How Do I Bio, Let Me Count The Ways…

I have to write a new bio.  I’ve been needing to do this for some time.  I had a few prepared bios for conventions and such, tailored depending on who I sent them to.  Magazine bios, con bios, conference bios…they all required a bit of tweaking.  But they’re all pretty much out of date.

I’m going to do this during the coming week.  Cull through all the details that would seem to make me an important person, someone people might wish to come listen to or see.  I have a difficult time with these, which is why I write most all of them in third person.  I have to put myself in a frame of mind that I’m writing about Someone Else.

Apropos to that, this past weekend I received my copy of the new documentary The Polymath: or the Life and Opinions of Samuel R. Delany.  In the course of watching it Saturday and Sunday, we heard him say that he considers himself a rather uninteresting person.  I found that resonant.

When I’m writing a new story, I tend to put myself in the character of the protagonist.  I see myself as That Person.  And almost always, when I start on the subsequent rewrites, one of the problems I have to fix is that the main characters of my stories are uniformly weak compared to the secondary characters.  A couple of years ago I had a revelation about why that is.  Mainly, because I don’t see myself as a particularly interesting person.  So that translates into the protagonist, who is generally interested in the other characters, who then become relatively more imbued by interesting characteristics.  I have to then go back and add in all the missing stuff the main character requires.

Which brings me to the writing of a personal bio.

What is it about me that  is interesting to other people?

Now, I’d like to be interesting and sometimes I think I am.  But in the course of the day, I don’t even think about myself much less what it is about me that makes me worth note.  This is perfectly sane behavior, as far as I’m concerned.  Who does go through the day cataloging their specialness besides narcissists, obsessives, terminally vain, or profoundly insecure people?  I stipulate that I’m vain, but it limits itself to personal grooming, physical fitness, and an attempt at erudition, none of which controls my life, and all of which are practices I think more people should embrace if for no other reason than a sense of public politeness.

But I’m always a bit dismayed when people actually pay attention to me or think I have something worth saying.  (I stress again, I want to be someone like that, I just don’t happen to “feel” it.)

So the personal bio usually becomes a list of things I’ve done.  It seems a common way to deal with the self-conscious aspects of a productive life, to place your credentials, as it were, Over There In That Box.  You can point to the file and say, well, if you want to know about me, look in there.  And in that file you’ll find my publications, my award nominations, and the work I’ve done, etc etc., and, oh year, I live in St. Louis, I have a dog, I’m in love with Donna and so forth—which are still components, in a way, rather than actual revelations.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this approach and I certainly don’t think strangers have a right to expect more, but it’s not exactly a biography, is it?  It’s more like a resume.

It doesn’t say anything about the fact that for me different music produces different kinds of writing, that if I’m trying to get inside the head of someone tormented I often listen to Ligeti and when I’m creating landscapes, I want Vangelis or Sibelius and when I need action, I find Last Fast or Joe Satriani or Bartok really helps.  It doesn’t cover the fact that I use much of my music to unlock a feeling I can’t quite identify just for myself.

It doesn’t say anything about how much I like late evening sunlight shafting through miniblinds (or how the same effect, late at night, from streetlamps, really turns me on); or how the late afternoon sunlight across open fields in September strikes a kind of heroic melancholy in my mind, like the atmosphere of final days or impending loss or the denouement after a mighty adventure; or the fact that I’ve never read a book that has made me weep, but there are certain films that do it to me almost every time…

In other words, bios like this don’t say much about me.

But my stories do, if you remember that they are not and never have been biographical.

A paradox?  Not really.  You put what you feel into a story.  How that feeling is evoked is unimportant as long as it’s true, and you don’t need personal revelation in terms of history to do it.   Everyone has these feelings, and they own them, and they were all evoked differently, so fiction that talks about the personal need not be about the author to work.

But you still ought to be able to say something in a bio about yourself that makes you at least seem interesting to total strangers.

I’m still working on all this.

