Oh, Please!

Oh please, is there no respite from this sort of thing?  Over on Pharyngula is this little bit on the Vatican’s newest attempt to recruit an ideal priesthood, this time free of gays.

Now, the Catholic Church has done screening for centuries.  They actually work hard to dissuade people from attempting to be priests because they know how difficult the various vows are to keep.  I don’t doubt for a minute that some of this screening is responsible, in kind of an unfortunate “unintended consequences” way, with the number of child sexual abuse cases that seem rampant more in the Catholic Church than in any other.  You screen for people who have “normal” sexual proclivities and eliminate the ones who probably won’t be able to maintain celibacy, you end up with (probably) a higher percentage of those who exhibit a lower than average normal sex drive, but may have a higher, shall we say, alternative proclivity…

Anyway, that’s just my opinion.  But apparently the Vatican has decided there’s something to looking at alternative sexualities as a deal breaker, but for goodness sake the question still needs to be asked, just what is it they find so offensive and, we assume, dangerous about gays?

By and large, the Catholic Church, for all its faults, possesses one of the more sophisticated philosophical approaches to life in all its manifestations among the various sects.  As a philosophy teacher of mine said once, “they seem to have a handle on what life is all about.”  Despite the very public embarrassments that emerge from the high profile conservative and reactionary elements within it, the Catholic Church probably has the healthiest worldview of the lot.  (I was a Lutheran in my childhood and believe me, in the matter of guilt the Catholics have nothing on Lutherans.)

But they have been electing popes who seem bent on turning the clock back to a more intolerant and altogether less sophisticated age, as if the burden of dealing with humanity in its manifold variation is just too much for them.  They pine for the days when priests could lay down the law and the parish would snap to.  They do not want to deal with humanity in the abstract because it means abandoning certain absolutes—or the concrete—in lieu of a more gestalt understanding.  It would be hard work.

And they have an image problem.  I mean, if you’re going to let people be people, then what’s the point of joining an elite group when there are no restrictions of the concept of what encompasses human?

But really…this is just embarrassing.

Bothersome Details

I have come at last to the section of the new novel that I’ve been looking forward to writing for some time.  The appearance of the eponymous object referred to in the title, the ship which will take my hero on his great adventure, and though I have been anticipating this part for all this time I neglected to do one little thing.

Figure out what the damn thing looks like.

This is not a small—nor uncommon—problem.  I mean, I imagined this scene where the hero is confronted by the ship he needs, appearing as if by magic.  An important ship in more ways than just as transportation.  This is the Argo, the Golden Hind, the Chimera, the Santa Maria, Nautilus all rolled into one.  But while I imagined where it came from and the hero’s reaction to it and all the wonderful things it has to do…

I didn’t imagine its appearance.

So now I’m sitting her toying with all manner of design, just to make it unique and feeling just a bit chagrined.  I would like to be like those writers who, when they hit a snag like this, can just plug a placeholder in and go on.  But I’ve never been able to do that.  It has to be at least close to what it will end up being.

Ah me.  At least I know how big the damn thing needs to be.  I think.

The Irony of Conservatism

Politics dictated FDA policy?  Say it isn’t so!

According to this NY Times piece, the Bush Administration (they get the blame because, after all, he was the Decider) bade the FDA to meddle with contraception when it suited a certain agenda.

What I find so delightful about this, as with the Dover PA decision on Intelligent Design in the classroom, is that a Republican judge, this time a Reagan appointee, made the call.

The thing is, contraception and all that it implies really ought to be a conservative issue.  I mean, really—it has all the hallmarks of the last 60 years of conservative philosophy built on the rights of the individual, the freedom from interference being chief among them.  You would think conservatives would have leapt on this a long time ago, staking it out as exemplary of the idea of American Individualism and the freedom to act as a moral agent, dictating one’s own destiny and making determinations about how one will live one’s life free from government meddling.  Handing both men and women the tools—provided by the free market, to boot—to manage their own lives in accordance with their formulation as individuals of the American Dream should have been a slam dunk for conservatives.  They should have been cheering for it since the days of Margaret Sanger.

