Old Stuff

Still cleaning things out, emptying closets.  Unearthing a lot of Old Stuff int he process.  I’ve never been good at keeping journals or diaries, but I’ve tried from time to time.  Occasionally, when I go through one of these housecleaning fits, I find them, sad fragments, disconnected sometimes by years, even decades, a few weeks, maybe a couple of months consecutively recorded, and now…

I’m finding things from before Clarion, before 1988, when I was still trying on my own to break into writing—into publishing, I should say.  Spiral notebooks filled with cryptic notes, phone numbers, names now forgotten, and story fragments, as well as the personal expression of profound frustration.  It can be enlightening, amusing, embarrassing.  I kept a lot of stuff—old manuscripts, first, second, and nth drafts, thinking that when I became Famous some university would take all my Personal Papers.  You read about that from time to time—“The English Department of the University of Falsetto has acquired the Papers of the late Milton Toastmaster, world-renowned novelty and short story splicer…”

But I’m sipping coffee now and leafing through a couple of long forgotten notebooks and chuckling wryly (yes, he says, one does hear the wryness) at the ambition and cluelessness.  It’s the story ideas that I thought I’d never forget, the paragraph or two jotted down acting as place markers in memory for when I could flesh out the piece.

For instance:

I, Demon

In The Way of All Things it is said that each god has a demon who pursues him.  The god fights and while he fights he tries to do such things as gods must do.  The demon wins—always.  But as he kills the god, the demon in his turn becomes a god.  And so it goes.

And immediately following this, a snippet of dialogue:

“Insurance companies will own us all one day.”

“Not me.”

Ideas never pursued for whatever reason—probably because I just didn’t have the Stuff to follow through.  For another instance:

Shop of Midnight Dreams

There was a time you could walk into our shop and get anything.  No, not like an antique shop—that’s all second, third, and fourth hand, mostly garbage.  No, we provided all new.  If you needed a wool sweater like Spencer Tracy wore in Captains Courageous, well, we made you one.  It’d fit, too, guaranteed.  A captain’s wheel table with a glass top?  That, too, and fingerprints would never show on the glass.  I remember once Stella whipped together a spinning wheel that spun gold—that was a special one, you don’t get to do that often.  The wheel won’t work for anyone but the person it was made for and we trusted her not to abuse it.  My own favorite was a lost meaning.  A couple on rough times had lost the core of what they were together; it was all wrapped up in a memory.  I found it and gave it back to them.  That was one of the hardest but one of the most gratifying.  We could do anything once.

It’s all different now.  You see, Mr. Waymaker retired.  Sold the business.  I guess I can’t blame him who’d want to stay around if—

I know where that one came from, but I have no idea where I thought I’d go with it.

Another binder yielded a concerted effort at journaling from 1985.  The January 21st entry reads:

I’ll be perfectly honest—just this once: I haven’t got the faintest idea why I want to be a writer.  But, then, this is only this morning.  I have an incredible cold (the same one I’ve had now all winter, I do believe; I can’t get rid of the damn thing!) and I wrote two pages of purest garbage in my novel before trying to jump start the car.  The car started.  Success!  The novel is moving of its own power to an inexorable conclusion of blood and violence through an inexorable trail of very dull and badly wrought prose.  It’s strange: I’m watching myself screw it up and can honestly see no way to stop it.

That year it probably would have been Compass Reach.  Seems some things only become more sophisticated, but not much different.

I kept a lot of lists in these things—stories finished, stories submitted, stories yet to be born.  There are titles listed I have absolutely no recollection of.  I sometimes, I remember, jotted down titles in an imagined short story collection and then tried to imagine the contents of the book as thought it were finished.  Thought I might trick my hindbrain into giving me the story to go with the cool titles.

I find a lot of notes about Donna.