Misty Mountains

One of the trips we don’t make anymore is south to Atlanta.  When our good friends Kelley and Nicola lived there, we went down a few times, most notably for their wedding.  That trip was an adventure.  We often make long drives at night.  Donna is good at the wheel in the dark (I fall asleep, no matter how much caffeine or hours of napping beforehand) and it chews up mileage during a period when not much else is happening.  It also afford us sunrises on the road, which can often be spectacular…or just profound.

The trip down for their wedding took us through a storm.  It was raining when we left.  As we drove up into the mountains, we literally drove into the storm cloud.  Visibility was probably no worse than if we’d been driving in the daytime.  Lightening sheared across the sky seemingly fifty feet in front of us.  It was a tense trip.

But on the other side, as the rain abated, and the sun rose, we got to see this.


Going through a stack of old prints, I found it.  I have hundreds of images I did not, at the time, pay enough attention to.  I have a huge job ahead of me converting these to digital and bringing them  up to the level of quality they should have.

Thought I’d share this one now.

Safe journey, all, no matter where you go, and may the far side of wherever you are give you something memorable.

A Little Bragging

It’s my blog, I get to be self-indulgent.  I want to brag a little.  I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep this up, but for now it feels good to be able to make these claims.

I’m 55.  I am amazed at that fact when I stop to think about it.  I don’t feel 55.  But having never been it before, I’m not exactly sure how it’s supposed to feel.  In any event, I am, as I say, 55.

This morning I went to the gym.

I went to the gym after walking the dog—about a mile, that’s what we usually do—during which hegira I had to run a full block twice to avoid loose dogs.  (Coffey will not back down, no matter what, and the last thing I need is to have fighting dogs at my feet.)  I’ve never been a great runner, but I can run a city block full out and not have to sit down.

At the gym, I went through my new routine, briefly as follows:

Crunches, curls, tricep extensions, leg curls, extensions, calf raises, bench press, dips, shrugs, straight bar curls, cross-overs, legs press, flies, rows, pectoral flies, shoulder raises, latimus pull-downs, and a few assorted other motions totaling 19 separate exercises.  It took about an hour and twenty minutes.

I’m benching 205 (which is down from my best, but still), the bar curls run from 45 lbs up to 90 lbs, lats at 180 lbs.  Everything else falls within those parameters.

I weigh about 170 to 175.  I’d like to drop ten pounds, but I really have little to complain about.  Bit of a spare tire, but overall I’m pretty solid.

I’ve started doing aerobics on the mornings I don’t do the gym.

What, do I want to live forever?  No, not really, but I while I am alive I want to be able to physically do what I want.

I am tired often, but it’s more mental than physical.  My knees bother me a bit and occasionally my left elbow complains, but nothing incapacitating, just annoying.

I know men half my age who are incapable of a quarter of what I do.

To an extent, this is an unfair comparison, because as we all know the United States is in the throes of an epidemic of obesity and lack of exercise.  Couch Potato Syndrome had taken root.  True, a lot of it has to do with the nature of work—more and more of it is behind a desk, at a computer, and even the work that does require some physical activity has far more machine assistance than ever before.  But a lot of the problem is self-inflicted.

Anyway, I wanted to take a few minutes, on my own blog, to do a little bragging.  One of these days it’s going to fall apart on me.  Things fail.  But until then…

Prophets, Providence, and Problems: An Observation

This is one of those notions I stumble on from time to time while daydreaming or free associating.  I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about religion of late—as how could many people not be, what with the state of the world (he says with tongue in his other cheek, being both ironic and absurd)?—and trying to come up with some theory of it that might bleed off the poisons that seem to bubble up from it from time to time.

Someone said something to me that triggered this idea and it’s probably not original.  But we were discussing Roman Catholicism and the observation was made that in its long history it has absorbed more than it has suppressed.

“Of course it has,” I responded.  “That’s how it began, after all, as a congeries of pagan beliefs subsumed beneath an orthodox umbrella.  It is the perfect example of an assembled religion.”