What is more, given the attitude of the communist states, which dismissed Sanger and the entire notion of family planning as a bourgeois, capitalist plot to undermine the growth of the collective, this should have been part and parcel of rearing a generation of people cumulatively opposed to Soviet style socialism and collectivism.

Everything about the Choice movement smacks of good ol’ fashion American Values!  It is the perversity of the debate that is ironic, that it should be those who are castigated as liberal soldiers in the march to socialism and its destruction of all things individualist and  true blue American who are the champions of the idea that people ought to have full say in the when and if of having children.

How did this happen?

Well, it has occurred to me that one of the singularly binding features of human political reality is the in-built hypocrisy of claiming that you (whoever you are and under whatever system you live) wish to be free.  When you look at that claim—and Americans are by no means exempt—what it means in practice is the freedom to be autocratic in your own way.  Even back in the days of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan you heard members of the Mujahadeen claiming thay they were fighting to be free.  But free to do what?  And for whom?  Certainly they didn’t mean freedom for their womenfolk.  No, they meant freedom to be oppressive in their own unique way, and apparently it’s not much different here.

Freedom is a slippery term.  Anyone with half a brain realizes that absolute freedom is not viable.  Freedom must be tempered by responsibility.  The edges of what constitutes responsible use of form is fuzzy, of course, and so we have laws to constrain those whose situations or philosophies run counter to the common good.  The irony of the pioneer image, the Mountain Man who went west to escape the constraints of civilization is that they never did and for the most part really didn’t want to.  The first thing settlers wanted once they had established themselves was law and order.  The mountain men were by and large entrepreneurs who depended on the civilization they supposedly disdained in order to make a living.  And they had to perforce accept the local laws of the native populations with whom they trafficked.  Freedom does not mean lawless.

What it means is living within a framework according to your own desires.  You accept the framework while making your own place within it through your own choices and actions.  How well this works out depends on many things.

When conservatives claim to represent American values for freedom, the image they seem to have in mind is one locked in the amber of time that discludes equality for women.  It is freedom for men.  Not that they do anything and whatever they might wish to do.  No, it is that men determine the framework and then work according to their will to build something within it.  But the image tends to ignore the framework, seeming to take it as given that it exists as something out of nature, god-given, pre-extant.  It is an old, hoary, knotty kind of image that harkens back to notions of the frontier and the need for growing populations and the presumed biblical virtues that allowed us to dominate this continent (displacing, killing, and otherwise bilking the natives out of the land along the way).  What it did not include was the image of women running businesses, holding political office, and certainly not bedding down with anyone they liked any time they liked just to have fun.

Basically, though, women as equals alters the framework, and everyone has to shuffle to find a new way to live within it.

So much for the vaunted champions of American individualism.  But still, it is a profound irony that the rhetoric—so powerful, so eloquent, so persuasive—should represent the polar opposite of what it is intended to.

But some of them, apparently, seem to get it. Good for you, Judge Korman.

Serendipity do dah

Through purest serendipity, there will be a conference on Germaine de Stael here in St. Louis in May.  About five years ago I started working on an alternate history set in 1923 French America.  The conceit is that Napoleon never sold Louisiana to the United States, but managed to keep it.  There are several reasons for this, a few of them historically legitimate, but it is a science fiction novel after all.  In the course of researching the whole Napoleonic era, I stumbled on this woman, de Stael, and came to regard her as a phenom.  She was one of the few people toward whom Napoleon seems to have shown actual fear and the only woman, as far as I can tell, and I became intrigued.  I found one—count it, ONE—biography, an old thing from the Fifties by a writer whose specialty was the Napoleonic period, and it gave me enough to expand my single novel into a trilogy, the last volume of which I intend to be almost entirely historical.

Needless to say, this would entail considerably more research.  The plan was to sell the trilogy as a package to a house big enough to pay me well enough that I could embark on the research and do justice to the matter.  Alas, I’m still waiting for that sale and now publishing is in something of a tailspin, etc etc etc.