Other people, less so, but one of these “journals” contains the piece I wrote the day Earline Knackstedt died.  Earline was one half of the Gene and Earline team that owned Shaw Camera Shop, at which I worked for 20 years.  While she was alive and they owned it, I think I loved that job.  Earline fought cancer for a long, long time, and finally succumbed in April of ’85.  It was devastating.  Not so much the initial news, but the slow, gradual realization of what her absence meant.  It changed my life.  Instead of buying Shaw Camera, I became more dedicated to becoming a writer, and I knew that owning a business would end that dream.  Three years later I applied to and was accepted at Clarion and went from there.

It’s the last couple days of July now.  Supposedly, at least two editors I know of have promised to finish reading Orleans and make some kind of decision.  I expect to be rejected.  It’s not even a considered thought, just what it.  Give me another year or two, and it really will be as if I’m starting all over.

I have “started over” dozens of times be the evidence of this Old Stuff.  I ought to be good at it by now.

If the rain has stopped I must go walk the dog.  To be continued…

Joy, Chagrine, and a Pretty Good Life

I’m deeply into major clean-up mode.  It’s long past time.  Procrastination is the root of all dross and accumulation.  We buy bigger dwellings because, as George Carlin pointed out, we need someplace to put our Stuff.

I am of mixed feelings about this, though.  I’ve been emptying the two big closets in the basement.  A great deal of this has been little more than taking things out of one box, which was only half or less full, and putting them in another box with similar things that also was not full.  Almost as much, there’s been a lot of throwing out.  (I found a shitload of catalogues from Meisha Merlin that have summarily gone into recycle.  Past is past.)

It’s sweaty and sometimes poignant work.  Yesterday I found a box of Donna’s Stuff from before she met me.  We need to go through it together, but I looked through a couple of things, and promptly sent her an email telling her how grateful I am that she gave all this to me—her life, that is.

People are packages of memories and experiences.  Uncharitably (although often correctly) a lot of this is called “Baggage.”  Try as we might to close some doors, all that Stuff is still there, and contributes to the whole.  We wouldn’t be who we are now without it.

I know, that Freshman level Psych 101.  But that doesn’t make it less true.  Acknowledging that truth is important, because we need to remember—at least as a concept if not in detail—that the people we love had lives before we met them and that even if things became wonderful after said meeting, that doesn’t reduce what went before to anything somehow less.

I didn’t need to know the details of Donna’s life before me.  She told me anyway.  That was a gift.  I reciprocated.  We’re complicated people.  It took years for understanding to develop into meaningful mutual appreciation and support.  It’s a work in progress.  At several points along the way, things threatened to go terribly wrong, and we almost parted company.  Lessons in how we should never take someone for granted, even though that is occasionally a kind of goal, the emblem of a smooth fit, the ideal of a seamless relationship.  We live with the legacy of bad fiction—love is never having to say you’re sorry.  That is not true.  We stumble over sensitivities and make mistakes all the time.  We hurt each other.  Do we mean it?  Of course not, but we’re human.  Some days are better than others.  More negligence than anything malicious, but nevertheless people who love each other need to apologize just as much (or more) than those who don’t.  But you shouldn’t have to apologize for what went before, for who you are or who you were.  Past is prologue.  Maybe.

Not just the pleasure of re-recognition, cleaning house is fraught with the possibilities of embarrassment.  You find things you’ve forgotten about and, now revealed, you try to imagine what you may have been thinking when you did that!  Old ambitions emerge from the murky depths of the back of the closet and in the light of a new day stare back at you and declare “Yeah, you were this crummy.”

I found several boxes of old photographs, images I thought, at the time, were just fine.  Just absolutely brilliant and should I ever get around to going public with them, they would blow the zeitgeist.

Well.  We have all gotten better over time.  Oh, some of them were pretty good, but I was not the whiz I thought I was. Makes me wonder what else I thought I was pretty good at.

Too much yet to do.  A lot of old paper.  That’s what we seem to collect the most of, paper.  Notes, old stories, magazines, cards, letters, scrawled missives that meant something at one time.  Memory doesn’t retain all, which was one reason we wrote some of this Stuff down.  But the key is missing and interpretation is difficult at best.

What was I thinking?