Regardless where the initial push came from, whatever its core ideology, the fact is that Roman Catholicism came to fruition as a political entity and it was a model of almost democratic universalism.  The holidays (holy days) are mostly borrowings from other disciplines, retrofitted to make people comfortable with the new paradigm.  Its rituals and mysteries are all adaptations of older religious ideas and practices, including a marvelous transplantation from Egyptian mythology of the entire Jesus myth (Horus—almost all of it is duplicated, including certain names, such as Lazarus, and the whole virgin birth motif, which itself is nothing particularly new).  The architects of Roman Catholicism, let us assume to be more gracious than not, recognized a core set of beliefs that did not of themselves require the trappings of a religion or its concomitant institutions, but also saw that most people would prefer (or require) all that such physical and cultural manifestations afford.  Romans above all understood in their bones the function of public architecture and ceremony.  They seemed instinctively attuned to the idea that to get people to behave a certain way they should live within the physical representations of the philosophies behind such behavior.  Romans were Romans as much because of their cities and roads as because of any political philosophy.  The two supported each other.  The church borrowed that big time.

But as an assembled religion, it had a problem, which was the necessity to obscure all the past manifestations, cut the ties to all the pagan practices they’d taken over, and embark on a long-term campaign to evoke cultural amnesia in order to represent themselves as The Truth.  The problem with this is two-fold:  there are always going to be those who know the facts (because you can’t destroy all the evidence, if nothing else) and you have to be very careful about how you present and protect your core ideas, lest people start interpreting them any old way they please.

Along comes the Protestant Reformation, which was at base a movement to return to the Church to its original principles and free it from the “corruptions” that had crept in over the centuries.

The reformers, smart as they may have been, labored under a handicap, namely the overwhelming success the Roman Catholic Church had enjoyed in obliterating and subsuming all those borrowed elements.  The reformers at base believed many if not most of the trappings, which were largely secondary to the core principles, which amount to a set of principles quite separate from the “miracle faith” cult it had become.

So when the Protestant movement began, they took as their goal the idea that the adaptations were the principle elements of their faith, and tried to return themselves to that basis as if it had had no predecessors.  The Catholic Church itself couldn’t just come out and say “Hey, you don’t understand, the whole idea is to adapt and absorb, not build a wall around a few iconic aspects and throw out everything that looks a little different.”

Roman Catholicism had largely succeeded by being adaptable to local beliefs.  Look at the bizarre nature of Latin American Catholicism as ample proof of this.  Even to this day, the Catholic Church “compromises” its apparent principles to bring others into the fold—look at the recent attempt to retroactively reabsorb Anglicans.

Protestantism began as a take-no-prisoners response to what some people saw as corruption—the willingness to concede and adapt.  But it assumed that the Church had been based on something originally “pure” and uncorrupted, a set of ideas that stood apart from everything else.  (To a degree, this was true, but not what the Protestants thought identified it as a priori “Christian” orthodoxy.)  They rejected the malleability of Catholicism, drew a line in the philosophical sand, and argued that the essential element of Christianity was the death and resurrection of a prophet they believed had no antecedents.  What that prophet said and what Christianity embodied as a set of principles for living took second place to the mysteries, and they shut their eyes to the possibility of truth in various guises.

Which is why Protestants burned more witches and killed more Jews than did Catholics, why Protestant treatment of natives wherever encountered has been harsher and in many instances more fatal than Catholic treatment of the same or similar groups, and why fundamentalism is far more a Protestant problem than it is Catholic.

We arrive at the 21st Century and see many Protestant denominations “maturing” to the point where they recognize that Fortress Christianity is counterproductive and ultimately a wrong-headed approach—but we also see splinter groups from these major denominations more and more that cling ever more fiercely to the notion that the edifice is the message and the heathens must be stamped out, producing virulent strains of anti-rational lunacy.  (Certainly there are Catholic fundamentalists, but they seem to be a disfocussed, almost inarticulate collection of mystic loonies instead of militant dogmatists.)