Anyway, I started making notes for the second volume anyway and decided to see if there were any blogs on the subject.  Plenty, but mostly about de Stael’s views on romance—de Stael ran a salon and collected around her quite an impressive circle of intimates and there was a lot of diddling and dallying going on.  (One of her closest friends was Juliet Recamier, a great beauty and apparently one of the Major Teases of Europe.)

One blog leapt out—from an academic, Karyna Szmurlo—announcing an international conference on de Stael.  I contacted her and she responded kindly, suggesting I attend.  Since it will be held at Washington University—practically my back yard—I am going.  I have subsequently discoverd a small uptick in the popularity of Germaine de Stael, with several new biographies and at least one novel, all published pretty much since I started this project (trust me, they weren’t around when I was looking) with one or two exceptions.  Serendipity indeed.  Check the schedule.  Heavyweight academic.  I doubt I will learn as much there, on the spot, as I will if I can make a couple of good contacts.

Of course, the major work in this area won’t take place on my part for a couple years yet—the second volume is still to be set in the 1920’s, but it will inbtroduce de Stael on stage (yes, I said it was SF, didn’t I?)—but I don’t think that will be a problem.  The trilogy will sell or it won’t, no matter when I finish it.  Naturally I’d prefer that it sell.  Naturally.


It is a bright award, a tower of lucite with a galaxy suspended in the upper half and a gold plaque on the lower with a name a title and a year.  A Nebula Award.  I’ve held two of them in my hands and I’d like to have one of my own.

Alas, it is likely not to be.  I fly too far below the radar of those who vote on such things.

Be that as it may, as a member of SFWA, I always vote.  I do try to vote for the best piece of work on the ballot and it’s always gratifying when it turns out that I’ve read enough stories and books to have somewhat of an informed opinion.  I just now finished voting and I feel righteous.  A good friend of mine has something on the ballot and I hope she wins, I do.  The story in question is stunningly brilliant, of course—my friends tend to be better than I am and I happen to think I’m pretty good, which means they’re fucking brilliant.  And that always makes even nicer, to be able to vote for quality and sentimental reasons.

I’d like to win a Hugo Award, too, but that seems even less likely, as one must sell enough copies of one’s book to those who nominate and vote on those, and I fly even farther below their radar.  I will say this—while occasionally some titles of dubious merit have landed on the shortlists of both awards, I’ve rarely found a book or story nominated for either that was a complete waste of time.  Between them they make good recommended reading lists.

So here is a hope for good fortune to my friend.  May she get the lucite tower and the bright galaxy.  She’s earned it.

(psst!  That’s Kelley Eskridge, a novella called  Dangerous Space.  Treat yourself, go read it.)

Catcher In The Rye

I just completed an essay for a newsletter about books we never read, but it is assumed, because we are Readers, we have.  Catcher In The Rye is such a book for me.  Never read it.  Know a lot about it, through some kind of osmosis, rubbing up against people who have read it.  You can glean a lot that way.

I made the statement in the essay that I probably don’t even own a copy.  I just checked.  I do.  It’s not actually mine, the name of the person who apparently loaned it to me is stamped inside the front cover.  But there it is, on my shelf.  Accusing me.  “You never read me, but I won’t go away until you do!”

Some books, I think, are alive.  They find their way, by many avenues, into peoples’ hands.  Some of us never seem to have to purchase these books, they just show up.  They’re always there.  This is one of them.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance seems to be another.  We have never been without a copy in this house, though we have never bought one.  I haven’t read it.  Read in it, sure.  Open at random, do a few pages, close and reshelve.  I’ve got a few books like that.  But I never paid for a copy.  How did it get here?  And by “it” I mean the book itself, not just one singular copy.

We used to give books away.  We’d buy them for people and hand them out.  I did that for Time Enough For Love once, I bought ten copies and just passed them to friends.