But I also found a lot of photographs of us, smiling, laughing, doing…something….who knows?  But the warmth returned immediately.

I complain a lot, I know.  Things aren’t the way I want them to be.  But the truth is, I’ve had a Pretty Good Life.  I have great friends and a skull-full of great memories.

And all this Stuff to remind me.

We’ve been in this house since 1993.  We still haven’t actually finished decorating.  A great deal is still on stand-by.  I’m making a start at finishing some things.  Procrastination is the root of….

But the past requires sometimes that we sit down and look at it.  Smile, laugh, maybe cry a little, and wonder occasionally Who Are These People?  In keeping with a major nostalgia kick, I pulled out a record and put it on the turntable—a record I have not listened to since before I met Donna.  The Babys, Head First.  The tone arm just lifted off the vinyl.

Not at all sure I’ll listen to it again any time soon.  As with much that is past, it stirs mixed feelings.  (Yes, I remember why I bought it—one of the few records I bought for reasons other than that I liked the songs.  But I’m glad I kept it.)

It’s been a pretty good ride so far.  Can’t wait for the next turn.

Back to cleaning now.

Merit and Fear

We like to believe, as Americans, that this country is a meritocracy. The idea—Horatio Alger, Thomas Edison, McGuyver, all emblematic of this notion—that the best qualified rise to the top, that those who can display and apply ability, skill, and intelligence are the ones who are selected—either by themselves or through the recognition of society—to do important jobs and that this, as opposed to elitist canards like family or school affiliation or looks or race, counts for more in this society. We like to believe that we judge people by their competence, not other things. It’s a driving national myth.

We like to tell ourselves that such people are Heroes.

Like most myths, there’s an element of truth to it. It is certainly the case that the opposite of such ability gets derided once exposed and the people who are less capable lose whatever consideration they’ve received. Eventually. Under the right circumstances.

But we all know that as a guiding ethic, merit is like anything else, and does not hold universal sway over our sentiment.

Perversely, many people display what can only be described as fear of people who are genuinely competent and talented, depending on the circumstances. All one need do is look at the condition of regard in which science is held by many people and the way professionals are often mistrusted and we’ve all seen instances where the person at the party who actually knows a thing or three—and dares express that knowledge—often as not ends up not invited back.

It’s a complex and contradictory attitude Americans have toward ability. We admire and respect it—until it contradicts a long-held belief or runs afoul a prejudice or makes us feel, in ourselves, a bit stupid.

It is probably more cloyingly and illogically represented in our general attitudes toward race.

Let me put it as bluntly as possible—in American history, how often has genuine merit been rewarded if the potential recipient is not white? Or male?

This is largely rhetorical. Most people very well know the answer—seldom, and often when such a person does stand out, attempts are made to diminish his or her achievements. We have been persistently whittling away at this problem for a long time now and we may be forgiven if from time to time we seem to feel it has been solved. It takes a shock to remind us how far we have yet to go.

In fact, part of the aftershock ought to be a recognition that this is a problem somehow wired into human nature, and that if we solve it for one group, it will simply move to another.

What kind of shock am I talking about?

Let me point you to this from John Scalzi’s Whatever. Go read it, then come on back here.

A couple of things I note—one, the reporter in question is herself clearly a minority. So one wonders why she would be duped into reporting this in this way without being outraged. The other is, the unattributed assertions made in the report.

But the main problem goes back to the merit argument.

These two people—Barack and Michelle Obama—are representative of our mythical Competent People ideal. They’ve Done It. They are deserving of our respect for their achievements and therefore deserve to be considered on their abilities.

However.

They seem to be of the wrong group. Hmm. How did that happen?

Wrong group? Do we still think that way?

Well, you know, maybe not, but we have this other national ideal that tends to undermine the first one, and that is Winning Is Everything. We talk about fair play and sportsmanship and all that, but we don’t believe in it, not when the possibility of losing is in the mix, and this is a presidential race. In politics, all the stops get pulled out, and if one of the weapons is to be race, well, then, perhaps the engineers of such tactics are not themselves blatant racists, but they have no qualms about using discredited tactics in the all-important attempt to win, merit aside.