The very adaptability that made Roman Catholicism so successful for so long is based on the fact that they started off as a Rube Goldberg assemblage of beliefs and practices that recognized an idea that truth is a thread running through many fabrics, whereas Protestantism had its birth in the idea that there was only one true suit.

Hence we find that the Catholic Church, for all its other irrationalities, is able to embrace Darwinism, Galileo, and admit it was wrong about the Jews, while the staunchest Creationists and, often, bigots come out of the Protestant movement.  White Supremacist groups are protestant.  The sputtering fear and hatred of Difference is protestant.  The clinging to Milleniallism and hopes for Armageddon are protestant aesthetics.

Now, I see no way to address this problem unless Roman Catholicism is willing to come clean.  When a pope (not this one!) comes out and says  “Hey, people, you’re missing the point, and it’s our fault that you do” then we might start to see something ameliorative from within the whole Christian community.  But they can’t really do that.  After all this time, the “point” of Catholicism is its continual attempt to absorb.

Which is better than some Protestant notions of slash and burn.

The Paradox of Popularity

Over on her blog, Kelley Eskridge has a video of a “Bono Moment” in which you see two distinct types of fans interacting with U2’s lead singer.  Check it out and come back here.

Okay, the guy in the t-shirt obviously is carrying on a conversation.  he may be being a fan, but he hasn’t lost his mind.  The female is being…a groupie, I guess.  Though the groupies I’ve met in my time have been a bit more specific about what they wanted and had a better plan on how to get it.  In any event, the questions Kelley raises are interesting and relate on so many levels to so many different things.  The fan reaction—mindless adulation bordering on deification—looks to me, has always looked to me, like exactly the same kind of nonsense people put into religion.  Mindless, utterly uncritical adoration of an image and the set of emotions with which that image is connected in the mind of the adulant.  You can see the same thing in politics.  To a lesser degree with less public personalities—writers, painters, photographers (I never knew anyone who elevated a photographer to the level of sex god, but I have known people who got off on sleeping with painters, and of course there’s a kind of Nabokovian/Bellow/DeLillo-esque subculture of writer groupies…) and other creative types—but actors and musicians seem to get all the dedicated obsessives.

I’ve never had this happen to me.  I’m not sure if I’m grateful or resentful—having somebody want to associate themselves with you in a mindless swoon because your work has made them, I don’t know, climax maybe is on a certain level appealing.  But it’s appealing the same way porn is—something most people, if they’re at all sane and grounded, kind of grow out of and get over.  I know I would not find it very attractive now.  When I was twenty-five?  You betcha.  Bring ’em on.

But if I’d had that then I think I’m fairly sure I would have wearied of it very quickly.  I long ago realized that sex, to me, involved the other person—emphasis on Person—and the best sex I ever had included the good conversations before and, especially, after.  (There is a point, of course, where you realize that sex is a conversation, of a very particular sort, and takes on a whole new dimension, which one-night-stands, no matter how good they might be, just can’t provide.)

But the real problem with all this is that art is more than just any one thing and the artist is not the art.  The two are inextricably linked.  Here is a video discussing the question of artist-in-relation-to-muse which I find illuminating.  The notion that the talent “arrives” and you act as conduit through which creativity happens is not, as the speaker suggests, a new one, and it’s not one I’m particularly in sympathy with—it all happens in my brain, it’s definitely mine—but I certainly find her analysis of the psychology of following through intriguing and true.  Once the muse is finished with you on a given project, you do not continue to exist as though in the grip of the work.  There is a person there that pre-figures the work and who will be there after it’s done that has all the needs and wants and sensibilities of a normal human being.  To be treated as some kind of transcendence generating machine by people is in some ways disenfranchising.  For a writer, if the well from which inspiration and material are drawn is the honesty of human interaction, then the gushing idiot fan robs the writer, for a few minutes at least, of exactly that.

But it also sets the artist up to become a prisoner.  A prisoner of other people’s expectations.  Those expectations always play a part in anyone’s life, but certain aspects—the most artificial ones—get exaggerated in the instance of fan adoration.