What other books just seem to follow you around?  I suppose it depends on what kind of people you hang with.  I know people who have never bought The Lord of the Rings, but they have it, and have read it.  (Yes, I bought my copies, but there was one set of them passing among my friends at one time.  Wonder where that ended up?)

For years I had a tattered copy of To Kill A Mockingbird that arrived in my collection one day from where I do not know and stayed there.  I finally bought an anniversary edition hardcover of it and the paperback has subsequently disappeared.  Moved on, I suppose, to some other needy shelf.

When I say books live, this isn’t exactly what I have in mind, but it is kind of freaky.  I’ve never actually caught my books having relations and reproducing, but several years ago I discovered four full editions of The Foundation Trilogy.  

Occasionally, I know where these copies come from, but it is also true that many of them have just shown up, like unemployed people looking for work.  “Will Tell You A Good Story For a Warm Shelf for the Night.”  I’m looking at my shelves now and I see a copy of Lost Horizons that I did not buy (or borrow).  Likewise a copy of Dr. Zhivago.  That one baffles me.  Why would they pick my library in which to seek refuge?  Who passed the word to them that they’d be safe here?

Well, it’s true, I won’t turn them out.  Who knows, I may even read them.  Maybe not Catcher In The Rye, though.  I’m kind of holding out on that one.  It’s the kind of book everyone thinks you really must read, that I’ve got my back up about it.  Obviously, it thinks I should read it, but it slipped in here on the sly, probably in company with a few others (like the volume on Chinese Philosophy that I cannot imagine the origin of) and thinks it will taunt me into cracking it open.

We’ll see about that.

My Dog

Okay, this is too cute.  I need to do videos, but they might mean something only to me.  So what?

My dog…her name is Coffey.  About 35 lbs, the color of coffee beans except for the slightly spotted white on her chest, around her neck, her paws, and a streak like spilled milk on her face from forehead down to around her nose.  Marvelous ears.


I’m not in a great mood these days, for a variety of reasons, and this morning I seemed stuck in a funk.  I have to go in to the Day Job earlier than usual and it’s too damn cold outside to either go to the gym (can’t wait for winter to be over) or walk Coffey.  I won’t freeze my tush off anymore just because my dog needs—or wants—a walk.  This has been the norm most of this winter.  Windchill ducks below 20, we’re not going.  She seems okay with it as long as we do something else.

I am writing this just after the something else.  Because she made me laugh out loud.

I went upstairs, to the bathroom, and something about it triggered her play response.  She sat outside the bathroom door, at attention, looking very expectant.  I came out and she ran into the living room and sat again.  She watches you when she’s in this state, looking for cues as toyour intention.  Which way will I move?  Toward her leash?  To the couch?  And she tries to sit very still while studying me.  But when I look directly at her, motionlessness ends.  Her tail starts wagging, brushing along the carpet, swish swish swish, and there is enough kinetic energy in it to get her entire butt shifting back and forth, which, when I smile, increases, till she’s pivoting at a point almost midway up her spine.

I laugh.

She grabs her rope.

The Rope is a thick white and green length of about three feet, knotted at both ends and in the middle.  This is her favorite thing to do besides walking and eating.  I can’t refuse.  I grab my end.

The tug begins.  It’s amazing how heavy 35 lbs can be when combined with a mental exercise (on her part) to will herself to weigh more.  She drops her center of gravity as I lift and suddenly it feels more like 50 or 60 lbs.  I yank.  She comes off the floor.  We whip the rope back and forth across the floor.

Then I begin to spin around.  All four of her feet come off the ground and she hangs on, eyes bright, as I whirl her around five, six, ten times before setting her down again.  She, at least, is in heaven.

Gloom dissipates.  I’m still grinning.

I like my dog.