Because you really don’t see people very often graciously stand aside for the better qualified. It would be nice if you did, it would say so much to the next generation about what is important. But we’ve debased that coin for 200 + years.

Equally important, though, is the question of why those who put this out there would believe it would have any impact.

Because it will. Because a lot of Americans, though they might never say it, still fear the ramifications of such a possibility.

Which is why I will believe no poll this year. I believe people will be ashamed to admit their prejudices and tell pollsters that they will support Obama, but once they’re inside the voting booth will stop and ask themselves if they’re really ready to see a black man as president.

Unfortunately, this is America. We may surprise ourselves. Or we may see the upcoming election one in which the next president is the one who simply lost least.

Joanna Russ, a teacher and science fiction writer and savvy thinker, published a book in 1983 called How To Suppress Women’s Writing. It is a lucid textbook on cultural oppression. The subjects are women and writing, but the methods and tendencies she lays out apply to virtually any sub-group and occupation. It is worth finding and reading. It delineates the subtle—and not-so-subtle—ways in which we as a culture steal merit from those we don’t wish to see possess it. In the prologue, she writes:

In a nominally egalitarian society, the ideal situation (socially speaking) is one in which the members of the “wrong” groups have the freedom to engage in literature (or equally significant activities) and yet do not do so, thus proving that they can’t. But, alas, give them the least reall freedom and they will do it. The trick thus becomes to make the freedom as nominal a freedom as possible and then—since some of the so-and-so’s will do it anyway—develop various strategies for ignoring, condemning, or belittling the artistic works that result. If properly done, these strategies result in a social situation in which the “wrong” people are (supposedly) free to commit literature, art, or whatever, but very few do, and those who do (it seems) do it badly, so we can all go home to lunch.

Some will do it well, and then you see the tactics of disenfranchisement take a few steps up the scale of panic and ugliness. Never mind that Hank Aaron actually broke Babe Ruth’s record, he’s black, and shouldn’t have been able to, but since he was about to anyway he had to be prevented. Death threats ensued. Washington Carver was a brilliant chemist, certainly, but look what he did! All his research was based on, well, peanuts. What can one expect from a black man? (It wasn’t, but even so, the denigration ignores the achievement.) Frank Yerby was a brilliant novelist, but he was fluke, the exception that proved the rule that blacks couldn’t write anything other than about themselves. He moved to Spain finally to get away from the racist belittlement of his work.

The list goes on and on. Add now this absurd, obscene attempt to paint Michelle Obama as exactly the same as every white bigot’s worst fear of a welfare queen sitting in the White House.

Merit is ignored. Ignored long enough and thoroughly enough, and it cannot shine through.

At least, so such purveyors of intolerance wish.

It might not work this time. If it doesn’t, it would be nice to think that, for a change, merit counts for more. But it may also be that further attempts like this will trigger another American ideal, that being our almost reflexive sympathy with so-called underdogs. If that puts Obama in the White House, well, goody for us. But it would also be success that ignores merit. It will be a serendipitous achievement based on our national dislike of bullies.

What then will be learned from it all?

If we were, as we would like to believe, concerned with ability and competence above all, then it is inconceivable that George W. Bush could have been elected, even in the first place. Both his opponents are by any measure his superiors in ability.

The truth is, we value comfort more and Bush, in his own way, is comforting to many people. He’s not our better. He’s “just like us” in presentation and, sadly, ability. He doesn’t make us feel inferior (by now, probably, quite the opposite) and he doesn’t challenge us to rise above mediocrity. With Bush you could share a beer and talk about baseball. With Obama? In truth, you probably could, but more likely if the subject moved on to something real—like taxes or foreign policy—most of us likely couldn’t keep up. He understands these things in a way that most of us don’t.

Not because we can’t. Because we have neither the time or patience to really understand them.

How can I say that?

Well, the evidence. If we did understand such things, we wouldn’t have had to put up with Bush for eight years.

And we wouldn’t be afraid of Obama.