at not only holding its own but of succeeding and altering the standard model. Because there is still value in prizing Doing the Things over Making the Buck, and compensation can flow in those directions. We’re looking at a crucial time where those kinds of choices are more important than they have been in a long time.
Which leaves me back at where I started, admitting to a kind of aphasia when it comes to this money thing and by and large, as inconvenient as it is, still not much interested in changing who I am in order to meet some mogul’s notion of success. I work where I work and do what I do because I can decide that “career” is not a synonym for sheer acquisitiveness.
I am lucky, as I say, and do not in any way offer my life as an example of how to do this. I might well have ended up in much worse places. But it’s the people around me who have made the difference. They all ought to be better off, but we’re all Doing The Things and making the world, at least around us, better off. Meantime, I am grateful. I can still Do The Things.
It would be good if more of us remembered or realized that that is why we work so hard.
* Consider further the completely bass ackwards relationship between large corporations and local communities wherein the community is required by circumstance to bride the corporation to set up shop—a bribe done with tax money, which means the community starts off impoverishing itself for the “privilege” of hosting an entity that will then extract profits from that community to distribute among people who do not live there. And when the latent wealth of that community has fallen sufficiently that the profits to the corporation are less than deemed desirable, they then close up shop and leave, the community having grown dependent to such a degree that, scaffolding removed, the local economy collapses, partially or completely. What should be the case is the corporation ought to pay the community for the privilege and the relationship should be one where the community as host is a primary shareholder and gets compensated first. Unworkable someone in the back says? Not so. Alaska did this will the oil companies decades ago and every Alaskan since gets a stipend from Big Oil. Or did till recently.