Getting There

I’ve always been impatient.  So much so, it could almost be considered pathological.  I’ve had to learn patience like a religious observance, and it chafes, it does.  My father is one of those people for whom the act of doing is a pleasure in and of itself.  An attitude I’ve been able to emulate consistently in only one thing.  He was once a  gunsmith and I recall watching him—for short periods of time only, mind you—sanding a rifle stock.  He’d work on it for days, running the papers in ever finer grains over the wood until he had achieved such a penetrating perfection as might be possible before moving on to painstakingly applying the varnish…ah, he was rapt.  In just about everything I ever saw him do, there was a level of immersion in the process that I at first found baffling and now envy, because he really loved the doing.

I did not.  I wanted the finished product, to hell with the path to it.  I would always have preferred, for instance, to buy the model cars and ships and planes already completed rather than go through the essentially tedious process of assembling them.  Building them did not fascinate me, it was an obstacle to what I wanted, which was the thing itself.  Even among my peers, at a certain age, I found this careful, cautious approach to doing things frustrating.  Get on with it!  Let’s finish it!

I recognize now what I’ve missed and on some level it pains me, but the fact remains that I am not enamored of the steps between point A and the final finished object, whatever it is.

So what business do I have trying to be a writer?

Well, because—just as in my photography—I have found pleasure in the reception of the finished product, and for that reception to be worthwhile, the finished product must be of a particular quality.  I have learned to appreciate the emergence of that final product as I see it improving under careful construction.  I still don’t actually want to do the steps, but I’ve learned to enjoy watching the resultant improvement along the way.

I had to trick myself years ago into this state of mind, because I abhor rewrites.  And yet that, for me, is where the Good Stuff happens.  My first trick was to never finish a story before starting on the rewrite.  I’d stop short.  Somewhere in my subsconscious, the djinni of my imagination believed that it was still, somehow, a first draft.  Later I no longer found that necessary, because I’d stumbled on the emergent quality aspect, even while really disliking the actual rewriting.  (Perverse, yes, I know, but there you are.)

The current book I’m working on is giving me a new problem—or rather an old problem in a new guise—along these lines.  I’m rushing to get to where I really want to be.  Which means…

Wait.  Back up.  Let me explain.

That was an example.  I have a core idea for the book, which is soon to be revealed, but I have to get my main character to the place where it can be revealed in such a manner that he is ready for what he discovers.  He must go on a quest.  He doesn’t even know he’s on one at this point.  But to be effective, the events of the quest must be plausible, they must be exciting, they must ramp up the tension.  And I’m rushing through these steps, impatient to get to the Cool Part.

This is where I come to another one of my little tricks.  I will finish these chapters, lame as I now see them to be, and print them out.  I will take them to another part of the house and go over them in pen.  Then I will pick up a fountain pen and start rewriting them by hand.

Don’t ask me why, but it works.  It slows me down enough that my conscious skills come to bear on the material that came out basically from my unconscious in a thick stream.  I break it down, I order it, I add in what needed to be there all along.

Then I return to the computer and start rewriting.  Further modifications are then made on the hand-written text.  But when it’s over, the words convince, the scenes make sense, the excitement I was about to muffle under a blanket of impatience manifests.

Pain in the butt, really.

I don’t have to do this so much when I’m writing something that doesn’t have such Cool Scenes as the one I’m rushing toward, wherein the coolness comes along in due course just through the writing itself.  But the last book I wrote I found myself having to do this in order to make sure I had the period right.  Adding detail from the 1780s in by hand, restructuring with the new material in front of me.

I sometimes wish I were otherwise, but it’s a bit late now, and like I say I’ve learned a whole suite of tricks to make me do the work properly in spite of my urgent desire to see if finished.

One of these months I intend to try an experiment.  When I was a kid I had a model of the H.M.S. Victory, the British three-masted warship.  It was a beautiful, complex model, and I did not put it together.  My dad did.  He didn’t want to see glue runs on the hull or badly-fitted joins.  He assembled it and it drove me insane because it took the better part of two weeks.  But it was gorgeous.

I’ve acquired that model kit.  Maybe not exactly the same one, but the same ship and it appears to be just as complex.  One of these days I will clear space on my workbench and start on it and see if I can find that joy of process.  I may by now have tricked myself into it.  We’ll see.