Watch Bono shift from one stance to another when he finally acknowledges the female.  No, he doesn’t stop being Bono, but it’s almost as if he says “Oh, it’s time to do this sort of thing now” as he first recognizes her presence and then automatically poses for the camera, with this not-quite-disingenuous smirk.  Because he also recognizes that, however silly this person is being, what she’s feeling right then is her’s and to claim it is artificial is wrong.  Maybe an artificial set of expectations led her to this point, but now that she’s In The Moment, the emotions are real.  If he’d ignored her or told her something snarky in an attempt to snap her out of it, all that would have resulted would have been an ugly moment, a bit of cruelty, and a lot of confusion on the fan’s part.

Some—perhaps most—of us grow up to a point where, although our respect and admiration for certain artists is immense to the point of feeling like we have nothing meaningful to say to these people (and after all beyond “I really enjoyed your work” what do we have to say to someone we just don’t know?) we realize that they are human beings doing a job of work.  To idolize them is really a selfish act and blinds us to the possibilities in people who do not happen to occupy that slot in our pantheon of significance.

I was fortunate.  Way back when I was possibly susceptible to becoming a kind of mindless acolyte, I had an opportunity to meet a couple of musical superstars under circumstances that allowed for the human element to dominate.

The first was a chance encounter with Martin Barre, guitarist of Jethro Tull.  I worked at a camera shop and he came in when the band was in town.  He’d heard that the owner of the shop had a big camera collection, museum quality, and he was interested in buying all or part of it.  I had some of my own photographs hanging in the shop at the time and we ended up talking about photography.  Barre was a collector.  We had a ground upon which we could meet as rough equals and had a good conversation about it.  It lanced the boil of idolization for me (and resulted a couple years later in my being able to go backstage and talk to Ian Anderson and a couple of others, and because of the basis of my albeit small relationship with Barre, the interaction was satisfyingly ordinary in many ways).  Here was just a bloke who liked cameras and was a hobbyist and his talent, while I respected it enormously, didn’t get in the way of actually talking to him.

The other was with Rick Wakeman and was amusing in the extreme and I’ll save that story for later.  But in both instances, I was able to just talk to these men in a way that standing in an autograph line would never have permitted, and consequently gave me—I suppose I could say “inoculated” me against the mindlessness of fan adulation.

Make no mistake, I treasure both those encounters as peak experiences.  But I’ve never forgot that such people are gifted but ordinary.

Ordinary in the way that we all are and few of us are without special qualities and talents.  The circumstances that lead to “stardom” are just that—circumstances.  (Stephen King, for all his gifts as a narrative writer, benefited immensely from a publishing environment that simply does not exist anymore.  Not that he wouldn’t have been significant anyway, but his stature would have taken much longer to achieve and might not have become what it is today without that initial synchrony.)

(In an argument several years ago involving the president, my opponent kept pushing the position that criticizing the president was the same as insulting the country, to which I finally said “Damnit, the president is not the country—he’s an employee!  Well-paid, highly-placed, enormously powerful, but the son-of-a-bitch works for me!”  It was not a view my opponent had ever seemed to consider before.  It was for him a humanizing moment.)

I’m not sure what, if anything, to do about fan adulation.  As I said, you can see in this exactly what happens in religious conversion.  The mindlessness, the abandonment of intellect, the handing-over, as it were, of the Self to the momentary care of someone who is seen as Other Than Ordinary.  I think anything that robs people of their self-possession is a bad thing, which is why I generally dislike being in large crowds—there is something about that many people being synced emotionally by a single event that disturbs me deeply.  But it seems to be a human characteristic.

Which may be why I’m so very bad at determining the demographics of my own potential audience.  I can’t say who will want to read my books, not as a definable group to which marketing might be targeted.  I don’t buy books as part of a group, and if I did and I found out, I’d seriously re-examine my habits.  I’m not a commodity.  Either as an artist or as a fan.  And yet, to make a living at art, there’s a degree of having to cater to that kind of thinking.

Another paradox, I suppose.